Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Every proper authority on the subject will tell you that the willow ptarmigan is the official state bird of Alaska. But as the ancient Alaskan joke goes, the real state bird is actually the mosquito, the common and evil skeeter that haunts Alaska in hordes and leaves a plague of itchy bites in its wake. While many Lower 48 states make similar jokes — especially New Jersey and Florida — the mosquito is an enduring cornerstone of Alaska lore.
Nora and Richard Dauenhauer offered two origin stories for mosquitoes in their 1988 collection of Tlingit oral narratives, “Haa Shuka.” In the first story, a giant descended from the mountains and attacked a fishing camp, eating some of the inhabitants. The Tlingits fought back, but their weapons could not pierce its skin. Afterward, the survivors hunted the monster and finally discovered his home, distinct by the red smoke billowing from its smoke hole.
The Tlingit hunters set a trap, a deep pit around the home lined with netting. They covered the pit with sticks and yelled for the giant to come out. The behometh succumbed to the bait, left the home, fell into the pit and became enmeshed in the net. The hunters lit him on fire, but the monster could not die. The giant swore to consume the Tlingit people, even if burnt to cinders. And as the fire burned down, the Tlingit poked at the ashes with a long pole. Sparks flew up and transformed into mosquitoes, which immediately set up the hunters.
In the other version, a human cannibal killed and ate two of three Tlingit brothers. The survivor, the youngest brother, vowed revenge and eventually beat the cannibal to death. “I know I killed this cannibal,” said the surviving brother, “but it did a painful thing to me. What more can I do to make it feel more pain?” He burnt the corpse, and when there were only ashes left, he stabbed at them with a stick, still unsatisfied with his revenge. Sparks rose into the air and became mosquitoes.
In 1869, C. P. Raymond of the U.S. Army Engineer Corps led the first official American reconnaissance of Alaska after its 1867 purchase from Russia. Raymond described massive swarms of mosquitoes and gnats, larger individually and collectively from those Outside. He wrote, “we were obliged to wear face nets and gloves; and on occasion an attempt to make sextant observations failed completely.” In other words, they were so surrounded by mosquitoes that they could not see, let alone make the measurements necessary to document their journey.
In 1880, Ivan Petrof, an admittedly unreliable narrator, described mosquitoes as the “most terrible and poignant infliction” in Alaska. “The clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, accompanied by a vindictive ally in the shape of a small poisonous black fly, under the stress of whose persecution the strongest man with the firmest will may either feel depressed or succumb to low fever.” Petrof continued, “The traveler who exposes his bare eyes or face here loses his natural appearance; his eyelids swell up and close, and his face becomes one mass of lumps and fiery pimples.”
During World War II, the Army engineers shipped in to build the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) Highway were not initially equipped with netting or any form of repellent, even though troops sent to Europe and Asia were provided netting and repellants. Alaskans had even warned the Army of the mosquitoes. Former Gov. Thomas Riggs wrote, “Please do not underestimate the mosquito plague. I have had horses killed by mosquitoes in the country into which you must go.”
Under-equipped, the soldiers responded as soldiers have always responded to poor conditions; they cursed and joked about their lot in life. Historian John Virtue recounted one such joke by the Alcan builders. One of soldiers was awakened by two mosquitoes discussing where to eat him. Said the first mosquito, “Shall we eat him here, or shall we take him down to the river.” The second replied, “No, we’d better eat him here, or the big ones down there will take him away from us.”
A Canadian report from this time offered: “The legend still persists . . . that at least half the planes serviced at airports during the early days were really mosquitoes in disguise. It was alleged by hard bitten soldiers that government planes were painted bright red, not to make them easier to find if forced down, but to distinguish them from mosquitoes.” In this way, longtime Alaska storyteller Ruben Gaines defined the mosquito as “a light fast Alaskan bomber.”
Gaines also described the mosquitoes as the devil’s “northern relatives.” “The thing to remember is all mosquitoes seem to have the same soul,” he noted in one of his radio broadcasts. “That is, you can kill one, and billions of others carry on for him.”
The most original sourdough mosquito wisdom is the methodology for measuring a skeeter year. Mosquito hordes differ from year to year. Some years are better; some are worse. To obtain a skeeter grade for a given year, you walk out into the wild, wait for a swarm to find you, and clap your hands. You open them and count how many dead mosquitoes you have on your hands. According to one source, a mere two to three bloodsucking corpses is worth a thankful prayer. Around seven would be average. And upward of 15 vampiric insects in your hands means you are in for one hell of a skeeter year.
Collins, Julie. “Skeeters.” Field & Stream, July 1984, 24.
Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, and Richard Dauenhauer. Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Gaines, Ruben. “The Mosquito.” Conversation Unlimited radio broadcast, n.d., University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections, vilda.alaska.edu/digital/collection/cdmg13/id/19812.
Gjullin, C.M., R.I. Sailer, Alan Stone, and B.V. Travis. The Mosquitoes of Alaska, Agriculture Handbook No. 182. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1961.
Virtue, John. The Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway: A History of Four U.S. Army Regiments in the North, 1942-1943. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013.
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