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A Field Guide to Adirondack Black Flies

by Jennifer Duffield White

My father raised my brother and me as river urchins, wild children, on the Ausable River in the northern Adirondacks.

I’ve only ever found one other person who I trust as much as I do my father and my brother on water. His name is Jake, and we are like magic. In a boat, we never argue; we just know how the other moves. We knew even on that first day. We can, without speaking, make an aluminum canoe dance in rapids and riffles in some pliable way it isn’t supposed to move. We are impossible like that.

Everyone says Jake and I are something to see, how we are so in sync in a boat. They call a tandem canoe the divorce boat. It’s an unequal division of power—an unequal division of finesse and strength—it incites epic meltdowns, snaps marriages in two. Here in the Adirondacks, I’ve witnessed an alarming procession of divorce boats storming across the lakes and rivers. People say Jake and I are like poetry in that boat. You can’t help but want to believe it when people say that kind of stuff.

Lakes fill holes left by earth-shattering events. This is the secret of the Adirondack landscape. The water smoothes over the rough stories below—stories of continents crashing into each other, of massive ice sheets and tectonic movement. Beneath our paddles, beneath our bodies, lie 10,000 years of destruction.

Lately though, Jake wants to hike. We haven’t been in a canoe together for nearly two months.

Two weeks ago, on one of these hikes, Jake proposed that we move in together. We were halfway up Mount Colden when he asked, standing at the top of the Trap Dike, about to begin a final scramble up a steep slab of rock that leads to the summit. It’s possible I nodded my head. That after he said, “Maybe we should live together. I mean, we sort of already do,” that I may have nodded. But right then, three French Canadians climbed out of the Trap Dike. A perfect interruption at a time of indecision.

I don’t remember nodding. What I remember is how Jake followed the Canadians up the slab, how the slant was so severe I walked like a primate, hands on the rock in front of me, climbing on all fours. A gap grew between us—gray rock, lichen, moss. Clouds socked us in. The gap, it tasted like swamp water and peat moss, and it was hard and flat and full of promise.

Technically, Jake never got an answer, but his behavior has been suspiciously upbeat. Right now, for instance, he’s knocking at my front door with a grin. We’ve been dating for a full year now. He never knocks. I open the door and he’s holding a small handful of tiger-gray fur. My bare feet are stiff, arches fallen.

“I got you something,” he says.

“You did not.”

The kitten lets out some sort of handicapped meow, and Jake lifts it up so we are eye to eye. I don’t melt the way I’m supposed to.

“Isn’t she cute? I found her at the boat launch this morning. I thought she’d make a good addition. You know, kill mice in the winter, keep Kodie company.”

I stare at him. He likes cats? He thinks I like cats? That Kodie likes cats?

“You like cats?” I ask.

“In a few months, she’ll be totally self-sufficient. She can kill all those mice that chew on my gear.”

Jake is, as a general rule, persuasive and typically charming in the process. Within a month of our first date, he’d moved his guiding equipment—a couple of boats, a trailer, life jackets and such—into my garage out back. He said it was because the roof of his shed leaked in the winter. This was July, and I’d never known a man to commit himself so solidly to staying through the winter.

The kitten is all black, save for a white streak on her forehead. My brow must be furrowed.

“She’ll be a good addition,” he repeats. “Right, Kodie?”

A whine comes in response from the other side of the screen door.

From pretty early on in our courting, I started thinking of Jake’s dog, Kodie, as “ours.” When Kodie nestled his black wolf-like head into my chest that first morning they woke up at my place, I was pretty sure I’d found a good one. Jake took it as a sign of approval, and Kodie began to follow me more than he did Jake. I said “I love you” to Kodie three months before I ever said it to Jake. He allowed me this because he said I needed to practice loving more than just one thing. I wasn’t sure, exactly, what he meant by this.

Jake walks toward me and sets the kitten on my chest, as though my breasts are the perfect cat perch. A low purr vibrates against my sternum.

The kitten, and its purring, sneak up my collar bone, and she burrows her nose into my neck and begins to suck on a string of my hair. The hair sucking makes me feel like an imposter of a wet nurse.  

Jake bends down, kisses the kitten, and then the opposite side of my neck. “See?” he says. His hands reach for my hips.

“Let’s call her Colden,” he says.

“Colden,” I say. The purring, I must admit, fills my chest in some strange way. And so I pet the furball.

Recently, I’ve become aware of the fact that Jake has stopped kissing me on the mouth; he prefers my neck, my collarbone area. As well, his hands have adopted a preoccupation with my stomach, exploring the flatness between my hip bones as though waiting for something to emerge, as though there is something to cradle. This unsettles me. Though, black fly season is nearly over, my skin is finally evening out into a smooth surface again, which I guess means it’s good for kissing. It also means I’m about to be unemployed.

From March through July of each year, I am a black fly control technician in North Elba. This means I traipse around the woods hunting down black fly larvae and spraying the water with an organic pesticide called Bt. Ironic, I know. Once bitten by a black fly, my skin erupts into small mountains and valleys of welts and I scratch until I bleed, until my fingernails become packed with skin and blood. It’s a miracle anyone would even want to kiss me during black fly season. My task is to find the black fly larvae after they hatch but before they begin to fly and feed on warm-blooded mammals, tourists in particular. Conventional science says Bt is harmless to other creatures, but you can’t help feeling a bit like Mother Nature gone AWOL when you’ve got a sprayer strapped to your back and you’re calculating how many parts per million you need to kill the little buggers. Wilderness, it turns out, is not about letting wild things exist uninhibited. It’s about managed selection: hunting, thinning, choosing one life over another. I’m okay with that.

On average, there are 1,640 redbacked salamanders in one acre of Adirondack forest. There are two species of salamanders that only breathe through their skin; they have no lungs, and therefore, they depend entirely on being moist at all times. River men are kind of the same way. You find them on quiet bends in the Ausable, you find them walking through the woods in search of those isolated pools and riffles. You find them at boat launches in the St. Regis, at the little lean-tos on state land in the thick of black fly season when tourists fade out of sight. You find them a mile further back than you imagine they might be. In part, because of my job, I’ve been able to find and study the men of the Adirondacks, their casting techniques, their black fly immunity, the angle of their hips. I used to take notes on some of them. That’s how I found Jake last summer.

Jake doesn’t exactly love my job. He loves how I look in waders, he says. But he’s not a fan of black fly control. For one thing, he’s a fishing guide, and his fish eat the larvae. Also, he doesn’t understand the misery. There is this hierarchy in the order of mountain people, and I am at the bottom of this particular ranking. I fall into the highly allergic masses who scratch and swell and complain during black fly season. In the middle of the pyramid there are the people who get bitten but who only display a tiny red dot in response—with no itching, no swelling. At the apex of the hierarchy you find the rare individual—the king or demi-god—who the black flies do not bite. I say kings and demi-gods because they are, in my experience, always men, usually woodsmen with a steady, wise demeanor. My grandfather and my brother are among them. I’ve yet to see a woman who has that invisible shield that repels a black fly. I call it a shield of Zen. These men are magic. And I’ve never quite understood how it is my brother is one of them and I am so the opposite. Jake, like all the men I’ve ever dated, has the shield of Zen.

The female black fly can smell the carbon dioxide, the moisture of your exhalations. She can sense your sweat, your cologne, your perfume. Maybe she senses your desperation.

Last year, after I found Jake, I moved my bed to the screen porch, and we slept there, the two of us, most nights drifting through circadian cycles of rest and consumption of each other. We’d sit on the front stoop and eat the brook trout he caught and lettuce from my garden with our fingers. I forgot there were wineglasses in the cupboard, forks in the drawer. But this season, we sleep in the bedroom. Jake bought me a new set of silverware for my birthday, and he sets the table each night now. My skin has lost its blush.

Jake’s childhood friend Dave is in town for the night. Dave and I and Dave’s wife and Dave’s baby are at the pub, waiting for Jake to arrive. Dave is a recovering priest—that’s what he calls himself. He fell in love with Judy, had a baby. He’s all about the “you” these days, not the “He.”

Judy is sweet, and has maybe always looked like a mother, I think. When I say that as of next week I am unemployed, until next black fly season, she says, “Enjoy this. You are unburdened now.”

“I know,” I say. “But it doesn’t feel like it.”

“There’s always something,” she says.

“Jake might be moving in. He has so much stuff.” I say. This admission, it surprises me, though Dave and Judy must be accustomed to confessions. And I suppose I have decided to ease into this acknowledgement of whatever is happening here.

“We all make sacrifices,” she says.

“I doubt he even needs it all,” I say.

“You’ll have to purge,” she says. She has one cold hand on top of my fingers, and her other hand in a baby carrier. Dave has been silent.

He looks at me and says, “Loneliness is more crowded than any house.”

I nod. Ash-gray bags of wanted sleep underscore Judy’s eyes. The ceiling fan spins its shadow in pirouettes. I feel dizzy.

Judy asks, “Have you two done any canoe trips lately?”

“It’s been a busy summer,” I say.

The kitten, Colden, sleeps in the crook of Jake’s neck on her first night with us. I have to scoot to the edge of the bed to sleep, so the purring won’t keep me awake, but with my back turned, I miss the smell of Jake. He smells like the first two minutes of half-sleep, those first two minutes of even breathing, of relaxed muscle, of intoxication.

Three days in a row, I come home to find Kodie with a new battle wound bleeding—long cat scratches opening up his face into thin strips of scabs. On the fourth day I decide to take Kodie to work in the woods with me, to spare him the wrath of the kitten.

“You should just keep them in separate rooms,” Jake says.

“That’s mean,” I say.

Kodie’s 90-pound frame sifts through the forest in relative silence, a black floating shadow that skirts my path. To be specific, I spend most of my day bushwacking, stepping through tangles of underbrush, scraping under blowdowns, tearing holes in my clothing, sliding down steep banks to get to the tiny trickles of water that run, unmapped, in the woods of North Elba. It’s clumsy work, but Kodie makes it look like some kind of ancient dance. When I stop in the heat of the day for my siesta under a birch, Kodie curls up against my hips. He has started, I think, to smell like Jake—like earth and sleep. I wake to find my fingers woven into his fur.

We continue this pattern for the remaining two weeks of field work, as I terminate the last of the late-hatches. Jakes spends every night at my house. No one speaks of moving. After I spray a section of stream with Bt, I return the next day to count the larvae’s dead bodies before they detach from the rocks and sticks and attend their own funeral processions downstream. I crouch at the water’s edge, focus in on a small pocket of water, of rock, of moss, of sticks and stones, and here the world seems to make sense.

On the final day of my job, I am working at home, cleaning up my final reports for the season and trying to write a request for more money for our district next year. We spent $465,000 on black fly control this year. I’m asking for another $35,000. So when I ask Jake how black flies affect tourism in relation to the outfit he works for, he knows I’m hoping for a quote for the report, but I know it’s opening a can of worms.

“Fish,” he says, “eat black flies. You kill my fish’s food every day. This is how it affects tourism.”

“You kill the fish,” I say.

“It’s different. I choose. You kill every fly you can get your hands on. Like you want to be God,” he says.

“As if.”

“I’ve got to pack,” he says. And he walks out the door towards the garage. He leaves for a week of guiding on the Oswegatchie tomorrow. 

The cabin is silent. Kodie’s breathing at my feet under the table sounds labored, wheezing, and my own airway also struggles with a heaviness that is new and sharp. There is a ringing in my ears that feels as though someone strung a live wire through there. The lead of my pencil snaps. A kitten meows, and meows, and finally I understand that the sound is coming from above. I pull down the trap door to the attic space and climb up. My legs feel unusually pliable, rubberlike. Dried up cluster flies coat the floor of the attic. Colden greets me, as do boxes. Boxes of Jake’s books. Jake’s photos. Jake’s dishes. Jake’s taxes. Jake’s sweaters. Jake’s miscellaneous. And to the side, in someone else’s handwriting, sit two white boxes: Jake’s toys and Jake’s baby stuff. There’s also a brown rocking horse and entire box dedicated to Legos.

Jake, I see, does want me to love more than him. He means family.

I grab Colden and descend back into the kitchen. I pluck a fishhook from the bowl of random objects on the table and begin to use it to clean out my fingernails. As I do so, I wander around the house, ears still circling in a whine. In the bathroom, I find Jake’s razor, his shaving cream and a box of soap in the middle drawer. Previously, last I’d noticed, they’d resided in his leather toilet kit on the back of the toilet. In the bedroom, I find a pile of his clothes—a heap of dirty ones in a new wicker basket and a neat stacks of clean T-shirts and pants arranged in a line on my bookshelf. The mounted deer head—his first—hangs on the wall above the wood stove in the kitchen. His favorite mug is in the cupboard. I return to the bathroom, accidentally knock his toothbrush into the garbage can and in doing so, I discover my birth control pills have fallen into a crack between the wall and the sink. I cannot tell you how long this has been going on.

Jake is in the shed, sitting on a giant bear barrel of food, sorting through camping equipment. He has a ripe peach in his hand.

I step toward him, towards his seated figure, and take the peach from him. I roll it between my hands, rolling, rolling, until I stand straddling him, looking down.

“Here’s the thing, Jake,” I say. “I just found these boxes in my attic.”

“Yeah, about those. I thought I’d store them there. Away from things. Until … you know.”

His thumbs press on my hip bones and then moved inward.

I let the peach drop. He catches it—he has the reflexes of a snapping turtle. He lets the fruit rest in “M” lines of his palm—his love lines. He holds it out towards me, eyebrows raised.

“Want it?”

“My teeth,” I reply, “don’t cut muscle.”

He maintains eye contact and stands. The way he looks at me—as though his eyes are in his chest, near his heart, it makes me feel nauseous.

“You wanted—” he starts.

“I never wanted—”

“You wanted this,” he finishes quietly.

“I’m not hungry,” I say, matching his tone.

Colden rubs against my leg, letting her tail linger on my shin.

Jake stands there, covered in what I didn’t say: covered in cotton and perfect skin, smelling like sleep, and all of it flowing with the same cadence as snowmelt in a brook.

I fold. It feels more like a crumble. And I return to the cabin in silence. I sleep on the edge of the bed, feeling the morning teething at the hem of my shirt as though it aims to bite the words into my skin. Jake is sleeping on my pillow. My head is on the bare mattress. And on the dresser, Colden is chewing her first moth.

In daylight, awake, we have nothing to say. In one year, we have not discussed marriage or children or a future. We have only succeeded in paddling by intuition. The moth folds its wings into the kitten’s mouth, so we can not see the tearing or the incisors. My canoe has been dry two months. A car engine moves north, up Riki Hill, past the beaten mailbox, whose door is slung open to show a week of wet mail and runny ink. And the deer, mounted on the wall, it seems to have grown trees for antlers, and its head now swings on winter branches.

I wait until he is gone, until he is on the Oswegatchie before I pack.

I leave Jake, or I leave my rental cabin to Jake, that next day, while he is still on the river. I leave a caulking of dog and cat hair along the baseboards in the cabin. I leave the cupboards full, the fridge molding. I try to be fair, to leave as much as possible. I even leave him my canoe. But I do take out the garbage so as to dispose of the pee stick I’d bought based only on the wanderings of Jake’s hands. To be clear: I am not pregnant. But I have decided to want both plastic forks and a backpack, both disposability and a false settle ability. Call it portability. I have decided to want my lion-hearted fingers on something more substantial.

There will, I’m sure, be a pause in the angle of Jake’s arm as he reaches up to run his fingers through his hair when he sees the bed with a deer thighbone on top; the missing blankets; the woodstove standing there, cold, like my cast-iron heart. The picture will begin to come together for him when he finds his flannel shirts all missing their collars. Maybe, he will find those torn-off collars, some of them, over the years.

It’s like this: I used to stare at those flannel collars, at the plaid lines and their perfect 90-degree intersections. His collars need poems—arcs like an oxbow. Expression. So I take a permanent marker, and on them I write poems—some mine (and bad) and some borrowed—in loopy and flamboyant cursive. I fling them into tree branches, drop one in the lake, and bury two in the roots of a white pine.

When I run out of collared shirts, I cut the hems from all his pants and use those, as well, because when I’m out of poetry, I switch to sad song lyrics. This is my peace offering. I do it right.

When I leave, I put Kodie in the cabin, and ask a neighbor to take care of him until Jake returns. I decide to take Colden, since she is technically mine, a gift. When I shut the cabin door on Kodie, he begins to howl. This makes me cry. I get in my truck, turn the ignition with shaky fingers, and back up. As I pull out, Kodie comes clawing through the screen of the bedroom window. He begins to follow the truck down the driveway. I stop, open the door, and he gets in the passenger seat.

Sometimes, your chest, your head, the pounding of it all, gets so full, you don’t understand what it’s trying to say.

On the edge of town, I turn around because you can’t steal a man’s dog. I drive back to the cabin. I can’t steal a man’s dog. But Kodie refuses to get out of the front seat. He growls at me as I tug his collar.

So I take them both—Kodie and Colden; they ask me to.

It is a long-necked bottle exit. We barely squeezed out, all of us.

We cross the Oswegotchie, and I stop at the bridge, just to look, just in case. If there is a boat, if we were in a boat together, maybe it would be okay. But Jake is miles further in than I this time, and so we continue, unsure of where it is we are headed. In Watertown, our fuel gauge winks a predictable empty, and I think about returning.

We stop. Refill. I find a mix CD under my seat that I am pretty sure could be the soundtrack to the red rocks, and so that is where we head, to the desert, to the bare rocks and sand, where everything is exposed, where snags and ripped corners rise up like monuments.

I listened to “Love and Gasoline” on repeat until my tires take on the bass, until I can turn off the stereo, and let whatever voices are left in my head lead the song.

In Virginia, I rename the kitten Sedona.

In Louisiana, I drive to the ocean. I pull out the final hem of a poem and toss it into the surf. I close my eyes and see a whale eating it for breakfast. When I look down, the cuff is already lapping against my toes, washed up by the waves. And Kodie’s tongue has curled; he licks the air in surprise, in surprise of the bitter taste of salt water.


Jennifer Duffield White once lived in the Adirondacks, but she now resides in Missoula, Montana, where she tries to play as hard as she writes. Her work has appeared in publications such as Stone Canoe Journal, The Nervous Breakdown.com, Women's Adventure, and Adirondack Life. She's an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Montana.
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