I know what you’re thinking. “Bold claim, Mikaela. What, you really think you’re the only one who has encountered bugs in your camping life?” No, obviously everyone who camps has encountered bugs. But if you want to tell me you’ve had a worse experience than the one I’m about to tell you about, I’ll need to see some photo evidence.
Let me tell you about May 27th, 2017. It was a Saturday and the first day of my whitewater paddling certification course. This is a course that has us practice paddling canoes through rapids. I needed to take the course to refresh my paddling skills before starting at my new job as a canoe guide for camp.
I’d flown in from Europe the night before, driven 3 hours to reach the Magnetawan River, set up camp in the dark and quickly fallen asleep. The next day, I began the course. I spent the entire day on the water, playing in rapids and refreshing my whitewater skills. The day was a ton of fun, except for the occasional pesky black fly.
The first thing you need to know about black flies: before they bite, they numb you, so you don’t know they are biting you
So I didn’t actually notice the majority of black flies that feasted on me that day. I expected to end the day with two or three bites that could easily be covered up. However, at the end of the first day of the course I realized how wrong I was. I went to the bathroom and was startled to see myself in the mirror; I practically gagged in disgust. My face was literally covered in a hundred red dots from the all black fly bites. As if this wasn’t bad enough….
The second thing you should know about black flies: their bites swell. A lot.
I woke up on Sunday morning to a face I didn’t even recognize. My neck had swollen to twice its size; one of my eyes was swollen shut. It’s funny looking back, but in all seriousness, this moment was quite traumatic. Also, multiple black fly bites can result in “black fly fever” with symptoms including headaches, nausea and fever. Considering I had easily a hundred (nay, a thousand?) bites on my face, I had the pleasure of experiencing all of these symptoms.
Best part of it all? I had another full day out on the water. Usually, by the time I get to this point in the story, someone has said “Mikaela, why wouldn’t you have just worn a bug hat to protect yourself?” If you’re not familiar, a bug hat has a mesh covering that, in theory, protects your face from bugs. “Wow, brilliant observation, listener. Why hadn’t I thought of that?”
Oh wait, I had. Here’s the thing.
You can’t wear a bug net when you paddle in rapids!
It’s a safety thing. Bug hats reduce your visibility and present a choking hazard if you were to fall into a rapid wearing them. This means I had another day of black fly trauma. I COVERED my face and neck with the most powerful bug spray available, and this proved mildly effective. I didn’t get too many more bug bites (probably because there was no where left to bite), but I definitely still got more.
After the course wrapped up I drove to Walmart and bought everything under the sun that could help me feel better. Well, I tried to buy everything, but then my credit card got declined. Imagine that. A girl with a polka-dotted face, one eye swollen shut and a neck as wide as the rest of her head walks into Walmart to buy Reactine, Aloe Vera, Calamine lotion and general health products and gets her credit card declined. Dejected, I walked about with a single pack of Reactine because that’s all I had enough cash for.
You know what? I lied earlier. What I’m about to say next was actually the best part.
That evening I had to go to my first day at a brand new job, with people I had never met before
Oh, the trauma continues! I had a full week of training for my new job this week. I didn’t know a single person. No one knew what I actually looked like. I had to introduce myself with “Hi I’m Mikaela, please don’t mind my face and neck. I got attacked by bugs.” It was mortifying.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, my team had a full week of camping ahead of us. I had to go back into the black fly infested wilderness. Again.
For the next week, I went through the same song and dance. Over the course of the day, the swelling would go down. But each morning I’d wake up to a new variation of swelling. The hardest part to believe is that of all the terrible photos I took of my face, I didn’t take a single photo when it was at its absolute worst. I know, that seems impossible. How could it be even worse? I wish I could transfer the image of my scabbed, bitten, swollen face – an image permanently seared in my mind – onto a photo so you would understand the full extent of my condition. As I cannot, please believe me when I say it was even worse than these photos suggest.
The only silver lining in this whole ordeal is that I met one of my best friends as a result of my face. She was working with the nurse at the camp’s wellness center for the summer and, upon seeing me, provided me with ample drugs and lotions and ointments to aid in my recovery.
Eventually I did recover…
After that week long canoe trip with my team members, I had almost two weeks at home with my family before returning to camp to officially begin the summer. When I returned to camp, a ton of people didn’t recognize me. I re-introduced myself to everyone and usually got a response along the lines of “holy f**k, I didn’t even recognize you!”
There is no way I could have prevented the bug attack. That much I have come to terms with. I mean, there are a few little mistakes I could have done differently (i.e. not maxing out my credit card in Europe….) but overall I don’t think events could have played out in any other way.
What I did learn was resilience. I learned to stand proudly in front of a room full of strangers, even if I felt anything but proud. I learned that sometimes, you just have to hold back tears and get on with your day, as hard as that may seem. I learned that some things can only be cured with patience (some thing that is occasionally in short supply).
And you know what? As soon as my face healed, I went out into the wilderness for over 50 nights of canoe guiding. I almost lost my sh*t four or five times due to the number of bugs, but again, I survived. Whatever gets thrown at me, I always seem to survive. And you know what? Whatever is going on with you, whatever thing you feel like you can’t get through, whatever your equivalent to my bug-apocalypse is, you will survive that too.