Ravaged Unrecognizable: My Battle Against the Black Flies

Black flies bite

I think I’ve had the worst bug bite camping-related experience ever. And I know what you’re thinking. “Bold claim, Mikaela. What, you really think you’re the only one who has encountered bugs in your camping life?”

No, obviously everyone who camps has encountered bugs. But if you want to tell me you’ve had a worse experience than the one I’m about to tell you about, I’ll need to see some photographic evidence.

Let me tell you about May 27th, 2017. It was a Saturday and the first day of my whitewater paddling certification course. This is a course that has us practice paddling canoes through rapids. I needed to take the course to refresh my paddling skills before starting my new job as a canoe guide for camp.

I’d flown in from Europe the night before, driven 3 hours to reach the Magnetawan River, set up camp in the dark and quickly fallen asleep. The next day, I began the course. I spent the entire day on the water, playing in rapids and refreshing my whitewater skills. The day was a ton of fun, except for the occasional pesky black fly.

You Don’t Know Black Flies are Biting You…

The first thing you need to know about black flies: before they bite, they numb you, so you don’t know they are biting you

So I didn’t actually notice the majority of black flies that feasted on me that day. I expected to end the day with two or three bites that could easily be covered up.

However, at the end of the first day of the course, I realized how wrong I was. I went to the bathroom and was startled to see myself in the mirror;  I practically gagged in disgust. My face was literally covered in a hundred red dots from all of the black fly bites. As if this wasn’t bad enough…

At this point I was thinking it honestly wasn’t that bad

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Black Fly Bites Swell…

The second thing you should know about black flies: their bites swell. A lot.

I woke up on Sunday morning to a face I didn’t even recognize. My neck had swollen to twice its size; one of my eyes was swollen shut. It’s funny looking back, but in all seriousness, this moment was quite traumatic.

Also, multiple black fly bites can result in “black fly fever” with symptoms including headaches, nausea and fever. Considering I had easily a hundred (nay, a thousand?) bites on my face, I had the pleasure of experiencing all of these symptoms.

The best part of it all? I had another full day out on the water. Usually, by the time I get to this point in the story, someone has said “Mikaela, why wouldn’t you have just worn a bug hat to protect yourself?”

If you’re not familiar, a bug hat is a mesh covering that, in theory, protects your face from bugs. “Wow, brilliant observation, listener. Why hadn’t I thought of that?”

Oh wait, I had. Here’s the thing.

You can’t wear a bug net when you paddle in rapids!

It’s a safety thing. Bug hats reduce your visibility and present a choking hazard if you were to fall into a rapid wearing them. This means I had another day of black fly trauma.

I COVERED my face and neck with the most powerful bug spray available, and this proved adequately effective. (If Watkins Great Outdoor Bug Spray ever needs an ambassador, sign me up.) I didn’t get too many more bug bites (probably because there was nowhere left to bite), but I definitely still got more.

After the course wrapped up, I drove to Walmart and bought everything under the sun that could help me feel better. Well, I tried to buy everything, but then my credit card got declined. Imagine that.

A girl with a polka-dotted face, one eye swollen shut and a neck as wide as the rest of her head walks into Walmart to buy Reactine, Aloe Vera, Calamine lotion and general health products and gets her credit card declined. Dejected, I walked about with a single pack of Reactine because that’s all I had enough cash for.

This is my “stay positive” selfie after my credit card got declined while trying to buy Reactine and Calamine lotion

You know what? I lied earlier. What I’m about to say next was actually the best part.

First Day at a New Job

That evening I had to go to my first day at a brand new job, with people I had never met before.

Oh, the trauma continues! I had a full week of training for my new job this week. I didn’t know a single person. No one knew what I actually looked like. I had to introduce myself with “Hi I’m Mikaela, please don’t mind my face and neck. I got attacked by bugs.” It was mortifying.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, my team had a full week of camping ahead of us. I had to go back into the black fly-infested wilderness. Again.

For the next week, I went through the same song and dance. Over the course of the day, the swelling would go down. But each morning I’d wake up to a new variation of swelling.

The hardest part to believe is that of all the terrible photos I took of my face, I didn’t take a single photo when it was at its absolute worst. I know, that seems impossible. How could it be even worse?

I wish I could transfer the image of my scabbed, bitten, swollen face – an image permanently seared in my mind – onto a photo so you would understand the full extent of my condition. As I cannot, please believe me when I say it was even worse than these photos suggest.

The only silver lining in this whole ordeal is that I met one of my best friends as a result of my face. She was working with the nurse at the camp’s wellness center for the summer and, upon seeing me, provided me with ample drugs and lotions and ointments to aid in my recovery.

A Slow Recovery…

After that week-long canoe trip with my team members, I had almost two weeks at home with my family before returning to camp to officially begin the summer.

When I returned to camp, a ton of people didn’t recognize me. I re-introduced myself to everyone and usually got a response along the lines of “holy f**k, I didn’t even recognize you!”

Two weeks later. You can still see some of the bites, but thankfully no scarring

Lessons Learned

There is no way I could have prevented the bug attack. That much I have come to terms with. I mean, there are a few little mistakes I could have done differently (i.e. not maxing out my credit card in Europe….) but overall I don’t think events could have played out in any other way.

What I did learn was resilience. I learned to stand proudly in front of a room full of strangers, even if I felt anything but proud. I learned that sometimes, you just have to hold back tears and get on with your day, as hard as that may seem. I learned that some things can only be cured with patience (some thing that is occasionally in short supply).

And you know what? As soon as my face healed, I went out into the wilderness for over 50 nights of canoe guiding. I almost lost my sh*t four or five times due to the number of bugs, but again, I survived.

Whatever gets thrown at me, I always seem to survive. And you know what? Whatever is going on with you, whatever thing you feel like you can’t get through, whatever your equivalent to my bug-apocalypse is, you will survive that too.

Bugs are a common theme in my travels


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8 thoughts on “Ravaged Unrecognizable: My Battle Against the Black Flies

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  2. Jess says:

    Came across your page as I frantically google “black fly bites” while suffering as I camp in Algonquin, but noticed something we have in common other than bites… . I’d recognize that CQE necklace anywhere! Best place on earth & miss it dearly.

    • Mikaela says:

      Oh my goodness! Love CQE – were you a camper and/or staff there? I haven’t worked there since 2014, but returned for a weekend last year. I miss it too!

  3. Eirík Þorvaldson says:

    The allergic reaction to your blackfly bites is normal. As Dr. Watt explained in the Bangor Daily news 40 years ago, you will be de-sensitized and not swell up, if each weekend you let a couple of flies get through your armor. Same as his desensitizing injections, but free of charge. He had too much business that year. If you can stand the netting, I suppose it keeps them from landing on your face and making the red bite marks.

    • Mikaela says:

      I’m glad to hear there’s some science behind this! I’ve noticed that since this incident, I have very little reaction to black flies anymore. So in some ways it was actually really helpful going through this!

  4. Carl says:

    Came across your website and found it quite helpful as I am planning a late summer trip up north.
    I had a similar adventure in Guatemala my neck and ankles were covered. The 40 degree fever was no fun. Not sure if there were black flies. Lesson: DONT WALK BAREFOOT IN THE GRASS!!!

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