written by: Jim Bates
Maybe it was my delirium. Maybe panic. But suddenly I could see the headlines and they were disturbing, After Frantic Twenty Four Hour Search, Middle Aged Man Found Eaten Alive. Oh, God, I thought to myself, I don’t want to die. Don’t let this end that way. I burrowed deeper into the leaves on the forest floor and tried to hide from the raging insects. It didn’t help much.
I’d dropped my wife Lori off at the casino southwest of Duluth where she was meeting Clare and Lisa for a weekend of best friend bonding. Before I began the two hour drive home south to Hackensack, I did something I’d always wanted to do: I drove thirty miles north to the wild area of tamarack swamps and treacherous potholes called the Sax-Zim Bog. I was an avid birder and the Minnesota Ornithologists Union had reported that some great grey owls had been sighted off a county road near the northwest corner of the area. I’d never seen one before so I’d decided to spend the afternoon bird watching.
Cell phone reception was non-existent in many areas of the north woods and remote Sax-Zim was no exception, but I had a pretty good idea where to go. Plus I had a map. It was early afternoon when I found the general location near a little used gravel road out in the middle of nowhere. I pulled the car off to the side, jamming it into a thick patch of weeds, and got out, taking a moment to take in the gently rolling terrain dotted with tamarack pines and tall spindly aspen. Then I locked the doors and got ready for my trek into the wilderness by spraying myself down with the strongest insect repentant available, Northwood’s Off With Deet, covering my long sleeve flannel shirt, blue jeans, boots, baseball hat and even my face with the stuff (keeping my eyes closed, of course). I put the can in my day pack along with binoculars, two bottles of water and five granola bars. I looked up at the cloudless sky. The summer had been rainy and wet, but today there was no chance of precipitation. It was supposed to be hot, near eighty-five degrees, and humid, too, the kind of weather insects loved. I was parked next to an old logging road, so the going would be fairly easy. It wasn’t too late in the day so I’d just walk in for a mile or so, and if I didn’t see any owls, I’d turn around and walk out. Good plan, right? Well, I should have listened to myself.
As soon as I entered the woods the black flies (sometimes referred to as gnats) found me and started swarming around my head. They were bad, but not so much so that they stopped me from undertaking my quest. As I walked, I got in the habit of waving my right hand in the air to help keep them away from my face, but it didn’t help much. They started landing my wrist near the veins and biting through my skin, sometimes drawing tiny spots of blood.
It was obvious the logging road was little used because it was covered with knee high grass and weeds. The woods on both sides were thick with underbrush as well as pine trees and aspen, making the forest seemed more dense than it first appeared when I’d driven up. And a little foreboding. I could only see into it maybe a fifty feet or so. To make matters worse, the further along I hiked the more dense the undergrowth became, causing what little breeze there was to vanish. With the ensuing calm, the forest seemed to close in ominously, making me feel more than a little claustrophobic. The air became still, hot and stifling, the only sound the buzzing of all the black flies. It didn’t take long for them to become more and more numerous, flying around my face, getting on my clothes and crawling into my shirt, under my hat and into my ears. They bit and they drew blood. I sprayed some more, but it didn’t seem to help.
I picked up my pace, walking faster and faster, almost trotting. I couldn’t escape the black flies but I worked up a sweat, which they liked a lot. They attacked even more vigorously, like I was some sort of human smorgasbord. After a mere fifteen minutes of hiking, their feeding frenzy started to get more than annoying; there were so many of them and they were so relentless, they were becoming downright maddening.
Almost as bad as the black flies, though, were the misquotes. They attacked viciously, landing with abandon on any exposed skin surface they could find and instantly sucking my blood. I constantly was slapping at them but to little effect; they were all over me. Between them and the black flies it was hard to say which were worse; they were both voracious and hungry. It was awful. A half an hour into my hunt for the great grey owl and here I was beaten down by the insects and close to physically exhausted. I should have given up and gone back to my car and rescued myself from their buggy onslaught, but I didn’t. I somehow convinced myself to keep going, as if I’d walk away from them. No such luck. The longer I hiked, the more they kept attacking, never giving up on their quest for my blood.
Then, to make matters worse, I was soon besieged by deer flies and horse flies, buzzing around my head, landing any exposed skin and even on the back of my shoulders where they started biting through my shirt. It was clear that both species were equally hungry and both equally ravenous for a piece of me. When they bit, they hurt, and left red welts. Soon I was covered with them. I lost track of how many of the damn things I killed after I quit counting at twenty-five.
But I was doing my best to keep my spirits up in spite of the challenging conditions. I was seeing some neat birds, and two that I could add to my Life List: a pretty little chestnut sided warbler and a three-toed woodpecker. So that was good. But it was when I heard the call of a rarely seen scarlet tanager, and went in search of it by going off the trail, that’s when my troubles really began.
First, I saw the flash of its reddish-orange body and black wings through the trees off to the right. I brought up my binoculars and caught a brief glimpse of color as it flew through the high forest canopy deeper into the woods. Without thinking I swung my binoculars over my shoulder and stepped off the trail, plunging through the thick undergrowth past birch and poplar and black cedar trees, hurrying in search of the elusive bird.
After a few minutes I came to a clearing and stopped to rest. I had a drink from my water bottle and looked deeper into the forest but saw no sign of the tanager. The longer I stayed quiet, the more the woods came alive with more and more birds singing and calling, making it really quite pleasant even if the constant droning of all the insects buzzing around me threatened to drown out even the loudest of the bird’s songs.
It was about that time that I noticed the light was starting to fade, indicating that it was getting to be late afternoon. The wise thing at that point would have been to turn around, head back to the trail and hike to my car. That’s what I should have done. But then I heard the singular “Hoo-hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoo-hoo” of a great gray owl. My heart sped up and adrenaline started pounding through my veins. I quickly stowed my water and hurried deeper into the woods in the direction I thought the call came from. After a few minutes of searching, and not hearing any more from the owl, I stopped to take stock of my situation. It didn’t take but a moment to realize that I had no idea where I was. All the trees looked the same and the forest was thick with cedar and hemlock and aspen, deep and dense. I saw no known landmarks. A twinge of fear set in. I couldn’t be lost, could I?
I’m embarrassed to say that I spent the next few hours flailing around blindly through the woods and lowlands and swamps of Sax-Zim Bog trying to find my way back to the trail. I tried to use the sun to tell the direction, but I couldn’t see it very well due to the denseness of the forest. And, whenever I got to a clearing, I had no idea which way to go once I did see the sun. I’m afraid I really made a mess of things.
I never did find the owl, but I eventually did find myself mired in the low swampy bog-land the Sax-Zim area is known for. My boots quickly filled with water and became soaked with wet, oozy, drainage. I got stuck a few times and fell trying get my feet out of the mud. Soon, I was covered from head to toe with decaying plant material commonly known as muck. I was filthy and dirty and physically exhausted, not to mention being in bad shape emotionally.
I wandered around for at least another hour, checking my watch and getting more and more nervous, trying to fight off not only the insects, but the increasing panic that was setting in. Around sundown I came upon a small pond covered in lily pads. I bent down and washed some of the muck off my face and when I was finished I saw that I had eight blood suckers on my hands. I pulled them off, and then carefully reached up, felt for, and then pulled three more from my face.
It was about then that my spirits sank to their lowest. It was nearly dark. I was clearly lost. I was exhausted. I had no idea where I was. The insects were swarming all around me non-stop. Would I ever get out of this place? I found a log to sit on and ate my last granola bar along with probably two-dozen black flies that flew into my mouth when I opened it. Protein, I thought grimly to myself.
The sun finally set below the tree line in the west and, with it, my spirits, already low, sank even further. It was now clear that I was going to have to spend the night in the woods. The thought scared the hell out of me because I knew how bad the insects could get after sundown.
They were true to form and didn’t disappoint. They came out in droves, swarming with an increased and frightening ferocity, looking to make a meal of me: black flies, misquotes, deer flies and horse flies, all swarming non-stop, not giving me a moments rest. I judiciously used my North Wood’s Off but it finally ran out. With the sun down, the darkness quickly became deep and pervasive, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. The night was pitch-black, and I was being eaten alive. I couldn’t see past the nose on my face to walk any further so I did the only thing I could think of doing; I pulled myself into a ball and tried to cover myself with leaves from the forest floor for protection. It didn’t seem to help much.
It occurred to me that wood ticks would now be a problem, along with the buzzing insects that had been attacking me all day. Oh. My. God. How had it all come to this? Insects and bugs, biting me to death and feeding on me. How would I survive the night? Right about then I remembered reading once about how black flies could drive deer to run at top speed madly through the woods to try to shake them off. I was totally sympathetic to their plight.
I think I eventually passed out under my leafy blanket, because when I awoke I itched so badly from all the insect bites that I thought about wading out into the pond for some relief, to hell with the blood suckers. Mentally, I was in pretty bad shape and probably not capable of making the most rational of decisions. Fortunately, I didn’t have to, because right then I heard a voice.
“Lonny. Lonny Baker. Are you out there? Can you hear me?”
What the hell was going on? Was I imagining voices now? Was I hallucinating? Who cared. I jumped up, shaking leaves and forest debris from my clothes and yelled, “Yeah, I’m here. I’m over here. Down by the pond.”
“Stay right where you are. Help is on the way. We’re coming.”
I could see light from flashlights cutting through the darkness. Could it be that people were coming to get me? I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it seemed that yes, yes they were. I heard more voices and they were real, not in my head. I wasn’t imagining it. My god, I was going to be rescued. I was saved.
Later I found out what had happened. A local farmer had seen my car parked off the side of the road and was monitoring it. When it hadn’t moved by sunset, he’d called the Department of Natural Resources and they’d organized a search party. Those eight folks had gone onto the trail just as night was falling and, using high beam flashlights and good tracking sense, found me around midnight. I was two miles from the trail and four miles from my car. For all I knew, I could have been in another country.
I spent the night in the hospital in Duluth being treated for dehydration and, of course, insect bites. Everyone said they’d never seen anything like it. “Man,” one of the orderlies said, “You look like they were eating you alive.”
No kidding, but I didn’t bother to say anything because it was obviously true. I had been. I’d read Jack London’s short story when I was a kid, “To Build a Fire,” about a guy who slowly freezes to death in the Alaska woods. I could relate, except substitute insects for the cold. I thought for sure I’d never get through that night with those black flies and misquotes sucking my blood and the deer flies and horse flies chewing on any exposed skin. Not to mention the wood ticks. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out. I’d been rescued. I was lucky.
My wife’s friends drove her to the hospital early that morning. Lori took one look at my face and tried not to grimace (I gave her big points for that) but honestly didn’t do a very good job of it. I could sympathize, as well as empathize. I’d seen myself in the mirror, and it wasn’t pretty. I looked like I had a bad case of leprosy with chicken pox and the measles tossed in for good measure.
Later, on the drive home, Lori told me that in two months she and Clare and Lisa were going back to the casino. “Yeah, we had a good time. We might even make it a regular thing, you know, a best friend get-together. This next time we might…”
It was nice to hear her voice. As she drove, she quietly filled me in on her time with her friends while I listened and casually itched my innumerable bites. Her soothing voice was distracting in a good way, and the closer we got to home the more it seemed like all things were almost back to normal. Almost. See, unfortunately, while she talked I could only hear part of what she was saying. There was a persistent and inescapable buzzing in my head, aftermath, the doctor had told me, of being attacked by all those insects.
“Yes, it’s a neurological phenomenon,” he told me, as I was getting ready to leave my hospital room earlier that morning. “It’s brought on by being in a stressful situation for a long period of time, which you obviously were in. Hopefully, it won’t last too long.” He had patted me on the shoulder before adding, “The good thing, though, is that at least you’re alive.”
Yeah, at least I was alive, but, man that buzzing…I involuntarily shuddered at the unsettling memory of those black flies and misquotes and deer flies and horse flies and how they had swarmed all over me and bit me and fed on me and drank my blood and wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t give up on their quest to eat me alive.
I went back to listening to my wife’s soothing voice. It was just the healing tonic I needed; I didn’t ever want her to stop. By the time we arrived home, the memory of Sax-Zim Bog was just that, a distant memory, and that was just fine with me. The buzzing in my head? Well, one of these days…One of these days, hopefully, it will be gone.
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