Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maine Mosquitoes and Me: The Epic Final Battle

If you haven’t done so already, you really need to read my previous post on mosquitoes in order for what follows to have the proper context.

Before I turned in on the first night of my most recent camping trip, I made a fateful decision.  Not wanting to contaminate my bedding and the inside of my tent with that sour insect repellant smell, I decided that I would make my way up to the camp showers just before turning in, scrub all that toxic crap off, and then race back and jump into the tent for the night.  Even though it was only a few hundred yards, I drove up to the showers in my car, so I would not have to walk back to my campsite in my clean but vulnerable state, once again delicious to mosquitoes.  I’d finished my last bottle of lemonade, my campfire was extinguished, everything was put away, and all I would have to do when I got back from the showers would be to make a beeline from the car to the tent.

This plan worked pretty well at first.  I got to the showers, scrubbed down thoroughly, and got back to my tent in short order with a minimum of mosquito bites.  Once inside the tent, I found that a few mosquitoes had followed me in, but that was to be expected.  I spent a few minutes hunting them down, and then settled in to sleep, feeling pretty good about it all.  I was exhausted from the heat and the physical activity of the day, so drifting off was not difficult.

Staying drifted off was more challenging, as several hours later, nature called, as it sometimes will in the middle of the night.  I looked at my clock and saw that it was only 2 AM, leaving way too much time before dawn to put off going.  As much as I didn’t want to, I had to get out of the tent and take care of business again.

Being rather groggy, I then made two tactical errors.  First, I turned on my battery-powered lantern in the tent and left it on while I stepped out.  And secondly, and much more problematic, I left the tent flap open while I was out.  I just didn’t think about it.  There were a few mosquitoes pestering me while I went, but nothing like I had experienced during my stop in the woods on the way there the previous day.  Afterward, I climbed back into the tent and tried to fall back to sleep.

And that’s when the high-pitched whining began, and no, it wasn’t me.

While I had been out, it seems that quite a few mosquitoes had been attracted to the light in my tent and had made themselves at home. There were more than I would ever be able to track down and swat at this time of night.  I spent the next few minutes slaughtering the ones I could find.  In time, I gave up and laid down, the remaining mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, apparently angry about their recently deceased brethren who were now just smears on the walls of the tent.  Getting back to sleep was very, very difficult.  I’m a light sleeper under the best of circumstances, but with these insects buzzing around me like biplanes around King Kong, it was especially hard.  Every sensation I felt on my skin felt like a mosquito landing, and I slapped accordingly.  In the dark, I was not sure if I had hit my targets or not.  It didn’t sound like I had any fewer tentmates.

Eventually I was able to reach that tipping point, where I was still vaguely lucid, but almost about to fall into honest-to-goodness sleep. My mind was misting over, my muscles relaxed, and I had almost tuned out the drone of the remaining mosquitoes.  Then I felt a slight but sharp pinch right between my eyes. A mosquito had gone in for blood.  It was sudden and just painful enough that in my barely-awake state I reacted without thought and hit myself very hard right in the face.  It was a real roundhouse, and I could see stars.

I was just far enough out of consciousness to be surprised by this and immediately sprang to my feet, which is not something those in the know recommend one should do in a small tent. I thrashed and stumbled for a few seconds, the tent collapsing around me and supplies scattering in every direction.  From the outside, I must have looked like a clumsy baby dinosaur trying to hatch from an egg.  My bare foot came down hard on the corner of a storage container, and I fell with a thud into the middle of the wreckage.  Fortunately, I landed on my air mattress, so nothing more than my pride was seriously hurt.   None of my supplies were damaged either, miraculously, but my tent was in a shambles and my stuff was everywhere. 

At that hour of the night, with the darkness, the mosquitoes, and my now outrageously foul mood, I was in no condition to reassemble it all.  I grabbed my sleeping bag and made for my car, where I settled in and slept fitfully for a couple more hours before getting up at dawn and rebuilding that which I had inadvertently destroyed.

The rest of my trip was an all-out war between me and the mosquitoes.  I wore long clothing most of the time in spite of the heat, and kept myself doused in insect repellant day and night.  The flap on my tent stayed shut at all times except for when I was getting in to go to sleep, and I did not allow myself any liquids after 6:00 in the evening in hopes of avoiding any midnight calls of nature.  I’m happy to say that it paid off, and the second night went much more quietly than the first, mosquito-wise.

Regardless of how this account sounds, my most recent trip to the Maine coast was relaxing and wonderful.  For the purposes of this post, I’ve just chosen to focus in on one small aspect of it all, but it was much more fun than anything else.  If you ever visit rural Maine yourself, you will have a terrific time.  Just come prepared.

And remember to always use the bathroom when you have the chance, even if you don’t have to go. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maine Mosquitoes and Me, Part One

One of the unavoidable parts of summer in rural Maine is pests.  Just like we humans like to get outside and live life to the fullest in the warm weather months, so also do the critters that like to feed on us.  Like mosquitoes, for example.

Anopheles quadrimaculatus, as mosquitoes are known to scientific types and ancient Romans, are irritating little snotbags that surround you like a cloud of organic misery whenever you set foot outside the door in any Maine location that is even remotely rural, which is a lot of it.  Contrary to popular belief, mosquitoes do not actually feed on your blood.  Only the females extract blood from their victims, and it is used by them to help their eggs develop.  In her lifetime of up to 100 days, a female mosquito can have nearly 3000 offspring.  For actual food, mosquitoes of both genders prefer nectar, juices, and rotting things that are so abundant in the woods.  Illnesses carried by mosquitoes kill more people than any other factor.  Encephalitis, malaria, dengue fever and the like are among the maladies that these nasties can carry around.  There are over 3000 different subspecies of mosquito, and no one prevention method works against all of them.  Well, I suppose swatting would, but that method only goes so far.

By the way, I am not some kind of mosquito savant by any means.  I got the above information from the website Mosquito Solutions.

My most recent camping trip to the Maine coast was haunted by mosquitoes almost from beginning to end.  I still itch just thinking about it, and every tingle on my skin still makes me want to swat.

It started on the drive down, which is about two and a half hours from my house to my favorite spot on the coast.  Among the rituals I have developed for the drive are listening to cheesy 80s pop music on the way (mostly stuff by the band The Cars this time), and stopping for gasoline and a large soda at a particular gas station whether I need them or not.  This trip, my car’s tank needed topping off, though my own tank really didn’t.  I still had the morning’s coffee and juice sustaining me, but nonetheless, ritual is ritual.  So I picked up an extra large Cherry Pepsi.  (Don’t judge me, people!  It was something different.) At 69 cents for any size fountain drink, I like to go big and get my money’s worth.

If I had been smart, I would have visited the restroom while I was at the gas station, but, to echo the sentiment expressed by countless traveling 8-year-olds throughout history, I didn’t have to go then. About half an hour further down the road, with much of the Cherry Pepsi now gone, I most assuredly did, and urgently.  I was miles from my destination, and from any sort of public restroom, so I did what any red-blooded male would have done: I turned down a woods road in an isolated area until I was out of sight of the main drag, and got out of the car to take care of business, so to speak.

A few mosquitoes honed in on me before my feet even touched the ground, but there was no turning back now.  Nature was calling, very, very adamantly.  As I proceeded to empty my full bladder, more and more mosquitoes joined the party until I was amidst a literal swarm of them.  Now while I only needed the use of one hand for the task I was undertaking, it was not like I was free to swing the other around with wild abandon to shoo away the pests. To do so would have resulted in an embarrassing mess and necessitated a prompt change of footwear and maybe more.  If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think that the mosquitoes sensed this, and ramped up their attacks knowing my defenses were down.  It’s no accident that these little buggers have thrived on this planet since prehistoric times I swatted and slapped as carefully as I could, but there were too many coming in too fast to too many locations on my person.  It was easily the longest minute or so of my life.  By the time I was back inside my car (along with a half dozen or so mosquitoes who had hitched a ride), I had been chewed to bits and was itching like crazy.  The slightest sensation on my arms or legs made me slap mosquitoes, imagined or not.  I must have looked like a madman driving down the road.

In time, I reached my campsite, which this time was much woodsier than the waterfront site I had on my last trip.  I could see the ocean at a distance through the trees, but the overriding feature was trees and shade.  It was actually quite nice, set back from the road and apart from other sites.  I knew I’d be able to get some serious reading and writing done without distraction, and that I could listen to Red Sox games on the radio at a reasonable volume without worry of bothering nearby campers.  The drawback of this woodsy site, however, was that the mosquitoes were much more prevalent than they would have been along the bay.  For some reason, the sea breezes and salt water seem to discourage them from hanging out in large numbers along the immediate shoreline.

As soon as I got out of the car to begin setting things up, the mosquitoes found me again, but this time I was ready for them.  I doused myself with a liberal amount of insect repellant, which is not something I like to do, but which seemed very necessary if I was to have any pleasure out of this trip.  The tacky feel of that stuff on my skin bothers me, and I don’t even want to get into the odor, which smells like a combination of abandoned chemical factory and rotten tropical fruit.  It worked pretty well for the most part, though I needed to reapply the toxin again later in the day, having sweat the first application off.

When night fell, the uneasy truce between the mosquitoes and me started to fall apart.  I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post, which will be here in a few days.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Back to the Maine Coast-Camping Edition

I went on a camping trip last weekend, for the first time since I was 13 years old.  As a huge fan of the outdoors and an even bigger fan of not spending a lot of money, camping seemed a logical choice for a weekend getaway.  Both work and home had been very hectic, and the weather forecast was looking great.  Some “me time” two hours away at the coast, free from any distractions, seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.  I had big plans to get caught up on some pleasure reading and sketch out some ideas for some writing projects I have cooking.

The view from my campsite, as seen through the lens of my crappy camera.

Now those who know me are aware that I am kind of fussy about lots of things, so some were surprised that I would actually go on a camping trip, especially “roughing it” in a tent at a site that has no electricity or running water.  What can I say?  With all due respect to Donkey from Shrek, I’m an onion.  I’ve had an unused  tent in amongst my stuff for many years, so I figured I’d use it.  Plus, a Winnebago is not in my budget, and to be honest, I don’t think I’d enjoy that kind of camping as much anyway.  It’s too much like a hotel room on wheels, and plus, who can enjoy driving in a monstrosity like that?  Getting there is half the fun for me when I travel, and my Hyundai SUV is very comfortable and enjoyable to navigate on a long trip.

Camping in a tent has been in the back of my mind since the depths of midwinter.  While the polar bears were trying to break down my door back in January, I got to thinking how great it would be to pitch a tent at a quiet campsite near the ocean, open up a lawn chair, open a good book, and soak up the warm sunshine.  My fussy nature actually worked in favor of tent camping, since I literally planned for months to overcome the things that might rub me the wrong way.

Lack of coffee, for instance.

No coffee in the morning could have been a dealbreaker.  Even the thought of having to drive to a nearby store each morning to get some was unacceptable.  My worst case scenario was to have to boil water over a campfire and use it to make *shudder* instant!  Then one day I found two nifty gadgets in a store.  One was a single burner that you attached directly to a small propane cylinder.  This meant there would be no having to build a campfire before getting my coffee, which probably would have resulted in a blue cloud of obscenities hanging over the campsite for much of the day.  I also came across a percolating coffee pot, much like the kind my parents used to use when I was a kid, prior to the advent of electric coffee makers.  I hadn’t seen one in ages, so I knew that it had to be providential.  I snapped it right up.

The coffee making apparatus worked like a charm except for two things.  First, never having made coffee by this method before, I wasn’t sure how long to let it perk.  I guess I overdid it the first morning, because the brew I concocted was like jet fuel, only less mellow.  The other problem was the fact that the water had to boil in this process, and it took what seemed like a very, very long time to cool off before I could sip it without melting the fillings in my teeth.  In truth, the wait was probably only about ten minutes, but when it’s already taken you about twenty to make it in the first place, that’s the longest ten minutes of the day to an uncaffeinated guy.

Then there is the “sleeping in a tent” issue.

I am a very light sleeper.  If there is the slightest noise nearby when I am sleeping, I hear it.  At home, I need a white noise machine going to block out sounds, or else I’d never get a moment’s rest.  Combine the light sleeping with my inherent fussiness, and that means I take a long time to get comfortable, and toss and turn a lot in my own bed.  I could only imagine what it was going to be like trying to snooze in a sleeping bag on the hard ground, with no electricity to power my white noise gadget.

An air mattress with a battery-operated pump helped take care of the comfort issue, at least partly.  The end result was nothing like my mattress at home, but at least I was reasonably certain that I would be able to stand erect when I got up in the morning after having slept on it all night.  This did turn out to be the case, although there were a few twinges in my back for the first part of the day.  I thought it would poor judgment on my part to ask the park ranger to walk up and down on my back for a few minutes to work out the kinks, so I didn’t.

As for the ambient sound problem, I figured that if I played hard enough during the day, I’d sleep well enough that it would not be an issue.  My plan worked only partly the first night.  I had no problem whatsoever falling asleep, but when a loon on the other side of the inlet let fly with its eerie call at about three in the morning, I was wide awake.  Just as I was able to drift back into some semblance of sleep, the sun came up and a local family of crows awakened and began to bicker, long and loud.  I pondered alternative meanings for the phrase “a murder of crows”, but then reminded myself that I was the one who wanted to “get back to nature” and that I was on their turf after all, and not mine.  Still, I wished they would shut the hell up until about 8:00.

The second night was much the same, although the loon held her tongue.  The crows didn’t, however.  In the midst of their bird-brained arguments, there came the sounds of human voices shouting and laughing over the water.  It was low tide early that day, and the local clam diggers were doing their thing, while bantering back and forth in salty language that was nearly impossible to tune out.  (Based on what I heard, I am pretty sure one clammer’s girlfriend must be double-jointed.)   Again, I reminded myself that I was a guest in their territory, and chose to suck it up and deal with it.  I could always catch a nap later if I needed one.  That’s the beauty of vacation.

And then there were the aliens.

The first night I was there, just after it got totally dark, I was sitting by the campfire and doing absolutely nothing, which was one of my goals for this trip.  The only sounds were the light slosh of the ocean and a family several sites away laughing as they played some kind of board game.  Suddenly, there came a low, distant rumbling sound.  It would last a few seconds, then stop, and then another would come.  I was too far from a road for it to be a large truck, and it sounded nothing like an aircraft.  I walked around the campsite a little, wondering if the sound was coming from something nearby, but found nothing.  Having streamed a whole lot of X-Files episodes to my TV lately, it crossed my mind for a brief moment that it might be aliens.  After all, a remote location along the Maine coast would be a nice, inconspicuous spot to stop and pick up some specimens to probe, wouldn’t it?  The idea was a little interesting and a little worrisome, but it only lasted for a minute, because I then remembered that it was the weekend before the 4th of July, and had read that one of the towns up the coast was having a fireworks display that evening.  While it was way too far for me to see them, sound carries far over water, especially extremely loud ones like explosions.  What I heard was obviously fireworks, and not E.T. and his pals.

I was simultaneously relieved and a little disappointed.  Some space alien guests at the campsite would have provided some excellent fodder for one of my writing projects.  Truth be told though, I really don’t buy into the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life existing, at least not close enough to ever make contact with us.  That’s a post for a different day though.

I could go on more about my camping trip, but the last thing I want to do is turn this blog post into a written version of having to watch someone’s endless vacation slides.  Suffice it to say that I had a great time reading, hiking, writing, and just generally noodling around.  I came home nicely refreshed, and plan to camp again at that same quiet spot by the ocean at least a few more times before the blizzards start rolling into Maine around late September.

UPDATE: The Woodswoman Extraordinaire blog does a terrific job of describing the park where I went, and there are some gorgeous photos there that put my craptastic camera's shots to shame.  The post is from 2010, but it's still all accurate.