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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Too Weak to Fight?

Coping with Mosquitoes, Punkies, and Blackflies

By Tamia Nelson

May 22, 2001

When British Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher—he was known as "Jacky" Fisher to friend and foe alike—became First Sea Lord in October 1904, he confronted a German navy intent on challenging Britain's 100-year-old command of the seas. Fisher thought war with Germany inevitable, and he was determined that the Royal Navy would be ready. Yet he began by selling off or mothballing a good portion of his seagoing fleet. He explained this decision in characteristically blunt language: The ships he decommissioned were simply "too weak to fight and too slow to run away." The Royal Navy would be better off without them, he declared. And he was right.

Last week, I took a brief look at the "unholy trinity" of mosquitoes, punkies, and blackflies. They're all necessary evils, of course. Some folks—I admit I'm one—even find them beautiful. But I also have to admit that their interests seldom coincide with those of backcountry paddlers. We are, so to speak, natural enemies. They, or at least the females of their species, need our blood. It's a sex thing, I'm afraid, and there's no room for compromise on their side. But we'd just as soon keep our blood to ourselves. So there's no hope of a negotiated peace. Conflict is inevitable. Perhaps we humans are too selfish, but our selfishness is understandable, even if it isn't praiseworthy.

If we're at war with biting flies, however, what weapons can we hope to employ against so numerous and resolute an enemy? Or are we also "too weak to fight and too slow to run away"? It sometimes seems so. Most backcountry travelers can remember at least one hellish day when they found themselves besieged by a bloodthirsty horde, and nothing worked. But such days, happily, are rare. While it's impossible to defeat The Enemy, she can be made to keep her distance, at least in most places, and at most times.

How? There are three primary strategies: avoidance, barrier defense, and counterstrike. I'll take them all in turn.

Avoidance

Staying home is always an option, though it's not necessarily a welcome one. The peak of blackfly activity, in particular, is well-defined. In much of North American "canoe country" (the northern United States and southern Canada), blackflies are most active between mid-May and mid-June. Keep indoors during this month and you'll usually escape meeting them at their worst. For some, the sacrifice is worth it. There are, of course, many regional variations in activity patterns, and weather plays a role, too. In general, the later the spring, the later the peak of blackfly activity. Here's where local knowledge is needed. Ask around. Talk to the natives. (The Internet is invaluable for this.) If your trip schedule is flexible, you can probably manage to avoid unwanted close encounters.

Biting midges and mosquitoes are less accommodating, unfortunately. Mosquitoes, in particular, are frequently active from ice-out right up to the first hard freeze. Luckily, though, both midges and mosquitoes are weak fliers. Whereas the calendar is often your best guide to avoiding blackflies, a good map and an eye for terrain will help you steer clear of their less robust companions. How? Midges and mosquitoes like shade. Both are most active at night. So, weather and regulations permitting, pick exposed campsites. Rocky points are nice, as are gravel beaches (where permitted). Avoid forest sites. Yes, pine-sheltered glades are beautiful, not to mention romantic, but mosquitoes and midges like them, too, though for somewhat different reasons. Choose someplace barren and open, instead—someplace where the wind sweeps free. If the mosquitoes are mounting attacks in force, you'll be glad you did.

Of course, even the best planning can sometimes let you down. And there are a lot of dead-calm, humid, overcast days in summer. Sometimes, you have to rely on…

Barrier Defenses

Simply put, blood-sucking flies can't bite you if they can't get at you. So, to begin with, ignore the fantasies promulgated by catalog photographers. Sure, tank-tops, shorts, and sandals look great—and they feel great, too, particularly on hot summer days. But the come-hither message isn't lost on The Enemy. All that bare flesh will look mighty tasty to her.

The remedy? Defensive dressing. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts, made of a tough, tightly-woven material. Cotton drill is good. Wool whipcord—if you can stand it—is better. And don't neglect your outer defenses. Wellies or other knee-high boots for the feet. (Tuck your pants in, or blouse them with strong elastic.) Gauntlet gloves for the hands. A head-net worn over a broad-brimmed hat to top things off.

Hot? Yep. The head-net, in particular, is an invention of the devil. It leaves you nearly blind, for one thing, and it's hard to eat while wearing one. Worse yet, it will half-suffocate you on the portages. But if the flies are bad, you'll be glad you brought one. Don't lose it, though. Better yet, carry a spare. If you need it at all, you'll need it badly!

Of course no clothing is really fly-proof. Blackflies, in particular, are skilled infiltrators. When you strip off at the end of the day, therefore, don't be surprised if you find a ring of welts around your ankles, wrists, neck, and waist. Think how bad it might have been if you hadn't dressed defensively.

What's that? You say you'll just slather on insect repellent, and then you can wear anything you please? OK. Be my guest. But do yourself a favor: bring a head-net along, too. Don't get me wrong. Insect repellent works. Some of the time. For a while. It's a useful adjunct to defensive dressing. But it doesn't come with any guarantees. Most commercial repellents are formulated around N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET). If you coat every square inch of exposed skin and all openings on your clothes, mosquitoes will be satisfied just shooting touch-and-goes for anywhere from three to twelve hours—if the stuff isn't sweated or washed off, that is. That's good, but it's not exactly Star Wars, is it?

And there are drawbacks, too. Cost, for one thing. Mosquito-proofing yourself with DEET will set you back around US$2.00-4.00 a day. That's not much, I admit, but on a long trip the cost adds up. So will the size of your pack.

Anything else? Sure. Toxicity. DEET is a neurotoxin, and it's absorbed through the skin. Use too much of it, too often, and you may find that you've become collateral damage in your own war on biting flies. The risk is small, but kids are particularly vulnerable, and any application to broken skin increases the danger. (A reminder: insect bites break the skin.) Low concentrations—10% or less—present less risk, but they're also less effective.

And then there are the blackflies. Blackflies don't actually like DEET, but they're not much bothered by it, either. Are you planning a trip for blackfly season? I hope you don't leave your head-net and long pants in the car!

But if chemistry isn't the answer, what is? I've already pointed out the value of proper clothing. Other physical barriers also help. If it's not too windy—if it is, the breeze will probably disperse the flies—a mosquito net is a welcome refuge at lunchtime. And, of course, all good tents have screened windows and doors. Most now come with so-called "no-see-um-proof" netting. ("No-see-um" is another name for biting midge, or "punkie.") This ultra-fine mesh lives up to its name. It keeps out even the tiniest insects. But it also keeps out most of the air. I prefer standard netting, when I can find it. Midges are usually no more than a nuisance, and they're not even that for most of the time. But I have to breathe round the clock. I like a well-ventilated tent, especially on hot summer nights.

You can also get jackets and pants made from the same no-see-um-proof netting. I've never used either, but I'd imagine they're at least as hot as long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I'm sure that I'd tear the suit sometime in the first hour I wore it, too. Still, such garments should be good for fishing, as well as for other semi-sedentary activities. I have used a DEET-impregnated jacket made from a very coarse cotton mesh, and it's worked well, giving me some protection against mosquitoes for as long as two weeks before it needed to be re-treated. These "bug-shirts" have disappeared from the catalogs, though, probably because they're easy to set alight. I'm taking good care of mine!

This pretty much exhausts the roster of barrier defenses. There's one other option, though: taking the war to The Enemy. The logic is simple. Kill them before they can get you. Beyond the simple expedient of slapping, it's obviously not a practical strategy for individual backcountry travelers, but more and more town governments in tourist areas are opting for…

Counterstrike

The chosen weapon is usually a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis, or "Bti" for short. Bti spores are dumped in streams and ponds. When a blackfly or mosquito larva ingests one or more spores, a toxin is released in its gut, and the larva dies. By all indications, the stuff is "safe." It won't make people or animals who drink treated water sick. And it's reasonably selective, killing mostly blackfly, mosquito, and midge larvae. So it's certainly more benign than many synthetic insecticides. But questions about Bti remain. The "definitive" study of ecological effects was completed some time ago. It lasted five years and cost US$400,000. The researcher who supervised the work describes it as the best he's ever done, and claims that it "challenges once and for all the hypothesis that black flies are critically important to trout and a stream's food-web." Yet his study remains unpublished. Until it is—until it's been subjected to the rigors of peer review and exposed to critical scrutiny—all of its conclusions must be regarded as tentative. "Not proven" is the only verdict that the evidence now supports.

I also have doubts of my own about the wisdom of the counterstrike philosophy. Strong doubts. I've seen the effects of Bti on stream insect populations at first hand, and noted widespread mortality among non-target midge larvae. I even have reservations about killing blackflies and mosquitoes wholesale. I've watched a family of mallards—a mother and six ducklings—scooping blackfly larvae off stones in a riffle. Such concentrated sources of protein are rare in the natural world, and therefore valuable. Mallards are part of the aquatic food-web, too. Selective impoverishment of their environment can't be good—for them, or for us.

We've come a long way from our starting point, to be sure, but no paddler will go far wrong who acknowledges that, where biting flies are concerned, at any rate, we are indeed "too weak to fight and too slow to run away." Enjoying the backcountry entails meeting it on its own terms. In this sense, at least, The Enemy is us. And an armed truce is perhaps the best we can hope for.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

















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