Trail conditions that July listed the Belly River area as muddy in areas and wet from frequent showers. The park ranger familiar with that area calmly reported to us that recent hikers had reported it a “bit buggy.”
Despite our efforts pouring over lists and gear strewn about the basement for weeks, somehow we had started down the trail that morning without any DEET. It simply hadn’t been an issue at any point on our trip thus far and so those pesky insects were not on our minds.
The first time I slapped my arm, I reasoned that once we got moving and out of the low valley the wind would pick up and we’d be just fine, as was our usual experience. I quickened my pace and reveled in the scenery of mountain country for the first time. A few minutes down the trail I swatted my ears and bristled uncomfortably at the constant hum in my head. It’s fine, I thought, just a little more patience and it will let up.
My forearms began to accumulate the dead bodies and red explosions of mosquito bellies. I was beginning to look like the windshield of a long haul truck. I stopped for a second, dug in my pack and extracted another layer. It was all I could do to stand still for that 45 seconds. I puffed a burst of air out my lips to clear my face, exhaled my nostrils like a wild animal and picked up my pace to catch up with my boys. I could see from the tense posture and head shakes that they were not free from these tiny beasts of burden either.
Step after step, I formed a trance-like cadence of swatting and exhaling, swatting and head shaking, swatting and brushing. My thoughts spiraled and a panic was rising inside. We were only 3 miles into a 4 day trip and quickly it was evident we would need a blood transfusion to survive.
Our party of three hadn’t said a word to one another for miles. It was all we could do to focus on moving forward, somehow hoping for reprieve- wind or rain. Water sips were snuck from the camelback in silence. We dare not stop for a snack for fear of being carried away by the blood suckers. We had traveled over 1800 miles to backpack in a paradise, but had entered some kind of hell on earth. Our testiness was getting the best of us and we snapped in anger at one another. It was some kind of twisted paradox; we were surrounded by absolutely stunning vistas, but were so miserable. Had we just made the biggest mistake of our lives coming to this valley?
Some light rain helped us rinse the carnage off of our exposed skin. For a moment we had a break. We quickly grabbed our snacks and sat for a while. Regrouping, we assessed our situation. 4 more miles until Lake Elizabeth where we could shelter in our tent. On we pressed.
Not long after our break we met some hikers on their way out and inquired as to the bug situation at our destination. They chuckled... “Oh, it’s pretty buggy there too,” they laughed. They had some extra bug spray and happily shared a few squirts with us. For the child, they must have thought. Poor little guy. What kind of parents subject their 11 year old to this type of torture?
As the day went on, the sunlight came out and the bugs began to let up ever so slightly. The trail led up through the pines and hard woods and picked up some more intrigue. The moments swatting were replaced with suspension bridges, waterfalls, and wildflowers. Perhaps the DEET had scared away the less hardy mosquitos- just enough of a break to regain our sanity.
Arriving, Lake Elizabeth was a welcome sight. We scouted out our tent spot and unpacked our gear at the bear boxes. Just as we began preparing dinner, the familiar hum once again returned. We ran to snag our extra layers. And deep in the bottom of my husband’s pack was one, lone, head net. All eyes focused on that tiny package, the image of peace and tranquility.
It was then that I experienced true love in its purest form. My son calmly deferred and was content with his new hat. I panned over to my husband’s face. He stared in contemplation, eyed the massive welts on his wrists and forearms, scratched his neck one last time, and handed that precious package my way.
We ate dinner and made our way to the lake shore. My son hunkered in the tent for the night and as my husband and I sat and watched the sunset of Lake Elizabeth, I felt satisfied and content. We could endure because my tough man’s man was willing to let those mosquitoes be a little more “affectionate” in his love for me.