Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chiwawa Basin, Day 3: A Bug's Life

Steve and I awoke at our camp no worse for wear on Monday, August 15, other than some sore quads and a few nasty bug bites. The plan was to head down the trail toward Trinity on our way out to Owl Farm before the bugs became too active in the warm summer sun.

In order to see some of the stunningly beautiful sights in the wilderness, like the view of the upper Entiat Range (above), you need to come to terms with the fact that you'll be dealing with bugs. Just like your friendly neighborhood vampire, all they want is your blood.

The first nasty insects to appear during the long bug season in the woods are ticks, which tend to follow the snow line in late spring. Ticks were a regular occurrence during our tree planting days back in the '70s during March and April and it was always a good idea to thoroughly check yourself at the end of the day.

Annoyingly ubiquitous, mosquitoes (left) are the next bugs to appear on the scene. Their numbers can rival black flies in forested backcountry areas.

The good news about mosquitoes is that "bug dope" with DEET (diethylmetatoluamide) can deter the bloodthirsty buggers, which are fully capable of swarming unsuspecting hikers in the backcountry. The bad news is that they are the only blood-sucking bug among many varieties of wilderness pests that really responds to DEET.

Probably the nastiest insects in the backcountry -- based solely on their sheer numbers -- are black flies (right). A common nuisance in mid-summer, black flies are actually attracted to DEET, so bug dope is of little consolation. Worse, black flies can swarm unsuspecting backcountry travelers, looking for any orifice available.

I can't tell you how many black flies I've swallowed whole while breathing with my mouth open on precipitous slopes back in my wilderness ranger days in the Forest Service. And don't let their resemblance to the common house fly fool you. When finally in position, they bite hard and it hurts.

Deer flies are also common at higher elevations in mid-summer, as Steve (above) discovered on our way back down the trail from Red Mountain, when one crawled up his pant leg for a bite to eat. Considerably larger than black flies, deer flies (below, right) have gold or green eyes, giving them that unmistakeable "alien" look.

Their bite can be extremely painful. Steve thought he had been stung by a hornet, but I assured him that it was a deer fly.

Last to appear on the backcountry scene -- usually in the "dog days" of summer in August -- are yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets. Yellowjackets tend to build their nests in the ground while bald-faced hornets (below, right) construct their homes in trees.

Both are quite nasty and their stingers are extremely painful. Aggressive predators that prey on other insects, they should be avoided at all costs.

So as we headed back down the Chiwawa River Trail to Trinity and Base Camp Juan, we were left with many reminders (read: bug bites) of our backcountry excursion. It's part of the price you pay to see such spectacular wilderness scenery (below).

For bug-free hiking, try September or October. The first couple of freezes at higher elevations take the bugs out of commission, except for the occasional -- and somewhat woozy -- yellowjacket.

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