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Ahhh, Summer in Manitoba

Burgess braves blood sucking monsters in search of Brandon bliss.

By Steve Burgess 2 Aug 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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I’m in Brandon, Manitoba, town of my raising. I had to come back. My people are fighting a war against the mosquito, and my place is here on the front lines. I will return to Vancouver covered in the bumpy scars of battle—if I return at all. Casualties are mounting.

True story: Two weeks ago my father was up reading at 1 AM, when suddenly there was a violent pounding on the front door. It’s a quiet neighbourhood and my elderly parents were certainly not expecting company at this hour. Venturing to the window, he peeked outside. A drunken stranger was hammering away on the locked door. “Let me in, damn it,” he bawled. “The mosquitoes are killing me.”

By the time the police arrived the man was prostrate on the front lawn, no longer moving. Passed out, some would assume. Drained of blood, say I.

Hail the dragonfly!

Every war has its heroes. The front page of the July 30 Winnipeg Free Press featured a large photo of a dragonfly. Manitobans can be heard humming “Ride of the Valkyries” as squadrons of these fierce mosquito predators appear in the skies over the backyard. An armada of dragonflies can clear the ‘skeeters from a family barbecue with ruthless efficiency.

But dragonflies can’t be everywhere. That’s why Winnipeg residents have been waking up to the smell of Malathion in the morning—Napalm for mosquitoes, sprayed by trucks that crawl the streets in the dead of night. For some, it smells like victory. But the anti-war crowd begs to differ. Nighttime fogging of residential neighbourhoods with clouds of insecticide is bound to draw plenty of protests. One neighbourhood put up an overnight barrier to block the spraying trucks—a string of teddy bears across the road. Even the cutest and most huggable are pressed into service. This fight gets ugly.

The remarkable thing is that most folks just want them to load up the tanks and attack. Fear of West Nile Virus is offered as a counterweight to the potential health risks of Malathion, but the simple truth is that most Manitobans just want those bloodsuckers dead. If they have to eat a little bug spray, that’s a price they’re willing to pay. War is hell.

Fogging trucks were around in my youth, albeit accompanied by less angst. They didn’t even wait for the kids to be in bed, trundling down the road on summer evenings as we watched the white fog bloom in their wake. We liked the smell. I don't remember my parents being concerned, and as I recall it didn't add much to the flavour of an ice cream cone. In fact, our major doubts concerned the efficacy of the procedure—we were under the impression that this was a sort of benign smoke intended to annoy the ‘skeeters and make them relocate. To this day, I don’t know what was in that fog. Had it been Agent Orange, I probably would have noticed by now.

Serious deterrent

Besides, I have other chemical agents to worry about. The active component in commercial mosquito repellents is called DEET. I have probably absorbed enough DEET to mosquito-proof my DNA. I carry with me a precious little bottle of almost pure, unadulterated DEET. OFF! aerosol repellent contains about 15 percent DEET; Deep Woods Off! has about 24 percent. My little bottle is 95 percent pure, the mosquito repellent equivalent of backwoods moonshine. I’m not even sure it’s legal anymore. But a few years ago I picked it up at the local Brandon Safeway, not far from the jams and jellies. It’s a little like buying guns in Texas.

Every summer on moonless Manitoba nights, I drive out into the countryside to go stargazing, perched on a plastic chair as the Milky Way wheels slowly overhead. A Zen-like experience, except that the blissful sense of oneness with every living thing is replaced with the urge to embrace and crush every small, buzzing creature within reach. The contemplation of the stars, so small and far away, competes with the contemplation of the insect, halfway up my ear canal.

Hence the magic little bottle of mosquito moonshine. I slather it onto every exposed skin patch, and it works like a charm. I don’t know why mosquitoes hate DEET. Maybe because they’re smarter than we are. One year I had so much of it on my hands my skin started to peel.

Bliss in Brandon

But mosquitoes are not a constant summertime presence on the Prairies—not really. Some years they are hardly evident, and even in bad years they tend to come in waves like spells of bad weather. Right now in Brandon, things are pretty good. I arrived too late for the fight.

Without the bugs a Manitoba summer can be a pretty blissful thing. Fields of yellow canola, blue flax like a crop of sky, and overhead a bumper harvest of cumulous clouds drifting over the vast horizon. The sun gets some real heat going out here, so far from any mitigating ocean current. The stars, so abashed by Vancouver’s lights, multiply in the Manitoba sky. This can be a great place to spend the summer. If you’re looking for a used Camaro, even better.

But don’t get complacent. Watch the skies. Gas up the trucks. Plan your barbecues, but stay vigilant.

You know they’re coming.

Steve Burgess is critic at large for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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