(Editor’s note: The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Sanjayan and Canada program director Dr. Richard Jeo are on an expedition through one of Canada’s most pristine areas with young members of the Dene First Nation. They will canoe along the Thelon River and end in North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. Follow their journey.)
It sounds as if it’s raining outside — a light gentle drizzle, perhaps. But outside is dry and the sound comes not from drops of water but the ferocious attacks of mosquitoes and black flies as they bounce off the nylon walls of my tent.
There are two constants on the Thelon Expedition: paddling six to eight hours each day, and the biting bugs. Black flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. Our only relief is on the water and the brief moments when a breeze holds them at bay.
The bugs are worse in the mornings and the evenings, when the sun hits the horizon and they home in on us like the little vampires they are, the carbon dioxide we emit and the heat we give off betraying our presence in this otherwise barren landscape.
How naïve I was to think that the bug suit I brought along — a cotton canvas hooded sweatshirt-like apparatus with mesh across the face and down the sides — and the DEET wipes would hold this horror at bay. How silly to think that the worst that could happen was an itch.
What exists here is nothing like the garden-variety mosquito that hums in my back yard and occasionally makes it into my bedroom to whine in my ear for half a sleepless night.
Let me be clear.
The pale walls of my tent are smeared in many places as if a little kid with fingers covered in chocolate had played inside. The smears are blood.
My legs — up to my knees today they have 28 welts (on the right one) and 16 welts (left); I don’t know why, but they seem to favor my right leg heavily.
I think my hands are swollen from a mild reaction to constant biting.
Relieving one’s self is a huge challenge. This is no place to linger with the Sunday papers; you do what you need to do fast and then start running.
Eating is done standing up, near the smokiest part of the fire, and you have to spoon the food quickly though a small opening in the mesh. We have learned to drink water and tea right through the mesh, making redundant the need to remove the bug suit for coffee.
Only out in the water, as we paddle and paddle fast, is there some small relief. And even then, in the mornings when we cast off, the bugs follow us, like sad little clouds unwilling to say good-bye for at least 1,000 meters out.
Last night, one mosquito worked its way inside my tent, despite my best defenses. I could hear her buzzing around right in my ear keeping me awake. Then I felt her land on my forehead. I let her sit there and drink; she would be done soon, would bug me no more, and the tent would go quiet.
After all, what’s one more bite when I am covered in so many.
(Image: Mosquitoes rule the tundra. Black flies tend to be more numerous in the late afternoon and Mosquitoes come out in force later in the evening. Image credit: ©Ami Vitale)