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We Alaskans: Mosquito hell

Seth Kantner
Stephen Nowers

AMBLER -- I've been flying on Ravn Alaska mail planes lately for my job in the villages. Before takeoff, the pilots always mention seat belts, emergency exits and survival gear on board. In the winter I know survival means warm gear, but in summer I keep wanting to interrupt to ask if it includes mosquito dope.  

Flying east over the squiggles and wiggles of the Kobuk River, looking down at the leafing out of the land, I see white dots of nesting swans and blurred wakes left by loons lifting off. Contemplative moose stand ankle-deep in ponds, and here and there are the dark knobs of beaver lodges. It's beautiful down below, but I've spent too much time on the ground not to recognize what green means here in the Arctic: mosquitoes.

It's not always easy to talk to Outsiders about mosquitoes. They nod knowingly and mention Maine or Minnesota. I usually stop and talk about something else. I've been to those places, and Central America, and Africa. I remember the dark, warm nights, the rain, the bandits with machetes and machine guns. But not so much the mosquitoes.

These last two springs, the young, aggressive bugs have hatched late. Recently, my coworker Linnea Wik and I flew to Ambler. Even though it was early June, we saw only two or three mosquitoes all weekend. It was cold, yet strangely pleasant with no bugs. I liked the reprieve, but worried the swallows and other species might be starving while we humans gloated.

Sure enough, as soon as the cool weather eased slightly, hungry young mosquitoes swarmed. I knew it was bad when Don Williams and his son Alvin both texted me from Ambler about the bugs. They don't usually mention them.

About that time, a French archaeology student, Angelique, emailed me, asking if I might hike with her into the mountains north of the Kobuk to look for various sources of jade used by the old Inupiaq to make weapons and tools. All I knew about this woman was that she'd first contacted me a year ago, was half Polish and was very persistent. I wrote back, saying I was busy, she should hire villagers for any transport and the only thing I knew about archaeology was that she needed to get explicit permission from landowners. I also warned her about the brush -- thick nowadays back in the hills -- and the mosquitoes.

Unfortunately, talking about bugs in the Arctic right away makes a person sound like they're exaggerating. “It's hard to breathe,” I tell people. “Don't worry about bears. Going to the bathroom is going to seem like a life-threatening experience.”  

Internet acquaintanceship also confounds communication. A virtual stranger tells you they've roughed it, but how do you know their definition of that? Does that mean they ate antelope burgers once at a cookout, where they ran out of buns and the bug zapper was unplugged?

I like to meet new people, though, and the archaeologists I've met over the years -- regardless of their propensity to dig up Native artifacts and haul them away -- have had an ability to overlook adversity in their focus on finding what they were looking for. I was pretty certain, too, that no one else would volunteer to hike north with this Angelique, in late June, with a machete and a backpack, into a hell of alders, dwarf birch and mosquitoes. For some reason, not everybody calls that kind of thing fun.

Angelique

At the Alaska Airlines terminal in Kotzebue, I met a skinny white girl in Xtratuf boots, who looked about 17, who was picking up her green rubberized backpack. She had black curls, a wiry handshake and a cheery accent. I asked how many packages of ramen soup she'd brought us, and how many bottles of mosquito dope. I told her I had coffee, and dried caribou to put in the soup, and asked for a few concessions up front: foremost, that my friend Linnea be invited along to keep the mood sunny, and that I not have anything to do with bear spray. Also, that if she was a person who got up more than zero times a night to pee, she bring her own tent.

She said none of that was a problem -- part of her research was to attempt to experience some of the hardships that the old Inupiaq might have experienced in finding and gathering jade.  

Okay, I thought. Good. More scientists need that attitude. Especially those with helicopters.

900 yards an hour

By midnight the first day, sweating and scratched after 11 hours thrashing through mindlessly thick brush, we slumped in damp moss, not quite desperate but getting there. We were too tired to eat and nearly out of water, again. Somehow the bugs seemed to worsen, hour after hour. Clouds pelted us and rode along on our packs; the buzzing was ceaseless and every 15 minutes we had to re-spray our bug shirts. I'd never seen dwarf birch like these in the Arctic -- over our heads and as thick around as my wrist, blocking all view, tangling our feet and tearing at our skin and clothes. Our progress for the last four hours had been about 900 yards an hour. My arm was numb from swinging the machete and my elbow bruised from hitting the butt of my pistol. My shoulder holster under my pack chafed through to the meat.  

Angelique's boots had worn holes and her feet were soaked and blistered. With a pack on her back and another on her front, half-blinded by her bug shield, she'd fallen countless times in the brush and into creeks and swamps we crossed. Throughout the day I'd heard her call out, “Set? Set?” as she tried to locate me a few yards ahead in the brush. I hadn't heard a complaint, though.

Linnea, regardless of whatever aches, pains and bites she was feeling, was serene and poised, cheerfully urging me to share a Trio bar, even though we didn't feel like eating. So far I'd done one thing right -- inviting her along.

I was pretty sure the old people would never have come my route -- not with all this astounding new shrubbery in the way. Especially not in summer, with these bugs. Being acquiescent o email had made me ignore what I know -- when I was a kid, folks traditionally headed to the coast in the summer, not the other way around.

“Whose idea was this?” I muttered -- my perennial mantra.   

“He usually says that when something was his idea,” Linnea reassured Angelique.  

We laughed and shared the last of our water and a granola bar, doing what we'd been doing all day: suffering, sharing and laughing. In that way I guess this really was Angelique's idea -- because I imagine the old people did a lot of that: suffering, sharing, and laughing.

Slowly, we stood again, worn out and worried about water, and heaved our packs back on, into the red grooves chafed in our shoulders. We waded uphill into more brush and the constant chirp of sparrows fretting about their nests.   

Sometime in the bright night, we finally came out of the alders onto a loud and fast-flowing creek. Overhead, a strange bird called monotonously: Eat Here! Eat Here! I hacked brush aside and Linnea pitched the tent. While we boiled water on a fire for soup, Angelique splashed around the boulders and rocks.  

“Jade! It is jade!” she exclaimed. Her eyes sparkling, she held up a wet green rock. “Oh, I'm so happy we are here.”

By the time we crawled into the tent and killed all the mosquitoes inside, Angelique was too tired to even inflate her mattress. Linnea had a hole torn in hers. She insisted it was fine, but I felt guilty, towering up on my 3.5-inch mat. Just beyond the tent wall, the creek was loud and tumbling, though not quite covering the drone of insects, as we drifted off to sleep.

Rocks in our packs

The next day, just a few steps into the mountains, Linnea and I discovered an undesirable trait in our otherwise fine companion, Angelique. In her big black day pack -- the one she wore in front -- we knew she carried two cameras, snacks, water, a GPS, a notebook, bear spray and bug dope. But now she brought out something else: Ziploc bags. She wrote detailed notes with a Sharpie on these bags, stuffed them full of rocks and put them in all of our packs.  

She was joyful, collecting stones like a kid, which made sense after years of college study in France and crossing continents to arrive at this place. I was happy for her, but I didn't want rocks in my pack. I already had two packrafts in there, and paddles, and cans of bug dope, ammo, food and plenty of other stuff. Linnea and I had been planning on lighter packs each day. Apparently that wasn't going to happen.

I told Angelique we were going to find a plastic jug, or birch bark, to make her a cone like vets put on dogs' heads after surgery, to keep her from spotting anything else interesting and heavy.  

Down in the hood of her bug-shirt, with the netting screen zipped shut, her smile flashed; she choose the bigger of two stones in her hands and stuffed it into her zippered pocket. “This many we collect?” she said. “It should be three times more.”

The following day we broke camp, our packs heavy with rocks, and headed downstream, along the thickly vegetated banks of the creek. Travel was hideous. My jeans were frayed fuzzy and torn, and black flies swarmed, crawling everywhere under our clothes, biting and joining the frenzy of the mosquitoes.

Angelique's feet, after days wet, were a puffy mess. The plan had been to inflate our packrafts here and drift, maybe barefoot in the boats, resting, occasionally paddling while pleasantly dreaming of cold beers.

Unfortunately, the thickets along the banks were crisscrossed with overgrown dead-fall spruce, mired with sinkholes and wet side-channels. The pretty blue line on my USGS map translated into a narrow, turbulent chute with boulder teeth. Every hundred yards or so, a log lay across the creek, limbs combing the water.  

Angelique informed me again that she couldn't swim. I assured her that it would be fine -- I couldn't either. We weren't getting in that creek anyway; we were stuck behind my machete, slashing a path, staying beside the stream so she could collect more samples.

That night, in addition to mosquitoes, our tent filled with tiny, crawling black flies. We sprayed the netting with bug dope until they fell, covering the floor and our clothes and sleeping bags with writhing half-dead bugs. Outside, the tent was being pelted. During the night I awoke, convinced that now it really was raining, a soft steady downpour. “It is rain?” Angelique asked. But it was only more and more insects striking the tent.

Free at last

The next afternoon, we found tundra -- big knobby tussocks -- that offered splendid travel compared to the brush. White flowers of cotton grass, salmonberries and Labrador tea dotted the distance, and the mountains and sky were visible at last. Gray rain clouds moved in fast as we dropped into the creek for the last time and inflated our packrafts.  

Finally, we'd reached the easy part of our journey. Giddy and giggling, we leaned forward to climb into the boats. In that instant, thunder boomed overhead. Rain poured down. In minutes, we were soaked, struggling to keep our rafts from being shoved sideways under sweepers. Peals of laughter floated over the water -- Linnea and Angelique out of control, laughing. It was impossible not to be ecstatic -- floating on water, flowing with the current, free of packs and endless brush.

Finally we had to stop and build a fire to warm up. As we heated water for coffee and soup, I called Alvin Williams on my satellite phone to ask him to pick us up before midnight -- we were just hours from the main river.  

The rain had quit and the bugs were making up for lost time when we paddled around a last bend and spotted Alvin and his son Kituq waiting in their boat. It was a splendid sight -- friends and a ride -- made more poignant by the reality of their family connection to the people of the past we'd been busy imagining. Behind us, the days loomed large, too -- the laughing and sharing and suffering -- out in the hum of the land, alive with birds and bugs and flowers. Life felt big and real, so green and untamed.

Alvin handed me a sack of warm jackets he'd brought along, then took the hood off his Yamaha and started it with a rope. He lit a cigarette and grinned. “If you fellas are ready, I'm gonna give 'er the gas. Leave these bugs behind.”  

We were ready.

Seth Kantner is the author of “Shopping for Porcupine” and the best-selling novel “Ordinary Wolves.” He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.