Mosquitoes accompany summer camping "fun" in the BWCA and beyond
Paddled the length of the Kawishiwi River through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last week. A year ago, we tackled the BWCA via the Lake One entry point and headed east through the number lakes. While visiting in 2011, lightning ignited the Pagami Creek Fire a couple miles east of where we camped. The fire smoldered in a small area for 10 days after we left, then exploded into the 93,000-acre fire that made major headlines last August.
Though I intend to check out the burn area (perhaps later this year), my canoeing companions this summer weren’t interested in paddling through miles of torched landscape. So we grabbed a permit at the same entry point, but headed southwest this year. The slow-moving Kawishiwi feels more like a series of lakes than a river, and it provided a fine, casual route for experiencing a new area in 2012.
The theme of this blog, however, is bugs, notably mosquitoes. Heavy rains that saturated northeastern Minnesota in June, combined with hot weather, has produced a bumper crop of bloodsuckers this summer. The guys at Canoe Country Outfitters told me the mosquitoes are as bad as they've seen in 10 years, and I believe them.
Though – as I document below – I’ve seen more mosquitoes at a given moment, I’ve never dealt with such a sustained pounding of mosquitoes over four days. Though I don’t regret making the trip, a steady onslaught of biting bugs definitely makes a trip more challenging, particularly when you have children with you. My three boys, ages 13, 10, and 7, rolled with the punches amazingly well, though they still bear a few scabs this week from all the itching and scratching.
We tried everything, like lots of bug dope. No, I don’t use 100 percent deet because you can find plenty of sources that recommend not using the concentrated stuff on kids. Even with the strong repellant, it’s amazing how a mosquito will bounce along deet-sprayed flesh until it finds a spot you missed.
Camping on wind-swept points provided the best form of mosquito control. During the day, between the heat and heavy winds keeping flying critters at bay, the bugs almost were tolerable. But the wind inevitably died by early evening, and the skeeters pretty much were relentless.
A fire around the cooking grate helped, and the boys threw plenty of green pine needles atop the flame to smoke out the insects. The jury is still out for me on Thermacell units. Outdoor News contributor Tony Peterson swears by them for summer deer scouting and early season hunting. I didn’t see much difference in mosquito levels with them in the BWCA, particularly when any breeze existed. Later in the evening, while cooking or lake-viewing before bed, I placed three Thermacells around us, and everyone agreed they seemed to help. I guess the key is to keep them fired up with fresh butane cartridges, replace the scent pads frequently, and use them in areas with low air movement.
Great moments in mosquitoes
Looking back, I remember some other particularly mosquito-y moments. Read on if you’re interested, and please share any personal bug horror stories in the comment section below.
For 30 years, my family has been hiking and camping in the Sylvania Wilderness Area of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That region sees a lot of rain, and that moisture breeds mosquitoes. We normally avoid peak season of late June and early July for that reason, but you can encounter them throughout the warm-weather season.
One year we were hiking in the Sylvania backcountry and entered a trail crossroads, then paused for a moment to grab a drink and bite of energy bar. A cloud of mosquitoes, thousands of them, rose up out of the tall grass in the dark woodland and instantly descended on us. We bolted down the trail and didn’t slow our pace until we hit a windswept lake.
Everyone knows mosquitoes dominate Alaska’s short summer, and the little critters didn’t disappoint during my backpacking trip there in 1997. I remember them being relatively manageable most of the time, save one morning breakfast on a tundra-covered ridge in Denali State Park. That’s the one time in my life bugs forced me to wear a head net. It's a tough way to eat your re-hydrated powdered eggs.
West-central and northwestern Wisconsin has a surprising volume of bugs. The ticks in particular are amazingly ubiquitous, probably at least in part because of the ample deer population. The mosquitoes have floored me a time or two, and one occasion stands out. A co-worker at the Winona Daily News and I were writing up a report on some off-road biking trails through the Black River State Forest. The skeeters were tough all afternoon, but we stopped on our bikes along a dark, marshy, woody wetland to snap some pictures in the great light … and almost choked on the swarms. We probably absorbed a dozen bites apiece in five seconds, swallowed another half-dozen each, and bolted before snapping a single frame. Nasty.
But my personal mosquito granddaddy of them all occurred on Isle Royale in on Lake Superior. It was the summer of 1994, and three buddies and I were backpacking the length of the island.
We’d hiked through a buggy area adjacent to Siskiwit Bay, then scored a three-sided screened shelter overlooking the water for the night. We kept the bugs off and stayed dry during a stormy night. Feeling smug, we headed west up the Feldtmann Ridge Trail the next morning. The first mile or so of the trail traversed that same boggy lowland we’d crossed the previous afternoon, and the mosquitoes were in an absolute frenzy. Every bare patch of skin on us glistened with 100 percent deet, yet still a cloud of thousands of mosquitoes chased each of us. Hefting 50-pound backpacks, we literally ran up the trail, and I briefly pondered what might happen if we twisted an ankle. The little SOBs would have literally consumed us, leaving nothing but a pile of bones for the wolves of Isle Royale to sniff.
Rain saved our carcasses. A downpour began and knocked the mosquitoes back. Then, by the time it stopped, we’d reached the high ground of Feldtmann Ridge and lost them.
Mosquitoes are part of the outdoors equation, but driving back south last Saturday, I appreciated my newfound love and respect for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.