Western poison ivy leaves are not a celebrated fall color, but they can be as crimson as a red maple leaf. The above photo shows poison ivy recently at the sand beach campsite on the west end of Mile Island on Fall Lake.

Some Northwoods guidebooks gloss over or fail to mention western poison ivy. Many people don’t consider poison ivy a plant that grows in the Northwoods.

However, you will find it throughout the BWCAW. For example, this summer I’ve spotted large poison ivy stands at a campsite on the southeast end of Bald Eagle Lake, on the portage to Slim Lake (below photo, and video), at the sand beach campsite on the west end of Mile Island on Fall Lake, on the south end of Newton Falls portage, and elsewhere. It is out there.

One can identify poison ivy by how it looks. Visual characteristics include: (1) three leaflets (“leaves of three, let it be”); (2) a short woody stem that may look like a brown twig sticking out of the ground; (3) oftentimes growing in colonies standing about knee high or shorter; (4) green leaves changing to fall colors in autumn; (5) leaves oftentimes have a wilted appearance; and (6) the western poison ivy species in the BWCAW is not a climbing plant.

One can also identify poison ivy by where it grows. It grows in a variety of ecosystems, but particularly likes sun and dislikes permanently wet soils.

Sarsaparilla plants are sometimes misidentified as poison ivy. Sarsaparilla is a low-growing plant that grows profusely in the BWCAW. It similarly has three leaflets, but sarsaparilla is distinguished by a pair of leaflets further down the stem.

The oily toxin from poison ivy is almost immediately absorbed through human skin. Washing the affected skin within one to three minutes with cold water and soap may help prevent the itchy symptoms. Washing later may wash off the residual toxin and prevent its spread. Itchy blisters may appear promptly or not for 24 hours or longer. The itchy blister fluid does not contain the toxin and is therefore not contagious.

Many animals, including my dog, eat the leaves with no apparent harm. However, animals may carry the toxic oils on their coats and transmit them when they touch people.
Become familiar with poison ivy so you can squat in the woods with confidence. The alternative could be really uncomfortable.

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