RIVERTON, Minn. -- I can still feel the eerie crawl of the phantom wood ticks.
In my thick, medium-length hair. Across my back. Wiggling up my legs.
I’m not alone in my wood tick paranoia — it comes with the job, I’m told.
A small core group of brave women roam the long grass every year, collecting the little creatures for the Cuyuna Woodtick Races. Upwards of 400 people participate in the races each year, and everyone needs their own tick.
Meet the women who collect the racers: Deb Seamans, Mary Lee Dallman and Poppy Hassinger.
All are current or former employees of the Woodtick Inn, the business that organizes the event.
Other volunteers sometimes step up to lend a hand, and on Tuesday, I was one of them.
Tick collecting attire is simple: Wear long pants with socks pulled up over them. White socks are recommended — it’s easiest to see the ticks crawling up your leg that way. But I wore my lucky Paul Bunyan socks. (They aren’t really lucky — I just like Paul Bunyan).
I met my fellow tick hunters along County Road 128 in the meek town of Riverton. The women weren’t hard to spot. Each had a plastic yogurt or cottage cheese container in hand and socks rolled up over their pants.
It was 5:30 p.m., the sun was shining and the mosquitoes were biting.
Perfect hunting conditions.
County Road 128 has been the go-to spot for tick collecting in recent years.
“We’ve always had luck here,” Seamans said.
Strolling through the shin-high grass along the side of the road, I kept my eyes focused on my legs, expecting that any second I would be overwhelmed with black speckles.
Bounce laundry detergent can be the culprit, Hassinger said.
“If you use Bounce, you might not get any,” she said.
Note to self: Buy Bounce.
Each year, the women aim to collect up to 700 ticks, Seamans said.
They start hunting about two weeks before the races to make sure there’s enough time to get enough wood ticks.
The ticks are split up in grass-filled containers and stored in the fridge.
The grass doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than to spruce up the tick’s new home.
“They seem happier that way,” Dallman said.
Each day until the race, the women take the containers out of the fridge for a few minutes to warm the little bodies.
“They look dead but then they start crawling around,” Dallman said.
Then, it’s back in the fridge for another 24 hours. The ticks would probably be OK without the daily warm-up, the ladies say, but they don’t want to take that chance.
Back in the long grass along County Road 128, I finally caught my first wood tick.
I, of course, get overly excited and excitedly call out, “I got one!”
Seamans looks at the top of my sock and picks it off for me.
Tick hunting is a buddy system-type sport. Keep an eye on the legs (and sometimes backs) of your fellow hunters. Ticks are quick and sneaky.
Each time one person spots a tick, the others gather around to help pluck it off, because where there’s one, most likely there will be more. Many, many more.
Sometimes you get really lucky and find a cluster of ticks sitting on a blade of grass. In that case, scrape them off in your container and keep going.
Wood tick collecting tip: When you open your container to put more ticks inside, hit the bottom a couple of times to knock down any ticks lingering at the top.
Each woman has her own reason for volunteering to walk through long grass and let ticks crawl up her shins.
Dallman says it’s good exercise. Hassinger likes seeing her longtime buddies. Seamans like the looks of people as they drive by and see a trio of women along the road, picking ticks off each other.
“Plus it’s the novelty of being able to do it. We are kind of sane,” Dallman joked.
For me, I like all things weird or unconventional.
Enter wood tick hunting.
I quickly learned it’s all about luck out in the long grass of Riverton.
No certain color of clothing or type of shoes has proven a better way to go in finding the most ticks, Hassinger said.
Though Dallman is doing something right. She’s been dubbed the “tick magnet” of the group.
It’s true. She found more than anyone, especially me.
By the end of the evening, I gathered an unimpressive 2½ ticks. (The half a tick comes from the one I dropped. I caught him, but lost him.)
Top tick collector gets bragging rights, though the group really doesn’t keep tally.
Wood tick collecting tip: When done hunting, take your socks and shoes off. Turn your socks inside out. You’ll find more ticks. There’s always more ticks.
I found another two of the creepy crawly insects in my shoe and on my pants. I guess that brings my total up to 4½.
In the end, I collected a whole lot more mosquito bites than I did wood ticks. Also, I inherited an irritating habit of constantly checking my hair for stray ticks.
But at the very least I earned a new title to put on my business cards: Jessie Perrine, tick hunter.
IF YOU GO:
What: 35th annual Cuyuna Woodtick Races
When: Saturday, June 14. Jockey meeting at 11 a.m.; races at noon
Where: Woodtick Inn, Cuyuna, Minn.
Cost: $5 to race
How it works: Two people place their wood ticks in the center of a 1½- inch-diameter circle. The first tick to the perimeter advances to the next level. You can’t help your tick in any way. No hitting the table or pushing it along.
Cash prizes go to first-, second- and third-place winners.
Perrine writes for the Brainerd Dispatch.