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Column: Friendships worth the bloodletting

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Tuesday, July 16, 2019

I don’t know how the mosquitoes know, but they do know. They know that whenever a motorized vehicle, radiating carbon dioxide and heat (among their favorite attractors) pulls up to the steel gate at the entrance to the Dartmouth College Grant, smack in the middle of a large cold-water swamp, a sweating, and most likely adult male of at least middle years (features also on their hit parade) will emerge and walk toward the end of the gate where the padlock is concealed. They know that while his hands are busy fumbling for the lock and swinging the heavy steel pipe barricade open, he is defenseless, and they swarm upon him from their ambush in dense firs on both sides of the road.

They also know that the process of unlocking, opening, driving through, closing and locking the gate requires him to open the door of his vehicle four times, and they crowd aboard on each occasion to join him on his slow 10-mile dirt-road drive to Hellgate at the northern end of the Grant. If — as evidence suggests he frequently does — he pauses after his long drive north to relieve himself beside the gate, they redouble their attentions, until at last he retreats, arms waving, to the relative safety of his closed cab.

I’ve often been to places, like treeline in the Arctic, where the mosquitoes and black flies are so thick they interfere with every human activity and leave my friends and me bloody, lumpy and itching madly. Unable to fly, for example, across a cup of steaming hot coffee or soup, they drop helpless into it by the dozens, till the surface is a mat of fresh-cooked insect protein. I have often downed them with relish, citing the adage, “Turnabout is fair play.” But up there, you expect it, and the fishing, furthermore, is worth it. Here in the civilized South, we don’t expect it; and a few months behind screens turns us soft.

The late, wet spring of 2019 has created ideal conditions for the procreation of Simuliidae and Anophelinae, the former in flowing water and the latter in stagnant. Their presence, and our reactions to it, illustrate perfectly the conflict of interests when human beings move into territory long the province of its natural denizens. We try to repel or kill as many of them as we can; and they find us a source of blood much easier to get at than that of, say, a black bear or a bobcat.

So Kiki and I trundled slowly up the rocky logging road, I keenly aware of the low clearance of the Prius while trying to trap mosquitoes between my left hand and a window, and she snapping at the air. At the end of the drive, we discovered that somehow word had preceded us, and we were welcomed at least as warmly there as we had been at the gate. These ladies knew that when I was pulling the two-wheeled cart across the bridge and wide field to the cabin, I would again be defenseless. But at just the right moment my dear friend Jack showed up, offering to haul my gear, and I was saved from certain sacrilege.

Our group of ancients has traditionally convened at Hellgate in November, during hunting season. But the effort of trucking in firewood and hauling water from the river, combined with the recent poverty of the hunting, has militated against that; plus, in the summer months, the cabin has running water. The fly in that ointment — literally — is the bugs. It takes a day or so to get more or less used to them, and sitting on the porch with even a slight breeze is not bad at all. But with the cabin doors opening and shutting all day, they do make the nights indoors more lively than we might like. We may come next year in late May, if the snow and mud have sufficiently diminished.

All those difficulties and considerations pale before the pure pleasure of being in the company of other, like-minded, men like me, grown old upon the trail. We have a lot to talk about, both past and present, and our urge to be active remains. Dave and Put went off the first morning to climb the ledges of Diamond Peaks, and Jack and Eric sought out a little-known pool that turned out to be full of rising native brook trout. John and I stayed quietly behind. We both had books, and Kiki had acres of wild wonders to explore. She and I took a stroll up to the falls and plunge pool a few hundred yards away, where I finally managed to shoot a video with my iPhone: Kiki retrieving a stick from the water — and my finger.

Everybody was back in time for lunch. Jack had brought a half-case of Harpoon and John some bottles of his home-brew, delightful accompaniments both to our usual ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Then, with the dishes done and nothing in particular left to do, we variously hit the books, napped or sat in the rustic armchairs on the porch, chatting and soothed by the sounds of the falls in the background. Mid-afternoon was bath time up at the pool, an occasion for me to remember the summer 61 years ago, when I had to bathe in a river because that’s all there was; how I learned the hard way that if your soap doesn’t float, it’s soon gone; and that I’ve used Ivory without a break ever since. Jack had to give me a hand out of the river. But the soap still floats, the bugs still buzz, and old friendships endure.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.