April 30th, 2017 – Kure. Hōlanikū.
The strong winds from the early week fade away and I awake to our first still morning in what feels like weeks. Itʻs Sunday, and I feel well rested. Slowly but surely, I am arriving. We have been on the island for five weeks and even so the transition from the normalities of my life back in Hilo, to the rawness of this faraway seabird colony, does not happen overnight. In fact, it is not even a matter of days. There is a kind of letting go process that must occur, and like any release, grieving is involved. A bodily experience of death. Only then can we fully arrive on the other side. From one world to the next.
I have been so focused on this transition, giving myself the space and time needed to sink into the sands of Kure, that I have let some of my greater intentions fall away, knowing that there will be a time to pick them up again. My writing is one such intention. There is much to catch up on, much to describe, to translate into a language for the mind to grasp. To bring meaning to my internalized experience. And to share it. So with that, it is time to dive back into the journey. It is time to return to the Kahana, where our crew is preparing for arrival at Midway Atoll.
March 23, 2017 – Midway. Kua I He Lani
0600. Weve been jogging outside of Midway Atoll all night. With precise timing, Hanz turns the Kahana around for its last spin around the ol block. He sips his coffee and looks out at the darkness. Behind us there is not but a thin sliver of light on the horizon. Mario comes up thirty minutes later and takes over the wheel. Mario always has the sunrise shift. The coming into port shift. The captains shift.
He picks up the transmitter and hails Bob the Fish and Wildlife Manager on Midway. Not that Im expecting him to respond. He never does, He says, clicking the radio off and hooking it back to the receiver like hes done a million times before.
I hang around in the galley and watch Mario maneuver the ship through the dredged channel, a 100 meter wide gap in the reef. I scan back and forth between the Gps screen and the channel in front of us, watching our little symbol on the LCD point towards the way through. These days, computers really do handle most of the work. Mario doesnt have to make any calculations. He just looks at the screen which shows him if his angle is true, then makes adjustments accordingly. The day before I chatted with Drew about this very modern phenomenon.
Just imagine, today we have all these satellites in our orbit like eyes showing us the way. Its not so different from the stars really, like how they used to do it.
Yeah but you know why there were so many women who ended up marrying their husband’s brother?
Ok sure, people died a lot trying to sail across seas, but what about the birds? Theyve been doing it the same way forever. And they always know where theyre going.
Thats true, Drew confesses, popping a boiled peanut into his mouth while manning the wheel, which these days looks like putting your feet up and reading a magazine on sport fishing.
And I mean, what happens if our technology fails us, some big energy crisis, and it cant be powered. What then?
Well Id be screwed, even as a shipmate. We definitely depend on these technologies. Theyve greatly reduced the risks involved at sea, but they are also a crutch. No doubt about it.
We both think about that for a brief moment in our own heads, then Drew says, But Id still prefer the technology of today then having to navigate the old way. Without a doubt. And these ships, especially some of the newer ones, are nearly fail-proof.
But the Kahana is not a new ship and has some quarks that requires a competent captain of the old ways. The Bow thrusters have been acting up, so Im not always able to make the tight turns needed when coming into port, He explains to me as he shifts the thruster on. The boat begins to rumble as the lateral-pushing propellers at the font of the boat are engaged.
Also, you got a 5 degree starboard runner. When youre at the pier, you need to put it on auto, you need to put it on a course – youre not safe with the five degrees – you gotta go down the run, find the right pod and make your adjustment, otherwise, that thing is showing you straight you aint straight! Hanz and Mario laugh together, obviously speaking a language foreign to my own ears. Even so, Mario brings the Kahana into harbor and right up next to the pier like hes done a million times before. I step out onto the deck and wave at the workers all ready for our arrival. Theres Juan, sporting his usual NY Giants construction helmet. One of the more lively personalities on Midway.
First things first, The FAA contracted workers need to pump the jet fuel off of the Kahana, and unfortunately this means none of us can leave the ship yet, so, we sit in the galley all the way to lunch growing anxious to step onto land. We play cards. Tiana teaches us Trumps. We Play Hot seat. Steph laughs after each of her answers to our questions. Her face growing red.
The fuel is unloaded out of the giant tanks on the ship, Paul serves everyone Portuguese soup. Us Kureans scarf it down, grab our packs, and head out on our feet. Everyone wants to feel the earth with our feet. I turn around as we step off the boat and look up for the Pirate flag that Mario always flies at Midway.
There are bikes, beach cruisers, waiting for us on the pier, put there by the Midway workers specifically for our use. We start walking away, but Juan beckons us over. We insist on walking. A waving dance ensues; our party pointing to our feet, bending our knees and waving at the inland trying to act out our desire to regain our land-legs, the Thai guys waving towards the bikes smiling and shouting something we cant hear.
Everyone on Midway is accustomed to Midway, but we just arrived. And after six days on the open ocean, my body was accustom to the constant movement of water. When we walked towards the Midway town, I could feel my inner proprioceptors swimming and bobbing as if still on the ocean. The thing about being on a boat is that it messes with our perception of gravity, because the boat is constantly moving up and down. When it moves up, it feels like the force of gravity is having a greater effect, and our proprioception braces the increase of force, flexing our muscles and bending the knees, like when you jump of a ledge unto the ground. And when the boat comes back down, Gravity loosens its grip and the body suddenly feels light, feeling lifted off the ground, bringing the body up onto its toes. This is what it means to have sea-legs, simply put, for there are other variables. The boat can also bob side to side. It makes the steadiness of land feel stagnant and boring.
So we walk. Each of us having our own difficulty acclimating to land. I seem to have it worse. So does Steph, who cant stop talking about the sensation. She is thrilled, never having experienced an ocean voyage. She also is outwardly ecstatic about all the birds. Despite a large human presence, the seabird colonies here are massive, Midway having the largest Laysan Albatross colony in the world – 100,000 residents during nesting season, all singing and clapping and dancing, hardly noticing us humans. We trek along the dirt road leading to town. Most Albatross chicks are laying or sitting in the areas between roads, but a few venture across the edge, plumping their bowling-pin shaped bodies onto the hard packed surface.
A large construction vehicle can be seen heading towards us on the road, escorted by a golf cart driven by a man holding a long pvc pipe, like some college frat version of a jousting staff, extended out to gently prod any adult Laysans on the road. The golf cart reaches one of the downy chicks sitting in the middle of the road. It comes to an abrupt stop, and the man gets out of the cart, the giant construction vehicle looming over behind, and quickly picks up the chick who begins to squirm violently, snapping its beak at the man, trying to get some swings in. The worker shuffles over to the edge of the road where he puts the chick down, who claps its beak once last time, then runs back to his cart and takes off again, only to stop 50 yards ahead where another chick has decided to bask on the road. We let the escort and stevedore truck go by, covering our faces as the large wheels kick up dust, and continue our walk. The winds are strong, bringing rain to the island and strong gusts. Im hunkered in a scarf and raincoat to protect from the system heading in. Puddles form on the road, and the Laysan chicks also hunker down, reclining their long necks into their down feathered bodies.
Midway Atoll has two islands within its protected waters. One of the islands is dedicated to the wildlife, while the other island, Green Island, is home to an old military base that has been converted into living facilities for a much smaller population then once was. The base is left over from World War II; a strategic location in the middle of the Pacific. A large battle occurred during the war over these waters with the Japanese. As the vibrance of the war has faded with time, the relics from that era remain standing on Midway. Stepping onto to this island is like stepping back into time, or into a ghost town re-inhabited but never fully flipped. All the old buildings remain. Barracks, officer housing, bunkers, the one supply store (the majority stocked with booze), airplane hangers, a water tower, gymnasium, bowling alley, and a dining clubhouse. Most of the buildings have been decommissioned, or just plain forgotten. Only the inquisitive venture into these still standing structures: to explore the spaces where our great grandfathers and mothers were stationed to fight in a war that now only exists on the fringe of our nations memory.
But there are still some who remember. Those who were alive, who carry the memories inside of them, who feel deeply an attachment to this old military base. That fear if these buildings disappear, these physical memories, so will they.
And so they stand, a gym with electricity and a crumbling ceiling. A bowling alley with working A.C. and no bowling pins. A clubhouse with a drum set and asbestos.
Today, Midway stays operational for the sake of an emergency landing strip for any aircraft flying across the Pacific. Its federal, but no longer the authority of the U.S. Army. It is now the jurisdiction of Fish and Wildlife, part of the larger marine national monument. Its the strangest bird sanctuary, an awkward shared space between millions of birds and busy-body humans maintaining a mile-long air-strip and everything that goes along with it.
There is also a small team of wildlife management workers, the obvious minority on the island, who spend every day monitoring and caring for the wildlife nestled in every possible space that isnt occupied by one of the many buildings.
The Midway team deals with very different environmental conditions than us Kureans, but their work is essentially the same: promote the native wildlife by removing any threats to its habitat. But because Midways bio-quarantine level is not as high as Kure, there is constant potential for introduced species, and thus the island is covered with a much higher diversity of invasive plants, as well as animal species such as mice and mosquitos. In fact, Kure Atoll gets most of its introduced species from Midway just by being in close proximity, the wind and waves or even birds picking up seeds and critters and the like. Next stop: Kure.
We walk to the DOFAW office to meet and greet with the midway conservationists, a team made up of officers and volunteers. Also present is a wildlife ecologist hoping to implement some new management strategies that would be more effective. Midway is becoming a hotspot for research because there has now been very consistent data collection over a long span of time. This kind of information becomes highly valuable models that can be implemented elsewhere. The field of conservation is growing slowly, but evolving nonetheless. We are coming to understand the complex interrelationships between life and its environment, and we are able to use this deepening understanding to effect the direction of change of these environments. It is exciting work; to know we can have a positive effect on our influence on these habitats, reversing the wrongs that have been done during more ignorant times in our history.
Looking at the bigger picture, the value of these long-term studies is equal to gold for any natural resource manager attempting to propose a change in the regulatory use of any given parcel of land, for it provides the necessary justification as to why the human behavior within that land needs to change. It is unfortunate that we live in an era where in order to conserve natural habitats we have to kick humans out, but I strongly believe that this is only temporary, and someday human communities will once again co-inhabit the lands we worked so hard to protect from our very selves. And maybe one day in our golden future we can take what weve learned and bring it to other barren planets, create more and more Earth-like worlds. Not because we destroyed Earth. But because we saved it. And through the story of our success, we awakened to our higher purpose: to be a vessel for all species of Earth and spread the miracle life across the Galaxy.
But for now, we fight for our own planet. For the spirit that embodies us all, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. For now, we fight for Midway. No longer fighting for the men and women stationed on Midway, but for Midway itself. For Kua I He Lani. Now we fight for Kure. Now we fight for the life that still remains, still alive. For the birds. For the Islands. For the Oceans.
We gather in the open presentation room of the DOFAW building, the Kure and Midway teams united. We smile at each other and see that familiar look in each others eyes. That look of longing. The look of sacrifice. That look of not wanting to be anywhere else. So far away from loved ones, so immersed in the wildness of nature.
When I meet new people involved in field work, I always wonder what their true and hidden intentions are for working in such isolating environments. What is our common thread? Is there a spiritual undertone that propels us into some of the furthest reaching zones of our planet? Why do we push ourselves into this difficult line of work? Or are we being pulled? Does the middle-aged man who quit his job as a consultant to come and volunteer on Midway for six months have motives besides just needing a break? Does the young intern who signs on for a 11 month position believe she is doing it to seek a closer oneness with life? Are conservationists spiritually motivated? Or is it just me?
Christina, the volunteer field crew leader, approaches, inviting us to a house party she is hosting tomorrow. She just begun her position as a paid intern, having volunteered herself the previous year. Its a new position, and it seems to fit her well. During Robs presentation on Wildlife Management, Christina was able to answer or confirm many of Robs questions. She carried a confidence in her work with comfort, sitting slouched on the couch set up besides the t.v. screen displaying Robs Powerpoint. I wondered what brought her back. Was it because she was asked? What had she experienced during her volunteer experience? What relationship had she formed with the island? Can we love a place more than we can love another human?
After our illuminating discussion with The Midway team, comparing and contrasting our methodologies and strategic approaches, we decided to set a meeting the following day to discuss even further. There was much to learn from each other, or at least to bring new and refreshing energy to each others work. It was very apparent that we were natural comrades, each of us devoting many hard hours to conserving an island along the Hawaiian chain.
We returned to the Kahana for dinner, then headed back out, this time with the bikes. Tiana and Naomi stayed behind on the boat with Kekoa and Mario, while the rest of us went out on the town.We rode to cargo pier to watch the sunset. I lingered a bit longer than the group, catching up with Matt, Virginie, and Steph later at the Gymnasium where the new volunteers had set up a pickle ball net. We played a few rounds, until the volunteers told us they were meeting some folks at the Bowling alley. So we left the old gym behind, crossed the street and walked into the bowling alley where someone was playing hard rock music on a portable speaker. This Bowling alley had been converted into a kind of recreation room, with two pool tables, fuse ball, ping pong, two shuffle boards stretching down the bowling lanes, and a skee ball table. The Kahana crew trickled in after us and we all indulged in some friendly competition before calling it a night and meandering back to the ship. The crewman let me hold onto their golf cart on my bike as we drove back in the night, trying to avoid the bounty of Petrels flying in the darkness.
We arrive at the ship in high spirits, and join in with Paul, Kekoa, Tiana and Naomi. Mario had already gone to sleep, and kekoa asks us to move our congregation out to the deck, In consideration of the captain, he gently remarks to us as our voices reach a volume that only Kekoa knows can reverberate up into the captainss quarters. Im feeling hungry and asked chef what he had for me in the kitchen, and with a smile he busts out the gorgonzola and a whole red pepper, which I chop up, put some on Chefs homemade rolls with the cheese, and the rest out to the deck where I offer them to everyone. Kekoa takes one, crunches on it, then sends me back into the kitchen to add some zest to the pepper. A little oil and vinegar will do. I oblige, happy to satisfy the group as they relax under the stars. By the now the winds have died down. We sit chatting and laughing, one by one retiring into the late night.