Taiwan is no place for a nature lover, but not too long ago, I was stuck there for a year. To me, Taiwan is pavement, mopeds and pollution. The small island is extremely over-industrialized, and the air pollution is so severe that stars are virtually invisible. If I’d had a pair of ruby slippers in Taiwan, I would have used them to get transported “home” to a tent on a mountain somewhere.

Because my boyfriend Bryan – who also was stuck in Taiwan – was dying to go fly fishing, he and I easily agreed that as soon as we got back to the States, a backcountry trip was a top priority. We spent a week with my parents in Los Angeles, reclaimed our gear from storage and made a beeline for California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Though only separated by a three-hour drive, those parks are a world away from Los Angeles. After a day of tooling around in Sequoia’s massive trees, we hit the Rae Lakes Loop. The trail, which is a 43-mile hike through a part of Kings Canyon that intersects with about 18 miles of the John Muir Trail, offers plenty of opportunities to fish for brook trout. Because the area was crawling with bears, we secured extra food, toiletries and anything else with an odor in our truck at the bear lockers at the trailhead. We carefully planned our meals for the five-day excursion and crammed the food into bear canisters. Though rusty from our year in Taiwan, we felt prepared.

But we weren’t prepared for the mosquitoes.

We camped the first night in Paradise Valley, a welcome sight after my fatigued legs had convinced my mind that the surrounding granite mountains were unforgiving and wanted to swallow me. We took turns crouching by the river to pump water through our purifier – one of us would pump while the other shooed away mosquitoes that would bite through clothing if given the chance. We hoped that our supply of mosquito repellent would miraculously last, because rationing was out of the question.

Two days later, we approached Rae Lakes at a near gallop. Our repellent was gone, so pausing for breath was not an option – it would give the swarms a chance to really feed. Peaks like Fin Dome frame the three inviting lakes, which deserved more than the cursory glances they got as we scrambled to erect our tent, jump inside and clap to death any mosquitoes that snuck in as we did.

Later, while Bryan tried to fish I decided to mount a search for bug repellent. He would cast from an area for a few minutes, and then run as fast as he could to another part of the lake in an attempt to ditch the swarm of mosquitoes that would amass as soon as he’d been stationary for a short time.

Meanwhile, I went hunting for repellent. I tried the sisterhood thing with two female campers, but no dice; they were panicked about the mosquito situation too. Instead of relinquishing even a trace amount of insect repellent, one of them suggested, “Just keep hitting your shoulders with a wet bandana.” Helpful.

Next I walked to a campsite of six burly men and two teen-age boys. I held out an empty film canister and said, “I have $20 for anyone who can fill this.” Eight people, and not one of them could spare a drop of repellent. The rabid mosquitoes had everyone spooked.

Defeated, Bryan and I huddled in our tent to watch the sunset turn Fin Dome pink. We tried to look past the mosquitoes resting on the tent’s mesh windows, singing at us that they’d be waiting when we decided to go outside to cook dinner. Instead, we ate granola bars and went to sleep.

The following morning, there was no choice – we had to make a run for it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to run up a 12,000-foot pass when you’ve spent a year at sea level allowing your muscles to atrophy. It was slow going. The mosquitoes let up a little as our elevation increased, and then we met two wonderful thru-hikers who learned of our repellent problem and instantly poured some of their lotion into our hands. I eyed the man’s Tang with a deep thirst but decided not to push my luck. We thanked them profusely and struggled on.

The trail up Glen Pass was steep and still covered with snow in parts. “That’s more challenging than Forester (Pass),” moaned a gray-bearded thru-hiker on his way down. “Be careful not to lose your way.”

A few thousand feet and a bout of vomiting later, we made it to the top and were rewarded with fantastic views of alpine lakes, not-so-distant peaks and a place to sit. But first we had to let out some triumphant whoops. A few minutes later, a young guy hiked up to us from the other side. “You’ve got some powerful lungs,” he said with a laugh. We took photos and talked story with him for a while, but he still had another pass to clear that day, so he didn’t linger long.

As we watched him head back down what we’d just climbed, we noticed that the two repellent-hording women from the Rae Lakes campground were climbing toward us but had lost the trail. We called down to them and directed them back to the path, which was hard to discern in the snow.

When they joined us at the top, they told us that they had been terrified before we helped them. To show their gratitude, they sheepishly asked if we still needed mosquito repellent. As one of them filled my film canister (from one of her two amply-filled bottles), she said she understood how dire the need for protection from insects could be. “We stole some mosquito repellent out of a bear locker from some Boy Scouts last summer!” They laughed, and we bit our tongues. We know better than to bite the hand that feeds you repellent.

Bryan and I floated downhill to our next campsite. Marmots chirped at us as we descended into forests framed by curved peaks. We’d challenged our bodies and won, and fought off mosquito-induced bouts of insanity. As we headed out the next day, we started to see day-hikers in make-up and tennis shoes – even a man sucking on a bottle of Bud. I felt like stopping to tell each of them about the experience we’d just had – and to be sure they had enough repellent – but instead we pressed on to the trailhead. When we got there, Bryan filled my baseball hat with water from a spigot and slapped it on my head. As the icy water soaked through my hair and clothes, I shrieked at the shock and it sunk in that we really were back in the States, finally home.

-Jennifer Reeder



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