Our Readers Write
The Swarms of SummerJet-Skis and Biting Flies
By Tamia Nelson
May 29, 2001
The last "Our Readers Write" appeared in January. What a
difference four months makes! The paddling season's well under way in northern North
America now, and we're seeing more and more canoes and kayaks out on the 'Flow. They don't
have the water all to themselves, of course. We're also seeing more and more jet-skis. For
the moment, there's a sort of uneasy truce between the "no-octane" boaters and the
"go-fast" crowd. Still, the 'Flow's only three miles long. It can't accommodate everyone's
needs indefinitely. What, then, does the future hold in storefor the 'Flow and for
the country's other increasingly crowded inland waters, as well?
We're not alone in asking this question. Gerry Adler's been writing to us for quite a
while. He's a sea-kayaker living in southern California, with a lifetime of professional
maritime and naval experience to draw on. He also writes a regular op-ed column, It's Your
Government, for his local paper. As luck would have it, Gerry and I are poles
apart politically, but we still didn't have much trouble finding common ground, beginning
with our shared fascination with the watery world and with all that lives in (and on) it.
In any event, however much I may disagree with Gerry from time to time, I always find
his columns thought-provoking and entertaining. I'm sure you will, too. Here's Gerry's
take on one of the topics of the day, from his column of 16 March 2001. Needless to say,
this is one time when we're completely in sync!
By Gerry Adler
Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? The two shouldn't go together, but as someone told
me today, snowmobilers back east are getting into it with cross-country skiers. Now that I
think of it, I know how the cross-country skiers must feel. If you are paddling a kayak or
canoe and a large powerboat passes you at excessive speed (over 5 mph in many areas) you
can be swamped by its wake. (For those not familiar with the expression, you become a
swimmer.) I will admit that I have not always been pleasant in such cases.
Is this "road rage" common in other forms of recreation? I would say so. Just the other
day, San Diego lifeguards took a report of an assault by one surfer on another, and it is
far from a rare occurrence. The surfers absolutely do not wish to share their waves with
"butt surfers" (kayakers), either, and I don't entirely blame them. A loose surfboard can
be a deadly weapon, and a kayak is much heavier.
Hikers and horsemen/women and mountain bikers have a history of disagreements going
back to when they first shared trails.
The Grand Champion of Recreational Conflict is most likely the Personal Watercraft
(PWC), also called the Jet Ski after a popular model. This vehicle makes enemies wherever
it goes because of the conduct of its riders and its mode of propulsion.
PWCs are capable of speeds on the water in the neighborhood of 70 mph, and many of the
operators drive as though Newton's Laws of Motion had been repealed. If a machine hits a
floating or partially submerged object, it will slow or stop very quickly. Not so,
necessarily, the rider. For this reason, among others, the machines are equipped with a
"dead man" switch. (No, I don't think the manufacturers call it that, but such switches
have been so nicknamed for a long time.) When the rider falls off, he or she pulls a key
which slows the machine to idle speed, and it runs in circles so that the rider can
re-mount (if able).
Operators of PWCs frequently speed to and fro, jumping wakes of passing craft and
harassing other boaters and/or swimmers. Most areas have had to make special areas for
them, as they are not compatible with other craft. Picture a 70-mph waterscooter cutting
between a tow boat and its water skier and running into the neck-high tow rope. No, don't
picture that. Collisions are bad enough, since freeway speeds can be involved, and the
rider is sitting atop a fiberglass motorcycle on the water.
The motors used by PWCs will eventually doom or drastically modify them. They use a
two-cycle engine to drive a water jet. The engine is basically like your gas leaf blower,
chain saw or string cutter. It really revs up, and riders tend to endear themselves to all
within earshot (a fairly long way) by orbiting over and over and over like an Energizer
Bunny turned banshee.
The motors of most, if not all, PWCs are two-cycle in design. That design requires the
burning of oil with the gasoline to lubricate internal parts oiled by crankcase oil in a
four-cycle engine. This design emits far more pollution in the form of unburned gas/oil
mixture into the water than the four-cycle. Since many watercourses used by PWCs (and
two-cycle outboards too) are also drinking water sources, many feel that it may be time to
prohibit these machines from those lakes and rivers. Some counties and parks have already
Since much of the Recreational Conflict is due to inconsiderate conduct, we have the
means to curtail or even eliminate it: BE NICE! Am I optimistic? 'Fraid not.
I can't fault either Gerry's prescription or his prognosis. His is the voice of reason
and realism. Still, I'm only human. There are timesafter a particularly narrow
escape on the water, for examplewhen fantasies of revenge crowd everything else from
my mind. These are just fantasies, mind. But fantasy can be therapeutic.
Consider the following "news" story, for example. It's from The Peasleeville
Complainer, a parody newspaper written and edited by an Adirondack neighbor who's
an enthusiastic canoeist. "Dolly Lama"'s not the author's real name, of course. Dolly,
like "Johnny Local" and the Complainer's many other correspondents, is the creation
of one individual's fertile imagination. Parody or not, though, anyone who's lived in
rural America will recognize that there's a lot of truth on the pages of the
Complainer. (But please don't try building one of these at home!)
Stealth Torpedo May Solve Jetski Problem
By Dolly Lama
If Hans Raeder has his way, the jetski nuisance that has been troubling Adirondack
lakes for the past decade will soon be just an unpleasant memory.
Mr. Raeder, grandson of Admiral Heinrich Raeder of the World War II-era
German Navy, claims to have perfected a torpedo that will reliably sink jetskis.
The design was undertaken in response to a competition sponsored by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Raeder says his plans have been submitted to the
Agency and with the prize money he hopes to win he will be able to begin production of the
torpedo early next year.
"You can just imagine the challenges involved in something like this," Mr. Raeder said
from his home in Kaiserslauten. "The weapon has to be hand-launchable from the shore, a
boat, an airplane, whatever, and not easily seen by the target. We had to assume the user
is untrained, and capable of following instructions no more complicated than those for
opening a beer can.
"The weapon itself has to be able to sink a jetski craft without injuring the wackos who
are on it. The EPA was very insistent on this, despite our objections.
"Finally, the weapon has to hit the target. This sounds obvious, but under the
circumstances it's terribly difficult. When you are chasing an 80-mph jetski around a lake
with an underwater missile that has a top speed of 30 mph, and furthermore the jetski can
dart around like a crazed chicken, you've got a real job on your hands. Also, there is the
little problem of hitting the intended target, rather than some poor slob out in a canoe,
"I can't go into detail, but we have met all of these challenges. The torpedo can run
for two hoursthat's important. Naturally a lot of computerization is involved, and
we have programmed the control mechanism with a personality that is, shall we say, very,
"I also wish to assure you that we are Y2K compliant."
If only it were that simple! Happily, not all problems are so refractory. A recent
column on coping with the seasonal onslaught of biting flies brought the following
comments in the mail. Both writers raise important pointspoints that I didn't
address in my original articleso I've included my replies, too.
PermethrinPro and Con
Regarding "Too Weak
to Fight? Coping with Mosquitoes, Punkies, and Blackflies":
One strategy that you did not mention was the use of permethrin spray on clothing,
particularly in conjunction with DEET. I refer you to an article entitled "DEET Cream,
Permethrin Make Killer Combo" from Skin & Allergy News 28(11):30, 1997 (© 1997
International Medical News Group).
Permethrin, unlike DEET, is an insecticide killing the critters on contact. It is most
effective against ticks because they must crawl across the clothes to get to you and thus
come in contact with the permethrin. It is sometimes sold as "tick repellent." However, it
does work on the flying guys too, if they light on permethrin-treated stuff. It lasts a
good long time when sprayed on clothesseveral washes, or a week or two. Before a
trip, I spray my clothes, hat, and headnet with the stuff, let it dry and pack it away.
Exposed skin (when needed) gets a little 20% DEET bug dope.
This has been very effective for me.
Ken E. Brown
Thanks for your note, Ken! I'm of two minds about permethrin, I'm afraid, even in
tick areas. It's certainly effective, but at what cost? The stuff's a broad-spectrum
(i.e., non-selective) insecticide. Bees are especially vulnerable, and they're already in
trouble throughout much of North America. And that's not the only bad news. Permethrin
also poses a threat to aquatic ecosystems, including critical estuarine environments. And
it's toxic to all fish, from bluegills to salmon.
There are also a few unanswered questions concerning health effects. While permethrin
has low mammalian toxicity, there's evidence from a number of animal studies that liver
enlargement may follow chronic exposure, as well as some suggestions of fertility and
immune system impairment. (For literature citations and a summary of current research and
toxicity data, see the
Cornell University Pesticide Information Profile data-sheet.)
Of course, the known threats to human health are small (if all usage guidelines are
followed to the letter). Moreover, even if rain-water leaching, laundry wash-out, and
urine excretion are all taken into account, a single paddler is unlikely to contribute
much to any waterway's pesticide burden. Still, there are some 25 million of us. Taken
together, our individual contributions add up. That being the case, I'd rather reserve
permethrin for areas where biting flies and other arthropods are known to act as vectors
for life-threatening diseasestropical regions and places where Lyme disease is now
endemic, for exampleand for times when no other method works. And I'd use it
cautiously even then.
Thanks again for taking the time to write.
Alternatives to DEET
Very interesting article. We recently got a bug dope recipe that uses essential oils. I
got the recipe from a good source (I hope). Have you folks tried any of the available
recipes for those biters that utilize any of the essential oils? It is supposedly safe and
It's good to hear from you, Tony!
Have we ever used any bug dope formulated from essential oils? In a word, no. (Unless
you count citronella candles, which we have used from time to time, even though one
study showed them to be no more effective than ordinary wax candles!) We rely mostly on
barriers (wellies, long sleeves, netting, etc.) and on what Farwell insists on calling
"stoic acceptance." We also keep DEET in reserve, although we use it sparingly, when we
use it at all. Butand this is importantwe also do most of our paddling in
areas free from the threat of arboviruses (that's "arthropod-borne viruses," e.g., West
Nile virus), Lyme disease, and other insect-borne pathogens.
That said, unless you're heading for an arbovirus Hot Zone or a malaria area, I'd
suggest that you give your recipe a try. Test it first at home, just to be sure you're not
allergic to any of the components. (Pennyroyal, for example, can cause dermatitis.) Then,
when you head out for the backcountry, BE SURE you have a back-up in your pack in case
your recipe lets you down. A head net, gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and long
pantsalong with a good tentwill see you through all but the worst conditions,
though you'll certainly get hot.
What should you expect your new bug dope to do for you? Here's one version of the
Official Word, from a review article entitled "Mosquitoes and Mosquito Repellents: A
Clinician's Guide," which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 1 June 1998,
Thousands of plants have been tested as potential sources of insect repellents.
None of the plant-derived chemicals tested to date demonstrate the broad effectiveness and
duration of DEET, but a few show repellent activity. Plants whose essential oils have been
reported to have repellent activity include citronella, cedar, verbena, pennyroyal,
geranium, lavender, pine, cajeput, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, allspice, garlic, and
peppermint. Unlike synthetic insect repellents, plant-derived repellents have been
relatively poorly studied. When tested, most of these essential oils tended to give
short-lasting protection, usually less than 2 hours. [Emphasis added.]
As this paragraph suggests, there's still a great deal to be learned about repellent
chemistry and the mechanisms by which biting flies locate and select their targets. So
give your recipe a thorough trial. Be sure to keep notes, too, and please let us know what
you find out.
OK. There are a lot more letters in our mailbag, but I don't want this to get too long.
Look for "Our Readers Write" again in two months. Next week, however, we'll be rejoining
Ed and Brenna on their "Trip of a Lifetime."