By Zameena Mejia

On Wednesday April 2, 2014 SUNY New Paltz Director of Environmental Health and Safety Michael G. Malloy sent out a campus-wide email that read as follows:

“It is finally Spring!!! Just be aware if you work or spend time in wooded or grassy areas on campus, you should be aware of the dangers of Lyme disease….Cases of Lyme disease are most common in our Mid-Hudson Valley area and a large portion of the northeast….Enjoy our beautiful grounds but be vigilant against tick bites.”

That Saturday, New Paltz had its first 70-degree spring day. Students, families and residents flowed out onto the streets, campus quads, and trails to enjoy a warm day after a long, cold Hudson Valley winter.

I took the opportunity to walk the Rail Trail, a popular 24-mile wooded hiking trail, with a close friend. After walking a quarter-mile, the lace of one of my boots came undone. As I stopped to tie it, I noticed a large, black, tick-shaped insect crawling on my arm. Without letting a second go by, I screamed, brushed the insect off my arm, brushed off the rest of the body, and ran towards a nearby crosswalk.

“Today is absolutely beautiful, but we should come back another day, when we’re dressed more appropriately for the trail,” I nervously told my friend, realizing that my place of tranquility was starting to feel more like a cause of unease. I had dressed in a white tank top concealed by a lavender long-sleeve cardigan, a black ankle-length cotton skirt and black combat boots. People walking past us were similarly clad, wearing short-sleeved t-shirts, shorts and mid-calf leggings, sneakers and the occasional open-toe shoes, exposing plenty of skin to the bites of ticks and other insects.

After inspecting myself for ticks, I decided to leave the Rail Trail, heading north on Route 32 instead.

The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, colloquially called the “Rail Trail,” stretches through the Ulster County village of New Paltz, from Rosendale to Gardiner, passing houses, farms, and waterfalls. The trail allows for breath-taking views of the Shawangunk Ridge and the Wallkill River that the inner explorer can’t help but want to get closer to, even if it means walking past brush or leaping across creeks—and risking an encounter with a disease-carrying ticks and other insects.

Mini-waterfall of winter transitioning to spring on the Rail Trail Captured by Zameena Mejia

Mini-waterfall of winter transitioning to spring on the Rail Trail
Captured by Zameena Mejia

Brian Cafferty, a board member of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association (WVRTA) which is mostly responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the trail, said that people aren’t regularly exposed to ticks on the center of the trail, but walking into the wooded areas off the trail is a different story.

“Just last week, I went off the parking lot and went up about 30-40 feet in the brush. I was about 60 seconds in and had to pick off eight ticks, which is crazy. I don’t know if all of them were deer ticks but they were definitely ticks,” Cafferty said. “They were all over the lower part of [my] pant leg and there were two more on my lap when I sat down in the car. I’ve biked for 15 to 16 miles on the trail and I didn’t see one tick on me, but I wouldn’t walk or bike on any section of the trail without still checking for ticks. It’s the reality of today.”

And yet, although the Rail Trail attracts pedestrians, hikers, bikers, and the like, there is nothing along the 24-mile-stretch that alerts people to the risks of tick bites and the potential to contract Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Between 1990 and 2012, New York state was home to more Lyme disease sufferers than any other state in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Total Lyme Cases Reported by CDC 1990–2012

Total Lyme Cases Reported by CDC 1990–2012

According to a 2012 Poughkeepsie Journal analysis of both state and federal data, Ulster County ranked as the eighth-most Lyme-infected county in the United States.

Columbia ranked first nationwide in the proportion of Lyme in the population, or per-capita, rate; Dutchess, Greene, Putnam and Ulster counties placed second, third, sixth and eighth, respectively.

Columbia ranked first nationwide in the proportion of Lyme in the population, or per-capita, rate; Dutchess, Greene, Putnam and Ulster counties placed second, third, sixth and eighth, respectively.

At every street entrance to the Rail Trail, a sign features a map of the entire trail and a few rules surrounding the Rail Trail, but no information about ticks or tick-borne disease. A few provide brochures with additional maps and historic information about the trail, also without warnings about ticks.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s warnings to people visiting Wallkill River,  to “beware of poison ivy, ticks, and other biting insects,” and to “stay on maintained trail,” are only available on the agency’s website. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (NYNJTC), a nonprofit organization that safeguards trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region, provides tips and advice for visitors passing through the area on its website, too. But while they “support spreading the word about risks and hazards,” NYNJTC volunteer Don Tripp said, “at this time we do not have specific warning signs with respect to ticks/Lyme disease.”

The Rail Trail, which opened in 1991, is owned by the towns of Gardiner and New Paltz and the village of New Paltz. The Village Board’s Department of Public Works is in charge of clearing brush, decreasing the likelihood of ticks being too close to the trail. But Deputy Director of the Village of New Paltz Rebecca Rotzler said that the village board had never discussed the potential need for information about ticks along the trail.

“I feel that in the past, about 10 to 15 years ago, there was a lot of awareness. As it became a problem, people became so highly conscious that at this point, people are taking the precautions to protect themselves,” Rotzler said. In other words, she said, the board is “assuming that the public is informed.”

“Those of us who [live] here are aware of [the ticks surrounding the Rail Trail] so we’re just not that aware that its a foreign issue to people from outside of the area,” Rotzler said. “We’ve been here so it’s almost after-sight that there’s a population that should be informed.”

Cafferty said that one of his fellow board members claims there is at least one sign warning the public about the risks of ticks. But “for 24 miles” he said, “one sign is not enough.”

“It’s never a bad idea to state what is obvious to us. People who are traveling from out of town should be made aware that they could be exposed to ticks and Lyme disease,” Cafferty said.

Part of the challenge is that the Rail Trail has doubled in length since 2009, and the WVRTA board is still grappling with that expansion. This year, they hope to install signage with updated information for the length of the trail as well as new mile markers. But at the same time, they don’t want to pollute the landscape with too many signs and warnings.

“We know the importance of signage on the Rail Trail, but at the same time we’re trying to do it in a way that is tasteful. We don’t want signs every 100 feet,” Cafferty said. “Signage is a touchy issue.”

Rotzler hopes to incorporate tick and Lyme disease-awareness into the welcome packet that students receive at freshman orientation at SUNY New Paltz. The board recently reinstated an Environmental Conversation Committee, which might also take on projects such as improving signage on the trail.

Ultimately, the Rail Trail runs through a college town abounding in thrill-seeking students and nature-lovers who may or may not be aware of the threat of ticks, Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Everyone who has the opportunity to visit the Rail Trail should also be given the opportunity to protect themselves against a potentially life-altering disease that is ever-increasing in Ulster County and the rest of the Empire State.