Travel

Castaway Part 1: The Departure

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you share most moments of your life with. They’re there when you wake up, when you go to bed, when you celebrate your successes and when you mourn your failures. They’re there when you don’t even necessarily notice or appreciate that they are. Then suddenly they’re not. And all those little moments that seemed so insignificant, and passed by so easily, emerge as salient reminders of what you’re missing each day. Luckily for me, I have a new family of friendly strangers to cushion the blow. I’m not sleeping in a glaringly vacant queen size bed, but a snug top bunk above a new friend. Though my departure from home is disarming, it’s almost certainly more so for the one I’ve left behind.

So here I am in a barbed wire enclosed yet somehow still charming bunkhouse in Honolulu, awaiting what may be the strangest seven months of my life. A world apart from my partner, who I’ve left to endure the Michigan winter I’d been striving to escape my entire adult life. It’s worth explaining why I’m here. I’ve taken an eight-month position with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. My official title? Volunteer Ant Killer.

The backstory is long and I’d rather go more into detail about it in a future post when I’ve become more of an expert. The short version though is that during World War II, the U.S. decided to expand a remote atoll off the coast of the Hawaiian islands to use for military operations. Fast forward to now and Johnston is a decommissioned deserted island boasting a bizarre post-apocalyptic facade, but with a twist: it’s a cherished nesting ground for rare seabirds and the location of an ambitious invasive species control operation. Enter CAST–the Crazy Ant Strike Team! An appropriate acronym for a group of volunteers seeking elective exile from pretty much everything. The members of this biannual project ship out to Johnston to preform eradication of the invasive yellow crazy ant and monitor seabird and marine life populations. Are they die-hard bird and fish lovers? Ant haters? Disenchanted misanthropes? Experience collectors in search of a good story? It’s hard to answer for more than one CASTer at a time.

 

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Johnston Atoll, among the most remote atolls in the world. 500 miles from the closest landmass and visited for government business only. There are times when the closest human population center is technically the International Space Station.

 

The reactions I received when I informed my friends and family I’d be joining this effort were a mixture of surprise, fascination, and a little horror. The process usually went like this: “I’m going to Hawaii in November!” “Wow that’s amazing! What will you be doing in Hawaii?” “Well, I’ll only be in Hawaii for a month then I’ll be shipping off to a remote island for seven!” “Wow, how exotic. What island?” “Well, it’s not really an island…it’s more of a decommissioned military base with buried radioactive waste and a serious ant problem.” “Wait….what?!”

Those who really know me weren’t that surprised however. Living on a remote island as far from large human populations as possible sounds just about right up my alley. The specific nature and history of Johnston however was a little hard to stomach though even for my closest loved ones. Though today reported as safe to inhabit, Johnston has served as a veritable dump for various toxic wastes such as agent orange, dioxin, and weapons grade plutonium. Though I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned, I’m more fascinated than worried personally.

I have to give some credit where credit is due therefore to my partner, family, and friends. Thank you for supporting me through this undeniably eccentric part of my life and career. What may look like an insane decision to many looks like a life-changing and door-opening milestone to me. My reasons for joining CAST run the gamut from passion for wildlife to obvious misanthropy. These motives propel me through most of my life, but they don’t eclipse the love I have for and receive from my loved ones. You all are my guiding light, my pillars, and my chief concern through this process. Know that I will take care of myself and that you will be missed each and every day.

So as you may have caught on, this will be the beginning of a special blog series. Though one of the most remote places in the world, Johnston boasts one of the most important amenities of civilization: internet! Though it will spotty and unreliable, I’m hoping it will be good enough to keep this blog updated with my strange goings-ons. I’ll be in Honolulu for the next month training, packing, and preparing for life on the atoll. After that I’ll be CASTaway (see what I did there?) to live amongst the ants, birds, and stars. If you’d like to get in touch beyond following this blog, feel free to drop me a line in the “About” section of this site. Mahalo!

 

***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***

Categories: Animals, Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Vampires

Hello my lovely 20-something followers! It’s been a while. But don’t worry; I have a whole new cornucopia of excuses to justify my lack of commitment to my blog. First and foremost, I’ve started actually getting paid to write (not a lot, but enough to motivate me to choose the gig over blogging). Second, I’ve had a whole host of life changes recently that kind of threw my routine (if I ever had one) out the window.

The most interesting of those is the subject of this post. After quite some time deliberating on the subject—and getting over some embarrassment and mild PTSD—I decided I am comfortable enough to share my experience. Don’t you feel lucky?

So here it goes.

Over the summer, my life was almost destroyed by a creature the size of a flax seed.

Those who’ve been victimized by this agent of Satan probably already know what I’m referring to. For the rest of you lucky, bright-eyed, blissfully ignorant bastards, I’ll elaborate (and ruin your night’s sleep): I’m talking about bed bugs. Sounds creepy right?

Well…

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When I first heard of bed bugs it was probably whilst combing travel websites. Bed bugs are often mentioned in the realm of hostels, dorms, and cheap motels, especially those abroad. I believe I checked for them half-heartedly a few times while staying in hostels in Costa Rica, not really even knowing what I was looking for.

However, everyone seems to forget to mention some very important information about bed bugs, predominantly that they are FUCKING EVERYWHERE. That’s right kiddos, nowhere is safe. Since the 80s, bed bug infestations have exploded in developed nations. Bed bugs aren’t just in hostels or motels, but in high-end apartments, restaurants, laundromats, and even libraries—yes they hide in books, and yes you can get them from these books. Commence psychotic breakdown.

Most attribute this rise to an increase in travel and pesticide resistance as well as a lack of education and the stigma surrounding infestations. Well, I’m going to do my share to tackle the last part of that sentence and school anyone reading this about these little vampires:

 

Bed bugs don’t give a shit if you’re dirty or clean, poor or rich.

Anyone and any place can be infested by bed bugs. My apartment definitely wasn’t what I would consider “high-end” but it also wasn’t a slum. Bed bugs may seem to plague poor areas more than affluent ones due to larger amounts of clutter, less responsive pest management practices, and the circulation of second-hand furniture. This doesn’t change the fact that the evil little shits will live anywhere, hitchhike on anything, and feed on anyone. Anywhere they can find warm bodies is good place to settle down. Oh, and they can also wait around for months without a meal. Like I said, nowhere is safe.

 

Bed bugs aren’t just annoying.

Some sources refer to bed bugs as an “annoying pest.” People who write things like this should try waking up to the feeling of something snacking on you, and then dealing with the knowledge that said something has actually been living in your bed frame for weeks, living off your precious life energy and shitting in your bed the whole time. Then they can tell me just how “annoying” that is. It’s not annoying, it’s fucking horrifying. This is the stuff of nightmares. Though they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can turn normal human beings into paranoid, anxiety-ridden insomniacs. So not exactly a great experience for someone who already suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now I have the added delight of experiencing a mini heart attack any time I see something vaguely reminiscent in shape or size of a bed bug or feel an itch while in bed. For more on “Bed Bug Madness”, check out this article.

 

There is hope. Kind of.

The internet and brazen honesty are our friends in the fight against bed bugs. Through my research I found that in addition to professional extermination services, the most valuable weapon against bed bugs is plain old heat. You can purchase a product called the “Bug Zapper.” It’s basically just a portable oven that will heat your possessions (in a much safer and more effective manner than a conventional oven) to a point that cooks the tiny vampires alive. You can also freeze possessions to kill bed bugs, but this takes a lot longer and is less reliable. Most importantly people need to stop acting like this is something that only happens in the third world. All apartment complexes should warn tenants about bed bugs. Parents should teach their kids about bed bugs. President Obama should deliver an address and turn national attention and full military power towards bed bugs. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Oprah should be solving the bed bug crisis.

 

So maybe I’m just a little bent out of shape about this. But the reality is not that bed bugs ruined my life but that they took something sacred away from it. The second most devastating loss of my bed bug infestation (the first being my sanity, naturally) was my love for second-hand items. I hate buying new things in a world full of unwanted stuff and I love the character of used books, furniture, and clothing. But now that I’ve peered into the rabbit hole of lunacy, desperation and paranoia that is life with bed bugs, my zeal has been replaced with fear. I still buy used clothes, but I throw them immediately into the wash on hot and dry them for 60 minutes to set my mind at ease. I’ve also bought a few used books after flipping neurotically through the pages. But my love affair with used furniture has officially ended. I feel as though my innocence has been taken. I find it tragic that I must pass up a perfectly good futon on craigslist, or a unique end table with a turkey on it at the thrift store for fear of another infestation.

I’m not sure what the answer to the bed bug epidemic is, other than spreading the word to avoid curbside castaways and inspect hotel beds. I don’t know if throwing infested furniture in landfills or using new pesticides will do anything but prolong the inevitable: a hostile takeover of human society by nefarious bed bug overlords.

Ok obviously I’m kidding but it’s still pretty frightening, don’t you think?

 

So for anyone with something important to do today, here’s the ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That) version of the last six months of my life:

Just when I was starting to really love my new tiny apartment lifestyle, it was unceremoniously demolished by demonic arthropods. My cat and I moved in with my boyfriend, almost infested his place as well, and I salvaged what possessions and sanity I could. Despite all this, we still managed to escape Michigan just before winter truly set in. We now share a small apartment in downtown D.C. where we are hoping to find work before our modest savings run out.

Thanks for reading friends, and may you never wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiny vampire hiding in the pages of your scifi novel.

Cheers.

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loon Lacrimosa: North Manitou Island

Although seemingly irrelevant, the title of my blog actually has meaning to me beyond just an oh-so clever play on the common name for a Michigan bird. When I was about four years old, my parents purchased a small cottage in Mecosta, Michigan. Mecosta is a city most would consider within the catchall distinction of podunk nowhere. The “city” consisted of two bars, a gas station, and a combination laundromat and video rental store. Yes they were attached. Yes we used both of them. Anyway, the cottage was on a tiny but pristine body of water appropriately named “Pretty Lake”. My family had this cottage until they made the difficult decision to sell it during my freshman year of college, so about fourteen years. Thus the majority of my childhood summers were spent swimming, playing outside, getting bit by mosquitoes, and most importantly, pestering wildlife in every possible way. I am under the impression my career pathway (if you can even call it that at this point…maybe “life focus” would be a better choice) was hugely influenced by the amount of time I spent outdoors looking at, listening to, and wrangling wildlife during my youth. One of the more illusive creatures that could be found intermittently on Pretty Lake was the common loon (Gavia immer). The loon’s unmistakable, haunting call is as much as part of Michigan lore as drowsy mother bears and cryptozoological dog men. If you haven’t heard a loon’s call, take a second to Youtube that shit right now. I’ll wait here.

Perhaps this bizarre, eerie sound is the origin of the second dictionary definition for the word loon: a crazy or simple-minded person.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, loons are also just gorgeous birds. Breeding adults boast striking plumage of black and white and fiery red eyes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say loons are my spirit animal, especially since I’m not generally a bird person, but I’m a pretty big fan of these guys. Unfortunately loons, like many other threatened species, are dying in droves at the indirect hand of man. The mechanism is complicated, so much so that it requires an entire DNR poster in state parks and national lakeshores to explain it. The simplified version is this: humans introduced two non-native species to the Great Lakes and inland lakes of Michigan, zebra mussels and round gobies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering tiny organisms out of the water they live in. Zebra mussels are so good at being zebra mussels that they have actually begun over-filtering Michigan waters, creating clarity levels that are not natural for these ecosystems. The clear waters allow for increased light penetration, which allows for increased algal growth. The algae grows at such a rate that it creates mats in which algae becomes smothered, dies, and begins to decompose within the mat. The rotting algae is a prime breeding ground for the Botulism toxin, a bacterium that causes a dangerous disease by the same name. This is where the second exotic, the round goby, comes in. Gobies swim among the algae beds, eating worms and other small organisms that have consumed the rotting algae, and they thus contract the Botulism bacteria. When loons and other shorebirds eat gobies containing the toxin, they contract Botulism and die.*

Recently I went on a short backpacking trip on North Manitou Island, one of the two “cubs” off the shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (if you don’t know the Native American tale about Sleeping Bear, it’s worth checking out). I had a fantastic time exploring the island and was met with breathtaking beauty at every turn. That is, until I encountered at least seven dead or dying loons in a row along the southwestern shore. I say dead or dying because two of the loons I encountered were still alive, suffering from what appeared to be paralysis and “limberneck”**. This was extremely difficult for me to see, especially since I knew there was nothing I could do to help the suffering birds. The enthrallment of backpacking in rustic, backwoods beauty became painful, lingering guilt for the damage our species is causing to the others we share this planet with. My boyfriend and I hiked back to our camp feeling sad, angry, and defeated. Even here, what felt like a million miles away from civilization, we could not escape blatant signs of ecological degradation. I was having flashbacks to Playa Llorona in Costa Rica.

Although this may seem like a downer of a post (probably because it is) I feel it’s important to talk about these experiences. If every person was forced to walk pass a suffering animal on a beautiful beach, knowing full well its suffering was caused by the actions of man, the world might look a little different. In the words of Gretchen Wyler, “we must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” I want people, especially those who spend time enjoying natural resources, to understand our actions do cause real, observable consequences. It may seem a hopeless plight for loons and other species affected by invasives (such as ash trees, a species I work with every day). After all, the invaders are already here. What can we possibly do at this point? Yet it is always advisable to educate yourself. It amazes me how often people come upon our research in state and metro parks and have no knowledge of emerald ash borer or have even noticed ubiquitous death of ash trees across the state. These are people who have chosen to spend their day hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying a natural area, yet they are completely out of touch with forest health.

When you see something strange, like thousands of dead trees in an otherwise healthy stand or several dead birds along a pristine shore, ask yourself why and then go find the information. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our ecosystems at this point is just to give a damn. To have a sense of stewardship for the lands we inhabit. And not to turn a blind eye to the environment five days out of the week only to enjoy the fruits of nature, conversationalists and wildlife managers on the weekends. The Internet is a powerful tool and no one needs a degree in environmental science to be a steward. If you’re interested in learning more about the species I mentioned or how the average person can prevent or inhibit the spread of invasive species, check out the links I’ve shared below.

* http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/great-lakes-loons-dying-in-record-numbers-from-botulism-outbreak-spurred-by-ecological-disturbance/

** http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26493–,00.html

Learn about invasive species:

Zebra mussels: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_zebra_mussel.php

Round goby: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/fish_round_goby.php

Emerald ash borer: http://na.fs.fed.us/fhp/eab/

Stopping invasives: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html

On a brighter note, here are some nice shots from the trip:

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Categories: Animals, Environment, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arizona Trip…about a month and a half late

I went to Arizona with my boyfriend for five days at the end of February to get away from the icy hell that is February in Michigan and to visit his godfather. I took a boat load of pictures and I’d like to share some of them as well as a few notes about my first experience in the American Southwest.

The first place we visited was Fountain Hills, a high-end suburb of the Phoenix area. I loved the adobe houses, gravel yards, and interesting foliage but was shocked to see huge fountains (hence “Fountain Hills”) and golf courses in the middle of the desert. It just seems to wrong, especially when some people predict a water crisis coming in the next handful of decades. Regardless, I took some nice photos:

Did I mention this was a wealthy area?

Did I mention this was a wealthy area?

17138278695_e760679804_zNext, me and Nick took a trip out to see the Biosphere 2, an amazing research facility constructed in the 1980s in order to test the ability of people to thrive within an enclosed ecosystem. The Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 being Earth) was meant to reconstruct a functioning, closed-system biome on a small scale. It is the largest system of it’s kind. Two “missions” were conducted at the Biosphere in which researchers were “locked” inside for up to 2 years. Due to some difficulty in cultivating food, CO2 problems, and even personal disputes, the missions were not perfect and the second ended prematurely. However, the Biosphere was pegged as a “failure” in the mainstream media. Those who work at the Biosphere now will be the first to say this is not true, and I’m apt to agree with them. The original researchers gained invaluable information about the operation of closed systems that can lead to very important sustainable technologies and a greater understand of Earth in general. Not to mention the problems they encountered, in the grand scheme of experimental science (*ahem* remember how science works? Most things aren’t perfect), were not all that disastrous. Research continues to be conducted at the Biosphere including soil dynamics, artificial “ocean” manipulation, and other fascinating pursuits. Even ignoring all practical use of the facility, it sure is cool to look at:

The future is now folks.

The future is now folks.

17138294745_6fb6675296_zNext on our list was Saguaro National Park within the beautiful Sonoran Desert. I was awe-struck by the giant Saguaro cacti (pronounced “soo-waro” apparently, unless you’re a newb) stretching as far as the eye could see and of course the gorgeous sunset we managed to catch just in time:

16931205297_d111091429_z 17138375245_9b758f8450_zNext on the list was Tonto National Forest, where we took a boat ride through the cañon and, my favorite part, encountered a herd of desert bighorn sheep!!

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What are YOU looking at?

What are YOU looking at?

The last particularly notable part of our trip was in Sedona, land of crystal hippies and rich, confused white people. Though I can’t say I buy into the “vortex” theory of why Sedona is a special place, I won’t deny that it is enchantingly beautiful. to my chagrin we actually ran into snow while we were there, the very thing we were trying to escape. Yet I couldn’t stay mad when I saw how pretty it looked atop the red rocks:

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I couldn't really get over the whole "snow on a cactus" thing.

I couldn’t really get over the whole “snow on a cactus” thing.

All-in-all I was very impressed with the splendor of the Southwest. Because of the unique mixture of cacti, rock formations, and coniferous forest, the higher elevations were some of my favorite spots. However the snow would probably keep me from moving there. But perhaps I’ll go back to Sedona when I decide that I want to spend $130 to have my fortune told by a woman who talks to angels. Seems legit.

If you’d like to see the rest of the photos from the trip (about 300 in all), head on over to my Flickr! Thanks for looking! 🙂

Categories: Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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