When we were driving to Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa, we encountered a swamp of dragonflies near the entry of the park. They came out of nowhere and quickly flew past our van and were gone. A couple of minutes, we stopped in the park and looked for them. We didn’t see them and never saw them again. I was disappointed as I love dragonflies.

They fascinated me because I always find them to be the most interesting insect in the world. I remember when I was a child, I would try to catch them, approached them from the back but without a lot of success because supposedly their eyes can see 360 degrees. When I caught one, I was cruel, as kids often were, and attached a string to its tail and let it go but kept it on the leash. I don’t remember in details but I hope I eventually removed the string and let it go.

As I grew older, I didn’t torture them anymore but admired them. I found them to beautiful and elegant. How could I ever be so mean to them in the past? We saw a few of them on the trip but it was difficult to get a good picture of them. Here are two fuzzy ones. I would love to take a trip to a place filled with dragonflies, but probably not the big ones supposedly existed in the dinosaur era.

When we camped at Two Rivers State Recreation Area at Nebraska, we discovered something I had heard of ever since I was a little kid. At first, I thought there may be something wrong with my eyes; my optometrist always warned me about seeing a flash of light as it may an indicator of my retinas becoming detached. Therefore, anytime, if I see any flash of lights, I always have to look for the source (most of time were due to camera flashes) to alleviate my fear. What we saw was random blinks of lights around our campground. Although the lights were faint, they weren’t what seemed normal to us. Then it dawned on us: they were fireflies.

There was a story (映雪囊螢) meant to inspire children and most of us Chinese kids had read it when growing up: 囊螢指車胤借螢火亮光讀書的故事. It was about a kid who caught a lot of fireflies and put them in a bag to serve as a source of light so he can study late into the night. I always wondered how many he had to catch to do so. . Judging from what I saw there, I would question the verity of the story. Caboose Cabin at Two Rivers, Nebraska The light from each firefly was so faint and brief that he would have to catch hundreds of them to have any remote chance. I tried to catch one but failed. Perhaps he was a better outdoors person than I was.

Two Rivers State Recreation Area had an interesting alternative to camping: cabooses. They turned some trains into a sleeping quarter. The cost was about 40 to 50 dollars I believe but they were out of them that night. Otherwise it would have been a memorable stay as would at a yurt or a teepee.

About 10 days later, we arrived at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Smoky Mountains NP the most visited National Park in the U.S. every year. It always intrigued me how it can claim such a distinguished honor. It soon became obvious as its location at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina can serve as a convenient scenic alternative to the nearby highway 40. As we arrived late, we decided to try our luck at Cades Coves campground which we were told a few months earlier when I called had a good chance to get a first-come-first-serve campsite. We always made sure that we arrived no later than Thursday night at a popular place and preferably on a Wednesday night. It was a Wednesday night, although choices were few, we were still able to select our campsite. We decided to stay at our Cades Coves campsite so we didn’t have to find a campsite for 3 days as it was getting close to the weekend.

Although we already had a place to stay the next day, as we drove by the Elkmont campground, we, as usual, wanted to scout the place for possible next visit. It seemed to be a better campsite than the Cades Coves but might have more mosquitoes as it was near a stream. We accidentally discovered a flyer about Synchronous Fireflies there and was befuddled by it: synchronous?. We went to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and asked about it. The ranger told us that a few days in June every year near Elkmont campground, there are a lot of fireflies that almost blinked simultaneously, therefore, the name synchronous fireflies. We berated ourselves for not staying at Elkmont.

Laurel Falls at Great SmokeyThe National Park service provided shuttles from the Visitor Center to there starting around 6PM. Laurel Falls at Great Smokey We hiked to Grottes Falls (see Left)and Laurels Falls (see right) that day before heading back to the Visitor Center to catch the shuttle at 7PM. It was still early but we were warned about it might get crowded later. It was about 20-25 minutes ride then we followed the direction to an area where fireflies were expected. We were also given some red filter papers to cover our flashlights to reduce light glares. It was quite a big area so everyone seemed to debate where to sit/stand. Most of people sat around a big meadow area but we decided to stay near the trail and sat down on our camping chairs. We had our dinner then waited. As the sky darkened, we started to hear people saying “here is one”, “another one”, etc. There weren’t many actually. We were quite disappointed as we saw just as much at Two Rivers. However, after another 30-45 minutes as we got closer to 10PM, they started to put on a light show.

Kadia stayed up and watched the spectacle with us. As our eyes grew used to the darkness, we saw more and more. They were everywhere and each section seemed to be controlled by a switch that caused fireflies to blink synchronously; it was as if they were putting on a Christmas show in June. We tried to videotape the fireflies but it was too dark. Many more people streamed in; I think it was smart for them to come late. We had to leave reluctantly so we can put Kadia to bed. Bryden was already sound asleep in front pouch Susan was carrying. As we took the shuttle back to the Visitor Center, we learned that it actually wasn’t good to stay at the Elkmont Campground, as people there still had to walk for, although relatively close, 20-30 minutes in dark. The shuttle although past by the Elkmont campground didn’t stop there. There were some upset campers, especially the ones with young kids. I could only sympathize with them and counted our lucky star.

Mosquitoes, Flies, or Bees, which one would you pick to annoy and harass you when you are out camping? We already knew that we would encounter a lot of mosquitoes on the East Coast given that it typically has more rain than the West Coast. When we heard that New England got a record amount of rain during the spring and early summer, we knew we needed to be prepared: we bought mosquito net hat, mosquito backpack cover, and a couple of fold-away food covers to go along with the car seat mosquito cover we already owned (see the picture below with Bryden in the infant car seat).
Bryden with car seat mosquito net

The trip started out well. In Nevada and Utah, there weren’t many flies or mosquitoes, probably because it was almost like a desert there. By the time we got to Iowa, mosquitoes had become vicious. Hiking at Effigy Mounds with backpack mosquito netEven when it was hot, we had to put on long sleeve shirt and long pants during dinner time; otherwise, we would be eaten alive. Although we brought two different kinds of insect repellant, we didn’t use them much yet (to avoid any chemical, DEET free or not) , relying on mosquito net hat, mosquito net car seat cover, mosquito net child carrier to keep mosquitoes at bay. Susan with a mosquito hatMosquitoes are known to attract to heat (actually CO2), male, blood type O+ and black color. I happened to fit that category almost perfectly so I would routinely get a few bites each day. Luckily because of such mosquito magnet I was, the rest of the family were visited less often. I stopped counting when I reached 100 sometimes in July.

As we traveled east, we learned to pick camping spots which potentially would have fewer mosquitos, away from standing water but with some breeze (over 10 MPH wind, a condition mosquitoes do not fly well). Still, in some places such as New England, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, mosquitoes were not only numerous and large but also would bite through 2 layers of clothing, that sometimes we abandoned eating outside or abandoned cooking altogether. We also started using insect repellant abundantly to some degrees of success. There was also the worry of West Nile Virus as we saw signs posted from time to time. It was a risk we took just like driving can lead of an accident but we all accept and drive nevertheless.

As we started heading back west, we started running into more and more flies. Food Cover on the picnic tableThey were very annoying, buzzing around our heads and food all the time. Our fold-away food covers became indispensable (see the food cover toward the rear of the picnic table in the picture on the left). I remember while camping at Apostles National Lakeshore, I used an old map as a fly swapper and killed at least 30 of them. We also learned to put some food scraps about 10 feet away from our picnic tables to attract flies there. That helped. Eventually we had to buy a fly swapper as a weapon.

When we got to the west coast, we thought we had seen everything. Then we ran into a lot of bees at Memaloose State Park, Oregon. With flies and mosquitoes, we could always brush them away barehanded but we didn’t dare to do the same with bees. And we didn’t really want to kill them either so we had to quickly finish our food so they would go away.

So now, pick your poison.