Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Mosquito Dance

It was a bit delayed in coming, but Mosquito Season is now here in full force. After the light rains of the past weekend, there was a huge hatch. Swarms of the little pests are everywhere. If you stand still for a minute, you are in a cloud of them. They boil up out of the long grasses, they fly circles around your face, they bite right through your clothes, they buzz in your ears. If you take a deep breath you'll get a few in your mouth. Even worse is when you get them up your nose. It is easier to spit them out than to blow them out.

Early morning and late evening are the worst times. During midday they don't seem quite as bad, but there is no escaping them completely. At least they are big and easy to see (and swat!); they average nearly an inch in wing-and-leg-span. And they actually splash blood when you score a direct hit. The walls of the clinic are littered with corpse smears where humans have triumphed. The kids around the village are on mosquito-killing missions. People are burning pik coils in their houses to repel the onslaught.

Apparently it is just as bad on the Kuskokwim as it is up here on the Yukon. I spoke with Dutch on the phone tonight and he assured me that Bethel is suffering as badly as Pilot Station. One of my patients in the clinic today said that she was in the hospital in Bethel yesterday, and the waiting room was full of them. People everywhere were doing the Mosquito Dance (also known as the Alaska Salute), a constant two-handed wave to clear the air in front of your face and around your head. I remember a bug-repellent TV ad from my childhood in which a man stuck his bare arm into an aquarium full of mosquitoes; watching it made my toes curl in disgust; in Alaska in June, it is not just your arm in that aquarium, it's your whole body. I read somewhere that if you compacted all of Alaska's mosquitoes into a solid block, it would literally weigh a ton.

There seems to be a type of immunity to the bites that is acquired over years. Adults don't seem to be bothered by them much here, but small children have huge reactions. Toddlers will often develop cellulitis and become febrile from a few bites, especially ones on the head. When I first came here, I was surprised that children would be brought to clinic for a chief complaint of "mosquito bites," but I quickly came to appreciate that it was a far more serious problem than I gave it credit for.

It is a problem in the dog yard as well. Mosquitoes swarm around the dogs' eyes and noses, where the fur is thin. Their eyes can swell nearly shut from it, and they are whimpering in misery. Black dogs suffer more than white ones, as the mosquitoes are drawn to dark colors more than light ones. Henry and I both do twice daily rounds in the dog yard, spraying Deet on their backs and bellies, and rubbing citronella oil on their faces. It helps a lot for a few hours. They hate the smell and taste, but don't struggle against the application.

A dog musher told me once about a litter of pups born in early June to one of his best females. The pups were all sleeping in the dog house, and when he looked in on them, he thought someone had thrown a burlap sack over them. When he reached in to remove it, it was a solid layer of mosquitoes on the puppies. They had so many bites, there were blood spots everywhere, and two of the eight pups died from the inoculation.

There is an old Eskimo legend about mosquitoes that a woman shared with me in the steambath last night. According to the legend, in the old days, mosquitoes didn't know that people tasted good, so they only attacked animals in their quest for a blood meal. One day an old woman went to her food cache to find that mosquitoes had eaten all her stores of moose, caribou, and fish, and drunk all her seal oil. She was so mad she took off all her clothes and stood naked in the open and said to them "Mosquitoes! You might as well eat me too, for now I have nothing!" And so they learned that not only do we taste good, our blood is a lot easier to get to without all that fur. They have been making a meal of us ever since.

If mosquito season is intense, at least the worst of it is reasonably short. June can be pretty horrific, but by mid-July the land has dried out a lot. There will be bursts of mosquito hatches following a rain, but the rest of the time will be fairly tolerable. It is always a good idea to keep the "bug dope" close at hand. You never know when it is going to rain.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Louisiana we have a pretty serious mosquito problem, but from what you are describing it is nothing like yours.

I would love to go to Alaska one day, but I don't think it will be in June!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 1:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, now I know when NOT to come to Alaska! As mosquito fodder, I might as well be wearing a sign. Hope it ends quickly for you.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 3:08:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

I've always wanted to know what the native people did to keep the mosquito attack at bay, say, 150 years ago . . . and I still swell up at a bite spot, especially on a bite nearer the bone, but it seems to be better this year . . .

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 7:31:00 PM  
Blogger shade said...

ohhh wow... I hate the little buggers cause they just love me and i don't have to be around alot of them to get attacked bad... That has got to be miserable for ya'll.... How on earth do you keep from going crazy?

Thursday, June 22, 2006 7:15:00 PM  

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