Growing up in Saskatchewan, my summers were spent slathered in a thick mist of Deep Woods Off attempting to defend my soft, supple skin from the blood-sucking sting of mosquitos, horseflies, no-see-ums and wasps.
I so despised being the victim of itchy bumps and bites that I welcomed the sour smell of bug spray permeating every vacation, ball game, beach day and article of clothing I owned.
Later in life, I found myself in British Columbia, where mosquitos are rare. The battle against biting insects soon faded from memory and I took for granted the ability to wander in the woods without bug nets and long sleeves, or that dreaded scent of bug spray.
But then I landed on the East Coast of Canada to thru-hike the Sentier Nepisiguit Mi'gmaq Trail (SNMT) in Northern New Brunswick, 150 kilometers (93 miles) of heavily wooded trail.
It was the end of a wet and humid June, i.e. prime midge and mosquito time, but it was also the only window of time that partner Mathieu and I had to go on this long awaited, highly anticipated walk in the woods.
Staring at the gigantic, tell-tale selection of insect repellent and other bug-related items at the small town, East Coast hardware store, I gave myself a much needed pep talk.
"I can do this. I can make it an entire 6 days without breaking down at the hands of some pesky parasites. And I'll be proud of myself for persevering."
I knew this experience was all part of building better expedition behavior. I reminded myself that doing hard things is good for me.
After all, they were only short lived bites and itchy bumps, right?
I grabbed a long, mesh head net to wear alongside my long sleeved shirt, lightweight pants and thin windbreaker jacket should the need arise.
Mat and I both decided against using insect repellent lotions or sprays on account of attempting to reduce the amount of chemicals we apply to our skin, clothes and gear and shed into the environment.
It took all of five minutes standing on the shoreline at the Bay of Chaleur before we both decided to ditch the t-shirts and shorts we were wearing and don the long layers and bug nets we had tucked in our bags for the trek.
Little did we know, this would become our full time adventure kit through rain, shine, high heat, and humidity.
The first 10 kilometers of the trail were thick with thirsty flies and I knew if I wanted to survive this thru-hike I would need a positive outlook from the get-go.
I dug deep in my adventure arsenal and remembered a time a few years back when I was bikepacking the Trans Canada Trail in Nova Scotia and the deer flies were relentless. They were buzzing and biting and bumping into my sticky, sweaty skin, driving me batty.
I had been on the verge of a full blown breakdown when a stroke of insight hit me that changed my outlook instantly: What if I pretended these bugs were my cheerleaders instead of my enemies?
In that moment, nothing outside of me changed, but everything inside shifted. All of the sudden the buzzing was cheering, the bumps were encouraging pats on the back and the bites … well, those were the reminder that I was alive.
Fast forward five years and I was back in the same situation — faced with the choice to suffer, struggle and swear, or to smile and thank those little biting bugs for the ability to practice acceptance, mindfulness, and gratitude.
As we walked on, my calm, cool demeanor would waver and I would think of the nomadic Mi’gmaq peoples, whose sustenance trail we were traversing, and how they managed their minds and bodies among the bugs.
Mud, natural musks, smudges, and smoke from campfires were all used to repel insects. They were forced to be creative and innovative in order to persevere. And they did.
And I could too.
So even though I was sweating in the hot, humid heat under long layers I wasn't used to hiking in, I knew this situation wouldn't last forever. This too shall pass.
The impermanence helped me heighten my awareness of the times when bugs were absent. I developed a deeper appreciation for the cool breeze and was extra grateful to climb into the safe haven of my tent at the end of the day.
Part way along the path, I realized that cheaping out on a narrow bug net allowed the clever critters to bite at the back of my ears and neck.
Taking inspiration from the Indigenous peoples, I tucked two small pieces of paper-like birch bark under my hat and over my ears. It worked flawlessly, saving that day, and the next day, and the next.
At the end of 6 days on trail, I felt more at peace, with myself, with the mosquitos, and with the midges. I felt rejuvenated by the challenges of the forest, inspired by my ability to overcome adversity, and encouraged by the continual cheering of my wee, winged friends.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker.