“But the bugs!?” It is less a question, more an exclamation that people make when I mention paddling in northern Canada.
There is no denying, northern mosquitoes and black flies live up to their reputation. I once worried for my sanity as I reeled hopelessly against their relentless onslaught. But one idyllic summer solstice eve on the shores of Great Slave Lake, I learned a valuable lesson.
With the sun still beaming strong so close to midnight, my partner, John, and I celebrated solstice on a headland in the East Arm, in what is now Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. Toasting the midnight sun, and one of Canada’s newest protected areas, we savoured a few nips of rum. A common loon swam by; its haunting call echoing across the cove. Above, a bald eagle perched in a lodgepole pine, harassed by a pair of ravens.
The evening was almost sublime, except for us being encased in cumbersome bug jackets and the mass of mosquitoes and black flies. With their relentless bloodlust, the bugs were consuming all our awe and wonder for the place. We swatted at them, cursed them, fell into despair. We almost gave in, almost retreated into the tent—our only haven—but in my stubbornness, I could not bear to let the bastards win.
I took another hard swig of rum to quell my mounting frustration. Just then, a sliver of a prayer came to mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
No, we are not addicts, though the ferocity of the bugs did have us gripping the rum bottle like a drowning man grabs a thrown rope. I repeated it aloud to John. The truth was that we could continue fighting a losing battle, allowing the bugs to ruin this otherwise perfect night, or we could accept our lowly place in the northern food chain. And so, we put the cap back on our rum bottle, sat back down and took some slow, deep breaths.
We may be bigger but they are more numerous. The sooner John and I accepted our lot, the sooner we could get on with drinking in the surrounding wildness and beauty. We sat out on that headland until exhaustion and a chill settled on us, and only then crawled into our tent. It was the first night we retired from exhaustion and not because of bugs.
To travel in the North is to endure them—to exist in the company of those hoping to extract our blood. They take advantage of our vulnerable state when we are relieving ourselves, biting and drinking from the most delicate and intimate bits of us. But each night, we exact a small revenge by relentlessly killing all those who deigned to follow us inside our tent. Dozens of engorged bellies filled with our blood splatter against the tent walls. It is a macabre death scene we repeat with sadistic pleasure. A finger pressing a bug into nylon until a crunch is felt. It is abnormally gratifying.
To travel among the mosquitoes and black flies of the North, we cannot think in fighting terms. There are not enough mosquito coils or potent enough bug dope to win the fight.
It is not about going into battle with them.
It is a battle that cannot be won.
It is about surrender.
After two months of paddling, long after the last dregs of rum had been drunk, we moved among the bugs with a hard-won calm. We no longer noticed the bug jackets pulled over our heads. We no longer heard the dull hum in the air. Their bites no longer itched.
By accepting our lowly lot in the northern food chain, we could see beyond our misery and appreciate the wilderness that lay beyond our bug jackets and the black humming mass of blood-suckers. Living one day at a time. Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.