Willoughby: Pernicious mosquitoes endure Aspen’s altitude, persist despite pesticide, and bedevil residents
August 26, 2017
Aspen's high elevation and long, cold winters limit certain pests. Climate change may soon alter some of these natural defenses. But for now most rattlesnakes, fleas and cockroaches choose to live elsewhere. One obnoxious insect, the mosquito, survives undeterred. Despite the use of DDT during the 1950s and an expansion of housing that drained their breeding grounds, the pests persist. Mosquitoes continue to annoy us, as did those that sucked the blood of pioneers who entered the valley over a century ago.
A note in the 1903 Aspen Times reflected my younger years: "Night before last a party of young folks had a picnic down under the Castle Creek State Bridge. They had lunch there and built a roaring campfire down there to lighten things and make the mosquitos hunt their holes." From my earliest memory, any evening's trip to a river brought mosquito bites. Most of the time I traveled to the Roaring Fork in the Oklahoma Flats area or visited Castle Creek for family picnics. I had numerous allergies and my mother built the fear of bees into my psyche. I heeded the warning buzz of those pollinators. But mosquitoes snuck up on me, attacked without warning, and left welts that itched for days.
While I internalized my distaste for the insect, other Aspen residents pegged the pest as the ultimate villain. In defense against comments from a rival paper in 1900, The Aspen Times editor likened one of their reporters to a mosquito.
"To the reporter of the Aspen Democrat: and you, who considers good clothes the only end and aim in this life, should bear in mind that mosquitoes and dudes are the only human things for which nature finds no use."
The Roaring Fork spawns a number of mosquitoes throughout its length. But parts of the river that don't roar — such as the Stillwater section above town — support armies of them. As kids we would float down the river on innertubes. The swimsuits we wore exposed extra skin, a smorgasbord of places to bite.
The Times mentioned an encounter between my mother's stepfather's family and the bugs in July 1934: "Mrs. Lenora Healy came down this morning from her ranch on Stillwater and says she spends two thirds of her time fighting mosquitos." Thirty years later, I spent time on that same tract of land when the Hemann family owned it, and suffered the same hazard.
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The Aspen Daily Times ran a feature in 1901 that captured the insect's reputation. It begins, "There has been much attention lately regarding the mosquito, and there is likely to be more, for although the insect is what might be called a silent partner in the argument, he generally makes his antagonists feel the point even though they do not see it." The piece describes the few known ways to annihilate mosquitoes and provides details about how to float kerosene on ponds to extinguish their larvae.
The story notes that some birds consume mosquitos and remarks on the fate of such birds as hat decor: "Is the artistic object produced by collecting and stuffing a purple martin and impaling him upon a hatpin upside down in the middle of a tangle of ribbons worth the trouble of fighting a million mosquitos, more or less, in the course of the summer?"
Mosquitoes present one upside. The winged adults might serve as an amuse-bouche for more-deserving Aspen inhabitants: our voracious trout.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.