1 senator, 2 sons, 4 days, 1 deserted island: Jeff Flake escapes again to the North Pacific

June 2, 2013

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), center, with his sons, Tanner, left, and Dallin, right, photographed last week by a camera with an automatic timer on Biggarenn, an unoccupied island in the South Pacific. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Sen. Jeff Flake.)

He's done it again.

Nearly four years after sneaking away to a deserted island in the North Pacific, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) took a secret four-day trip during the Memorial Day congressional recess to the same region where he fulfilled his lifelong dream of spending a survivalist week alone.

But this time Flake took along his two youngest sons -- and didn't completely disconnect from the office.

Flake, 50, spent six terms in the House before winning his Senate seat last November and quickly joined the "Gang of Eight" senators that spent months negotiating a bipartisan deal to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Their plan was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, and the full Senate is expected to spend most of June debating the bill.

As if being a freshman senator deeply involved in the contentious fight over immigration isn't enough for one guy, Flake, 50, and his wife, Cheryl, celebrated the marriage of their only daughter, Alexis, in early May.

The Flakes have five children and one young grandson from his oldest son's marriage. When he launched his Senate bid nearly two years ago, Flake said he promised his two youngest sons, Tanner, 15, and Dallin, 13, that he would find the time to take them on a similar survivalist trip when the campaign was over. His office announced earlier this year that he planned to take the trip, but never disclosed the exact dates -- mostly for security reasons. Flake didn't publicly disclose the trip until he called a Washington Post reporter on Saturday afternoon.

"We came back a little thinner. Maybe a little wiser. We had an awesome time, it was great," Flake said in the interview.

They also produced a video of the trip, which you can watch here:

Flake and his sons set off from Phoenix last Sunday on what would be a 10,400-mile round-trip journey. They flew first to Hawaii and then eventually to Kwajalein Island, a part of the Marshall Islands where the United States still has a lease for missile testing. From there, father and sons hopped on a friend's fishing boat and traveled 62 miles to Biggarenn, an unoccupied island that Flake estimated was just 55 to 70 acres in size. The fishing boat left them behind.

"Tens of thousands of coconuts littered the island," Flake said. "You just had to pick up the ones that were still ripe. We ate coconut and crab and fish."

The Flakes brought along a lobster trap in hopes of capturing meatier fare, but lost it within the first few hours after it was attacked by a shark. They also carried two pumps to desalinate ocean water, requiring them to spend hours each night pumping for just a few gallons.

"For a dad it was a wonderful thing. No video games around, no television, no distractions, no texting," Flake recalled. "To just sit there and pump water, that was my favorite time, frankly, on the island. Just talking. Just to have no distractions."

Flake did, however, bring along a satellite phone -- at his wife's insistence -- and aides said Flake received regular updates by phone, especially on the case of Yanira Maldonado, a Phoenix-area woman who was detained while traveling in Mexico after authorities said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat. Flake spoke with Maldonado shortly after he returned from the trip Friday night, he said.

When he took his trip four years ago, Flake set up camp on Jabonwod, an island just a third of a mile long and 100 yards wide at high tide. He carried just a few items: A mask, fins and a pole-spear, a manual desalination pump, a magnifying glass to help start fires with the sun, a hammock for sleeping, a knife, hatchet, sunscreen, cooking pot, salt and pepper -- and a satellite phone, just in case.

Later after he returned, Flake allowed The Washington Post to publish excerpts from his travel journal, in part to assuage any doubts about the trip, which occurred shortly after then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) secretly traveled to Argentina to see his girlfriend.

In his journal, Flake wrote about how he had long deferred his dream of escaping to a tiny island as he raised his children and entered elective politics.

"I have the best job in the world," he wrote, "but still the islands beckon."

Last time, he marveled at the sunsets and taught himself how to peel a coconut and used a permanent marker to write numbers on the shells of crabs he encountered.

This time, he said the most memorable moment was racing to shore with a fish on the end of his spear with sharks in close pursuit.

And the only political decision Flake made on the trip?

"That this ought to be mandatory" for senators, he said. "We’d all discover that no man is an island. There are a lot of metaphors -- sharks and everything else you can come up with -- but for me, it was just a great time to be alone with a couple of my boys."

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Flake was in the South Pacific.

A transcript of an interview with Flake about his trip appears below. It has been slightly edited for clarity and space:

Ed O'Keefe: As a first-term senator, this trip must have been heaven?

Flake: Yeah, I did take a satellite phone, my wife insisted on that. Especially with the potential dangers of sharks. But there wasn’t much contact, it was great.

Was it the same island as before?

Flake: No, about 20 miles away across the lagoon from Jabonwod, called Baggarenn.

Same arrangements as before. The ambassador to the U.S. from the Marshall Islands is a friend. So one of his friends with a fishing boat took us out there, and they dropped us off and fished on their way back.

It's on the biggest lagoon in the world. We traveled through the lagoon, I think 62 miles from Kwajalein to Baggarenn, which is an unoccupied island, probably 55 to 70 acres big.

Thousands of coconut trees, tens of thousands of coconuts littered the island. You just had to pick up the ones that were still ripe. We ate coconut and crab and fish. I took a lobster trap, but we set the lobster trap with a fish that we speared inside of it. Went back to it a half hour later and a shark was trying to get its nose in it. Went back a half hour later and the trap was gone. And we never saw the shark with the trap on its head either. It was good.

And your sons had a good time?

Flake: They did. When I came back nearly four years ago, it was August 2009, and obviously they were fascinated by the tales of it. We talked ever since then about going back.

My first thought after leaving the first time was, where can I get a cheeseburger? My second thought was this would be a lot more fun if I could have a few of my kids with me. And we talked about it during the Senate campaign and during the campaign, which was a two-year ordeal, I said that if we got through that we’d schedule time to get to the island.

Did you or the boys have any training in advance?

Flake: No. We had been to Hawaii, they’d spearfished a few times, and we’ve had no other training. I didn’t have any training the first time, I just hoped that my farm training would translate. It kind of roughly did.

They lit fires with a magnifying glass and a coconut husk and cooked coconuts and crab and fish over the fire. We slept in hammocks off the ground, and it’s not just a regular Boy Scout camp, it’s more survival. We didn’t take any food, nor water, just two pumps where you could desalinate the water. So every night we’d sit and pump a couple gallons of water.

I tell ya, for a dad it was a wonderful thing. No video games around, no television, no distractions, no texting. To just sit there and pump water, that was my favorite time, frankly on the island. Just talking. Just to have no distractions.

Did you keep a journal similar to the one you wrote in 2009 (and later had published in The Washington Post)?

Flake: Yeah. In the coming days I’ll be putting that out.

Why did you keep a journal the last time? I heard it has something to do with Mark Sanford's disappearance at the time?

Flake: I didn’t give it much thought until I got back, and that was just a few months after the Sanford ordeal. A few members of Congress knew I had gone, Paul Ryan knew I had gone, and the Parliamentarian was helping me with the moon cycles, and he did those kinds of things.

And when it started leaking out, my wife said, you know that nobody’s going to believe you were out on the island alone, right? And that’s when I decided to go through the Post and just gave her my journal entries and the pictures I’d taken, and I thought that was better, so people knew more that they wouldn’t assume.

So how long was this trip?

Flake: Just about a week. It takes a while to get there, you fly to Hawaii, then to Majuro, then to Kwajalein. You go across the International Date Line and that messes you all up on what day it is or time it was. It was about a week, but four days on the island.

What major political decisions were you able to make while away from it all?

Flake: That this ought to be mandatory. We’d all discover that no man is an island. There are a lot of metaphors -- sharks and everything else you can come up with -- but for me, it was just a great time to be alone with a couple of my boys.

So ultimately, what will you remember most from this trip?

Flake: I don’t know which one, being out racing the shore with a fish on the end of your spear, with sharks chasing the fish on the end of the spear. That’s memorable. The most memorable I’m sure would be holding that fish on the end of the spear in the water while we got the fire going. And having the sharks come up about 20 feet from the fish where they couldn’t get it, coming out of the water to watch him. That was interesting for him. Those were interesting memories. Racing to shore with a fish on the end of the spear and sharks chasing you.

But for me, like I said, my most memorable is probably all the boys pumping water and talking, just the three of us, with no distractions. Part of it what would be the first meal they’d have when they got back, which was Costa Vida. Then listing their favorite meals. After eating coconut, crab and fish for four days, you appreciate good food.

And some of the playful things. You’ll see some of the pictures. Tanner convinced me, he threw in a yoga ball or medicine ball -- or whatever they are -- that he’d seen in the YouTube video. You bury it in the sand halfway and then jump up on it and do flips. He and Dallin did a lot of that.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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