Black flies attack in the arctic, Dubawnt River, Nunavut. NICOLAS PERRAULT PHOTO

So, so many bugs

Special to the VOICE

The Great Northern Boreal is the largest forest on earth, blanketing the tops of North America and Eurasia, appearing from space like some giant, green planetary comforter. The Boreal captures and sequesters great gobs of carbon while generating billions of tons of oxygen, in the process helping keep the planet alive. Progressive exploitation over the centuries has reduced its scope but it still covers 10% of the planet’s, and almost two-thirds of Canada’s, land mass. It is both an irreplaceable ecological treasure and an economic resource.

As a resource the Boreal is a living mosaic, neither homogeneous nor static. Individual stands of timber are natural systems that are born, mature, grow old and die. The resource management objective is to intervene before the end of the cycle and harvest the mature timber before it falls down and decays. Building access roads to mature timber stands necessitates considerable financial investment and manoeuvring through regulatory red tape, so there’s a real need to confirm what’s there before going ahead. It’s where the “timber cruiser” enters the picture. Working in pairs, timber cruisers hike deep into the forest to count and measure individual trees by species then use the accumulated statistical data to extrapolate volumes and values over large areas. They also observe and note features of geography, terrain, and wildlife ecosystems. They are first on the scene, conceivably the only human beings ever to have set foot on any given patch of ground. They are the front line of forest exploitation and associated environmental mitigation.

Next will come the road builders and the loggers, followed by the silviculturalists, who re-establish the forest with new growth. But it all begins with the timber cruiser.

Which brings me to my story.

If I was to tally up all the days I spent cruising timber during my early career as a professional forester it would add up to nearly a year. Early on I was part of a standard two-man crew and latterly, as scars healed over into callouses, I was made Party Chief with six to eight crew under my direction—on reflection some of the best, and least pleasant, days of my working life.

Timber cruising is the domain of the young and the fit. The winter cruises were toughest. Snowmobiling weeks on end through the thick bush often left you bruised and exhausted, particularly after hours of extricating machines bogged down in deep snow and lake slush. Stands too far from the road to reach by snowmobile were accessed by helicopter. The pilot would drop us off in a small frozen lake, pond or meadow and then pick us up hours later at another, four to eight miles further along depending on terrain difficulty.

The cruise lines vary from wide open mature forest, to alder or cedar thickets and blow down. The snow’s three or four feet deep. You’re on shoeshoes the entire day and working hard. It’s 25 or 30 below zero but you dare not dress too warmly. If you do you’ll be a sopping wet bag of sweat at the end of the cruise line and a shivering mess by the time you’re picked up. And if the weather closes in and the helicopter can’t pick you up you will at best survive a long, cold miserable night searching out dry wood to keep a fire going. There was a certain satisfaction to the job, a rush of adventure from winter endurance certainly, but oftentimes not a whole lot of fun.

But, good lord, at least there weren’t any bugs.

Not to put too delicate a point on it, the Boreal in late spring and summer is a buzzing, swarming, feeding and breeding ground for innumerable frenzied flying hoards of voracious, miserable, blood sucking, man-eating little monsters.

You have your sandflies, your dear flies, horseflies, stable flies and horn flies, your snipe flies, midges and mosquitos and, the worst of the hateful lot, your blackflies.

Blackflies are mere wriggling pinheads to the naked eye—sub-Lilliputian evil demons, living nightmares in miniature. Tiny airborne piranha in their myriad millions. At their peak in early June my partner and I once witnessed a moose crash through the forest edge, bellowing, head whipping side to side, hide hitching and convulsing, driven nearly mad by the humming, biting, merciless black cloud enveloping him, desperately seeking any puddle of water and muck in which to roll his tortured hulk.

Bugs. The bane of the Boreal.

And of the Boreal timber cruiser.

You’ll get out of your truck, step off the gravel road into the forest edge and in the process whip up a swarm of blackflies. Over the next twenty feet or so you’ll scare up another swarm, then another and another, until the air is thick and alive with hungry, teeming millions.

They’ll fly into your eyes, your ears and nostrils. They’ll chew through your skin anywhere it’s exposed or just under a seam of clothing. Their favourite dining spots are behind your ears, the edge of your scalp and your neck, your eyelids and just under the cuffs and beltline of your shirt and trousers, the anticoagulants in their saliva leaving your clothes stained red and your skin with a screaming, insatiable, polka-dot itch.

And lord help you if nature should call.

There were two lines of defence against blackflies, only one of which actually worked, though the other satisfied a certain burning need for revenge—coating one’s hardhat in chainsaw oil and converting it into a messy form of flypaper. At the end of the day you’d have just as many oozing, itching, swollen holes in your hide but you felt a bit better for having successfully murdered a few hundred thousand of the bloody little devils. You’d also have a hardhat that vaguely resembled a chia-pet, except covered in a writhing, sloppy mass of black fuzz. It was the badge of the Boreal novice.

Inevitably, after a few days, resignation would set in. It was hopeless.

For every blackfly you killed there were a thousand more you didn’t. All you had to show for it were the dry, unimpressed looks of the old timers back in camp and a hideous greasy hardhat with an added odoriferous mélange of chain oil and rotting bugs.

The other line of defence, the one that actually helped somewhat, was DEET. We used Repex, the very same stuff issued to U.S. infantry in Vietnam. Repex was 100% pure DEET. It burned like hell when you put it on your skin but it came down to prioritising your preferred mode of suffering.

One particular forestry student I’d hired for the summer decided on day two or three of the June hatch to coat his entire hardhat in Repex, reasoning it would do double duty both repelling and killing the little SOBs, but after a couple of days his hardhat started to melt and tens of thousands of bugs were now permanently glued to it. I issued him a new one and instructed him to quit wasting the repellent. I might have just as well demanded the blackflies stop chowing down on him.

This particular student in that particular summer — let’s call him Alec — had just completed his sophomore year at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. This was his first time away from the big city, his first venture into the north country and his introduction to the Boreal’s vampire blackflies.

Within a week on the job he was terrified of them. He practically bathed in Repex, lending an irritated pink hue to his skin. In the sweltering heat and humidity of the spruce bogs, not the slightest lick of wind, he’d wear gloves and a hoodie drawn so tightly only his nose and eyes were visible. Two weeks into the job one of the other forestry students informed me the large box of Repex, the entire summer’s supply, was empty, but he knew where to find the bottles – squirreled away in Alec’s packsack. Only he, Alec proclaimed in his own defense, was being tortured so badly.

And he was pretty much right.

If you ask any old timer who’s spent his life working in the Boreal what’s most effective against blackflies he’ll look you straight in the eye and say “attitude”. He’ll scoff at the dumb city kids and their fuzzy hardhats and on the very rare occasion he puts on DEET he’ll wipe just a smidgen behind his ears, much like a burly, slightly smelly, plaid-shirted debutant dabbing on a bit of Channel No. 5. Just ignore ‘em, he’ll advise, and they’ll pretty much leave you alone.

Have you ever been told that dogs can smell your fear? Well, it’s true. And so can blackflies. Stress triggers the release of pheromones in sweat, and the more stressed you are — and the more you are covered head to toe in the continental heat of a Boreal summer — the more you sweat. To blackflies, Alec was like a walking, talking six-foot flashing neon sign that screamed “EAT HERE!” and for that reason in particular everybody in the crew wanted to be his partner. You could go an entire day cruising with Alec and not get a single bite because the gazillion blackflies you scared up in your travels were too busy chowing down on him to notice you at all.

Now, I realise that sounds a bit heartless. Machiavellian, even, but in the bush you’re responsible primarily for yourself.

There’s the similar story of a pair of timber cruisers who discover they’re being shadowed by a large bear. One sits down to remove his bush boots and retrieve a pair of Nike Trainers from his backpack while the other cries despairingly “It’s no use! You can’t outrun a bear!” To which the other replies “No, but it’s not the bear I have to outrun.”

Alec, the poor sod, didn’t make it to summer’s end.

When the heat of July killed off the blackflies there came the squadrons of deer flies. Thousands upon thousands of them. They seemed to regard DEET like some kind of gourmet sauce. They’d circle maddingly around your head while their brethren drilled down through your shirt in the middle of your back, taking a chunk of flesh out of you while you pulled your arm out of its socket trying to swat them away. But they were lightning fast and all but indestructible. The odd time you’d manage to connect they’d drop to the ground, buzz a bit and then get back up to go at you again.

The kicker came in early August when the Ministry of Natural Resources released hundreds of millions of imported flesh-flies to combat a massive forest tent caterpillar infestation. Flesh-flies look like houseflies, only much larger. They lay their eggs on caterpillar cocoons and their voracious larva do the rest. They don’t bite. They do, however, land on and taste everything, including humans.

When you stopped for lunch they’d be all over you, crawling into and tasting every exposed orifice. Take out a sandwich and in a heartbeat there’d be dozens crawling all over it—and when you’re burning so many calories not eating isn’t an option. You’d brush them off best you could but there was nothing you could do to prevent chomping down on a few, fishing the carcasses out of your mouth with a finger and flicking them away. Pitooie. It’s just the way it was.

I was accompanying Alec and his partner on a cruise line deep into mature, dense forest, maybe six or seven miles from the road, when he finally snapped.

The blackflies of June, the deer flies of July and now the flesh-flies of August had worn him down bit by inexorable bit. He’d become sullen, humourless and edgy.

We’d been zigzagging through the bush for several hours using our compasses and counting our paces to stay on track but when we came to the end of the line we were not at the small clearing we’d targeted in the aerial photos but still surrounded by dense forest.

“We’re lost!” exclaimed Alec. “WE’RE LOST!” and in his wide-eyed panic dropped his gear and appeared about to high-tail it back in the direction from whence we came.

Alec’s partner managed to calm him down while I stereoscoped the photos and established our position about twenty yards to the south of the clearing, where the three of us paused to eat our lunch, along with a flesh-fly garnish or two. Three hours later we were safely back at the truck but it was the end of Alec’s Boreal career. The bugs had won. Back in camp he asked to be taken to town with his belongings.

Last I saw Alec he was at the Air Canada counter at the airport in Thunder Bay with a return ticket to the big city in hand and, for the first time in what seemed like weeks, a smile on his face.

I understand he changed his major to pharmacy.

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