Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Do our black flies and mosquitoes scare cowboys?

Is it possible that westerners are wimps? You know, those rough and tumble types who wade roaring rivers to fly-fish for trout and run all over the mountains chasing elk? I’m beginning to wonder if they are as tough as they appear. Why? Because they fear black flies.

In the past year, I’ve had conversations with several western outdoor types who are curious about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). All would like to explore this water wonderland and sample its renowned fishing. And all have one little reason they are hesitant to do so. Inevitably they ask, “What about the bugs?”

To which a north country resident can only reply, “What about them?”

From ensuing conversations, it seems Minnesota mosquitoes in the mind’s eye of a Montanan are akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Granted, I’ve had a few experiences with biting insects that I wouldn’t care to repeat, but that isn’t the norm. Rarely has the presence of bugs prevented me from enjoying outdoor activities. Usually, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as a dab of DEET, will keep them at bay. Unfortunately, that isn’t the answer westerners want to hear, because they imagine our insects are far, far worse.

I encountered these imaginary bugs while attending a conference in Billings, Montana, last summer. I was signed up for an afternoon session on outdoor photography at a national monument site along the Yellowstone River. Arriving at the site, the staff gathered session attendees on some park benches and told us to wait. They were worried we’d be attacked by mosquitoes. On that hot, dry and sunny late afternoon, it seemed to me that the longer we waited, the more likely we’d experience an evening mosquito flight. But wait we did, while our hosts told us about just how bad the mosquitoes could be. When we finally made a short walk down to the river, the bugs were hardly noticeable.

It was during the conference that I began having conversations about the famous mosquitoes and black flies in northern Minnesota. It is fair to say that at least a few prospective BWCAW anglers stay away because they’ve convinced themselves that they’ll be carried off by the insects. Consider this Facebook missive from a Montanan talking about northern Minnesota: “I’ve only been up there once, back in ’90. I drove through in June on my way from NY to Montana. The black flies were so bad I’ve never been back. Beautiful country, though.”

If you think the black flies are that bad when you are just passing through, perhaps you don’t have what it takes to handle summer in northern Minnesota. And I’d make an educated guess that you really wouldn’t like our below-zero winters. Perhaps, if you visit at all, you could give us a try in late September, when the leaves are turning and all the windshield warriors come for a visit. The bugs shouldn’t bother you then.

It’s easy to be smug about someone else’s phobias about your home turf. But folks who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. There are places I choose not to visit due to a dislike of snakes, especially poisonous ones. Yet such worries don’t prevent the locals in snake country from enjoying the outdoors. The degree of annoyance or risk from bugs or snakes is in the eye of the beholder.

This may not apply to a regional difference that has a physical affect. When I lived in Georgia, folks asked me all the time about how Minnesotans could stand winter weather. I told them it was really no different that enduring summer weather in the South. You stay indoors and, depending upon the season and your location, make use of heating or air-conditioning.

Living in northern Minnesota, I’ve lost all tolerance for heat and humidity. This year, I don’t think I’ve experienced more than a day or two where the high temperature topped 70 degrees. That’s fine with me. During the summer, I break into a sweat upon reaching the sultry, southern environs of Duluth. A trip to the Twin Cities during the muggy season is like travelling to the tropics. I generally take a pass on outdoor events like Game Fair or the State Fair because I wimp out at the thought of wandering about for a few hours in the oppressive August heat. The same logic makes me less than enthusiastic about the typical snowbird scene enjoyed by so many winter-escaping Minnesotans. If that sunny, winter getaway is hot and humid, I won’t enjoy it.

Interestingly, a Missourian planning a late June visit to the North Shore, asked me about the heat. He was worried about possibly sweltering temperatures in the tiny town beside Lake Superior. Relax, I told him. The big lake’s water temperature is almost certain to be less than 40 degrees, placing a big chill on the “air-conditioned” North Shore. The Missourian, who had already endured weeks of heat and humidity, was delighted to hear it. He didn’t even ask about the bugs.

To be fair, it pays to be aware of biting insects before making that big trip to the Northwoods. In early June, I talked with folks who said the Gunflint Trail’s annual black fly hatch was horrific this year. Some parties cut short their camping trips because they couldn’t deal with the insects. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that westerner’s phobias about the big, bad bugs of northern Minnesota are real. Anyone who has spent a summer in the North knows that bugs are a persistent reality, but that they are by far their worst when they first emerge in early summer. Black flies gradually subside during June. Mosquitoes are most numerous after sunrise and before sunset or in shady places during the day. Out on the water or any place where there is sunshine and a breeze, mosquitoes and black flies are few. A little bug savvy goes a long way toward tolerating these pests. And a little DEET helps, too.

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