Too Weak to Fight?
Coping with Mosquitoes, Punkies, and Blackflies
May 22, 2001
When British Admiral John Arbuthnot
Fisherhe was known as "Jackie" Fisher to friend and foe
alikebecame First Sea Lord in October 1904, he confronted a German
navy determined to challenge 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. He began, oddly enough, by decommissioning a
good portion of the British seagoing fleet. The ships that he ordered
scrapped, he explained, were "too weak to fight and too slow to run away."
The navy was better off without them, he said. 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 folksI admit I'm oneeven 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
How? There are three primary strategies: avoidance, barrier defense,
and counterstrike. I'll take them all in turn.
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,
insteadsomeplace 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
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 greatand
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
whipcordif you can stand itis 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 hoursif 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
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 concentrations10% or lesspresent 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 windyif it is, the breeze will probably disperse the
fliesa 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
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
isuntil it's been subjected to the rigors of peer review and exposed
to critical scrutinyall of its conclusions must be regarded as
tentative. "Not proven" is the only verdict that the evidence now
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 mallardsa mother and
six ducklingsscooping 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 goodfor 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