We couldn't say that we hadn't been warned. As our party was planning for our October whitetail hunt in northeastern North Carolina, we all received an e-mail from the outfitter. "Please be warned that our county has received 22 inches of rain in the last two weeks," read the missive. "We strongly recommend that you bring a Thermacell as well as plenty of butane cartridges and repeller mats."
As an employee of NRA Publications, I receive testing samples from many purveyors of outdoor products, and so I happened to have an MR150 Thermacell repeller in my office, along with its normal complement of butane charger and three replacement mats. I tucked it into my backpack before I left. However, many of the others in our party didn't see the necessity. After all, they were all seasoned hunters and anglers and had spent many a season in Maine, where the mosquito is unofficially known as the state bird. Their packs were already replete with tried, tested and trusted DEET sprays.
October in North Carolina can be quite warm, and in that purple false dawn of the first morning of the hunt it was almost eerily so. Not even sunrise, and the thermostat already hovered at 70 degrees. Normally, there's a grace and beauty in the gradual lightening of the sky as the sounds of the forest at night are replaced with the music of dawn. This time, however, there was an foreboding, almost pregnant quality to the break of day. The air seemed to be getting heavier, not lighter, and it grew progressively warmer even before the first rays of sunlight struck my stand. And...what was that sound? It was a soft, ominous whining, almost at the limits of the human ear, like the first thrumming of some infernal engine.
A swift needle struck me hard, in the cheek. I slapped reflexively at my face, thinking that I must have been stung by a wasp or spider, so sudden and sharp was the pain. When I drew my hand back, my palm was spattered with my own bright red blood and the remnants of a fuzzy little body. It wasn't a spider at all. It was a mosquito. As if summoned by the first spilled blood, a half-dozen other little needles drilled into the exposed skin of my wrists. I scrabbled frantically in my day pack, heedless of any noise I might be making. Placing the Thermacell, now making its own subaudible whir, on my lap, I looked around. A fine, silvery mist surrounded me...and it was retreating slowly, as if a curtain were being withdrawn. Mosquitoes; thousands of them. A legion of miniscule winged vampires, driven back in about a 3-foot radius by the Thermacell like demons from a cross. I shuddered.
"I've never seen anything like it," marveled my father. "They're tiny, you almost can't see them, but the sting is outrageous. It actually hurts—I've never had a mosquito bite hurt before."
"The weird part is that they don't seem to care at all about the DEET spray," I replied. "The only thing that stops them, as far as I can tell, is that Thermacell. How is yours holding up?"
"I'm already half out of my butane charger," he answered gravely. "I think I'm going to skip this evening's hunt, head out to the local superstore, and see if I can't stock up on more." And with that, Dad drove off.
I later learned that using the power of Google Maps and a GPS, Dad had visited every single possible retailer of Thermacell equipment in a 40-mile radius. The first five had been sold out, but once he'd driven for an hour he finally found a place with a few left. He purchased their entire stock of butane chargers and repellent mats, as well as three extra Thermacell units to give to the other members of our party. This wasn't a gesture of lavish generosity; he was genuinely worried that the members of our party who had relied only on DEET would be completely exsanguinated by daybreak.
Later that evening, returned from his epic quest for the Thermacell "Holy Grail," my father doled out the equipment to the rest of our party. A different set of hunters saw him doing it, and after a whispered conference, sent over an envoy.
"So how much do you want for that Thermacell?" he asked. "Fifty? I'll give you $50 cash for it right now."
"I only got enough for us," apologized Dad, handing the last one over.
"A hundred?" queried the stranger. "I can write you a check. It's good, you can call the bank."
"No," growled one of our party. "You will pry this thing from my cold, dead hands...which they probably will be if this thing runs out after first light tomorrow."
The next morning, the hunt was interrupted by a torrential downpour the likes of which I've only seen before just outside the eye of a hurricane. (Later, we learned that an anomalous late-season tornado had touched down a dozen miles away.) In the din, I failed to notice that my Thermacell, which had been sitting chummily on my lap, had run out of butane. As the silver sheet of rain lifted, it was immediately replaced with a silver mist of the little demons, the buzzsaw whining of their descent accompanied by a dozen simultaneous strikes on my skin.
No Navy SEAL ever field-stripped and reassembled his Colt M4A1 as swiftly as I rebuilt my Thermacell. As it whirred to life, I slapped at my face and arms, hands coming away bloody. As the treble of the bloodsuckers retreated to arm's length, I looked down at the humble little Thermacell and murmured a heartfelt benediction I have never before used in reference to an inanimate object:
"Oh bless you."
Pictured, on author's left hip: the Thermacell.