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Thom Barker: Summertime and the living is… get away spawn of Satan!

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

I do not believe in the devil, but if ever there was proof of his existence, however anecdotal and/or circumstantial, it is black flies.

Up here on the edge of the world, people just call them flies. Sometimes they call them sandflies, which I do not get at all because where I come from sand flies (aka gnats) are the most innocuous of insects.


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Then there are the deer flies. Up here on the edge of the world people just call them flies. In fact, pretty much anything that flies that is not potentially supper if you happen to have a shotgun handy—people always have a shotgun handy—are just called flies.

Sometimes, when the wind is up enough to knock down the black flies, but not strong enough to deter the deer flies, I think maybe the deer flies are just as bad. Then there’s a lull in the wind and that brief moment of delusion evaporates.

Of course, everything in nature has a purpose.

The purpose of black flies, also known by their scientific name, spawnium sataniatum, is to make Labradorians and northern Ontarians, and northerners in general, appreciate the good things in life, such as gale force winds and the dead of winter.

We’ve all heard horror stories. One that has stuck with me is a Geological Survey of Canada legend about a geologist working in the Northwest Territories who got lost only to be found the next morning suffocated by black flies just a few hundred metres from camp.

I cannot independently verify that folk tale, but anybody who has experienced Labrador-level black flies would certainly find it plausible.

I have also heard of moose and bears dying in similar fashion, but again, I do not have documentary evidence, simply a compelling desire to believe.

On the other hand, I have personally witnessed caribou standing on a ridge, face into the wind, presumably seeking some modicum of relief.

I have also personally been driven to take refuge in a small tent on a cloudless, still July afternoon and listened to the flies patter against the canvas like steady rain.

And it is impossible to get used to them. Every summer, when they get so thick I have to breathe through my nose, I think, “What fresh hell is this what nature hath wrought.” Yes, when faced with a plague of biblical proportions, my thoughts take on a Shakespearean tone.

As this column percolated in my head while I was frantically retreating to my car fighting off clouds of the backwoods trifecta of horror (black flies, deer flies and mosquitos) despite having virtually bathed in industrial-strength insect repellant, I tried to think of something positive about them.

I came up with: “If one good thing can be said about black flies—because I like to try to see silver linings in black fly clouds—it would be that at least they don’t carry disease.”

Of course, a quick Google search, for the sake of due diligence, dispelled that old myth too.

“In Central America, tropical (South) America and Africa, black flies frequently transmit nematodes causing river blindness (onchocerciasis) in humans,” noted The Canadian Encyclopedia. “In Canada, black flies cause human suffering and are a scourge to livestock. In the ATHABASCA R region of northern Alberta, weight loss in cattle caused by the black fly attacks in one outbreak (1971) amounted to 45 kg per animal; 973 animals were killed in one area alone by Simulium arcticum, a species whose saliva contains a toxin which in large quantities causes anaphylactic shock and sometimes death in cattle. In Saskatchewan, 1100 cattle were killed by this black fly species during the outbreak years of 1944-47. Black flies are a nuisance to humans. For example, forest workers in northern BC and Québec demand black fly control as part of their work contract.”

So, in fact, there is nothing good to be said about black flies—their role in nutrient cycling and medical research notwithstanding—as aptly demonstrated by one of the first Europeans to encounter them.

"If I had not kept my face wrapped in cloth, I am almost sure they would have blinded me, so pestiferous and poisonous are the bites of these little demons,” wrote missionary Joseph Le Caron 400 years ago. “They make one look like a leper, hideous to behold. I confess this is the worst martyrdom I suffered in this country: hunger, thirst, weariness and fever are nothing to it.”

Those of us who have taken up his mantle of martyrdom feel his suffering, but there is one beacon of hope.

Winter is coming.

thom@thombarker.ca

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