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How one mosquito can change your life

This is a massive ceiba tree, says Owen Bjorgan, tucked into the Andean mountains of Ecuador. It might be the largest living thing in the rainforest.
This is a massive ceiba tree, says Owen Bjorgan, tucked into the Andean mountains of Ecuador. It might be the largest living thing in the rainforest. In contrast, a mosquito from the same area nearly ruined his trip and changed his life, says Bjorgan. (Owen Bjorgan)

This double feature of unnerving stories, I promise, were worse for me than for those about to read them. My lifestyle and career see me outdoors seven days a week, so when I have the spare time to enhance the adventures, I usually go all in.

The first time I went “all in” set the tone for the cold, wet, and sometimes painful stories I will now tell you about. In hindsight, they are all positive stories for me now that were created by time in nature. They come budding with valuable lessons, too.

I was nearly 10 years old here in NOTL, enjoying the newfound liberties of parental trust and walkie talkies. Alone, as I still like to go sometimes, I followed the creek down and off the yard, where it crossed under a couple of roads and then broadened out into a beautiful floodplain. It was March, and ice was still sealing the deal in our forests. 

When a large tree falls, it takes up the roots and earth with it, leaving behind a deep depression or hole in the ground where it once valiantly stood. Sometimes, these holes inevitably fill up with water. They become little ecosystems unto themselves, occasionally a few feet deep.

I accidentally tread on one of these frozen pits and it gave way immediately. My snowsuit and little body pierced directly through the ice. I remember the cold water seeping in through the wool and cotton and touching my warm body. Slowly, getting heavier, I remember the cold soup up to my chest and its putrid smell, my elbows and head thankfully well above the ice. My feet kicked off the bottom where worms, rotting leaves, and hibernating frogs probably rested. I got out pretty easily, but pretty damned cold.

Apparently I developed a strange affinity for this feeling. I learned to gain mastery over misery in outdoor conditions, because misery can beat you up faster than the weather itself sometimes. 

I not only found joy, but personal growth and stamina in my years of winter camping, intentionally hiking in storms, hence why I also love the annual Penguin Dip in NOTL.

Living in Canada, of all places, most of us are fortunate enough to go our entire lives without getting hypothermia.  

Here’s how you can get it: go hiking for four days straight in early spring when rain is falling but snow is still on the ground. Sleep alone in the tent, but wake up next to the exact same foe every morning – this grey, heavy, biting presence of wind and rain that’s waiting outside again. Get directly rained on all day so hard that even your sponsored gear seems to have given up on the situation. 

Rinse, dry, repeat – minus the drying. 

Wake up, eat some cold food, and put on the least wet pair of socks and sweater you can find. The one thing I experienced on that Bruce Trail expedition in 2014 was that neither the weather nor I slept much those first few nights, and I found myself physically and mentally exhausted.

The cold came creeping from the inside out. It felt like the inside of my bones had turned into the same wet clothes I was wearing. My muscles felt porous to the cold, as the feeling trickled its way through my body like a spilt drink, slowly running across a table top. This was only the beginning.

My emergency contacts picked me up from a road toward which I had bushwhacked. I thanked them immensely, and then I may have drained their whole hot water tank in their cottage. I didn’t believe standing in a hot shower and chattering my teeth for hours was possible. The core temperature returned about a day later, but my body was damaged. Let’s say I needed to run off of the trail or out of my tent almost 15 times a day.  

The elements of nature certainly have potential to surround and influence us, and that includes the living organisms that come paired with these environments. When I’m not cold and wet in Canada, I’m hot and drenched in the tropics, my favourite playground.

After a five-day excursion into a tropical section of the Andes mountains in Ecuador, I came back to civilization with more than just notes about the weather.

I woke up and thought I was nursing a mild hangover, as my return to the city the night prior was filled with much-appreciated calories and adult beverages (it was an epic hike). But nothing too crazy, so why did I feel like death in the morning?

Turns out a mosquito carrying the Dengue Fever virus sunk its proboscis (that’s the needle-like mouth part) into a bare patch of my skin at some point on that trip. The virus which causes the fever began wreaking havoc in an onslaught I will never forget. 

I crawled, vomited, ate nearly nothing, and tried to translate what I was feeling to the doctor at the only hospital in the region. 

She understood what I was feeling when, mid-sentence, I fell off the chair, and started making a mess in her office. This poor doctor then put me on a hospital bed, which I discovered wasn’t really designed for anybody over five foot five. They plugged some needles into me (my honest biggest discomfort in life), and I more or less stayed like that for two weeks. 

It was amazing and humbling to go from carrying a massive backpack through rainforest wilderness for days on end, high on life and unfazed, to feeling useless and devoid of basic functioning. The swelling of the brain against my skull and the pain festering in my joints made lying still and sleeping a nightmare. It wasn’t even the sort of sick that you could easily sleep off. 

The implications of that mosquito bite in 2016 are circling my environmental work and projects. Now that I’ve had and survived Dengue Fever, I am more immune in general to ever enduring it again. The catch is, that if I do, it is likely to be much more severe, and it can be fatal. 

Where does that leave me, as someone who is looking to expand my work and influence in the natural world and public realm? I envision community-based eco projects and filming more Hidden Corners in the tropical jewels of the world, in order to showcase the global significance of these planetary lungs. Passion doesn’t get the rug pulled from beneath its feet too easily, so I will be back in the tropics shortly. 

It blows my mind how one mosquito nearly had me down and out, but nature’s little ones can get under your skin in other ways.