The other night I sat out with friends in the backyard to enjoy the summer weather on a warm evening. My friends were wearing T-shirts and shorts to cool off after a hot sunny day. I had my jeans on. As the sun fell below the horizon and twilight ushered in a blue light in the sky we began swatting at our arms, twitching our legs and scratching our heads. We put up a good fight but in the end the mosquitoes won out and we headed back to the safety of the indoors.
I have lived with mosquitoes, or Sa-Ka-Meh-L as they are called in Cree, most of my life. On the James Bay coast these small creatures number in the billions. They also take to the air with a host of other flying biting cousins like the Mii-Sii-Sah-K, black fly and the Poh-Koh-Shoo, the small no see-ums. You have not seen mosquitoes or black flies until you have visited the James Bay coast during the peak of summer. The coast is a perfect breeding ground for these flying nuisances. The whole western coast of the bay is a large land area of mushkeg, known as the James Bay lowlands, that stretches south of Moosonee to the Hudson’s Bay coast. There are very few rocky or sand and gravel outcroppings within this area. There is more than enough stagnant water within this mushkeg to grow a countless number of biting insects that feed on the flesh and blood of warm-blooded animals and humans.
To people on the coast, Sa-Ka-Meh-L is just a flying annoyance that we have to live with. Even though there are millions of these little creatures that we have to deal with we have grown to live with them. There are several natural ways we follow to keep these insects at bay. In the warmest months we try not to spend too much time on the land but rather we stick close to the water and in open areas. The wind is the best deterrent for these bugs. The smoke from a fire is another way to drive any flying insect away.
When I first started visiting southern cities like Timmins to go to high school, people thought it strange that my friends and I found it difficult to wear shorts. Instead we wore full-length jeans in the warm spring or summer weather. Even now I can pick out a Native person from the north in a crowd at events in the south during the summer just by the fact that they are wearing jeans amongst a group of people with shorts and sandals.
This is because one of the ways we deal with insects and mosquitoes is to cover up as much as possible even on a hot day. There are so many flying and biting insects in the north that it is uncomfortable to even think of walking outdoors with a pair of shorts on. We even think of T-shirts as problematic because it exposes most of a person’s arms. People in the Third World, where mosquitoes carry Malaria and Dengue, also cover up and even sleep with mosquito nets over their beds.
The bugs are bad enough in north eastern Ontario but on the James Bay coast a person has a hard time even just going for a swim in the midday heat. At the height of the day, the mosquitoes are gone as smaller flying insects are unable to take the heat but larger black flies take to air in the hundreds. People try to keep their bodies under water as long as possible to avoid these larger flying monsters. They not only take a bite but leave a large welt on a person’s skin. Even if one quickly jumps out of the water to dress up and head home, a swimmer always goes home with several large painful welts on their body.
There’s a new focus on the age-old problem of dealing with mosquitoes. In southern Ontario, there is now the present danger of getting bitten by a mosquito carrying the West Nile Virus. In the past, a mosquito bite did not really concern me much. These days I am becoming more aware of the danger of being infected by this virus. Medical professionals have said that there is a low possibility that one can become infected with this disease and that it is mostly older people and those with comprised immune systems that should be careful. However, it has made me aware that this is something I have to think of when I go outdoors. I do not let this fact deter me from going into the woods; I just fall back to my old methods of dealing with mosquitoes.
My friends spray themselves with repellents or stay indoors. I keep my shirt and pants on.