The other day I was out walking close-by the old Iditarod Trail, with the goal of getting this new bionic hip of mine operational enough by fall to be able to pack into my backcountry haunts in quest of a freezer full of moose and caribou. Along the way I was paid an introductory social call. The visitor was my first mosquito of the season. This year they have showed up late. Following our all-time record winter snowfall, the slow-to-melt ground cover has been sealing off the pest’s emergence. Then the almost rainless spring has dried up the finally-snow-free surface, delivering a one-two kibosh.
The lone representative, no doubt sent out as an advance scout, was, as always, one of the big, slow oafs of spring, the dumbest and most hapless of Alaska’s twenty-something species. These approach singly and tentatively, so are easy to cope with. Later will arrive the little, fast, mean ones, issuing in their hordes straight from the pits of hell. They will come in voracious clouds that have ever been the bane of Alaskan outdoorsmen.
From my book TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod, Volume I, we here break in on the conversation about this common enemy between gnarly sourdough, Old Ben Atwater, and former Nome miner, Al Preston, a friend of my family in my childhood years.
Old Ben Atwater: “. . . but we can’t leave off summer vicissitudes without cussing those infernal vampires. God left that part of creation to the devil, too. I’ve seen those blood-sucking hordes of hell crush strong men, just break them down weeping from the exhaustion due to lack of rest. Oppression’s drove some to insanity and even suicide.”
Al Preston: “Rod, folks Outside can’t imagine clouds of vicious insects actually thick enough to darken the air around you. Numbers not even a dad-blamed physicist could comprehend. Each one has a diabolical little heart and a single-minded purpose. I’ve never known anyone who wrote about experiences in the north who didn’t spend a lot of ink on the incredible multitudes and ferocity and never-ending depredations of them.
“One time up in Woodchopper country a guy fell in with me going the same way. While we took a trail break and shared a fire to boil tea he started scribbling in this journal. When I asked about it, he allowed he might turn it into a book if he ever made it back out. I politely asked if he’d mind sharing what he was writing. He said glad to; reading out loud helped him test his wording, and sometimes others offered something he could use. So when he read the section, it was about those hordes of hell Ben mentioned. After we talked about it he put in a couple of my phrases. He said he wouldn’t mind if I copied down that page. I saved it because he worded things way better than I could.
“‘No attempt a description of the torment inflicted by these thorns in the flesh and predators of the soul could exaggerate their wickedness. The most creative tortures of the Spanish Inquisition pale by comparison. Men must exhaust all effort to shield against them devouring the body and grinding down the nerves. We suffer untold cruelties from their venomous onslaughts, no matter how we array against them. A strong wind bringing relief is an answer to tearful, fervent prayer. As God’s great gift, fall’s first hard freeze seems like the gentlest caress of Nature, though we well know that it signals the beginning of months of Arctic temperatures and may be the lead-in to a winter of starvation.’”
In the Yukon and Alaska, fiendish clouds of blood-sucking insects billowed out of the vegetation at every footstep. They’d follow along in black swarms so dense that any encounter suffered in the “South 48” may be dismissed with a wave of the hand as comparatively insignificant. Many ranked mosquitos, black flies, no-see-ums, and horse flies the worst obstacle of all. Remember, modern repellents were not yet available.
At their thickest, they were almost impossible to cope with. Pack horses were often covered with canvas sheets and their nostrils had to be periodically cleaned to keep them breathing clearly. After several horses on one expedition drowned in a river trying to escape the hordes, the men kept smudge fires burning when they camped for the night so the horses could gain relief. Then the animals grew so thin and weak refusing to leave the smoke to graze that some had to be shot. Some of the early prospectors reported their head nets becoming so covered with insects seeking entry they could hardly breathe. Not a few who had previously conquered all other hardships gave up the country, driven raving mad by the onslaught of the diminutive tyrants that pressed them with no respite day and night.
Famed biologist William Dall wrote about the phenomenon this way: “. . . mosquitos were like smoke in the air. Thousands might be killed before their eyes, yet the survivors sounded their trumpets and carried on the war. A blanket offered them no impediment; buckskin alone defied their art. At meal times, forced to remove out nets, we sat nearly stifled by the smoke, and, emerging for a breath of fresh air, received no mercy. My companions’ hands, between sunburn and mosquitos, were nearly raw, and I can well conceive that a man without a net, in one of these marshes, would soon die from nervous exhaustion. The mosquitos drive the moose, deer, and bear into the river, and all nature rejoices when the end of July comes and their reign is at an end.”
Some early prospectors rubbed on a mixture of bear grease, tar, and tobacco juice. Others tried to make sure they carried head nets. But beyond that, they accepted that torments from insects were part of their assigned existence even with the best expedition planning.