Henningsen: Black flies and bug dope

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(HOST) Black fly season supposedly lasts from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.  As the season begins, VPR commentator and former park ranger Vic Henningsen reflects that bug repellants… ain’t what they used to be.

(Henningsen)  Deep in the drawer where I keep odds and ends for hiking is an old bottle of bug dope I’ve had since the 1960’s. For years I thought this stuff was no longer available in its original form.  In fact, now that I’ve admitted possession, I expect a visit from Environmental Protection agents in hazmat suits.  Apparently, whatever was in it in those days was highly toxic: hazardous to me; to you; to pretty much everything.

Yeah, well, that’s as may be.  The fact is:  it worked and I’ve yet to find anything half as effective.  

I never learned for sure what was in it.  Supposedly, some old-timers brewed up potent mixtures of citronella, creosote, pine tar, dirt, tree bark and who knows what else to keep the little critters away. Like Kentucky moonshine, single malt whiskey, and maple syrup, each batch was just a little different. Applied fresh, it made you smell as if you’d bathed in pine tar, rinsed with creosote, and dried off by rolling in campfire ashes.  It repelled man and beast. Just putting it on made you feel as if you’d been in the woods for months.  But it did the job – most of the time.  And when the flies were so ferocious that even dope didn’t work, someone told me, "Drink it – nothing will bother you."

But it aged gracefully. I cherish memories of digging into the hiking closet for last season’s clothes. After a winter in storage the bug dope had mellowed and hiking gear smelled like Lapsang Souchong tea. If there was a Proust of the woods, it would be the lingering aroma of old bug dope that would send him into a nine volume reverie.

Bug dope was great for fishermen, loggers, trail crews, and others who don’t seek public interaction. But when I was a ranger-naturalist on Mount Mansfield I was specifically forbidden to use the hard stuff.  I made do with a spray that had a milder impact on the public – and on the bugs.

Then I discovered a clear, odorless, liquid repellant my outdoor outfitter sold under the counter in unmarked bottles.

"Powerful stuff", he said, "Takes the paint off cars."  

He wasn’t kidding. It also ate holes in my pack and dissolved hardcover bird guides. It killed black flies ten feet away, but it made me really nervous.  

After that, I got used to swatting. But a little while ago, a friend mailed me a small brown bottle of – guess what? – bug dope. Apparently, it never went out of circulation – I did. When I left the company of hard core woodsmen, I lost touch with the magic elixir.

Delighted as I am to rediscover it, I’m a tad dubious.  It can’t be as good as the old stuff from the ’60’s, since they apparently got it past the EPA.  

But it’s worth a try.

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