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Navarro River Watch

After reading a second Press Democrat article in a month about blue-green algae and dying dogs in the Russian River, Friday evening the Editor sent me an email asking how our river was faring. My immediate reply was flippant, "You mean the liquid chemtrails? I hear tin foil hats keep the dogs alive." Thus needling him a bit about some of his takes on controversial environmental issues.

His reply, "The dog people claim it kills their pooches. I see that you are skeptical".

At the time I had been experiencing unusual fatigue and joint pains plus an itchy back that I was attributing to my aging and to the heat. That night, while pondering the days events, I remembered that all of these symptoms followed a dip in the river Thursday morning when I had actually used a small handful of the algae type that I used to play with as a kid in the Eel River as a wash cloth. I began to think, changing times, changing conditions and decided that in the morning I would send the Editor a more thoughtful email on what I knew.

This was my updated communique:

"They have been saying that about Nor Cal rivers for some time but I have never seen a news item reporting a dead dog from it. Our dog Banjo regularly swims in our algae festooned River, biting clumps of this and that as well as drinking with nary a symptom.

Yes, there is algae this year as there will always be in abundance from the nutrients supplied by vineyard runoff but it has been a lot worse. Algae is unpleasant, especially in its dying, scummy state. That comes from low water. There are probably many invisible effects from the stuff - many ecological disruptions as there are from the pesticides, herbicides and water usage of the vineyards.

And as I think of it, I remember swimming and playing daily in the Eel all summer long, draping myself with robes of "moss" or "seaweed" as we called it, having fights by throwing clumps of the stuff at each other. I wonder what fed that growth? The mills and logging? I don't know but the flow rate was such that it didn't scum out."

Having Googled a bit more since then I realize there is a lot I don't know about algae. Blue-green algae is not algae at all but cyanobacteria. There are other bacterial scums that form in water, and remember last year’s azolla clogging the River below Philo/Greenwood Bridge? That was mosquito fern. And supposedly three dogs did die last year, two in the Russian River and one in the Eel, though I would bet none was autopsied.

All of this is intro to the fact that my level of discomfort continued to grow. Saturday night was one of the most miserable I have ever spent. The back itch spread from head to foot and burned as well as itched. Two aspirins I took for my joint pains apparently broke a fever because I found myself dripping wet, which then turned to chills that lasted all night and kept me under two extra winter quilts. Needless to say I didn't sleep. My plan had been to stick it out and go see Dr. Mark Apfel Monday morning but at 5:30 I got out of bed and drove to UVMC for some medicine.

The diagnosis is that my condition was probably not caused by cyanobacteria but rather by Schistosomes. It's called Swimmer's itch and we have experienced and discussed it before but certainly not at this level. My blood was first tested to make sure I didn't have Schisyosomiasis, a potentially deadly version most commonly found among children in developing countries. The schistosome life cycle begins with duck poop as a microscopic egg, migrates to a snail, and back to ducks  in the form of a tiny flat worm. It is these tiny flatworms that get into human pores where they die and make us itch. The symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction from our immune system. If we're on the right track here, and I believe we are, my immune system must have just got a little too excited.

Anyway, the medicine, both benadryl and predisone, administered at the hospital immediately worked wonders and my discomfort became tolerable. I slept wonderfully last night but did wake up itching this morning. I'll keep popping my pills.

The moral, I hate to say, is to warn you all about swimming in the Navarro. I don't know if it's everywhere or just in pockets. Two years ago the Environmental Health guy said you should be alright if you don't stay in very long and you towel off immediately after getting out. It seemed to work  for me before but I don't know now. I'm going to take a few day’s hiatus, though the lure of a love will always feed one's folly.


  1. George Hollister August 5, 2016

    The Navarro River has duck fluke. Duck fluke is a parasite that lives in the livers of ducks. Part of the life cycle of the fluke happens in duck fluke snails, that inhabit the river. When the parasite leaves the snail, it tries to find a duck to bite and enter, but can mistakenly bite a dog, a deer, or a person. The result is dermatitis on the skin of the mammal, but a dead parasite.

    The late Rod Shippey, who worked for UC, told me he was called to the Boy Scout Camp to give an opinion on poison oak type dermatitis on Boy Scouts who were swimming in the river. Rod determined the skin rashes were a result of duck fluke parasites stinging scouts. He found both duck fluke snails, and ducks in the area where the scouts were swimming.

    I know of people with ponds that have both ducks and duck flukes snails, that have had severe dermatitis from swimming in their pond.

  2. MarshallNewman August 9, 2016

    Nice to see Rod Shippey’s name mentioned in the responses. He was the Mendocino County Farm Advisor in the late 1950s early 1960s when I lived in AV (probably a lot longer, actually) and a great guy.

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