The blackfly is a wonderfully misanthropic insect that keeps the Adirondacks from being infested with tourists during June and, to a lesser degree, August. Among those who don't like the little gnats—Simulium hirtipes—are resort owners, fishermen, lumberjacks, beer distributors, hikers, vacationers and permanent residents. It's hard to be fond of an insect whose main occupation—at least among females of the species—seems to be sucking blood from the backs of people's necks. (They're partial to ankles, too.) City dwellers often find the blackfly so obnoxious that they'd almost rather spend their vacations battling urban cockroaches.
But the Inlet, N.Y. Chamber of Commerce has tried to make a virtue out of blackflies. Inlet is a woodsy little Adirondacks town (pop. 327) that calls itself the Blackfly Capital of the World, and on June 6 it declared a blackfly festival, a day to celebrate the blackfly bite. Despite using the blackfly to promote itself, Inlet is at best ambivalent about the insect; the citizenry would be just as happy if all the blackflies moved to neighboring Old Forge. In fact the Inlet Chamber of Commerce hoped the festival wouldn't draw flies—and it hardly did.
"California has smog, Kansas has tornadoes, and we have blackflies," said Sally Steinfurth, owner of The Bear's Den restaurant, who dreamed up the festival. "We wanted to show people that there really aren't that many flies up here anymore."
The blackfly salute included a slide show on the insect's mating habits, a square dance and the presentation of an enormous fly-shaped chocolate and licorice cake that was ceremoniously dedicated and eaten. "We ate the fly instead of it eating us," said Chamber President Robert Egenhofer. Bars provided spectators with fly-catching concoctions like Scott's Inn's Blackfly Bomber and Klock's Restaurant's Blackfly Stinger, a semilethal mixture of blackberry brandy, crème de menthe and crème de cacao.
But the main event was the Blackfly Walk, in which two dozen hardy people climbed to the top of nearby Rocky Mountain, which overlooks Fourth Lake, striving for the high-low blackfly championship of the Adirondacks. Prizes were given for the most and the fewest neck bites. The Chamber wanted to show that the blackfly's bite is less fearsome than its bark; what it proved is that one can walk all the way to the top of Rocky Mountain and not get bitten.
At the base of the half-mile trail, the necks of the competitors were checked with flashlights for illegal previous bites. Homebred anti-fly remedies abounded for those contesting for the low-bite title. In the old days, Adirondacks woodsmen utilized smudge pots and ointments such as Pflueger's Perfumed Shoo Fly Cream, and Wood's Improved Lollacapop, a compound of mutton tallow, beeswax and camphor. Nowadays, low-bite contestants hang strips of Bounce fabric softener from their hats or rub on Avon's Skin-So-Soft, which, Steinfurth says, is more popular in Inlet as an insect repellent than as a bath oil.
"Vitamin B-1 is also good for keeping blackflies away," said Ida Hazen, one of the official neck checkers. "They can't stand the smell of it."
"I always thought it was vitamin B-12," said Irene Yeager of the Chamber of Commerce.
"Well, anyway," said Hazen with a small shrug, "it's one of the B's."
Seven-year-old Heather Hand of Inlet had a good idea of what blackflies are. "They're tiny black things with six feet and little bags stuck to their chins," she said. "They've got eight sharp teeth, but they're not very bright." Indeed, Will Cuppy, the late humorist, once wrote of the buffalo gnat, as the insect is sometimes called, "There's a little speck in his head that may be a brain."
Heather tried for the most-bitten prize. "I know I'm going to win," she said confidently. "I've got nothing on to protect me." She braided her hair, bowed her head and walked toward the top of Rocky Mountain with her braids pulled forward. "It's a terrible thing to send your child out there to get bitten just so she can win a prize," said her mother.
Every now and then Forest Ranger Gary Lee would advise the contestants to stop. "Give the flies a chance to do some chewing," he'd say. About halfway up he cautioned the competitors by saying, "If you get bit by a mosquito, it's not going to count."
The blackflies did have enough sense to stay home, there having been a gusty early-morning squall and a recent spraying of insecticide. Only two of the contestants even got nipped—Richard Sims, owner of Beckers Resort on Fourth Lake, and your devoted woodlands chronicler. For his bite, Sims was given an "unsurvival kit" consisting of an empty can of Band-Aids, a broken fly-swatter and a jar of about 50 blackflies. Yours truly got a Band-Aid.
"The guests of honor didn't even show up at their own party," said Hazen. "Next year," added Steinfurth, "we may have to import them."
Poor Heather didn't get a single blackfly bite and came home disappointed. "I think I've got a blackfly bite," she shouted excitedly at the finish line.
"Sorry," said one of the neck checkers. "That's only a mole."