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Odd Wisconsin Archive

On Mosquitoes

As you've surely noticed, this summer's floods spawned a record crop of mosquitoes. Few of God's creatures are quite as annoying, or in quite the same way. Beseiged by them while exploring the northwoods in 1820, Henry Schoolcraft reflected that, "It certainly requires a different species of philosophy to withstand, undisturbed, the attacks of this ravenous insect, from that which we are called upon to exercise upon the sudden occurrence of any of the great calamities and misfortunes of life. He who is afflicted, without complaining, by an unexpected change of fortune, or the death of a friend, may be thrown into a fit of restless impatience by the stings of the musquito..." Indeed.

Even hardened outdoorsmen could reach their limits when pestered all night by ravenous insects. L.W. Burch of Madison piloted sailing ships on the Great Lakes during the 1880s. He later recalled pulling up to shore near Sault St. Marie as the sun set after a long day:

"'It was a hot night when we made fast and ready to find an easy place to rest. I noticed the fellows slapping their faces, grabbing their arms and made a few passes myself, finding that we were beset by mosquitoes. And they were mosquitoes: for size and appetite I never saw anything like them. Mack, after a few disparaging remarks, looked at me in a manner which showed me that he was mad clear through. Mack very seldom became angry but when he did, look out. We tried every way to get rid of those mosquitoes. We had some cheap straw hats and made veils of mosquito netting which we put on over the hats. Then we smoked and in that way tried to get a moment's comfort. I said to Mack that I knew we were going to have trouble when we came up to the dock. 'How did you know?' inquired Mack. 'Why,' I said, 'didn't you see half a dozen of those mosquitoes take our line and haul it ashore? They were big ones, I tell you.' 'Say,' replied Mack, 'if i was not so tired I'd punch your head,' and getting from his seat on a coil of rope he remarked, 'I'm going to crawl in under the sail cover. I'll get away from them now.' Loosening the sail cover, he crawled under it. I had to keep moving around as I was on watch. In fifteen or twenty minutes I heard a voice that was between growls, sputtering, and muttering, and going forward I found Mack crawling out from under the sail cover. 'It's no use,' he said, 'they found me under there. Besides, it's so hot I can't breathe.'"

Schoolcraft concluded that "the traveller who is prepared to withstand the savage scalping knife and the enraged bear has nothing to oppose to the attacks of an enemy which is too minute to be dreaded, and too numerous to be destroyed."

This drawing of his tormentors was made in 1903 by Preston Reynolds, whose trip down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi with friends is chronicled in the current issue of our Wisconsin Magazine of History. When they reached the Mississippi Reynolds noted in his journal that, "At first there were no mosquitoes, but when they heard we had arrived they paid frequent enjoyable (to them) calls. In fact they called so often that we were moved to vacate the tent and let them have it, as we did not want to be selfish about it."

Like every other aspect of life, our challenges were also faced by our predecessors on this land. Good luck, fellow-sufferers; try to be philosphical.

:: Posted in Animals on July 25, 2008

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