While waiting for our float plane at Grayling Lake, my fellow rangers and I were engulfed in a cloud of ravenous mosquitoes. Conditions were perfect for a feast: balmy weather, no wind, a large standing pool of water, and six warm-bodied, succulent humans ready to be tapped into.
At first, I tried to tough it out, refusing deet and a head-net like a true Alaskan might. But as the swarm thickened and hundreds of mosquitoes plunged at exposed morsels of flesh and poked their needle-like straws through thin layers of clothing, I began slapping body parts furiously and indiscriminately—my arms, shoulders, neck and buttocks—a sort of demented dance, the mad man’s Macarena.
I rummaged through my pack to retrieve my net, and generously doused myself with some high-powered deet.
This wasn’t an uncommon scene. Mosquitoes are a part of daily life in Alaska. While people may develop a tolerance over time, as with a canker sore or effluence from a nearby factory, it’s impossible to put them out of your mind entirely.
When I’m back home in New York, around a campfire or on a porch, and I hear someone gripe about the few trifling mosquitoes that occasionally tickle our necks and flutter amidst our hair, I politely hold my tongue. Oh how I want to relay what horrors I’ve endured without sounding condecsending—how flocks of them, while hiking, would cling to my shoulder blades—just the spot where they’re unswattable—and sink their proboscises through clothing and skin, gluttonously sucking out my sweet crimson nectar.
Or I'd recall those times when hundreds would elliptically orbit around head and body like tiny frenetic meteorites; wings whizzing, whirring, and beating a frenzied tune, a discordant symphony performed by violinists gone mad that can drive the center of this universe—you—insane.
As friends or family reach for the bug dope and shower their heads and necks under its spray, I hold my tongue, leaving the disparity in what ails us unacknowledged. If they just for a moment stood amongst the squadrons of mosquitoes that I see today, then maybe they’d laugh off these few, harmless visitors and enjoy their bonfire, stars, and conversation more.
Unlike some places, mosquitoes here only stick around for a few months during the summer. But because there is perpetual daylight, they make up for lost time by terrorizing man and animal at all hours.
As the land begins to thaw, big, slow, dumb mosquitoes are the first harbingers of summer. More pathetic than threatening, these lolling, aerial cows can be plucked out of the air and crushed between thumb and forefinger with ease.
But in a week’s time, they get smaller, quicker, more agile. To kill these ones, it’s best to wait until they settle in and penetrate skin before smashing them into a gooey black ball of pulp.
When I return to town from a patrol, I stuff towels under my bedroom door at night and place clothes over my vents. Still, a few of them always manage to find their way in. Some taunt me throughout the night, snapping me into wakefulness by blasting their abrasive power-drill buzz directly into my ear. Others gently, stealthily, steal from me while I slumber.
In the morning I’ll find a few of them lounging complacently on my walls. These ones are plump, juicy and drunk. Carrying the weight of a translucent pink pouch of hemoglobin, they are slow to take off and easy to target. Even though they have had their fill and won’t bother me anymore, I still hunt them, crazy-eyed, determined to gain vengeance for what they’ve taken from me.
I become psychopathic, gleefully squeezing their chubby red bottoms like zits, delighting in the scarlet juice that smears on my fingers. I seek for more to squash and feel empty inside when I have no more enemies to vanquish. I imagine myself on a virtuous crusade to extinguish this incorrigible species from the earth. No, it will not be my blood that helps birth new generations of these crepuscular blood-bandits.
Mosquitoes do, of course, have a function up here. Dragonflies feast on mosquitoes. And song birds, from as far as Asia and South America, gorge on the limitless buffet of insects. Mosquitoes help pollinate the flowers that color the landscape each summer with yellows, reds, blues and purples. They even deter creeping civilization and curious travelers from sharing these valleys with me.
They can be terrorizing out in the backcountry. Rare moments of solace--on mountain passes, and wide, windy river valleys--are truly savored. When I get in my tent, I go on a rampage, slaughtering each and every one that followed me in. I remember watching one flutter to the floor, watching it helplessly writhe in circles. I look close at her tiny eyes and dangling legs and am reminded of our kinship, our distant family ties, our blood. Having sprouted from the same trunk eons ago, I probably have more in common with her than I’d like to think. A moment of guilt? Maybe so, but it won't stop me from commiting fratricide on sisters who only wish to preserve themselves, their progeny, and, tied to their existence, the birds, flowers, and ecosystem to which they and I are inextricably linked.
As I continue on, trudging through the wilderness alone, concerned with my preservation I'll continue to swat away, squishing five, ten, twenty, sometimes more with each slap. I’m at a crossroads of both misery and joy, not sure which emotion will triumph over the other. I look across the treeless mountain valley, still and motionless, seemingly without a flutter of life except for dashing birds and flowers undulating in the wind.
And for that moment, I think I ought to stuff my hands in my pockets, allowing them to take what they need to keep these valleys both full of life, yet utterly barren.