Posts Tagged With: Johnston Atoll

Castaway 7: Homecoming

If this strange journey has taught me one thing, it’s that time truly is relative. That it’s possible to notice the passing of an individual day more than an entire month. That doing nothing really does expand time; and that this is not always a good thing. That familiarity can make time contract and vast stretches seem to fall into a void, knitting together edges of your life that stood across vast oceans before. That it takes conscious effort not to allow this familiarity to become complacency.

When I saw the Imua pulling up to the same wharf we’d been left at six months prior, I almost could have forgotten the space between the two events. Its image was so familiar that I might have wondered if I’d dreamt the whole thing in a Dramamine-fueled coma. But the overwhelming delight at seeing new, yet familiar, faces was evidence enough of my isolation. Upon stepping off the ship, one of the Fish and Wildlife employees we love the most handed us all a perfectly ripe banana. Never has a piece of fruit brought me so much joy.

The changeover with the new CAST crew was a whirlwind of social activity. My crew and I filled the new crew’s minds with more information than could possibly have been retained, trying to pass on as much of our knowledge of the strange home they were inheriting before our time came to an end. I was surprised by how quickly my awkwardness at seeing new people after six months faded. As a person with a history of social anxiety, I expected to be especially plagued by those feelings when the insecurity of being unpracticed entered the picture. But it actually seemed that my sheer exuberance at the interactions was enough to cloud the doubts I would normally feel. Though I had to retire early after dinner on the first day to decompress a bit, I felt very socially competent most of the week. In the days that followed I believe I’ve even come close to experiencing what it’s like to be extroverted. I have chosen to sit at a bar twice instead of a table to interact with strangers. I have made pleasant comments that could lead to conversations with line companions. I’ve smiled at babies. Who am I?

When the ship finally began to pull away from Johnston, I was somewhat startled by how little I felt. Though it had been a home to me for longer than several other places I’d lived, I was just so ready to move on. Leaving it in the hands of new friends also made the separation feel less final. I did realize with a twinge of sadness that I’d neglected to say goodbye to my garden. But when I shouted across the growing divide to the new crew members “don’t forget to water!”, they responded with “just did this morning!”and I knew it was never my garden and it didn’t need me. It was on to bigger and better things too.

As Johnston boobies flapped alongside the boat and the island grew smaller and smaller, I felt relief more than anything else. Though I experienced true seasickness for the first time during the return trip (not recommended), I found the opportunity for rest it provided a godsend. Upon arriving in Honolulu, there wasn’t much time to revel in the amenities of civilization. Boat disembarking immediately turned to boat unloading, and the work continued in a frenzy until everything was moved back to the bunkhouse we’d stayed at in November. It was surreal to be back in that place. Once again I started to feel suspiciously like I’d never left. But the new faces that greeted us inside begged to differ.

My first foray into city life was sublime. My crew mate and I made a bee-line for our favorite bar. We ordered the beers and pub food we’d dreamed about so many times on-island. We saw rainbows over Diamond Head and listened to the cacophony of urban sounds. We reveled in a hard job well done and the pleasures that awaited us.

My journey finally came to its climatic close at the Detroit airport. Five in the morning on June 22nd, 2019 stands as the only time I have run through an airport without trying to catch a flight. Throwing down my bags to embrace my parents and partner at the baggage claim will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life.

I don’t know that I’ll visit another of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. There are several more with similar volunteer programs that I could apply for. A large part of me is fairly sure seven months is just a little too long to be parted from those I love. But there will always be a part of me that wonders what else is out there. At the very least I know that remote life itself remains wide open to me. Even at the end of the six months, I was still happy living in a tent and most of the physical comforts of society could have been forgotten in comparison with the emotional ones.

Until the next bizarre adventure, thanks to whoever took the time to read these posts. If you’d like to know more about Johnston Atoll or are interested in becoming a member of the Crazy Ant Strike Team follow this link. If you’d like to know more about the other U.S. Minor Outlying Islands follow this link.

Mahalo.

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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***

Categories: About me, Animals, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway 6: Over The Blue Horizon

We are in the last month of our banishment—er, I mean deployment—here
on Johnston. I can feel the desire to be reunited transitioning from a
constant dull ache to actual anticipation. It is finally starting to
feel like it will really happen. Like the end is not some unreachable
horizon but a point on a map we are drawing nearer to, even if the
progress feels slow. In under 30 days, I will see other humans. In
around 40 I will see my humans. I remind myself of all the psychology
that insists the mental pleasures of anticipation outweigh those of
actually getting what you’ve been waiting for. Though I’m inclined to
think it’s a little easier to relish waiting a few hours for a donut
than months for dearly missed loved ones.

Lately I’ve been plagued by strange ominous dreams in which my loved
ones either ignore or scorn me. It’s as if my primate brain is sending
out alarm signals. “You haven’t seen x, y and z in an unacceptable
amount of time! They may not even care for you any more!” I know these
dreams are fictitious and I pay them no heed. But they are interesting
in that they remind me of the dreams that used to haunt my sister and
I as children, in which our parents would abandon us or do cruel
things like destroy our favorite stuffed toys. The irony (and often
hilarity) of these dreams was that they bore no resemblance to
reality. We had some of the most loving and attentive parents children
could ask for. I’ve since found that others experienced these paranoid
dreams as kids. I view it as a marker of an immature, and thus
insecure psyche. These dreams were just another form of nightmare in
which the monster, though just as unreal, was a bit closer to home.
Though I’ve maintained communication with my friends and family
through messages, I don’t believe this contact fully “registers” in
the brain. Logically, I know everyone will be waiting for me with open
arms, but my subconscious roils with insecurity and paranoia for not
having actually seen or heard the voices of every primate’s most
important security blanket: their group.

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I now see the ocean surrounding us as less a beautiful landscape and
more an impenetrable wall. Homebody though I may be, the fact that I
physically can’t leave is starting to get to me. I feel caged. We may
seem to have the run of the island—deciding which invertebrates live
or die and abducting tropicbirds for our nefarious scientific
purposes—but nothing is more humbling than watching the birds fly out
past the horizon each day and remembering that, unlike their kind, we
are stuck on this chunk of rubble with the geckos and mice, for better
or worse. Snorkeling still offers some reprieve, as the majority of
the world comes to meet you at the sea wall. Fish, rays, and sharks
are a wonderful reminder that, though it may seem like it, the blue
mass around us is far from a barren desert. Johnston Atoll belongs to
the ocean and it’s here that it really comes alive. Though
unequivocally important to the seabirds we study, the land and trees
themselves are more of an afterthought.

Tensions have grown between some of the members of the group, an
unavoidable consequence of seeing no-one but each other for months on
end. I find myself clinging to my friends some days, and wanting
nothing more than to be utterly alone others. During the all-island
tropicbird MIC, the largest survey conducted every year on Johnston,
exhaustion and frustration often got the best of us. It can be
difficult to remain cordial when you can feel your back savagely
burning under the relentless sun. Or when you’re tripping through
broken concrete and rebar on top of a hazardous waste landfill. Or
flushing your eye out after the fourth stream of guano to hit you that
morning got you right in the face. Called both lovingly and grudgingly
Trash Paradise by several previous volunteers, there are days when
Johnston earns that name very well.

As the changeover between our crew and the next CAST approaches in
June, we’ve started organizing, inventorying, and generally spiffing
camp for its new inhabitants. This process is therapeutic as it’s a
final push to get rid of the extraneous clutter that’s been hanging
around and make the space as welcoming as possible. But it’s also
strange to think someone else will be living here soon. Sitting in my
favorite spots, caring for (or say it ain’t so, neglecting) my
kombucha-brewing SCOBYs, rearranging my specific brand of
organization. I also lament the prospect of passing on my precious
garden. Tending to and sitting in it has been one of the most
consistent sources of pride and tranquility here. What if there are no
gardeners on the new crew? What if the tomato worms and mice take
over? What if they don’t like arugula?? The possibilities for
vegetable-related travesty are endless. It’s thoughts like these that
confuse the general homesickness I feel most of the time. Like it or
not, I care about this place. I may be ready to return to the greater
world beyond these endless blue walls, but there’s no denying this
place has become a home to me.

 

***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: About me, Blog Series, Remote Living, Thoughts, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway 5: The Weird and The Wonderful

Johnston Island is a contradiction. Beautiful and hideous. Exasperating and comforting. Plentiful and barren. Its vistas are endearing in an absurd way. Plumeria and hibiscus flowers surround a decaying tennis court. Birds nest in the thousands around a crumbling multistory building. Turtles bask on a beach marred by discarded telephone poles and marine debris. I myself am consumed by a striking contradiction in feeling. I love and hate Johnston. I want my sunrises and lazy afternoons to stretch on, but my weeks and months to contract. Half of me wants to use my time here to the fullest, the other to whittle it as efficiently as possible. It takes near constant presence of mind not to live in the future. Many of our survey tasks are somewhat mindless, like walking between points of a memorized route or scratching at the ground to disturb ants. It’s hard not to drift off in these moments, exploring all the lovely people and things that await me upon return. Audiobooks have been one of the greatest life preservers against this temporal drift. Better I be immersed in a story than in some false projection of possible futures, their promises filling me with vacant desire.

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Luckily not all our work is mindless. As we continue not finding yellow crazy ants and the birds in our reproduction monitoring plots grow, we are able to spend time banding the juveniles before they fledge. Banding a bird means applying a small numbered metal circlet to the birds right leg so that it may be identified in future population studies. Banding these birds is the first real wildlife handling I’ve done since college. Though I hate distressing any creatures, the process is quick and painless. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. Banding is one of the activities that reminds me why I’m here. And my ability to pick it up relatively fast gives me hope I may not be in the wrong career path after all.

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We’ve also started to notice changes in the wildlife and invertebrate composition here on Johnston. Though I wouldn’t say we experience “Spring” at this latitude, the slightly rising temperatures seem to be coaxing certain species out of wherever they were hiding. In some ways this is wonderful, with the arrival of more white, grey, and sooty terns. Or the sighting of more turtles, eels, and sharks. In other ways it is frustrating and even terrifying, with the heat bringing out garden pests, ants, and—my personal mortal enemy—centipedes. I struggle to put fresh vegetables on the table as it is, having produced only two zucchini, one eggplant, and some herbs and arugula for my crew so far. With the coming months bringing even hotter weather, I’m starting to feel as if I’m fighting a losing battle with Mother Johnston.

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I think most people who live here must experience a similar mixture of extreme feelings. For many, this is the most remote spot they will ever set foot on. The pleasure of having a whole island nearly to oneself is undeniable. To be on Johnston is to live someplace almost wholly taken back by nature. And living in an atoll means being more surrounded by that other world—the marine world—than I ever thought possible. But being here also means you’re at Mother Johnston’s absolute mercy. You must roll with the punches, whether that means a perfect rainstorm right when you need it or a boobie shitting on your head.

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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**

Categories: Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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