By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004
At just past 4 a.m. on a day in early July, the first hints of light appear on Hog Island's horizon. Lobster boats on Muscongus Bay soon labor to their pots, their unmuffled motors providing percussion to a disjointed symphony of buzzy blue-winged green warblers, laughing common loons and chattering red squirrels.
By 4:45 a.m., sound and light have joined to wake many of the 52 people who have come to this 333-acre island just a quarter-mile off the coast of Bremen, Maine, most to attend Maine Audubon's five-day natural history camp. The first risers are already wandering the native-plant-filled grounds, sipping cups of freshly brewed shade-grown coffee and watching one of the island's signature sunrises.
There are no cars, phones, Internet, televisions, newspapers or radios to fill the morning. The natural world is the island's entertainment. Participants have exchanged comfy beds and gadget-filled homes for dormitories where sneezes, snores and songs pass indiscriminately through walls that are as thin as the mattresses. Bathrooms are shared with strangers of both sexes. Cell phones have been swapped for eye contact.
The simplicity of the island is initially foreign and jarring. There are no traffic noises, no plunk of the paper on the front door, no ringing phones or "you've got mail." But by just the second day, most of our congenial group, perhaps tapping into long-retired memories of childhood experiences, have easily settled into the cadence of summer camp.
Anthony Liss, a transplanted Long Islander who is the island's caretaker, along with his wife "Seabird Sue" Shubel and 4-year-old daughter, Ayla, assures me during our short boat ride to the island that I will soon forget the ordeal. "You're on the island now," he says.
A few minutes later, he has led me through a silent spruce forest, our footsteps deadened by a dense carpet of spongy needles, to a small cove, where the group has assembled to learn about tidal life. Several college-age summer interns are cooking up pots of just-harvested mussels and periwinkles. We use the pins of our name tags to scoop the critters out of their shells, and into a garlic-butter sauce and our mouths. They are delicious, and I notice that the twitch in my eye has slowed considerably.
That afternoon, we take our first boat ride, designed to familiarize us with the coastal islands and their inhabitants. Harbor seals pop up to take a quick peek, and a black mink skulks along the mainland's shore. King eider females surround their vulnerable chicks, which we are told are often snacked on like popcorn by the predatory greater black-backed gulls. Another youngster, an eaglet nearly as large as its parent, cries ceaselessly in its nest until the adult reluctantly swoops off to find it a meal. The twitch in my eye is gone.
Early in the week, just about everyone goes to every session. By the end of the week, some are taking breaks to hike or read or just sit. Some of us stay in basic rooming-house type buildings with double and single rooms off a hall and a shared bathroom. A group of about a dozen mostly young women stay in the Crow's Nest, a large dormitory with just two rooms. There is no air-conditioning or heat.
During the week, the weather fluctuates from cold and rainy to sunny and hot. One night I sleep in my sweats, another in a T-shirt.
Meals quickly become both a highlight of the day and a running joke. Last year, the camp did not do well financially. Faced with a decreased food budget, chef Janii Laberge, a wiry man with neon-blue eyes who would be well cast as Popeye, is nervous that there won't be enough food to go around, so he begins each meal by announcing in no uncertain terms that we are to take only one slice of bread, one half of a tostada, one half of a fish cake. At my first lunch, I watch a man in his eighties scolded by an intern for taking both tuna and turkey. We all want to eat more because the food, including linguini with fresh clam sauce, curried squash soup and still-warm chocolate chip cookies, is delicious. We giggle like schoolchildren as one troublemaker pipes up, "Please, sir, I want some more." Yet I soon realize that one serving easily sates my hunger. Gluttony seems out of place here.
This spartan style of living comes through in other small ways. Everyone makes sure lights are turned out when the bathroom is not in use. Water is not left running while teeth are brushed. One set of towels and sheets is good for the duration. Cloth napkins sporting clips with our names are fastened to several clotheslines strung in the dining hall. "You can put them in the bucket for washing if they get real gunky," another camper tells me. "But they would rather you don't."
The simplicity and natural beauty combine to form a rare atmosphere that almost forces self-examination. Marilyn Smith, a computer security expert for the IRS from Falling Waters, W. Va., says she has come to the camp for 19 summers, mostly because it allows her to focus on her life's direction. "I made the decision to get divorced here," she said. "I decided here to get my master's degree. You can't plug in a computer. There are no telephones or cell phones ringing. It forces you to leave that behind and focus on whatever is on your mind."
Attendees come from across the country. There are environmental educators, elementary school teachers, college professors, engineers, homemakers and government employees. Singles, lesbian couples and a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary are here. Ages range from early twenties to early nineties. Many more women than men attend the camp. And if there is a Republican on the island, he or she is keeping very quiet.
Instructors have both credentials and charisma. Mark Garland, a senior naturalist at the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory with an easy smile, can tell a fritillary butterfly from a crescent butterfly in the five seconds it takes one to flit by. Bonnie Bochan, who has spent much of the past 15 years as a researcher at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station in Ecuador, and Tom Leckey, a staff naturalist, work as a team, finishing each another's sentences and gently disagreeing like an old married couple. Between the two of them, every insect, plant, mammal and bird on the island can be identified and explained. Steve Berkowitz, a senior instructor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, actually understands what causes tides and is full of facts on sperm whales (they use sound to stun their prey) and killer whales (which are actually the world's largest dolphins).
Guest speakers keep us awake past our bedtimes. Steve Kress, director of Project Puffin, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring nesting puffins and other seabirds to the Gulf of Maine, has us mesmerized by the story of how puffins and other rare seabirds were reintroduced to nearby Eastern Egg Island by scientists and volunteers who used decoys, mirrors and loudspeakers and still stay for weeks at a time on the small rock, refusing to give up even after initial years of failure. "Without a caring public, all of this will fail," he admonishes us. It is the first, but not the last, time during the week that an instructor's words would make me uncomfortable in my complacency, forcing me to examine my actions and how they affect the natural world.
Bochan and Leckey, who refer to themselves as the "last Luddites," are the most outspoken environmental advocates. During one session, we learn about the small things that individuals can do. Drink shade-grown coffee; monolithic coffee plantations attract 97 percent fewer birds. Keep cats indoors; feral and domestic cats kill 700 million birds each year. Mark window glass; tens of millions of birds are killed in window strikes each year. Give up your cell phone; mining of the mineral coltan, used in cell phone manufacturing, is decimating gorilla populations in eastern Congo. The mood grows even more somber as Bochan tells us about the night 10,000 Lapland longspurs, small songbirds, were killed when they flew into a radio tower in western Kansas during a stormy January night in 1998.
"I don't think my life has any more value than a Blackburnian warbler's," Bochan says. "I certainly could see myself happy as a clam living in a cabin without any electricity. If we didn't have all this stuff, people would be happier. How much stuff do we need?"
Serious sessions are intermingled with more light-hearted fare. One afternoon, we hike across the island to two small cottages built by Mabel Loomis Todd, who purchased the island in the early 1900s and whose daughter deeded it to the Audubon Society in the 1930s. We get lost in a time warp in the dark, dusty cabin as Webster reads from Dickinson's poetry and tells us about the soap opera-like history between Todd and Dickinson, who, as neighbors in Amherst, Mass., were on friendly terms until Todd had a very indiscreet affair with the poet's brother Austin. After Dickinson's death, Todd became instrumental in saving her work. The writer's scrawlings were edited by Todd in this very cabin, we are told, which delights the Dickinson fans in our group.
During another excursion, rain is threatening as we head to the mainland for a bird walk once led by the late Roger Tory Peterson, the camp's first ornithology instructor. Peterson and other notable ornithologists, such as Alan Cruikshank, whose photographs decorate the dining hall, are part of the camp's rich history. Since the place opened in 1936, many of the more than 50,000 campers who have come to Hog Island have followed in Peterson's footsteps around the bird-friendly village of Medomak, where residents have agreed to leave fields unmowed for wildlife and each house sports birdhouses and feeders. We examine the remains of an unfortunate kingfisher fledging that Leckey believes was killed by a merlin, and scratch our heads at a hooded merganser that hops in and out of a wood duck nesting box. That afternoon, the rain is pouring down and only a few of us agree to do a field and pond study. Shubel is the first to wade thigh-deep into the pond, netting green frogs, eels, spring peeper tadpoles, damselfly larvae and water striders, which are examined and released.
On the last night, the mood turns festive, as camp director Seth Benz announces that he will make a trip to the mainland to buy wine and beer to accompany our special lobster dinner. We've studied hard all week, and now it's time to enjoy a drink and eat a rich meal. The evening ends with a series of skits that feature a shadow puppet show put on by the staff, a take-off on our unofficial "Arthropod Week" theme that is rich in groan-producing puns. Then it's the campers' turns. Chris Osborn of Peekskill, N.Y., sings the old Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" with such sweetness that tears come to my eyes. And the group of women who shared the dormitory room put on a skit that brings down the house as Joanne O'Beirne of the Bronx yells out, with a thick New York accent, "What? Only half a tostada?" Even Laberge laughs.
Late the next afternoon, I am finally back in Washington after a battle against rush-hour traffic that takes as long as the flight. The voice mail light is blinking on my phone and my cell phone flashes with waiting messages. I turn on my computer: 125 personal and 328 work e-mails. The mail is stacked on the table. A week's worth of headlines need to be scanned.
Momentarily overwhelmed, I retreat outdoors to examine the salamanders and wood frog tadpoles in my small pond and watch the chipmunks argue with the gray squirrels over a scattering of seed. I consider Bochan's radical ideas about living a simple existence in a cabin in the woods. And as I contemplate tackling the backlog of my technology-driven life, her concept doesn't sound far-fetched.
Carol Sottili will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.