The Alaska State Birds seem to be extra friendly around my house this year. Cute little fellows, aren’t they—and so musical too? At least once a day I can’t resist being a captive audience to one of their concerts. It fascinates me how tame they are. You’d think that as wild creatures, they’d be shy of people, but they seem to crave human companionship.
As soon as I step outside, a whole choir of them gathers to greet me with a falsetto serenade like a million little flying Vienna Choir Boys with wedgies. Some of them hover around my head, while others perch on my upper body. I haven’t quite figured out which sections of my anatomy are the soprano, tenor, alto and bass sections, but they evidently have it well choreographed. It’s enough to give a guy goose pimples.
The mosquito band considers me to be one of their favorite gigs. Most likely it’s because I always clap vigorously, frequently and loudly during their performance and provide the performers with unlimited drinks on me. We have a cozy symbiotic relationship.
Not everyone recognizes the valuable niche mosquitoes fill in our delicate ecosystem. To be frank, I’ve heard some pretty derogatory comments about them–right to their face, too. These much maligned insects, however, are crucial to preserving the Alaska we all know and love. They weed out the riff raff. I’ve witnessed their amazing work with my own eyes.
A few years back when I was a petroleum transfer engineer for my Dad at Moose Hole Lodge, a Lincoln Continental with Illinois plates purred up to the gas pumps. The tinted driver’s side window slid down with an electronic whir, and a manicured hand emerged to snap its 24 karat gold ringed fingers.
“Fill it up with unleaded supreme, check the fluids, clean my windows and scrub my whitewalls, boy. Hurry, I don’t have all day!”
My brow crinkled in confusion. I scratched myself thoughtfully and spat at a bug crawling on his fender. “We only got one kind of gas, we’re fresh out of motor oil, and what’s a whitewall?”
The driver vocalized something that sounded like a hog choking on a corncob, and little smoke rings shot out of his ears. After a period of time, his noises grew intelligible: “That’s what’s wrong with this godforsaken place. You people are just a bunch of hicks who haven’t figured out that it’s the twentieth century! You ought to be thankful that there are entrepreneurs like me who are willing to invest some capital in this giant wasteland you call a state.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it certainly did seem important to him. “That’s great, mister, so you’re investing in our state, are you? I sure do wanna thank you for that. What line are you in? Gold mines, tourism, fishing fleet, or logging?”
He darted a glance at me like I had just dropped his best hunting rifle in the Tanana River. “No,” he sneered, “Real estate. Night clubs and shopping malls, specifically. Not that you would know what those are. I haven’t seen either one for the last 2000 ghastly miles! Now do you think you could manage to get some of that gas in my tank? I have an appointment with a contractor in Fairbanks who recognizes the beauty of the word ‘smog’.”
I know the customer is supposed to be always right, but this guy was starting to rub me the wrong way. I briefly considered pouring a cup of sugar in his gas tank or accidentally dropping a roofing nail under each of his tires, but I restrained myself. I pumped his gas for him and even managed to smile politely as he handed me his credit card.
Well, I guess Heaven was paying attention to my self control and decided to reward me for it. The next words out of the annoying customer’s mouth were one of the most blessed gifts I have ever received.
“Do you have a public restroom around here?”
As a matter of fact we did. We were pretty proud of it too. Dad had installed it about five years previously, and the locals were still marveling about it each morning over their traditional cup of 35 cent coffee and one of Mom’s cinnamon rolls. Prior to that, our customers had been obliged to answer nature’s call in the honey shack out back.
It was way out back, actually—about a hundred and fifty yards across the muskeg. To get there, customers used to have to follow a narrow moose trail chiseled out of the sphagnum moss. Along the way, black spruce branches reached out to snag their hair and wild rose bushes clutched at their sleeves. The most memorable part of the experience, though, was the mosquitoes.
There must have been millions of the little darlings living and breeding in the tangled black spruce thickets on each side of the outhouse path. At each step, a squadron of them would squirt out of the moss, rise up and call our customers blessed. Our customers called them something in return, but it wasn’t blessed. By the time they dove through the narrow door with the crescent moon-shaped cutout in it, the customers usually had looked and sounded like a churning, low lying fast-moving thundercloud.
But for five years now, the old outhouse had sagged lonely and abandoned in the mosquito thicket. Nobody had ventured down the trail since we had put in the real restrooms. By my calculations, the mosquito population should be pushing the multiple quadzillion mark. They probably had the entire works of Mozart, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson mastered and were pining for an appreciative audience.
Coincidentally, the annoying customer who wanted to turn Alaska into a concrete jungle obviously needed to learn to appreciate the more rustic charms of our state. I pointed him down the outhouse trail. As I watched him go, I pulled a bottle of Muskol out of my pocket and crossed myself with it. Old habits die hard.
Shortly after the ancient alders at the mouth of the trail swallowed him up I began to hear his voice. He was using some colorful terminology and seemed to be addressing the local fauna in that characteristically earnest way of his. I expected him to re-emerge immediately with great alacrity, but he evidently wasn’t joking when he said he needed to go.
After a good fifteen minutes I saw a tiny creature covered with dense fur stumble into the open from the direction of the honey shack. It was making faint squeaking noises and feebly waving some sort of upper appendage. Then it fell forward and lay still. I thought maybe it was a muskrat. As I watched, it shrunk to about the size of a shrew and then stopped twitching.
Curiously, I walked over and poked it with a stick. As I did so, its fur began to buzz, separated from its body and rose drunkenly into the air. Only then did I realize that the fur was, in fact, a dense layer of blood-gorged mosquitoes, and the little creature was what used to be the city slicker from Illinois. He didn’t look so good. He kind of reminded me of a prune.
I scooped him up on a spatula and called the Medical Life Flight chopper people. I hear they were able to revive him with a massive blood transfusion, but the experience had psychologically shattered him. He never returned to Alaska. He never even sent anybody for his Lincoln. We parked it behind the Lodge for a while and eventually wound up trading it to a guy for a pair of four-wheelers, a river boat, and a dozen quarts of rose hip jam.
Yes, indeed; those misunderstood bugs are invaluable defenders of our way of life here in the last frontier. They test the mettle of a man like nothing else can. I’ve seen brawny, hard-fisted, steely-eyed construction workers reduced to a blubbering lunatic by a medium sized swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes. You can hardly pry them out of the fetal position to get their straitjacket on them.
You can always tell how long somebody has lived here by the way they react when the choir arrives. Cheechakos are the sprinting people in shorts and tank tops with heads jerking in wild-eyed panic and arms flailing like a windmill. They have the skin complexion of a raspberry, and frequently knock themselves out cold, bashing at a second soprano that happens to land on their forehead.
Those who survive the first wave, stagger out to buy a 55 gallon drum of Off. They keep a can in each hand and continuously hose themselves down with it while maintaining a running monologue of sailor talk. They buy a mosquito magnet for their yard and operate it nonstop until a snowdrift buries it. That is the “inexperienced” stage and can last for up to two years.
Somewhere around that time frame, a sourdough takes pity on them and whispers the term “DEET” in their ear. At first the inexperienced Alaskan will cite reams of environmental toxicology studies, but their resolve eventually crumbles and they try a few drops of 100% DEET. Suddenly, a whole new world opens up to them! For the first time they have discovered a repellant that the mosquitoes don’t regard as a condiment. For the next couple of dozen years they don’t go anywhere without a little bottle of Muskol or Ben’s tucked into their pocket or purse. They have officially graduated to “sourdough” status.
Eventually, however, they wind up spilling a bottle of DEET in their purse or tackle box. Upon discovering that the stuff has eaten their fishing line or turned their lipstick into lumpy pudding, they stop using repellants altogether. This is the final stage and the one which distinguishes a sourdough from a true Alaskan “institution”.
An institution chooses to ignore the bites and enjoy the music. He finds that if he doesn’t wave his arms, he doesn’t attract as much insectoid attention. When bitten, he lets them suck, because to kill them before they are done dining will leave their anticoagulant remaining in the bite and lead to intense itching episodes. The only concession an institution makes to thwart the little singers is to tuck a leafy branch in his hatband. Since the critters tend to hover around the highest point, they circle the branch instead of his face.
Institutions take great glee in watching a cheechako’s expressions of incredulity upon seeing them serenely sit amid a swirling maelstrom of flying pests. Institutions enjoy slightly embellishing a few anecdotes to enhance the amazement.
“What, these puny little fellers? Why, they ain’t so big. You shoulda seen the ones we had back when I was a kid. We had to carry a chainsaw in a belt scabbard as self-defense against mosquito maulings. Matter of fact, if you chopped their legs and suckers up into firewood lengths, one mosquito can heat your cabin for a week. And their wings? Why a couple of tanned mosquito wings stitched together will make you the warmest sleeping bag you ever seen!”
I admire those institutions. Someday I aspire to be one. In the meantime I secretly pack a bottle of Muskol, and when no one’s looking I have been known to sprint around, bouncing off of trees, jerking my head in wild-eyed panic and flailing my arms like a windmill. I guess I’ve never been able to expunge the memory of that real estate developer from Illinois. I have a secret phobia of waking up in a hospital bed, reduced to a human prune.