Surviving the swarm

After 34 days of swatting, dodging and itching, my wife Rachael voiced a new concern. "I think we're dealing with a different breed of mosquito now," she said. "I think they've gotten smarter."

It was the summer of 2000, and Rachael and I had made the big shift, leaving our professional jobs for a summer of commercial fishing in Alaska. We found ourselves on Kalgin Island, an exotic chunk of rock most Alaskans have never heard of. The tiny island lacked electricity, roads, currency, shops and much more than a handful of fish camps. It boasted views of active volcanoes, a large herd of moose, dozens of resident bald eagles and everything from fields of wild iris to fields of blueberry bushes. Kalgin Island also enjoyed an incredible crop of biting black flies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes.

Alaskan mosquitoes are an altogether different breed than their Colorado cousins, ranking as the super-athletes of the species faster, bigger and holding a greater volume of blood. Even the welts appear different, and the itch pushes you to the edge of madness. On that 35th day, the edge of madness was getting dangerously close.

I'd just returned from a day of setting and hauling nets and picking salmon from the abundant stretch of sea that fronted our cabin. I rapidly stepped through the cabin's front door and quickly slammed it, hoping none of our six-legged companions had snuck in, when Rachael handed me the bad news.

"I think the bugs are evolving," she said. "They're learning our motions."

Anywhere else, such a statement would be rewarded with a one-way trip to the padded cell. In Alaska, it rang true. Plus, Rachael had solid evidence.

"I awoke to total silence and out of the corner of my eye saw one of them drifting toward me," she remarked. "There was no high-pitched whine. She was just riding on an air current and not even beating her wings."

Rachael explained that the wings fired up only after she took a swat, allowing the bug to easily dodge the blow. Later that morning, she had gotten further proof.

"Another one perched itself on the lip of my coffee cup," she said. "It waited for me to take a sip, jumped off the edge and stung my cheek."

Once again, a statement that should have been cause for concern drew compassion. I'd just spent half my morning working nets near the shore. My hands busy with rope and net, I could do nothing about the swarm that invariably enveloped the skiff. These mosquitoes had no need for intelligence; they had chanced upon easy prey. I pulled and coiled that net as quickly as possible as the bugs feasted on my head and neck, the only exposed skin on my body. Powerless to do anything, I had to suck it up as dozens stung my face, buzzed into my ear canals and drowned in my tear ducts.

Looking back, Alaska stands apart as the most illustrious chapter in a fairly interesting life of conflict with the Class Insecta. Still, I distinctly recall being mauled by sand fleas in Honduras. I wince when I think about a scorpion sting in Mexico. Silver dollar-sized welts covered my body after I swam through a mass of sea lice in Belize. And when a brown recluse snuck into my el cheapo, basement apartment in Boulder, my left arm swelled to Sumo size and stayed that way for three weeks.

Even after all of this six- and eight-legged glamour, my first sting of this mosquito season was a special one. Like many, the media frenzy won out for me and thoughts turned to West Nile Virus. In a bizarre state of near-Alaskan paranoia, I braced for the arrival of the illness. Luckily, I came to my senses a few hours later.

I'm still dumping out the kiddie pool every night, staying out of the yard at dusk and making sure the screens are closed. But I've also made a conscious decision to not spend my summer hiding from mosquitoes. I learned a valuable lesson in Alaska. You can slap, hide or spray, but these little bugs cannot be beaten. And a close look at our efforts to defeat the bugs reveals interesting results. Mosquitoes frequently do boast higher intellects than those of us doing the swatting.

Will Sands




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