Black Fly Season

A Yankee Notebook with Willem Lange

The late Wade Hemsworth is to Canada roughly what Willie Nelson is to the United States. In the summer of 1949, then a 33-year-old Canadian World War II veteran, he traveled north into the Ontario bush between Lake Nipigon and James Bay to work as a surveyor. From that experience came what is perhaps Canada's best-known lyric, immortalized with an animated film accompaniment and arranged by the peerless McGarrigle sisters. "The Black Fly Song." You can call it up on YouTube, but you probably can't watch and listen to it without itching and scratching.

During the past week I've noticed complaints about New England black flies, voiced mostly by people who've just mowed their lawns or taken their dogs for walks through the woods. My journals record an average appearance on May 6. This year it was April 27. They're back, pesky and early.

But you have no idea how bad they can be in the center of their kingdom, a vast swath of territory from the Canadian border northward all the way to beyond the Arctic Circle. And it's hard to imagine a job more vulnerable to their attacks than Wade's. Having to stand still and peer through a telescope at a distant rod and make notes on a pad – or for that matter, having to stand still while holding the rod – as literally hundreds of tiny, whining, biting flies swarm about your head and crawl into every crevice and opening in your clothing or skin, must take the patience of Job and the persistence of Sisyphus.

They're in the order Diptera, meaning they're "true flies," with two wings. There are several genera, the commonest being Simulium; and my favorite species, clearly named by a suffering scientist, is damnosum. They're so small it's hard to get a good look at them; but in profile, under magnification, I often tell people, they look like a six-legged bison with a hump, wings and a mouth full of knives. Their appetite for blood is insatiable, and their favorite targets, just as with mosquitos', are white, middle-aged, sweating, obese men. Strangely, you never hear people in that category, who often complain of being threatened demographically, grousing that they're being targeted by the humble Simulium, as well.

Apologists for the black fly – there are very few – like to point out that they are pollinators of the wild blueberry. That may be true, but I've never been able to verify it. If they have any redeeming value at all, it's that where you find them, the nearby streams are clear, clean, and flowing over pebbly bottoms.

Black flies in the far north are an important source of protein for migratory birds, who arrive at their nesting grounds just as the flies are hatching, sometimes in clouds so dense they look like mist. On our first northern trip, in 1989, we found the thickest swarms at the outlets of lakes, where all the invertebrates were being funneled into the current and the predators lurked. At a campsite at the outlet of Kathawachaga Lake, the yellow canoe of the three in our fleet was more than half-blanketed in flies. A video we shot there features flies swarming around the lens and making little fizzing noises as they strike the microphone. But they were mild compared to the swarms we encountered right at tree line on the Leaf River in Nunavik. They flew into every orifice; we inhaled and ingested them. Dudley tried to drink his soup through his bug net. And when I took off my pants to get into my sleeping bag, I discovered my shorts soaked with blood.

On the open tundra, where there's usually a wind, the flies hover to leeward of everybody's head, like a pulsating wind sock. Turn into the wind, and only a few will make it into your ears; face downwind, and your face is instantly full of flies. In situations like that, you stroll casually to windward of your nearest pal, and the worst of your troubles are briefly over, while his double. Once everybody catches on to what's happening, the scene begins to resemble a square dance. Everything but the music.

I discovered early on that neither black flies nor mosquitoes can fly across a cup of steaming coffee without crashing into it. Before long there's a raft of freshly steamed protein floating in your cup. It seems only fair to do to them what they were trying to do to you. To keep them away, an application of 100% DEET helps a little, but you have to be careful. The stuff melts sunglasses and fishing lines, and one sunny day burned holes in the back of my hand, which the two doctors in the group, clearly unmoved, soberly diagnosed as a case of galloping terminal necrosis, and gave me four more days, tops.

The caribou seek out large patches of snow, where the flies are less dense, and rest there when they can. Many men, on the other hand, have been driven mad by the incessant attacks and itching of the bites. There's nothing, really, to be done about them but grin and bear them – the operative word being "grin." Wade Hemsworth's song hits just the right note – "I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' at my bones" – and I cherish the memory of standing with my mates and downing a nutritious cup of hot Café Damnosum.


Return to the
Windows to the Wild
Main Page

WINDOWS TO THE WILD WITH WILLEM LANGE is generously supported by the Alice J. Reen Charitable Trust and the Bailey Charitable Foundation

Willem Lange’s wardrobe is generously donated by The Kittery Trading Post


Watch Online

Plum Island

Find out what attracts our feathered friends to this special spot.

Watch More Black Fly Season

TV Schedule

Full Schedule



Learn More...


Podcast

Listen on your favorite podcast platform

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts Subscribe on Google Podcasts Subscribe on Podbean Subscribe on I Heart Radio Subscribe on Amazon Music

 

Thanks to our podcast partner: The Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce University


More Video

Scenic Railriders - Wild Moments

Scenic Railriders - Wild Moments

Host Willem Lange takes viewers on a ride along the Scenic RailRiders track in Concord, NH.

Eco River Run - Wild Moments

Eco River Run - Wild Moments

A North Conway, NH family shares what they learned about the effects of climate change.

Our Rocky Seacoast

Our Rocky Seacoast

Willem and Wendy Lull explore and discuss ways to record and preserve life on the coast.

Moose Whispers

Moose Whispers

Willem goes looking for moose with long-time moose researcher Charles Willey in Colebrook.


Long Trail Hike In Vermont

Long Trail Hike In Vermont

A trip along Vermont's Long Trail.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Join host Willem Lange on a tour of a Cambridge oasis -- the Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Adventures With Floki

Adventures With Floki

Melissa Elam has hiked all of NH's 4,000-foot mountains with her cat, Floki.

Eco River Run

Eco River Run

A North Conway family shares what they learned about the effects of climate change.

Journey Across Ireland

Journey Across Ireland

Willem and a group of people from throughout New England took a trip through Ireland.

Scenic Railriders

Scenic Railriders

What do you do with a section of 170-year-old abandoned railroad track?

Changing Winter

Changing Winter

Gabriel Andrus will ski from the northern border of NH to its southern border this winter.

Rockhounds

Rockhounds

There are gems in the hills. Host Willem Lange learns there's a lot to rock hunting.

Record-Setting Hiker

Record-Setting Hiker

Arlette Laan is the first woman to hike all eleven of the National Scenic Trails.

Kayaking With Cookies

Kayaking With Cookies

Kayaker Betsy Wish set out years ago to meet the people who catch our lobsters.

All Persons Trail

All Persons Trail

The Manchester Cedar Swamp Preserve is considered an ecological gem.

Coastal Trek

Coastal Trek

Host Willem Lange is at sea on the American Eagle schooner.

Hiking Safely with Chaya Harris - Wild Moments

Hiking Safely with Chaya Harris - Wild Moments

WINDOWS TO THE WILD's good friend and Outdoor Enthusiast, Chaya Harris from Outdoor Afro.

Hiking Responsibly with Tom Ryan - Wild Moments

Hiking Responsibly with Tom Ryan - Wild Moments

Getting outdoors is important but its also important to be safe.

Rowing the Erie Canal

Rowing the Erie Canal

Competitive rower Erik Frid takes a break from competition to row 300 miles.

Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor Classroom

Susie Spikol is a naturalist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education.

Community Outing

Community Outing

Mt. Eustis Ski Hill opened in 1939 and was a community gathering place until it closed.

One Thousand Hours Outside

One Thousand Hours Outside

New Hampshire resident Susan Dromey Heeter is competitive.

Hiking with David

Hiking with David

David Krueger is a Language Specialist / Interpreter, you may have seen him.

Sectional Hiker

Sectional Hiker

Redline guide Ken Hodges hikes with Debby "Bear Repellent" Roberts.

Summits In Solidarity

Summits In Solidarity

Willem hikes with partners and participants of Summits in Solidarity.

Wood Island Lifesaving Station

Wood Island Lifesaving Station

The Lifesaving Station at Wood Island was used for sea rescue prior to the Coast Guard.

Wood Island Lifesaving Station (Preview)

Wood Island Lifesaving Station (Preview)

The Lifesaving Station at Wood Island was used for sea rescue prior to the Coast Guard.

Paddling The Saco

Paddling The Saco

Conway photographer Joe Klementovich uses a paddleboard to explore 130 miles of the Saco.

School at Sea

School at Sea

Students attend school aboard a schooner.

Season 17

Season 17

Join us for an all new season of Windows to the Wild with Willem Lange! Wednesdays at 7:30

A Hike With Friends

A Hike With Friends

Host Willem Lange is with friends on the Tucker Mountain trail in Vermont.

Hiking Back In Time With Tom Ryan

Hiking Back In Time With Tom Ryan

Host Willem Lange is off to Cape Cod w/ Kiki for a hike with bestselling author Tom Ryan.

Winter In The White Mountains

Winter In The White Mountains

Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Mardi Fuller will take viewers on a winter hike.

Hidden Treasures

Hidden Treasures

Jason Berard is the Stewardship Director at the Upper Valley Land Trust.

Hidden Treasures (Preview)

Hidden Treasures (Preview)

Some of New Hampshire's "hidden treasures".

My Hike With Laura Waterman (Preview)

My Hike With Laura Waterman (Preview)

In 1971, Laura Waterman and her husband Guy decided to leave behind a corporate life.

My Hike With Laura Waterman

My Hike With Laura Waterman

In 1971, Laura Waterman and her husband Guy decided to leave behind a corporate life.

High Places

High Places

The skill it takes to climb NH's breath-taking cliff faces.

Outdoor Classroom (Preview)

Outdoor Classroom (Preview)

Outdoor educator Scott Ellis is passionate about connecting people with the outdoors.

Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor educator Scott Ellis is passionate about connecting people with the outdoors.

Preserving A Way Of Life

Preserving A Way Of Life

Host Willem Lange visits one of NH's spectacular public properties.

Preserving A Way Of Life (Preview)

Preserving A Way Of Life (Preview)

Host Willem Lange visits one of NH's spectacular public properties.

Memorial Hike

Memorial Hike

Rachael decided not to let their dream die.

Memorial Hike (Preview)

Memorial Hike (Preview)

Rachael decided not to let their dream die.

Build It And They Will Come

Build It And They Will Come

When Marianne Borowski retired, she had a dream to create an adventure trail.

Build It And They Will Come (Preview)

Build It And They Will Come (Preview)

When Marianne Borowski retired, she had a dream to create an adventure trail.

Getting Outdoors Again - Wild Moments

Getting Outdoors Again - Wild Moments

We all want to start getting back into nature and exploring the natural beauty of New Hampshire.

A Trek Through Scotland

A Trek Through Scotland

Host Willem Lange explores the history, culture and natural beauty of Scotland.



Visit video.nhpbs.org to see even more local and national video.


More to Explore

Bird Tales

Bird Tales

Counting On Birds

Counting On Birds

Journey of the Broad-Winged Hawk

Journey of the Broad-Winged Hawk

Lighthawk: Destination Conservation

Lighthawk: Destination Conservation

Plight of the Grassland Birds

Plight of the Grassland Birds

Saving New England Fisheries

Saving New England Fisheries

Saving Songbirds

Saving Songbirds