View from Out West: Now you see ‘um… Hatch of gnats enough to drive Alaskans buggy

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

On the Kenai Peninsula you can’t see no noseeums like the ones you can’t see here in Bristol Bay.

I spent more than half a century being inoculated by the peninsula’s flying insects, so when I was warned, prior to moving to Dillingham last year, that Bristol Bay bugs swarmed thick and fierce and that I’d better be prepared for the worst, I thought, “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

After all, some Junes on the Kenai unleashed a veritable contagion of wings, and no rousing bath in DEET could keep all of the needle-bearing invaders at bay.

Near Soldotna, I once received so many mosquito bites on my sweaty legs, neck and arms during a week of brush-cutting that I began imagining the crawling and stinging even after I was safe indoors. Driving on the flats outside of Sterling during a particularly notorious outbreak of Culex culicidae, I once considered simply peeing my pants rather than braving the bug-filled brush.

In the fall, I’d packed moose meat out of the boggy lowlands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge with deer flies divebombing the back of my head and nipping at my wrists, and white sox crawling under the brim of my hat and flying into my eyes and ears, as I struggled sweatily under the weight of a bloody hindquarter.

I’d also been bank fishing along the Kenai River after sunset, when the day breeze had wheezed its last gasp down the valley and the last light had faded behind a ridge — and a sudden prickliness had seized each of my exposed extremities as the noseeums fled the grass and began burrowing into my flesh.

What greater torment could Bristol Bay offer?

Plenty, said my brother, a fisheries biologist with experiences in this area. He told me that although noseeums and white sox around King Salmon were the worst he’d ever seen, Dillingham’s could be bad enough.

The locals said the mosquitoes could be a plague — unless the wind was blowing. The wind almost always blows in Dillingham. Ergo, I figured I’d probably be just fine.

When summer arrived here, so did the mosquitoes. They were thick at times, particularly in the tall marsh grass along the Nushagak River. Overall, though, I found them tolerable. No worse, certainly, than anything I’d seen on the Kenai. The locals said, “Pshaw, ain’t bad this year. Too dry. Seen ’em a lot worse.”

Then about the first of August, the noseeums appeared. Unless the wind was blowing at least 10 knots, they were everywhere.

They crawled through the screens on the windows of our second-story apartment. They riddled us, in our sleep, with itchy red dots. We drove out to Neqleq Variety to buy noseeum mesh, which we cut to fit over our regular screens, securing it in place with a combination of electrical and duct tape.

So our apartment became a sanctuary. Beyond its walls, however, all bets were off.

The noseeums invaded the lobby of the post office, zipping around like dust motes and driving customers to clapping, slapping distractions seemingly so severe that it was almost like spontaneous applause.

They clouded the checkout stands in local grocery stores, attacked motorists filling their tanks at gas stations, settled on clotheslines full of dark laundry, and rode like stowaways into homes on the hair of beloved pets.

Mosquito coils burned constantly in the entryway at the Alaska Commercial store. Drivers dusted noseeum corpses off dashboards after the insects clogged the defrost intake. Flaggers along the road construction zone near town swatted themselves silly, draping kerchiefs around their necks, smoking extra cigarettes, doing anything to repel the noseeums that rose around them like tundra talcum.

They were so bad on one recent evening that some friends of ours held their annual crab feed indoors, and still the noseeums found their way into the crowd. All night, guests smacked themselves with one hand while holding a cup of homebrew or a plate of legs and claws with the other.

According to Internet sources, noseeums are biting midges and belong to the insect family Ceratopogonidae. As with mosquitoes, the female noseeums do the biting, seeking blood to prompt their maturation of their eggs so that they can produce more evil spawn. Wikipedia says, “In humans, their bites can cause intensely itchy, red welts that can persist for more than a week. The discomfort arises from a localized allergic reaction to the proteins in their saliva, which can be somewhat alleviated by topical antihistamines.”

Years ago, with mosquitoes, I learned that if I could stop myself from scratching a bite for about 30 minutes, its itchiness would subside and so would the accompanying welt. Persistently itchy bites I would combat with Calamine lotion or sometimes with an alcohol-based hand cleanser.

With noseeums, however, that strategy has failed. I have found myself scratching without realizing that I have been bitten — until I’ve discovered patches of tiny welts at my hairline, under my sleeves or around my ankles — like an outbreak of acne. And removing the itchiness has been challenging, with some folks more affected than others and “cures” as ubiquitous as the bugs.

“Try witch hazel!” one woman told me. “It’s the best thing I’ve found for stopping the itch.” Perhaps that is true if one lacquers it on right away, but for older bites it seems that nothing but the passage of time can diminish the prickling.

Back in July when the jet stream was providing us with one sunny, breezy week after another, I daydreamed about camping trips on nearby mountain ridges or along lakeshores. Now I dream about winter camping as I hurry just to get in and out of the car.

According to a University of Florida website, attempts to control noseeum populations have generally failed: “Applications of insecticides targeting the adult stage are not efficient. While this type of application may kill biting midges active on a given night, they are continually dispersing from the larval habitat and entering areas of human activity. It would require insecticide applications on a daily basis in some areas, and this is not efficient or environmentally sound.”

The website claims that the same Mosquito Magnet-style machines, which use CO2 and an attractant bait to lure insects to their doom, will work for noseeums but must be used for weeks to counter the continual emergence of new insects during a breeding season that can stretch into mid-September.

Longtime Dillingham residents have assured me that this year’s noseeum outbreak may be the worst ever. And I’m hopeful that they’re correct.

But our memories for such things — the wettest summer, the coldest winter, the harshest breakup, etc. — can be liars and deceivers. I’ve already been told that this may be the sunniest, warmest summer ever — and one of the smallest mosquito populations, coming on the heels of one of the driest-ever winters.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep swatting away, hoping for a nice gale-force wind, and contemplating a good hard frost.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

1 Comment

Filed under insects, View from Out West

One response to “View from Out West: Now you see ‘um… Hatch of gnats enough to drive Alaskans buggy

  1. Gracie L Prentice

    Hahaha! Entertaining article :). Loved your depictions …..”spontaneous applause”……and ” tundra talcum” :):)

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