STORIES OF OUR ADIRONDACKS
H. Perry Smith
Modern Babes in the Woods or Summerings in the Wilderness, published 1872
Smith's account of his north woods travels with six friends is one of my favorite Adirondack books . This edition is bound together with E. R. Wallace's "Guide to the Adirondacks," and in fact one of those accompanying Smith in his travels is that author, who he refers to as Ned.
Very little about the life of H. P. Smith is available other than that he lived from 1839-1925, and was the author of numerous history books including the History of Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, NY, Rutland County, Vermont, and Essex & Warren in New York.
Modern Babes in the Woods or Summerings in the Wilderness
Perhaps , as we have mentioned insects, a word or two regarding the particular varieties when in this great wilderness " most do congregate," will not be inappropriate.
As might be expected, the omnipresent mosquito abounds; but as we as a party, always possessing something akin to respect for this sleepless little nightingale.
It is the enemy who steals upon us unawares, the thief who comes in the night, the assassin who stabs us in our back, that we most despise; while around the deeds of the bold enemy who confronts us in is how person, or the dashing highwayman who politely invites us to loan him our purse, a sort of halo of glory arises.
It is so with wilderness insects.
There are four varieties that are prominent, and we will name them respectively, as the memory of their persecutions is more or less vivid, the least harmless first, viz: The unterrified mosquito, the persistent deer-fly, the insinuating black fly and that irrepressible quintessence of cussedness, the punkey. This is the order in which we appreciated the assiduity of their attentions; others may see or feel the thing in a different light. The taste of the blood of different people may affect the palates of these marauders differently, as we think it is the case. We have seen, on Racket Lake, and old superannuating, whiskey-soaked combination of guide, trapper and beggar, on injection of whose blood into a punkey's trunk, would make him gutter-drunk for a week and sick abed the next, while perhaps a tough mosquito might stand under it.
Such a man as that would naturally disagree with us, regarding the length of time required by one of each of these different varieties to kill a man; but we scorn any interference in our theory, and hold to our position.
The mosquito never stabs you in the back - if your coat is thick. What we mean is, he never comes unheralded. His onward march is proclaimed in dulcet tones, and he beguiles your ear with music before dining from your jugular. He must be a trifle egotistical, for he emphatically "blows his own horn." He is the dandy of his race.
Moreover, he evidently understands human nature and the motives of men; for he prudently delights you with the crescendo and diminuendo of his song, until, if fishing, he discovers you with one hand dexterously playing with a noble trout, before attempting to land him, and with the other grasping a limb, thereby steadying yourself upon the apex of a great, green, slippery rock in the rapids. With almost human sagacity, he takes in the position at a glance. He sees that if you drop your rod you lose your game, and if you loosen your grasp of the limb you will go over the falls. He reconnoiters the quiet member that rests upon the limb, hovers an instant above it, then settles upon a swelling vein, as lightly as a snow-flake in a lake.
No vain twitching of your muscles can dislodge him. He has secured his position by strategy. You stand there, resolved to be a martyr rather than risk the loss of the trout, while he lances your artery. At length, having landed your game, or lost it, you drop your rod, and just as the little insect's body swells with your red blood, you lift your disengaged hand slowly above his devoted head, slowly lower it with deadly aim, and slap! - where he was!
We can decry the generalship displayed by the mosquito; he gained his point; or rather, possessing the point by nature, he succeeded in stabbing your with it.
The deer-fly is a glutton; he strikes you in the face, and before you realize the fact, he is below your cuticle, and then nothing can shake him off. No, nothing. He clings to his dinner, and receiving his death-blow while at his unholy repast, he rolls at your feet. Fortunately they are short lived.
The black fly us about as large as a small kernel of wheat. He is the most reckless, and perhaps the most dreaded and most dangerous of the wilderness insects. He gets upon you, you hardly know how; generally alights upon your garments, and then crawls to his feeding-place. In fact he looks rather "buggy." Sanderson said the black fly reminded him of the good old "gray-back" days of '64. You scarcely have any intimation of their approach until you feel, or see, a few drops of blood trickling down your face or hand. He is literally a winged assassin. Like a cow in a garden, he destroys more than he eats; and for the sake of the small quantity of blood seemingly required to fill him up, he will bore a hole through your skin as big as his body, smother his black head in the absorbents, and then, like the boy in the molasses cask, believes in "lettin' her run." There are a few people in this world so blessed that the bite of the black fly does not poison them; but they are scarce. Governor insisted that he was one of the fortunate ones until the second day after we were fairly in the woods.
"Let 'em bite," he said; "it don't hurt me an atom. Suppose it does draw a little blood?- it will do me good." So he "let them bite" the first day. On arising the next morning he appeared to have a goitre in his neck, inflammatory rheumatism in his hands, and as Burnie said, "was a regular swell-head, generally." It is a peculiarity of the poison in the bite of the incest, that in the blood of most persons, the inflammation does not follow until some hours after the bite.
But the punkey is the "boss." In size they are about as big as a drop of fog. Magnified, they are a pair of jaws on wings. Their bite is instantaneous; in fact, it is now well settled that they don't bite in a dozen spots at once. Their jaws "go off" like a nitro glycerine.
It has been said that nothing is created without a purpose. If this statement be true, the punkey was created to eat. They are usually spoken of in the plural number, for hey go in droves. If you feel a bite from one, (and that "if" is entirely superfluous,) you may rest assured you are surrounded.
The other insects we have mentioned, may, by the judicious use of gloves, head-nets and such gear, be kept at bay; but punkies! - Governor swears they will fly through birch bark.
The black fly, when preparing to bleed you, can be seen; the mosquito warns you with music; but punkies can be neither seen nor heard, and if they could, what would it avail? You might, could you see them, kill an occasional one, but their funerals are marvelously well attended.
They breed any time, and are ready for business in fifteen minutes after birth. They can drill a hole in a person's skin twice as deep as their own bodies are long, in just two-fifths of a second, eat a square meal off his blood and get away in another fifth, digest it and return hungry during the other two. It is thought by some that there must be an instant of time while a punkey is tapping your blood-vessels, when he remains quiet; but we met no one who could make oath to it, except Capt. Parker of Long Lake. He informed us that he fired twice at what he supposed to be a panther in a tree directly over his head, but which further investigation proved to be a punkey in his eye brows.
We despair of giving an adequate description of the sensations experienced from an attack of a well-regulated family of punkies, bit it may be likened to a constant show of fine sharp sand upon ones face, each grain of which should be poisoned sufficiently to leave a sting for five minutes. There is one element that punkies can't stand. That is fire and smoke. Governor consoles himself with the remark, that if he is adjudged as unworthy in the next world, he will go where punkies can't live.
No; punkies can't live in thick smoke; but the trouble with this remedy is that there are but few men who can live many days and breathe nothing else. Another much vaunted antidote is a wonderfully nauseous decoction, called "Oil of Tar." This is the fluid almost universally used by guides, and by many sportsman, to drive away punkies. Personally, we never used it; but we have seen it, and smelled it, and we haven't a doubt that it answers the purpose. If punkies show any good taste or discrimination, it is in their unwillingness to suck blood through a coating of that stuff. It makes a man smell like the ruins after a fire, and his face look like a smoked shoulder.
Our preventive is one which answers tolerably well, and it has the merit of being clean, and smelling sweet. We speak of the old of Penny-Royal. This is mixed into fresh lard, and used freely in connection with "smudges," to clear a tent or shanty before retiring, is usually quite effective.
Its worst objection is, that its scent is not lasting. As a consequence, one is sometimes compelled to drop his rod when in the midst of an exciting "catch,' to renew the application.
Now, after having written this chapter, it occurs to us that perhaps Ned, in the Guide Book hereto appended, has given explicit descriptions and remedies for the persecution of these various pests; and the thought intrudes itself that maybe some reliable statements may have crept into our remarks on the subject, which might be duplicated by him. Perhaps, on a whole, it will be as well for the reader to skip this chapter entire, and seek solid information upon the subject in the appendix.
After this caution, any person rash enough to turn back, does so at his own risk.