Monday, May 20, 2013

Hard Core Black Flies

This is a black fly:
Can't you see the evil in its tiny eyes?
They are small, cretinous insects that bite, not unlike mosquitoes. However, unlike mosquitoes, I am terribly allergic to black flies. Where ever I get bit, the spot swells up to the size of a clementine, becomes rock hard and waxy, and (if I'm lucky) starts to ooze creepy yellow pus. There have been several times in my life when I have gotten bitten directly on the top of my head, and it makes me feel a little bit like this guy:

This is a Pachycephalosaurus!
I have been allergic to black flies since I was a tiny child and got bit on the back of my hand. My entire hand swelled up like a baseball glove for a few days, then the swelling went down. I then had to deal with the subsequent tragic sadness that came from accepting the fact that I was not going to be a child baseball prodigy. I had dreams of a made-for-TV Disney movie called "Black Fly Ball," the tagline of which would be "It started with a bite, and ended with the World Series." But it was not to be.

Black flies are drawn to CO2, which we conveniently expel with every breath we take. Typically I can hike fast enough that by the time the little buggers get to my breath cloud, I am already gone from that spot. However, after only a few minutes of standing still, black flies will swarm like screaming tweens outside a Justin Bieber concert. The swarming is amplified if there are multiple people hanging out in one location, as the black flies send messages back to each other through Wretched Insect Fidelity (WiFi).

As we have been doing Hard Core, we have been standing in the same section of the mountain, digging through ragged earth to cut new trails. This is like a buffet line for the black flies, who gorge themselves on our sweaty, hardworking bodies. For most folks, black flies don't make much of a difference other than a small, unobtrusive bite that may or may not itch a little bit. For me, if I get bit on my neck, I have to take benadryl within a few hours, otherwise the swelling will cut off my airway and I will suffocate. This happened to me once in high school, which was not as cool and dramatic as you might imagine. My classmates found out I was in the hospital, and I had visions of swaggering back into school with heroic bravado, looking ruggedly woebegone. Instead, I had a swollen neck waddle that would make Wilfred Brimley bristle with envy. This did not do any favors to my cowboy badassery.

Hard Core has been pretty cool, as we have been cutting new switch backs in the section of the trail just South of Kincora Hostel. We all wear hard hats, wield axes, and dig through huge rocks and gnarly roots to make a level trail. It is intensely hard work, and I have so much new found respect for all of the work that goes into maintaining the Appalachian Trail. We have to hike 2 and a half miles straight up a mountain, carrying the heavy tools, to get to the section we're working on. I feel really good to be giving back to the trail, and to be part of making the trail navigable for later hikers.

Yesterday, I noticed a few black flies. They weren't terrible, but it was the first time I'd seen them on the trail. We haven't bought any bug spray yet, because bugs haven't yet become a problem. However, I noticed getting bitten a few times throughout the day. I hoped that maybe I possibly have outgrown my allergy, that maybe the bites would just be like regular mosquito bites.

This morning I woke up to my left elbow looking like Gandalf's bulbous nose. I was also bitten on my ribs and my back, both of which are oozing and surrounded by a few inches of bright red, raised skin. Where we are currently, there is nowhere to buy bug spray (we're in the middle of nowhere). We had only one more day, then we would be able to get bug spray and I would be in the clear. So I headed up the mountain today, hoping that the overcast sky would lend itself to rain and scare the flies away.


Dumptruck and I had cut about 20 feet worth of trail when I finally realized it was unsafe for me to keep working. There were black flies crawling inside my hard hat, nestling into the corners of my eyes, and trying to swarm into my mouth. I spent half of the time cutting the trail, and the other half of the time swatting, twitching and flailing like I was being repeatedly and startlingly electrocuted. I had been bitten a few more times (on my ear, and my NECK, for heaven's sake), and I had to hike down the mountain to get to my regular pack, which had benadryl in it. It took me about 45 minutes to hike back down, as it's a pretty good distance. By the time I'd gotten to the truck, my ear had already started to swell up. Luckily I was bitten on the back of my neck, rather than the front, so because I was able to get benadryl rather quickly, I should be perfectly fine.

I am (clearly) going to continue with hiking the trail, but I will probably have to be on a steady diet of benadryl, and I am going to have to shower in deet every day. The bugs are only going to get worse as we go. Though right now we are several hundred miles south of our actual hiking spot, the black flies are probably not far off from getting that far north.

We are going to head back up to the trail tomorrow, and keep on with our trek north. I have been able to spend some really fun time with other hikers who are also doing Hard Core, who we have known before, but who we haven't seen in a while (Garebear, BearSnack, Peanut, Buffalo, Splash, Moses, Waffles and Storm). Hard Core made me feel totally cool, and I was definitely happy to be part of giving back to the trail.

Clever Girl

Dumptruck likely will be unable to upload any more photos to the blog while we hike. His camera can still take photos, but the button for transferring the files to web-ready files is broken from the rain a week ago. So, we'll just have to go with iPod photos. Alas! I am taking more video too, so I should be able to put up some more little videos every once in a while.

This is from Daleville - but I forgot to put it up before

This is before we cut the trail...

And this is after!

My swollen elboooowww. It doesn't normally look like that at ALL.


  1. DEET, DEET, DEET...BENADRYL, BENADRYL, BENADRYL. Also might be time to invest in a small epi-pen...better safe than sorry. You were wise to get off the hillside when you realized they were overwhelming you. The one thing most people don't like about Deet is the smell...based on some of your posts on hiker stinkiness Deet may be an improvement. At least it'll take the restaurant customer game of "what is that smell?" to a higher level of difficulty.

    By the way, you should put the purple dinosaur photo next to the hard hatted construction woman photo and let people guess who is the real you (trick answer...both!) That hard hat photo is SERIOUSLY hard core! ("Genius Pinup Girl Revealed to be Mattock Wielding Trail Stalker")

    Nice work to everyone for their dedication to the trail and to giving back! The good thing about Dumptruck's camera crisis is that we get to see more pictures of him! Yeah! You are both looking swell (haha). Love Mom and Dad

  2. AVON SKIN SO SOFT. For bug spray I mean... Really!!
    Find an Avon Lady, there must be swarms of them too in SW VA.

    Uncle John

  3. I'm allergic to mammal meat as a result of a tick bite (who knew this was an actual thing????) and I discovered Permethrin to spray on boots and gear. As a test I sprayed my hat on a day in Damascus when the gnats were especially irritating and not a single one landed on my face after that. Repel makes a spray that says "for gear and clothing" on the label. Getcha some!

    David - just a fan