The Forest by Stewart Edward White
IX. On Flies.
All the rest of the day I paddled under the frowning cliffs of the hill ranges. Bold, bare, scarred, seamed with fissures, their precipice rocks gave the impression of ten thousand feet rather that only so many hundreds. Late in the afternoon we landed against a formation of basaltic blocks cut as squarely up and down as a dock, and dropping off into as deep water. The waves chug-chug-chugged sullenly against them, and the fringe of a dark pine forest, drawn back from a breadth of natural grass, lowered across the horizon like a thunder-cloud.
Deuce and I made camp with the uneasy feeling of being under inimical inspection. A cold wind ruffled lead-like waters. No comfort was in the prospect, so we retired early. Then it appeared that the coarse grass of the park had bred innumerable black flies, and that we had our work cut out for us.
The question of flies--using that, to a woodsman, eminently connotive word in its wide embracement of mosquitoes, sandflies, deer-flies, black flies, and midges--is one much mooted in the craft. On no subject are more widely divergent ideas expressed. One writer claims that black flies' bites are but the temporary inconvenience of a pin-prick; another tells of boils lasting a week as the invariable result of their attentions; a third sweeps aside the whole question as unimportant to concentrate his anathemas on the musical mosquito; still a fourth descants on the maddening midge, and is prepared to defend his claims against the world. A like dogmatic partisanship obtains in the question of defences. Each and every man possessed of a tongue wherewith to speak or a pen wherewith to write, heralds the particular merits of his own fly-dope, head-net, or mosquito-proof tent-lining. Eager advocates of the advantages of pork fat, kerosene, pine tar, pennyroyal, oil of cloves, castor oil, lollacapop, or a half hundred other concoctions, will assure you, tears in eyes, that his is the only true faith. So many men, so many minds, until the theorist is confused into doing the most uncomfortable thing possible--that is, to learn by experience.
As for the truth, it is at once in all of them and in none of them. The annoyance of after-effects from a sting depends entirely on the individual's physical makeup. Some people are so poisoned by mosquito bites that three or four on the forehead suffice to close entirely the victim's eyes. On others they leave but a small red mark without swelling. Black flies caused festering sores on one man I accompanied to the woods. In my own case they leave only a tiny blood-spot the size of a pin-head, which bothers me not a bit. Midges nearly drove crazy the same companion of mine, so that finally he jumped into the river, clothes and all, to get rid of them. Again, merely my own experience would lead me to regard them as a tremendous nuisance, but one quite bearable. Indians are less susceptible than whites; nevertheless I have seen them badly swelled behind the ears from the bites of the big hardwood mosquito.
You can make up your mind to one thing: from the first warm weather until August you must expect to cope with insect pests. The black fly will keep you busy until late afternoon; the midges will swarm you about sunset; and the mosquito will preserve the tradition after you have turned in. As for the deer-fly, and others of his piratical breed, he will bite like a dog at any time.
To me the most annoying species is the mosquito. The black fly is sometimes most industrious--I have seen trout fishermen come into camp with the blood literally streaming from their faces--but his great recommendation is that he holds still to be killed. No frantic slaps, no waving of arms, no muffled curses. You just place your finger calmly and firmly on the spot. You get him every time. In this is great, heart-lifting joy. It may be unholy joy, perhaps even vengeful, but it leaves the spirit ecstatic. The satisfaction of murdering the beast that has had the nerve to light on you just as you are reeling in almost counterbalances the pain of a sting. The midge, again, or punkie, or "no-see-'um," just as you please, swarms down upon you suddenly and with commendable vigour, so that you feel as though red-hot pepper were being sprinkled on your bare skin; and his invisibility and intangibility are such that you can never tell whether you have killed him or not; but he doesn't last long, and dope routs him totally. Your mosquito, however, is such a deliberate brute. He has in him some of that divine fire which causes a dog to turn around nine times before lying down.
Whether he is selecting or gloating I do not know, but I do maintain that the price of your life's blood is often not too great to pay for the cessation of that hum.
"Eet is not hees bite," said Billy the half-breed to me once--"eet is hees sing."
I agree with Billy. One mosquito in a tent can keep you awake for hours.
As to protection, it is varied enough in all conscience, and always theoretically perfect. A head-net falling well down over your chest, or even tied under your arm-pits, is at once the simplest and most fallacious of these theories. It will keep vast numbers of flies out, to be sure. It will also keep the few adventurous discoverers in, where you can neither kill nor eject. Likewise you are deprived of your pipe; and the common homely comfort of spitting on your bait is totally denied you. The landscape takes on the prismatic colours of refraction, so that, while you can easily make out red, white, and blue Chinese dragons and mythological monsters, you are unable to discover the more welcome succulence, say, of a partridge on a limb. And the end of that head-net is to be picked to holes by the brush, and finally to be snatched from you to sapling height, whence your pains will rescue it only in a useless condition. Probably then you will dance the war-dance of exasperation on its dismembered remains. Still, there are times--in case of straight-away river paddling, or open walking, or lengthened waiting--when the net is a great comfort. And it is easily included in the pack.
Next in order come the various "dopes." And they are various. From the stickiest, blackest pastes to the silkiest, suavest oils they range, through the grades of essence, salve, and cream. Every man has his own recipe--the infallible. As a general rule, it may be stated that the thicker kinds last longer and are generally more thoroughly effective, but the lighter are pleasanter to wear, though requiring more frequent application. At a pinch, ordinary pork fat is good. The Indians often make temporary use of the broad caribou leaf, crushing it between their palms and rubbing the juices on the skin. I know by experience that this is effective, but very transitory. It is, however, a good thing to use when resting on the trail, for, by the grace of Providence, flies are rarely bothersome as long as you are moving at a fair gait.
This does not always hold good, however, any more than the best fly-dope is always effective. I remember most vividly the first day of a return journey from the shores of the Hudson Bay. The weather was rather oppressively close and overcast.
We had paddled a few miles up river from the fur trading-post, and then had landed in order to lighten the canoe for the ascent against the current. At that point the forest has already begun to dwindle towards the Land of Little Sticks, so that often miles and miles of open muskegs will intervene between groups of the stunted trees. Jim and I found ourselves a little over waist deep in luxuriant and tangled grasses that impeded and clogged our every footstep. Never shall I forget that country--its sad and lonely isolation, its dull lead sky, its silence, and the closeness of its stifling atmosphere--and never shall I see it otherwise than as in a dense brown haze, a haze composed of swarming millions of mosquitoes. There is not the slightest exaggeration in the statement. At every step new multitudes rushed into our faces to join the old. At times Jim's back was so covered with them that they almost overlaid the colour of the cloth. And as near as we could see, every square foot of the thousands of acres quartered its hordes.
We doped liberally, but without the slightest apparent effect. Probably two million squeamish mosquitoes were driven away by the disgust of our medicaments, but what good did that do us when eight million others were not so particular? At the last we hung bandanas under our hats, cut fans of leaves, and stumbled on through a most miserable day until we could build a smudge at evening.
For smoke is usually a specific. Not always, however: some midges seem to delight in it. The Indians make a tiny blaze of birch bark and pine twigs deep in a nest of grass and caribou leaves. When the flame is well started, they twist the growing vegetation canopy-wise above it.
In that manner they gain a few minutes of dense, acrid smoke, which is enough for an Indian. A white man, however, needs something more elaborate.
The chief reason for your initial failure in making an effective smudge will be that you will not get your fire well started before piling on the damp smoke-material. It need not be a conflagration, but it should be bright and glowing, so that the punk birch or maple wood you add will not smother it entirely. After it is completed, you will not have to sit coughing in the thick of fumigation, as do many, but only to leeward and underneath. Your hat used as a fan will eddy the smoke temporarily into desirable nooks and crevices. I have slept without annoyance on the Great Plains, where the mosquitoes seem to go in organized and predatory bands, merely by lying beneath a smudge that passed at least five feet above me. You will find the frying-pan a handy brazier for the accommodation of a movable smoke to be transported to the interior of the tent. And it does not in the least hurt the frying-pan. These be hints, briefly spoken, out of which at times you may have to construct elaborate campaigns.
But you come to grapples in the defence of comfort when night approaches. If you can eat and sleep well, you can stand almost any hardship. The night's rest is as carefully to be fore-assured as the food that sustains you. No precaution is too elaborate to certify unbroken repose. By dark you will discover the peak of your tent to be liberally speckled with insects of all sorts. Especially is this true of an evening that threatens rain. Your smudge-pan may drive away the mosquitoes, but merely stupefies the other varieties. You are forced to the manipulation of a balsam fan.
In your use of this simple implement you will betray the extent of your experience. Dick used at first to begin at the rear peak and brush as rapidly as possible toward the opening. The flies, thoroughly aroused, eddied about a few frantic moments, like leaves in an autumn wind, finally to settle close to the sod in the crannies between the tent-wall and the ground. Then Dick would lie flat on his belly in order to brush with equal vigour at these new lurking-places. The flies repeated the autumn-leaf effect, and returned to the rear peak. This was amusing to me, and furnished the flies with healthful, appetizing exercise, but was bad for Dick's soul. After a time he discovered the only successful method is the gentle one. Then he began at the peak and brushed forward slowly, very, very slowly, so that the limited intellect of his visitors did not become confused. Thus when they arrived at the opening they saw it and used it, instead of searching frantically for corners in which to hide from apparently vengeful destruction. Then he would close his tent-flap securely, and turn in at once. So he was able to sleep until earliest daylight. At that time the mosquitoes again found him out.
Nine out of ten--perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred--sleep in open tents. For absolute and perfect comfort proceed as follows:--Have your tent-maker sew you a tent of cheese-cloth[*] with the same dimensions as your shelter, except that the walls should be loose and voluminous at the bottom. It should have no openings.
[Footnote *: Do not allow yourself to be talked into substituting mosquito-bar or bobinet. Any mesh coarser than cheese-cloth will prove pregnable to the most enterprising of the smaller species.]
Suspend this affair inside your tent by means of cords or tapes. Drop it about you. Spread it out. Lay rod-cases, duffel-bags, or rocks along its lower edges to keep it spread. You will sleep beneath it like a child in winter. No driving out of reluctant flies; no enforced early rising; no danger of a single overlooked insect to make the midnight miserable. The cheese-cloth weighs almost nothing, can be looped up out of the way in the daytime, admits the air readily. Nothing could fill the soul with more ecstatic satisfaction than to lie for a moment before going to sleep listening to a noise outside like an able-bodied sawmill that indicates the ping-gosh are abroad.
It would be unfair to leave the subject without a passing reference to its effect on the imagination. We are all familiar with comic paper mosquito stories, and some of them are very good. But until actual experience takes you by the hand and leads you into the realm of pure fancy, you will never know of what improvisation the human mind is capable.
The picture rises before my mind of the cabin of a twenty-eight-foot cutter-sloop just before the dawn of a midsummer day. The sloop was made for business, and the cabin harmonized exactly with the sloop--painted pine, wooden bunks without mattresses, camp-blankets, duffel-bags slung up because all the floor place had been requisitioned for sleeping purposes. We were anchored a hundred feet off land from Pilot Cove, on the uninhabited north shore. The mosquitoes had adventured on the deep. We lay half asleep.
"On the middle rafter," murmured the Football Man, "is one old fellow giving signals."
"A quartette is singing drinking-songs on my nose," muttered the Glee Club Man.
"We won't need to cook," I suggested somnolently. "We can run up and down on deck with our mouths open and get enough for breakfast."
The fourth member opened one eye. "Boys," he breathed, "we won't be able to go on to-morrow unless we give up having any more biscuits."
After a time some one murmured, "Why?"
"We'll have to use all the lard on the mast. They're so mad because they can't get at us that they're biting the mast. It's already swelled up as big as a barrel. We'll never be able to get the mainsail up. Any of you boys got any vaseline? Perhaps a little fly-dope--"
But we snored vigorously in unison. The Indians say that when Kitch' Manitou had created men he was dissatisfied, and so brought women into being. At once love-making began, and then, as now, the couples sought solitude for their exchanges of vows, their sighings to the moon, their claspings of hands. Marriages ensued. The situation remained unchanged. Life was one perpetual honeymoon. I suppose the novelty was fresh and the sexes had not yet realized they would not part as abruptly as they had been brought together. The villages were deserted, while the woods and bushes were populous with wedded and unwedded lovers. Kitch' Manitou looked on the proceedings with disapproval. All this was most romantic and beautiful, no doubt, but in the meantime mi-daw-min, the corn, mi-no-men, the rice, grew rank and uncultivated; while bis-iw, the lynx, and swingwaage, the wolverine, and me-en-gan, the wolf, committed unchecked depredations among the weaker forest creatures. The business of life was being sadly neglected. So Kitch' Manitou took counsel with himself, and created saw-gi-may, the mosquito, to whom he gave as dwelling the woods and bushes. That took the romance out of the situation. As my narrator grimly expressed it, "Him come back, go to work."
Certainly it should be most effective. Even the thick-skinned moose is not exempt from discomfort. At certain seasons the canoe voyager in the Far North will run upon a dozen in the course of a day's travel, standing nose-deep in the river merely to escape the insect pests.
However, this is to be remembered: after the first of August they bother very little; before that time the campaign I have outlined is effective; even in fly season the worst days are infrequent. In the woods you must expect to pay a certain price in discomfort for a very real and very deep pleasure. Wet, heat, cold, hunger, thirst, difficult travel, insects, hard beds, aching muscles--all these at one time or another will be your portion. If you are of the class that cannot have a good time unless everything is right with it, stay out of the woods. One thing at least will always be wrong. When you have gained the faculty of ignoring the one disagreeable thing and concentrating your powers on the compensations, then you will have become a true woodsman, and to your desires the forest will always be calling.