I recently returned from a 16 day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with my good nature travel buddy, Doug Fitzgerald. Over the years, Doug and I have led a dozen wilderness adventures together across North America, but for this one we joined Canyon Expeditions as participants and were under the guidance of their excellent guides. It had all the elements of what makes a great – and I mean a great – trip.
There were good people. Nineteen people, 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.
The six guides, three men and three women, had decades of experience and their love of the canyon was evident in everything they did.
We had almost perfect weather. No rain (at the expense of water levels), with daily temperatures ranging from low 60s to a few days in the low 90s.
And then there was the Canyon. It’s a stunning environment whose beauty changes daily in ways you can’t anticipate. The photos, of which I took hundreds, do not do it justice.
It had all the elements of a perfect trip. Well, there was one thing that got in the way of perfection. Just a little thing. So small you might say tiny – as tiny as grains of sand. Yes, sand. Sand in our hair, sand in our clothes, sand in our sleeping bag, sand in our hand lotion, sand in every place you can imagine. With frequent winds, up to 40 miles per hour, it blows everywhere. If you allow it, it could drive you crazy. So the guides encouraged us to become one with the sand. I got it, and I did it. But it wasn’t hard because I preached to everyone who heard that in the Adirondacks you have to have the same attitude about black flies and mosquitoes.
Bugs are a fact of life in the Adirondacks, much like sand is a fact of life rafting the Colorado River. As it is bug season in the Adirondacks and will continue until at least July 4, we must learn to become one with them.
I know, I know, it’s easier said than done. But everything is relative. Next time bugs drive you crazy, think about my first major bug encounter outside of the Adirondacks. It happened in 1971 when I climbed Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America. Approaching 16 miles, the mosquitoes were fierce. For an insane form of fun, we slapped each other once on the arm, then counted the number of vermin we killed. The record was 26.
This record stood until 1993, when I carried a canoe three miles through Manitoba’s 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, scooped up the flies in my hand, and started counting. When I hit 40, I threw away the rest in disgust.
So what should I recommend you do to deal with the ravenous creatures?
Most importantly, use an insect repellent that contains DEET, as it is by far the best repellent. Yes, you swear by your great-grandmother’s secret potion of pine tar, lemongrass, and mineral oil or something similar, but I’m all for double-blind studies. Developed by the military in 1946, DEET is still the most effective repellent to put directly on your 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. “DEET formulations provide greater than 99% protection for over eight hours (an average of four mosquito bites per person per hour)…compared to 1,188 bites per hour without protection.” How would you have liked to be part of this control group?
Second, wear a net and a jacket. My personal favorite is the Canadian Bugshirt, which combines both sleeves and invisible mesh sides, allowing cooling breezes in but keeping biting insects out. The face mesh provides excellent visibility but protects against even the smallest invisible. They come in cotton or polyester and are hard to beat. Better yet, you can find them locally at Sturdy Supply.
Most importantly, become one with the insects. Come on, be realistic, if you kill less than a dozen in a single slap, they really aren’t that bad.
(See a video of insects from one of our trips to Canada’s North in 2010: https://tinyurl.com/5ayecu35.)