The clean mountain air smelled of pine and aspen. 7 a.m. and I’m awake before anyone else in the cabin and can enjoy this little piece of heaven all by myself. But now I hear the buzzing.
Last week, my son and I came up to do a little camping up the draw to the east. He hasn’t been camping much other than our annual (give or take) church outing. My business trip had been cancelled for the following week, so I felt I should do something useful that weekend and spend some time with my oldest child.
We pack up our gear in complete haste, packing more than we need or will use, but making sure we have everything, including my new 1 gallon sprayer and the small bottle of insecticide I purchased last spring at our local farmers equipment store. In one hour after my camping trip announcement, we’re in the car and on the road. In another hour and a half we’re at the cabin ready to hike the half mile to the saddle. I leave the sprayer and insecticide in the trunk of the car.
The hike, the camp setup, the pine sap, the small campfire, the beef jerky and unequalled night sky, the uneven ground for sleeping—all this becomes a pleasant memory for me and the stuff of fantasy and stories for a lifetime for my son.
The next morning by 9 a.m. we’re back at the cabin putting our gear in the trunk of the car. The buzz of insects is everywhere, benign and lively. Now it is time to spray for ants.
The ants we have at the cabin are of the large carpenter ant variety. About a centimeter long (sometimes a bit more) and thick, hard, black bodies, they’re unnerving for me to even look at. When you crush them on a hard surface, they make a loud popping crunch. You cannot easily kill them on carpet because their bodies are so hard. We’ve seen more ants this year than in many years past. None of us are sure why—though we all guess it has something to do with the long wet spring and more rain and snow than we’ve seen in 10 years.
I unpack my new sprayer and assemble it according to the diagrams that were packed with it. I take out the insecticide. The bottle is labeled “For Pest Control Operators and Commercial Use Only”. “This morning I am a Pest Control Operator”, I think to myself. I read the many-paged label tucked away under a piece of tape on the front of the bottle. Carpenter ants need the maximum dose: 16 milliliters per gallon of water (it strikes me now that mixing metric with standard measurements is kind of an odd thing to do).
Through the whole cabin, I vacuum the corners where floor meets wall, open up all the windows, mix myself a gallon of insecticide, tie a rag around my nose and mouth, then go to work, flushing every nook and cranny with my mixture, knowing I’m using only the best insecticide available (according to the man who sold it to me, whom I do not know but whom I trust implicitly because he wore overalls). Now I’m done with the inside.
I mix up another batch for the outside. I spray the bottom 2 feet or so of the outside wall of the cabin. I spray the pilasters supporting the cabin where my brother and I saw a long chain of ants climbing up in the spring, disappearing into crevasses and secret entrances to the cabin. All contact points with the ground are sprayed. All support beams under the cabin—anything I can see where an ant might climb or hide gets a squirt of powerful goodness. I am the mighty Goliath against all insects here.
Ashton has been waiting patiently downstairs, then outside, while I spray. When it’s time to clean the sprayer, we go to the hose on the west side and rinse it three or four times. Ashton wants to use the nozzle on it, so I let him take it while I finish tidying up inside and closing the windows.
I call out each window as I close it, “Ahoy! Ahoy there!”—a little playful banter with my 9 year-old, who calls back “Ahoy!” We’re definitely not seafarers, but we do think we’re rugged outdoorsy types after this successful camping trip. Closing the bottom floor windows now, I call out “Ahoy!” and Ashton replies, “Whoa Dad, you gotta come see this wasps nest. It’s huge!”
Windows closed, cabin locked, I come around the north-west corner to see what he’s talking about. He points up and east to the master bedroom dormer, and there, nestled into the space between the overhanging gable and the north wall of the cabin, is a paper wasps nest, slightly larger than a basket ball. I’m looking into the sun now, listening to the omnipresent humming of insects, but I can see little black flying things enter and exit the shadowy space. There could be hundreds of wasps in there. We leave it but I vow to return and take it out, hating wasps since I was a teenager.
Now we’re here one week later with the whole family for a little R & R: Mom, oldest son, little sisters and baby brother. All quickly occupy themselves after we arrive: Mom unpacks food, children unpack toys, and Dad unpacks video camera (for posterity), sprayer and insecticide.
I put about a quart of water in my sprayer to see if the stream will reach the nest from the ground. I pressurize the sprayer tank and see how high the stream goes on the roof, maybe a few yards east of the nest to avoid arousing suspicion. Unfortunately the stream falls about 10 feet short from the ground where I am standing: I’m going to have to shoot from the master bedroom window.
Later that evening, when the nest becomes quiet, I put on a leather glove, then another on top of it, put on a heavy jacket, and wrap duct tape around my wrist to seal the opening. I remove the screen from the window so I can reach outside. I refill the sprayer, adding 16 milliliters of insecticide to the tank, pressurize it, then open the window.
My greatest fear is to be stung to death by wasps. I’ve been stung a number of times, the last one a year ago on my right ear, which swelled up for three days. My ear felt thick and rubbery, like a dried apricot, and grew about 50 percent. The pressure of the fluids made me want to puncture it to get some relief.
I think now about these wasps. Having watched them this afternoon up close, a line from The Lord of the Rings comes to me: “They are bred for a single purpose: to destroy the world of men.” I sense these are no ordinary wasps.
To assist me in my bravest mortal deed yet, I ask my wife Ana to help me stuff blankets and towels in the window, so that in case of attack, only my double-gloved hand and heavily shielded forearm will be exposed. I had considered what I would do if the entire nest swarmed my hand and refused to leave, but I couldn’t come up with anything good, so I just hoped for the best (i.e., escape scenarios that involved severing my arm at the window were ruled out, but only after long consideration).
Now I lift the window just a bit and thread the nozzle and grip through the gap to my gloved hand. Ana closes the window over my arm again and together we stuff the extra blanket and towel folds into the tiny gaps, checking with a flashlight for any holes. We’re good.
Pump the sprayer tank one more time for luck. Ana shines the flashlight onto the nest through the window and guides me as I squeeze the trigger. “A little higher. Now a little left. Good, it’s going right in the hole.” We do this until the tank is completely drained. We watch—no wasps are coming to kill me. We raise the window, quickly pull the blanket and towels in and slam it shut again. Success.
It is now the next morning at 7 a.m No one is yet awake besides me, so I move quietly in the cabin. When I get outside, the mountain air smells new and clean as it nearly always does. I walk down the steps toward the front of the cabin, the north side where the nest is. A tall blade of grass lightly brushes my right arm, just as some flying insect buzzes by. I jump backward and sprint up a stair or two. I am shaking hard inside my body.
Once more gathered courage comes, but in its own time. I proceed down the steps again, startled once more by the same tall blade of grass. This time I have the presence of mind to actually look at what is touching my arm, and I give myself a reassuring smile. I am still shaking inside.
I move to the front of the cabin, under the nest and look around. Dozens, maybe threescore or more large, black-bodied wasps lie in ruin on the ground. Most of them are still slightly moving, lying on their backs or sides, their egg-shaped abdomens pulsing and their gruesome little mouths chewing sideways. I feel that I have won, but a yellow jacket flies by, curious about what a human is doing up in the woods. I hear the buzz of all the other hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, bees, mosquitoes, horse- and deer-flies—I am aware of all of them at once. And then I run like a small child up the steps and quickly close the door behind me again.