Late one night, paddling somewhere along a swampy stretch of the St. Johns River, I decided to pull over and take a nap. I don't require much sleep. Five or six hours a night will do. But sometimes, especially when I've been up for a day or two, I need to crash. Fortunately, I can sleep just about anywhere — on a picnic table, the deck of a heaving sailboat, even under my desk with people working all around me. Give me 15 minutes of shut-eye and I am ready to take on the world. So naturally, I didn't think twice about pulling up on an old gator slide hidden among the cattails for a little nap. I figured as long as I moved on before the reptile came home from its midnight hunting trip, everything would be just fine. Not wanting to waste precious time by setting up a tent, I just laid down in my wet paddling gear on the bed the gator had prepared for me, propped up my life jacket as a pillow, and snored off to sleep. But I'd only been dozing for five minutes or so when I first heard the fearsome predator approach. It started with a distant buzz, followed by a loud hum, then a single bite. I swatted the beast, but before I could wipe away the blood, I found myself under attack by dozens of ravenous insects driven mad by the scent of fresh mammal blood.
I hate mosquitoes, but unfortunately, mosquitoes love me. Most people can avoid these winged little monsters by simply staying indoors.
But I'm an outdoors writer, so that's not an option. I not only find myself outside 12 months a year, but more often than not I'm out during the peak feeding times of dusk, just tempting those little vampires to feast on my flesh.
In the past 49 years, I have undoubtedly fed thousands of mosquitoes and other biting insects all over the globe.
New Zealand has some particularly virulent varieties, as does the Amazon Basin and the woods of Maine. But, by far, the nastiest bloodsuckers I have ever encountered can be found relatively close to home, in Everglades National Park.
Florida is said to have more than 80 species of mosquito, but I must confess that most look and feel the same to me. Some, because of the diseases they can carry — Eastern equine encephalitis, for example — are considered more dangerous than others. While this may be true, they're all equally annoying to me.
In our modern world, it is easy to avoid mosquitoes. But if you decide to live life outdoors, you have no choice but lift your chin and fight.
The battle plan
Florida's first inhabitants had an ingenious defense against mosquitoes and biting midges, a.k.a., no-see-ums. They covered their body with the smell of smoke from their campfires. While successful, this method may make you unpopular at home, school or work.
Another option is to buy one of the many commercially available insect repellents that usually include synthetic chemicals, such as DEET, or plant-derived agents, such as citronella.
Repellents with DEET come in various concentrations. The greater the concentration, I have found, the more effective the repellent.
But DEET is a strong chemical. Be careful with it around delicate fabrics. I once spilled some in my tent and it burned a hole in the floor.
While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Florida have done numerous studies affirming the effectiveness of this chemical, it should be noted that my experience has shown that repellents with high concentrations of DEET make my lips numb. Can long-term use of these substances be harmful? Perhaps, but so is West Nile virus.
There are other natural options. I've tried taking massive amounts of Vitamin B, onions and garlic. But in my case, the only things they have repelled were women, not biting arthropods.
The best defense is to cover up. Mosquitoes can only bite bare skin. Wear loose-fitting clothing and a mosquito net over your head. Another option: smoke foul-smelling cigars. While this is not recommended for children, adolescents or those in meaningful, monogamous relationships, it will help keep mosquitoes at bay.