The Dope with the dope on dope

It happens every time I run into someone in My Home Town. “It’s been a great summer–“ I start to say.

“Whattaya mean a great summer?” they say. “It’s been raining. It’s been cold. And we’ve hardly seen the sun.”

Of course, by cutting me off they don’t hear the rest of my sentence, which would’ve been, ” … for insects.”

Truer words were never spoken.

When I say “insects,” I’m referring to those of the biting ilk. Black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes — you want ’em, we’ve got ’em. And if you don’t want ’em, we’ve still got ’em.

This is nothing new — as long as we’ve had Adirondacks summers, we’ve had swarm upon swarm of biting bugs. That’s a given. The problem is what can be done to stop the little sadists. The only defense is bug dope, and from my gilded youth through young adulthood, it was a futile defense indeed.

The dark ages

Back then there were three different sources of bug dope. One was commercial, one was Army surplus, and one was homemade. As different as the sources were, they all had one thing in common — they didn’t work.

The only commercial one I recall was something called 6-12. It was a greasy, colorless liquid that smelled like paint thinner and burned your skin. The only reason it might’ve been effective was because the flies couldn’t drill far enough past the oil slick to hit pay dirt.

Two other commercial products were used to repel flies, even though that wasn’t their intended purpose.

One was Vick’s Vaporub. Conventional wisdom said if you put some of it behind your ears and on your neck it’d keep the flies away. Like too much conventional wisdom, it contained a lot more convention than wisdom.

The other was Avon’s Skin So Soft. People swore by it, but it never worked for me. And even worse was its scent, which filled the air with a stench that can charitably be described as “overwhelmingly cloying.” It conjured up only one image — the parlor of a fin-de-siecle French cathouse.

All the homemade bug dopes I knew had two main ingredients: citronella oil and pine tar oil. I had a neighbor who at the start of summer mixed up a mega-batch of the stuff and then gave samples to the rest of us. The smell — the exact opposite of Skin So Soft — was like tangy creosote. It was robust, outdoorsy and manly, and I loved it. Unfortunately, the bugs did, too.

Then there was the military stuff. It’d been supplied to troops in the WWII Pacific Campaign, and it sold for pennies in the Army-Navy Store. Like 6-12, it was a clear greasy oil, but with one big difference: 6-12 burned your skin; the Army stuff scalded it.

That bug juice was unreal. Any dab on my skin, no matter how small or thin, felt like being blasted by a welding torch. It also made my eyes run uncontrollably, so I not only felt like a pathetic wretch, but I looked like one, too.

And like the other so-called repellents, it didn’t stop flies from biting. But because my entire epidermis was aflame, I didn’t notice the flies drilling their way to glory. So in that sense, I guess it worked. It probably also worked beautifully as a skin ablation, but since I wasn’t in the market for one back then, it fell by the wayside.

The Enlightenment

Sometime in my early teens I ran across the first fairly effective bug spray — Off! While it didn’t stop the dyptera from getting their figurative pound of flesh (and literal pound of blood), it kept a bunch of them at bay … for a while.

Finally, in my 30s I ran across bug dopes containing DEET. As a guy who flunked chemistry, don’t you dare ask me what DEET stands for. I know all I need to know about it, namely that once it hit the market, the insects hit the road.

The stuff actually worked. After all those years of being the Adirondack flies’ favorite Kosher snack, I could now go hiking, boating or just sitting on the porch without get chomped to tears.

But the stuff had some downsides. One was it stung (but only mildly and for a short while). Another was it melted certain plastics (like eyeglasses and raincoats, among others). And given those qualities, no one was sure what fresh hell it was raising with your organs, appendages and DNA.

After a while, I started using DEET bug dopes less and less. Given its potential to knock a bunch of years off my life, I figured, why risk it? If the bugs were really bad, I just didn’t go into the woods.

But that attitude (like a lot of them) changed as I got older. One day it hit me: Every day I let the bugs drive me indoors was one fewer day I’d ever spend in the wilds. And to sorta paraphrase Mark Twain, when it comes to days, they ain’ts makin’ any more of ’em.

Plus, with an increase in ecological and health consciousness, all sorts of insect repellents made with only natural ingredients hit the market. They’re a cottage industry, and they use a wide array of ingredients. Of course there’s citronella, but there’s also cocoa butter, lemon juice, essential oils, mojinka root, bay leaves, and on and on.

They’re perfectly safe, they smell nice, they don’t burn, they’re biodegradable, and for all I know, they’re a great snack for the kiddos. So it’s doubly sad to me that with all those things in their favor, they have one huge drawback: They don’t repel insects. Some people swear by them. All I know is I can slather myself stem to stern, and within minutes of going in the woods, I’m getting chomped on, left, right and center.

Dilemma … resolved

So now we get to the horns of the Dopish dilemma: I want to go in the woods, but I don’t want to feed the flies. Nor do I want to have some weird chemical shut down my kidneys or give me the green gambool and such.

If I use the natural repellents, the upside is I won’t be putting possible poisons on or in my body. The downside is either I’ll be miserable when I’m in the woods (and for a good half-hour after), or I won’t go in the woods at all.

If I use DEET repellent, I’ll go in the woods, comfortably. And I’ll be able to go back in later, bug-free, since the stuff lasts for hours. That’s all good news. But the bad news is the stuff that’s keeping the bugs away in the short run could be killing me in the long run.

I mulled over this for a long while, finally realizing the issue was short-term comfort vs. long-term comfort: Do I want to be stung, bitten and scarfed every time I walk in the woods, but know I haven’t hurt my body with weird chemicals? Or do I want to go into and come out of the woods, head both unbitten and unbowed, but take a chance of making myself sick down the road?

I mulled some more. And then, my mulling session over, I went to Blue Line Sports, woke up Kevin Ransom and told him I was shopping for bug dope. He walked me to that section and started his spiel.

“Well, we’ve got Repel, with the green label, and–“

I cut him off.

“Nice to think of color schemes,” I said. “But I’ve got only one thing I care about it.”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Which one has the highest concentration of DEET?”

“Ben’s,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent.”

“Sold!” I said.

And that ended any further debate about short-term vs. long-term anything.

Because let’s face it: At this point in my life, short-term and long-term are the same thing.