Castaway Part 2: Johnston Island—First Impressions of a Forgotten Landscape

 

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It’s been a little over a week since we were marooned. After four days at sea on the Imua, and four more nights sleeping on the docked vessel we finally moved ourselves from ship to shore and waved goodbye to our setup crew last Friday. Second thoughts be damned, we are stuck here for up to eight months with no hope of escape. Though this might sound dramatic, the feeling would have been mutual had you been standing on a deserted wharf as your one link to society slowly pulled away. Barring health or weather emergencies, we expect to be here until around the end of June. No return trip is currently planned however as it will depend on scheduling and boat/crew availability. It is never expected that a strike team will be on Johnston for longer than eight months though.

Our first week has consisted mainly of revitalizing camp and clearing routes for our upcoming monitoring of the ecological health of the island. Camp itself is shockingly comfortable by my standards. Life centers around the Ant Cave, a kitchen, library, lounge, and meeting place all-in-one housed in military bunker designed with nuclear blasts in mind. This means no windows—hence “cave.” It was also highly cluttered when we arrived; filled to the brim with old food, files, gadgets, and mystery boxes and buckets from past crews. Despite this, the Ant Cave maintains a certain charm. The large bunker doors are never closed, so light and fresh air (and, admittedly, pests) filter in at nature’s discretion. This gives a sense of being outside even while in a dark, high-ceilinged dome. There is a medium-sized array of solar panels that provide us with enough juice to consistently light and power electronics in the ant cave. Stove and refrigerators are powered by propane. There is no plumbing, but we have a makeshift sink rig as well as composting toilettes. The front and back areas of the Ant Cave are covered with large tarps to provide additional shade for eating and relaxing.

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Beyond our giant outdoor dining room table lie our personal tents. Each of the five of us has been graced with more personal space than most field camps could dream of. A nine-person camping tent shaded with a large tarp set in a clearing of iron woods. Each setup is a comfortable distance from the next, and only one of the dwellings is even visible from the Ant Cave. I set to work personalizing my own space pretty quickly, and my “yard” is almost too endearing (I sometimes don’t want to leave).

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Johnston as a whole is a bizarre mix of beauty and decay. Having been built up as a military base, the substrate in most areas is concrete. There are crumbling bunkers scattered around and areas that bare indicators of residential use. At one point, over a thousand people lived on Johnston. Undeterred by the seemingly inhospitable conditions, vegetation pushes through the cracks and has overtaken most of the abandoned island. There is no shortage of trees and bushes for seabirds to nest in. Only the runway and main thoroughfares for bicycles and gators remain clear.

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Most of Johnston is enclosed in sea wall. Thus, there aren’t many spots to walk directly into the crystal-clear aquamarine water. But getting over the sea wall in most areas requires nothing more than hopping a small concrete border and descending a sloping embankment. About a dozen feet or so beyond the divide, giant table coral heads teeming with fish cluster just a few feet below the surface. Sometimes the ocean comes to great you in full force at this dramatic separation between island and water. I was scrubbing my tent’s rug at the sea wall one afternoon when a four-foot giant moray swam casually between my legs. It took me fully by surprise since the otherwise striking silhouette of its undulating body was hidden beneath the rug until it was almost touching me. My pre-programmed reaction was to leap onto the sea wall. Though I know morays aren’t looking at people as a source of food, their snake-like appearance doesn’t fail to trigger the amygdala. Once I was out of reach though, I watched in stunned silence as the green-brown predator continued away from the sea wall, likely in search of something more edible than a welcome mat.

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The most powerful emotion I’ve experienced upon being left at Johnston has been relief. A month living in Honolulu did plenty to inflame the anxieties that had somewhat subsided since leaving DC, and the lack of personal space on a merchant vessel didn’t offer much reprieve. The sigh of relief I breathed upon entering my tent the first night felt like a long-delayed exhale to an inhale that had possessed me since my last re-entrance to society from remote living almost five years ago. Subsequently, the moments that have really taken me aback so far have been steeped in solitude. Peering through my tent window at the several stars visible from my pillow. Coming up a hill into a field as the sun rises, flanked on either side by nesting boobies but not a human in sight. Swimming naked off one of the tiny “corner beaches” with only fish for company. Sitting on the sea wall watching the sun and birds return to their respective hiding places. Of course I haven’t forgotten about my crew. I recognize that I live in a small village, not a private retreat. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks and there will be difficulties in maintaining a functioning living space together. But a one square mile island provides quite a bit of room for five people. Obviously, I already miss my loved ones at home. But I will be interested to see if my introversion eventually expires, and I start hungering for some novel human interaction. Only time will tell.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

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