Not This Summer

 
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After two summers of swatting mosquitoes, shivering in my sleeping bag, surviving on grayling and Mountain House freeze-dried food, breaking my back peeling poles and carrying a 60-pound pack, and spending the majority of my time without seeing a single teenager, let alone another person, this summer, I will be enjoying the anti-Alaska experience. That’s right! I will be trading in my bear spray for a bikini, my mosquito net for makeup, and my hiking boots for heels, and high-tailing it to Europe.

In honor of my cousin’s graduation, my 83-year-old German-born grandmother is taking me and my two cousins to Europe on a cruise. I will wear sun dresses every day, eat to my heart’s content, and see cliffs, castles, and vineyards. For two wonderful weeks I will be spoiled.

But, in exchange for spending-money, my dad has awarded me the job of scraping and painting the quarter-mile-long fence that runs along the front of our small farm. According to him, it is simply another vital lesson in the value of hard work. If I want to be spoiled, first I gotta pay my dues.

So each morning I get up, put on my old sap-stained, Alaska pole-peeling clothes, and head to the fence. I set down my Kindle — my old Coleen River sidekick — spray myself down with bug dope, blast Mumford and Sons, and begin the scraping.  It’s been a wet spring, and it feels like all the mosquitoes in Alaska have come down to pay me a visit. They hound me. The rhythm becomes painfully familiar: scrape, swat, swear, scrape, swat, swear. Sometimes, a neighbor comes out to watch me “Old man got you working again?” they ask. I just nod my head. Yup.

As I scrape, I picture myself in Europe, enjoying fine food, dessert wines and Swiss chocolate, riding through the canals of Amsterdam, and watching the World Cup final from an old German pub. At noon my dad pays me a visit. “Ugh, this is too much like peeling poles at Heimo’s,” I say.

“What’s the matter with you?” he responds. I thought you were an Alaska girl!”

“Nope,” I say. “Not this summer.”

Beasts of the Northern Wild (yes, yet another entry about mosquitoes)

Off on an adventure

In Arctic Alaska they say that summer is nothing but a sweet dream, a six-week window of sun and warm breezes, when flowers bloom and berries ripen. But what they don’t mention are the mosquitoes. And believe me they need to be mentioned. Minus the grizzlies, they are the real beasts of the northern wild.

July is known to be “mosquito month” and it was just my luck that this year happened to be one of the worst years on record. In fact, most people like Heimo, who live in the bush and survive winters of 50 below, usually leave during the month of July, just to avoid the skeeters. I had been warned about the bugs. A biologist in Fairbanks told us stories of clouds of mosquitoes driving huge herds of caribou to stampede into the waters of the Arctic Ocean and of driving grizzlies to the point of madness.  So I came prepared with a Thermacelle, countless cans of Deet, anti-itch cream, headnets, and the illusion that I could keep the mosquitoes at bay. Now, I know just how deluded I was.

I’m from Wisconsin, mosquito country, but nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught. No matter how much bug spray I wore, no matter how many layers I had on for protection, the mosquitoes still managed to leave every last inch of me–most annoyingly, my behind–covered in red, itchy dots. But gradually, I got used to the fact that I could never pee in peace. I learned to pick out mosquitoes that had flown into my water bucket, my pancakes, my nose, my mouth. I accepted that every time I walked through the brush or hauled water from the river I was mosquito meat. But, though there wasn’t a cute guy within 200 miles, I was NOT OKAY with big red bites on my face. So I spent my days in a hot headnet. I had to remember to lift the net to drink, eat, and spit. Had there been a cute boy, I still wouldn’t have taken it off. When we finally got out, I inspected myself in a full length mirror. My body was full of bites and blotches, but my face—perfection 😉

Thank god for the tent
Thank god for the tent

Blueberry – and Skeeter – Pancakes

Early Mornings in the Arctic
Grin and bear it!

Every morning by 7:00 A.M. I am sitting by the fire, sipping a cup of cocoa, while my Dad or Heimo makes breakfast (I am the camp’s lunch cook). Usually we have oatmeal for breakfast, but for a treat my dad fixes his special crispy pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries. After a steady diet of Arctic grayling (fish), I gobble them up like a ravenous grizzly coming out of hibernation. The mosquitoes, it seems, are as hungry as I am. Whether it’s warm or cool, I’m dressed in layers, determined not to leave a stitch of bare skin for them. They swarm around me as soon as I leave the tent and no amount of swatting or spray or smoke from the fire discourages them. They also like the pancake mix, so along with the blueberries, the mix usually contains a dozen or so mired mosquitoes. “No big deal,” my dad says. “We need the protein.” When they drive me to the point of madness, I jump through the fire like an exotic circus performer. I hear that sizzle and crackle and I am filled with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve gotten those “dirty little bastards” (Heimo’s phrase) back.  Inevitably some of the dead mosquitoes end up in my pancakes. Though I’d prefer pancakes with sun-soaked blueberries from the Arctic tundra, blueberry and skeeter pancakes are pretty good, too. They taste sweet – like revenge.

Gritty Gal at the campsite
Me at the campsite