Oliver in mosquito headnet. Image by Dorene Cameron Schiro
Rats, squirrels, and mosquitoes are some of the nuisance creatures Oliver encountered on his homesites. Here he offers his advice for dealing with them.
Mosquitoes are prevalent pests in the summertime in Alaska. My ways for dealing with them are wearing clothes with good coverage so they don’t bite through, and having a good head net. Even with a head net, they swarm around in front of your face all the time, but you get used to that. It’s not a very big problem.
I don’t like to use “jungle juice” unless I have no other choice. I do buy it to have on hand, but the dog gets most of it. [Jungle juice is slang for a lotion containing DEET, the most common active ingredient in insect repellents. Intended to be applied to the skin or to clothing, it provides protection against the bites of mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, chiggers, and many biting insects. It also has certain health risk.]
Dogs don’t like jungle juice, but mosquitoes can bother them and even spread disease [primarily heartworm], so I use it on them. I have to keep them under discipline until I get it on them. I put it on their foreheads and rub it around their ears. Then I work it down along the face, keeping it away from the eyes and lips. I work it into the fur right behind the head, and in the lower mouth area.
Where there’s plenty of fur, I don’t put any, but sometimes on the belly they don’t have much hair, so I rub it in that area, too. It helps. I usually put some around their tail, and a little bit on each foot. I try to keep them from licking it. It lasts quite a while.
To prevent mosquitoes from getting indoors, I use a mosquito net that hangs outside, over the door. I can pull it inside around the door that I’m going to shut, and that seals the entry up tight. It’s quite long, so there’s a fold or two of it on the floor. I have a stick of wood there to hold it down.
Even so, it’s almost impossible to keep out all of the mosquitoes. Once inside, they go looking for a light or a way to get out, so they accumulate on the windows. Once in a while I’ll eliminate those that are caught on the window, using a stick with a piece of rubber on it. I have a bed net around my bed that protects me from them while I sleep.
I don’t use smokes, coils, or Buhach powder. They bother me, as well as the mosquitoes.
Mosquito coil on holder. (Image credit 61)
[Mosquito-deterrent coils contain pyrethrins—natural organic compounds with potent insecticidal activity that are normally derived from the flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium. Some research has indicated they may contain carcinogens, and some people react badly to them.]
Mosquitoes don’t faze me. I’ve been putting up with them for so long, I just do what I need to do to deal with them. I avoid them by not going out into the brush unless I must. I’ve done some clearing around the house, and the mosquitoes don’t hang around in the cleared area, though if I’m out there for a while they are eventually drawn to me.
Oliver with headnet. Note the drawstring around hat brim.
Image from the collection of Dorene Cameron Schiro
When I go out, I put on a head net and a pair of gloves, and just ignore the bugs. A lot of commercial head nets are small and skimpy, so I make my own.
I prefer a large one, a foot long at least, big enough to fit around the brim of my hat. There’s a drawstring in the top of the net, and I draw it around the hat to hang it there. I usually sew a piece of cloth on the bottom of the net so that I can fasten it securely around my chest to prevent the mosquitoes from slipping in around the flaps of netting.
On the front side, about where your chest pocket would be, I put a short string fastened with a little hook on it, made from any kind of wire. On the opposite side there’s a longer string with some knots in the loose end. You pull the longer string around your back and under your armpits, and hook it into whichever knot is in the right place to allow it to be pulled up snugly around you.
If there’s good reason to go into the brush, I put on my head net and gloves, and go. As soon as I come out of the brush, I whisk myself with a branch to get rid of any bugs that have landed on me.
If you’re traveling in a boat, the wind caused by the boat’s movement will thin them out a lot. A few may remain huddled in the slipstream where the wind is going by. In that case, just wave your hand around to get them flying, and you’ll lose them pretty quick.
One time I was going down to a neighbor’s by boat. I had a young couple with me. The lady needed to relieve herself, so I pulled over to a bend where there was a wide sandy strip stretching all the way to the willows. I warned her, “Don’t be prudish—just pee here, and we’ll go on.”
She made a bee-line for the privacy of the willows anyway. She came out rubbing her behind and made a little comment. She also brought a cloud of mosquitoes with her, so we hurried off and left most of them behind. [Another method to deter mosquitoes on a boat is to speed away from shore, ditching most of them. After about half a minute, cut the engine and coast to a stop. The ones that have settled down on clothing will then rise up, and you can speed off again, leaving the last mosquitoes behind as well.]
In the old days before everyone had a powerful outboard motor, boats were propelled by paddling, by poling along the river or by very low powered engines. Then a smudge would be kept burning in a metal container inside the boat so the smoke would deter the mosquitos. [A smudge is a smoky outdoor fire that is lit to keep off insects]
Smudge fires are useful in the yard when working outdoors, too. For a mosquito smudge,I usually use a No. 10 can, though I prefer a bigger pan, a cake pan if I have it. I build a smudge on that, and move it around to wherever it’s most effective.
I start the smudge fire with good wood and then put weeds on it. Some plants make smoke that is more effective than others, but I don’t trouble myself about getting the best.
If the mosquitoes aren’t too thick, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and white gloves can be helpful in deterring them. [Wearing two layers of light clothing such as a cotton turtleneck worn over an undershirt offers decent protection, though you’ll still have to put a tiny amount of jungle juice on wrists and face. In the heat of a summer day when you are working, the mosquitoes can be fierce. You can keep cool by dipping your turtleneck in the rain barrel, wringing it out, and putting it back on. When it dries out, just dip it again.]
A man stirs his smudge for mosquitoes. (Image credit 62)
Vermin in the North include mice, squirrels, shrews, voles, weasels, and the occasional beaver.
Mice, shrews, and voles
My sympathy doesn’t go very far towards vermin because they have caused me so much grief off and on since I’ve been living in sod homes. Burrowing animals like mice and voles can be a real nuisance in a sod home.
Somebody once suggested plugging any openings in the sod with steel wool. That stopped the vermin from coming through those particular holes, but they just made new ones elsewhere. I use traps to help control them.
I use a mousetrap that’s just an empty tin can with a plastic lid on it for mice and shrews. I put bait in the can, and make a hole in the lid so that they’ll fall inside as they search for the bait. If you put something they really want in the container, they’ll jump right in, but they can’t climb back out. Inside the trap, the mice get eaten by the shrews, and the shrews will eventually starve to death— or you can release them if you check the trap frequently. [Mice, shrews, and voles can all also fall into the post holes of a sod iglu. They get stuck there, and are either eaten by other unfortunate vermin that fall in, or freeze or starve to death.]
When I used to leave my place, I’d always put a handful of dog feed into a five-gallon bucket and leave it sitting close to the wall on my porch. Sometimes I’d leave another one inside the house. When I came back, invariably I found the remains of several critters in the buckets.
Once I used a larger can for a big trap, with oil inside it as an added attractant. I put the can next to a pile of lumber inside the house. I tied a piece of leftover Christmas fruitcake on the underside of the lid. The cake had a good consistency, so I could put it up against the tin and hold it with a piece of fine wire through a couple of holes in the lid.
I caught lots of mice and shrews in one go with that trap. There must have been fifty of them in there at one point. [It’s impossible to fully seal a sod house against mice, shrews and voles, especially where the poles of the walls enter the earth.]
If you happen to see two or three vermin around your house, you know there are maybe ten others for every one you see. [In the wintertime, in sod iglus, shrews scurry along tunnels they’ve made in the warm moss on the roof, right on top of the clear plastic that covers the roof poles.] One time I had a pump-action BB gun that was quite powerful. I’d use it to run off the neighbor’s dog that insisted on coming around. One time I shot a mouse right through the plastic.
When I first moved to my homesite and was building my iglu, I had a blanket hanging over the doorway. The squirrels chewed it, so we got off to a bad start.
I used to catch them in snares that I made out of 20 gauge copper wire. The squirrels used to run along a horizontal pole that I’d tied from one little tree to another. I tied half a dozen of those snares on the pole.
When a squirrel got caught, it would struggle and fall off. I’d find it hanging beneath the pole. I caught several of them that way. Squirrels can do a lot of damage.
I’ve gotten more sophisticated with vermin control now that I’ve become an umialik. [Umialik is an Inuit word for a whaling captain, the person who owned the boat and assembled the crew. Nowadays it refers to a “wealthy person.”] I buy rat traps and bait them with fatty meat. Fat is good bait for both rats and squirrels.
A rat trap has a small pan on it. I tie a piece of solid fat onto the pan with fine wire from a twist tie. I make two holes in the trap, run a big wire through the holes, and fasten it on the back side of a tree, with the spring upward and the pan hanging down.
The squirrels go up there and try to eat the fat. That’s how I catch squirrels that I don’t want around now.
Standard spring rat trap. (Image credit 63)
Rat trap on tree, covered against birds.
Image from the Dammann collection
Rat trap on tree, detail.
Image from the Dammann collection
The squirrels are pests, but they get eaten, too. I use them for meat on occasion.
I’ve used this kind of trap at several places, including at my home on the lake. One time I was helping people to build a sod iglu on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The squirrels were thick around there. They were a nuisance, so I set up a couple of those rat traps and thinned them out. [You don’t want squirrels getting up and into a platform cache, especially if you have skin clothing, mukluks, or items you’ve spent a long time making that they might get into and destroy.]
Beavers and birds
One time, near Ambler, I was checking my fish net and a lady was checking hers. She hollered to me to come and help her. There was a beaver swimming around not too far away, and she was trying to scare it into her net. Finally we did, and she pulled the bottom of the net around it.
She got the beaver, but it didn’t do her net any good. A beaver is a pretty powerful creature in a situation like that. A beaver can destroy a good net and can be a nuisance if it gets tangled in your fishing net.
Birds can also go after fish in deep nets and get tangled up in the net. Loons often get caught in nets. In the end, they make a nice change from eating fish every day. So does beaver.
My trapping experience has been limited to protecting meat piles or fish piles or fish caches from smaller carnivores. I don’t go out and set traps for larger animals. If you’re seining [a method of fishing that employs a seine net, a vertical net with a weighted bottom and a floated top] or if you’re getting more fish than you need for eating and you’re planning to use them for dog feed, you can store them in a pit in the ground. Put some willows and grass in the bottom first so that they won’t freeze down, and then cover the whole thing to keep the jays away. Eventually some little carnivores like weasels will try to dig into your pit, creating a nuisance.
I ordinarily used Conibear traps in most situations, but in the case with the fish pit I put a foot-hold trap in a stovepipe. When the weasel tried to run through the pipe, it stepped on the pan, and the trap snapped around its body. It was a killer trap.
Foothold trap. (Image credit 64)
Conibear body-gripping trap. (Image credit 65)