Be one with the bugs

Be one with the bugs. (Photo provided — Jack Drury)

I recently returned from a 16 day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with my good wilderness travel buddy Doug Fitzgerald. Over the years, Doug and I have led 10 or so wilderness ventures together throughout North America, but on this one we joined Canyon Expeditions as participants and were under the leadership of their fine guides. It had all the elements of what makes a great — and I mean great — trip.

It had fine people. Nineteen folks, mostly retired with a range of expertise from medicine to teaching. We laughed and cried together and gelled as a group in ways we always hope for but rarely succeed at.

The six guides, three men and three women, had decades of experience and their love of the canyon was clear in everything they did.

We had nearly perfect weather. No rain (to the detriment of the water levels), with daily temperatures ranging from the low 60s, to a couple of days in the low 90s.

And then there was the Canyon. It is a stunning environment whose beauty changes daily in ways you can’t anticipate. Photos, of which I took hundreds, don’t do it justice.

It had all the elements of a perfect trip. Well, there was one thing that detracted from perfection. Just one small thing. So small you might say tiny — as tiny as grains of sand. Yup, sand. Sand in our hair, sand in our clothing, sand in our sleeping bag, sand in our hand lotion, sand in all the places you can imagine. With frequent winds, up to 40 miles per hour, it blows everywhere. If you let it, it could drive you crazy. So the guides encouraged us to become one with the sand. I understood that, and I did. But it wasn’t hard because I’ve been preaching to anyone who’d listen that in the Adirondacks you must have the same attitude about black flies and mosquitos.

Bugs are a fact of life in the Adirondacks, just as sand is a fact of life rafting down the Colorado River. Since it’s bug season in the Adirondacks and will be at least through the Fourth of July, we have to learn to be one with them.

I know, I know, it is easier said than done. But everything is relative. Next time the bugs drive you crazy, think of my first major encounter with bugs outside the Adirondacks. It came in 1971 when I climbed Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America. On the 16 mile approach, the mosquitos were ferocious. For a demented form of fun, we slapped an arm once and then counted how many of the varmints we killed. The record was 26.

That record stood until 1993, when I was portaging a canoe three miles across Manitoba muskeg to the Churchill River. The black flies, locally called white socks because this particular species had white feet, were thicker than a swarm of locusts. I decided to see if I could break my Denali record. I slapped my forearm, collected the flies in my hand and started counting. When I hit 40, I threw the rest away in disgust.

So what do I recommend you do to cope with the voracious critters?

Three things.

Most importantly, use bug repellant with DEET, since it is the best repellent by far. Yes, you may swear by your great-grandmother’s secret potion of pine tar, citronella and mineral oil or something similar, but I’m a believer of double-blind studies. Developed by the military in 1946 DEET still remains the most effective repellent to put directly on one’s skin.

My favorite study proving this point was conducted by the Air Force in a part of Alaska with a large mosquito population (is there a part of Alaska without a large mosquito population?) The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics reported with typical military understatement. “The DEET formulations provide greater than 99% protection for more than eight hours (a mean of four mosquito bites per person per hour) … compared to 1,188 bites per hour with no protection.” How would you like to have been in that control group?

Second, wear a head net and jacket. My favorite is the Canadian Bugshirt, which combines both no-see-um mesh sleeves and sides, allowing cooling breezes in but keep biting insects out. The face mesh provides excellent visibility but protects against even the tiniest no-see-ums. They come in cotton or polyester and are hard to beat. Best of all you can find them locally at Sturdy Supply.

Most important, become one with the bugs. C’mon, get real, if you kill less than a dozen in one slap they really aren’t that bad.

(See a video of bugs on one of our trips in Northern Canada in 2010: https://tinyurl.com/5ayecu35.)


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