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1 Rep., 1 Week, 1 Deserted Island

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rep. Jeff Flake, serving his fifth term in Congress, is a fifth-generation Arizonan, raised on a ranch near the town of Snowflake. He served a Mormon mission in southern Africa, worked for a public affairs firm in Washington, and as director of the Foundation for Democracy, monitored Namibia's independence process. In 1992 he returned to Arizona and was named executive director of the Goldwater Institute, promoting smaller government. A few weeks ago, Flake, 46, spent a survivalist week alone on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Here's his story.

The dreams of island life started when I was a child, the fifth of 11, growing up on a dry, dusty ranch in northern Arizona. Being surrounded by water might have appealed to anyone raised under similar circumstances.

When it came time to leave home and go to college, I traded boots and Hank Williams for sandals and Jimmy Buffett, ending up on Hawaii's North Shore. In one motion I threw my suitcase into my dorm room and my snorkel under my arm, heading for the beach. Minutes later, there I stood, slack-jawed, staring at the two most beautiful views I've ever encountered -- crystal-clear water lapping over a pristine reef and a transplanted California girl.

Some dreams come true, others are deferred. Our life's journey took us from Hawaii to Utah to Washington, D.C., to southern Africa and ultimately back to Arizona, where we are happily raising our five children. Along the way I managed to get elected to Congress. I have the best job in the world, but still the islands beckon.

So I decided to spend seven days in August, sandwiched between town halls and constituent meetings, on an uninhabited key in the Pacific's far-flung Marshall Islands. I would take the bare minimum with me. No food, just mask, fins and a pole-spear to obtain it. No water, only a manual desalination pump to create fresh water. No matches, only a magnifying glass. And a hammock, knife, hatchet, sunscreen, cooking pot and salt and pepper. Oh, and a satellite phone and Coast Guard beacon should I eat the wrong fish and a Sharpie pen to scrawl a desperate message for rescuers.

The common reaction from friends and colleagues was: "So tell me again why you're doing this?" I tried but failed to assign a noble purpose -- I wasn't trying to discover myself, and while I remain confused about many of life's vicissitudes, my religion informs me of the broader purpose of my existence.

No, this long bout of Crusoe-envy seemed to be more physical than spiritual, an appreciation for what Teddy Roosevelt called the "doctrine of the strenuous life." Roosevelt bemoaned the "timid man," the man living "a life of slothful and ignoble ease." The man I fear I've become. As a kid, I used to snicker when I shook an uncallused hand. Now I've got two of my own. I used to bathe in the evening after a hard day's work. Now I shower in the morning.

But if I was really looking for physical exertion, I could have just trained for a marathon. Perhaps the greatest appeal was not knowing what was behind the next wave. Maybe I would learn something about myself.

Day 1

The flight from Hawaii took me 2,200 miles southwest, midway between Hawaii and Australia. After a stop in the Marshall Islands' capital of Majuro, I flew another 400 miles north to the Marshallese atoll of Kwajalein, where the United States still has a lease for missile testing.

There, we loaded a boat and headed north 50 miles -- 2 1/2 hours -- to the island of Jabonwod, which in Marshallese means "the end of the reef." We floated my gear to shore in an ice chest.

And then I was alone. Completely alone.

I began by scouting for a campsite. At high tide, Jabonwod is a third of a mile long and 100 yards wide. Facing north, the massive Kwajalein Lagoon was on my right, the open ocean on my left. All islands in view were, like Jabonwod, unoccupied.

As I moved my gear to the center of the island, I passed a few hundred Sally Lightfoot crabs, which scurried into the surf. I guess I'll be eating a lot of crabs, I thought. I soon discovered that the interior of the island offered a great campsite. Tropical trees offered good shade, and the ground was covered with short crabgrass or dead leaves. I could have all the coconuts I wanted without having to climb a tree.

I had barely hung my hammock when the rain came, an isolated shower that lasted only 20 minutes. It was an event that would occur just four times during my stay.

As night fell, the island became an orchestra of sound and movement. First, the birds. There were two main types. A mid-size white bird would flutter anxiously above whenever I was close to its nest. A gray bird with a long beak whistled constantly, like the whistle a cowboy uses to call his dog. Coconuts would fall. Limbs would drop. Crabs would crunch. And all in near total darkness under my jungle canopy.

I watched the clouds part over the lagoon, revealing a canopy of stars like I'd never seen. I tried to pick out the planets, but I had no idea which ones are visible from 9 degrees north of the equator. I looked alternately at the sky, then at the water, where fish emitted bio-luminescence that flickered like fireflies.

I heard the muted sound of the roaring surf on the ocean side and the gentle lapping of waves on the lagoon side. Nighttime wasn't too bad yet. I had worried most about this, my first night. I'd now made it through all but the sleeping part. I couldn't help but wonder at this point: What have I got myself into? Will I discover that this adventure is more fun to talk about than to undertake?

Day 2

It was now 8 p.m. It had been a long day. By 9 a.m. I was starting to get a bit hungry, so I found a coconut under a tree. It was ripe, like those you purchase in a store. Tough to open, however. Glad I brought a small hatchet. With that hatchet I also cut a flat piece of an old hard tree, knowing that if I was going to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, it had better be hard wood. I rigged up a bow, a base and a swivel top for the fire starter, but the stick wasn't straight enough.

I decided to see if I could light a fire with a magnifying glass. This was a challenge leveled by my 11-year-old son, Tanner, who has cooked many ants with this method.

It worked. The key was to have a dry coconut husk. As soon as I had coals, I went to the lagoon with the pole spear and started hunting for crab. Since at any given time you can see dozens, it wasn't much of a hunt. I bagged several in five minutes.

I put the crabs in the cooking pan. It would hold only five or six. I ended up eating just the legs, which were tasty with salt and pepper.

Afterward, it was time to do a scouting run to the lagoon reef. Before I even got in the water I saw a small black-tip shark, who seemed fascinated with my yellow flippers. He came a little too close for my comfort. He could have bitten my toe off, like a yipping dog. He joined his friends, and a gang of small sharks snapped their fins and got ready to rumble as they headed out to deep water.

I decided to dive down on the ocean side, where there were beautiful tide pools. I saw another shark pup and a big fat ugly eel. The surge was strong and I didn't want to get slammed against a coral head, so I headed back to the lagoon side. It was time to catch dinner.

I went out to where the water was 25 feet deep, "loaded" my pole spear and waited. A bright blue parrot fish sauntered below, looking for coral to munch on. I fired my spear, but it grazed his side and blood spewed. I knew I'd better spear another one fast and get to shore before sharks gathered. Within seconds I shot one right through the gills and turned toward shore, looking down as I did. There it was, resting on the bottom, a six-foot gray reef shark. It was an odd sight, a shark so still. I raced for shore.

Day 3

"So, did you talk to a volleyball while you were on that island?" That's the most frequent question I've been asked since returning from Jabonwod. No, no, that's Tom Hanks's territory. I think talking to an inanimate object probably requires at least a six-month stay. But by the third day I was looking for a little feedback, at least. So I turned to the hermit crabs.

These critters would make their way through camp in the noisiest fashion, crunching leaves, hoping against hope that I would throw coconut pieces their way. Most were bright red. Occasionally I'd encounter a purple one.

Sometime that day, I picked one up and wrote "1" on his shell. I repeated this act whenever I felt lonely, and soon there were a quite a few numbered hermit crabs wandering the premises.

Suffice it to say, I got to know many quite well. No. 12 climbed on my foot and pinched my big toe. "He bit me" was written next to his number. No. 44, my old football number, was a favorite. He seemed to race from one end of the camp to the other, only to turn around and race back, as if he were trying to improve on his 40-yard-dash time. No crab was a more frequent visitor than No. 74, who developed an addiction to coconut scraps.

Depending on how permanent Sharpie markers really are, I may have managed to confuse anthropologists years from now, who will surely wonder how it is that hermit crabs on Jabonwod are numbered.

Day 4

Another day, and I'm sitting here watching another beautiful sunrise. It strikes me that something so beautiful goes to waste: It happens every day, yet, like the tree that falls in the forest "without making a noise," nobody in the world sees it.

Day 5

Sunday night was a long night. At least twice I got up to put on the rain flap with the wind indicating a storm approaching. It never came. I can't sleep long in the hammock with the rain flap down unless it is raining. The heat is oppressive.

I did have a lovely dream, however. The family was at an Arizona Diamondbacks game and my son Austin had secured a job at a concessions stand. He insisted on making me a specialty hamburger. The burger, which took what seemed like forever to cook, covered the entire plate. Just before I was about to take my first bite, I woke up. Dang, that would have been a nice alternative to the coconut awaiting me. I'm not sure how long I'll go after this trip without eating another coconut, but I have a feeling it will be a while.

Today was blessedly overcast. It so happened that it was the day I would construct a "solar still" as a means to produce fresh water, in case my desalination pump went out (every day I was having to pump it for more than 45 minutes). I dug a hole in the sand three feet deep and four feet across. I threw green leaves in the hole, then poured sea water over the leaves. The key, I had learned, was to get as much moisture in the pit as possible. I placed a cup in the middle of the pit and propped it up with the leaves.

Next, I stretched plastic I had brought along for this purpose over the hole, securing it with rocks. I placed a small rock in the center, so the plastic dipped down like a "V." In theory, the sun heats everything below the plastic, and when the humid air rises and collides with the plastic, droplets of water form and run down the bottom side of the plastic and drip into the cup.

It worked, but I'm sure glad I'm not relying on this method as my primary source of water. It yielded only about a cup by the end of the day.

It was a great day to explore the next island to the south, called Lobon, which is separated from Jabonwod by only a few hundred yards of ocean. I easily crossed at low tide by walking through knee-deep water. Black-tip shark pups could be spotted at just about any given time at low tide. Eels were also plentiful, which made me step carefully.

About midway back, I happened on a large whalebone, which looked like a vertebra. I was impressed by the size, until I walked a bit farther and saw some of the rest of the bones. Wow. This was a big guy. The biggest bone looked to be the base of the skull. It was big enough for me to sit inside. I wondered what brought him to that stretch of beach.

Back on Jabonwod, I took my pole spear and headed for the tide pools. I liked this area because it was protected from the open ocean by a reef, which I assumed would keep the sharks at bay as well. That didn't last. A five-foot black-tip shark meandered by and I knew I wasn't alone.

So I tried my luck on the lagoon side. It was still low tide, and I headed out in a southeasterly direction about 100 yards beyond the breakers. I had seen the area yesterday and ran out of time to explore it. It's probably the most beautiful place I've ever dived in. Massive coral heads right next to a sheer drop-off. The visibility was so good I could easily see the bottom, even at 100 feet. The variety of fish was phenomenal.

I was in awe even before I was paid a visit by a man-size (about seven feet long) black-tip shark. He was curious, but didn't seem threatening. He circled me two or three times about 10 feet away. I snapped a picture with a cheap underwater camera, but was so nervous my finger covered part of the lens. He went about his business 25 feet below at the coral head as another shark appeared. He did the same circling thing, then joined his brother. By the time a third shark appeared I became spooked. Two's company, three's a crowd, as they say. Since I wasn't about to spear a fish and leave a trail of blood, I headed for shore. I decided it was a good day for a crab-fest.

Wow -- it's already Monday. I'm on the downward slide. I checked in with Cheryl on the satellite phone just to let her know I was okay. I made no mention of the sharks. She asked if I was lonely. I told her that I knew it was going to be a week, so I wasn't bad off. Truth is, I am lonely.

Day 6

I went spear-fishing on the lagoon side again today. After watching a grouper, I glanced over the edge of the coral head, where it was about 75 to 100 feet deep. In the distance I saw something "flying" slowly toward the coral head. I say flying, because I momentarily forgot where I was. I thought I was watching a large graceful bird in flight, like a red-tailed hawk. I snapped to and remembered I was underwater and was watching a large manta ray, spotted and absolutely beautiful. It swam close to the grouper, and for a few moments it looked like they were dancing. The beauty and the beast.

Day 7

I woke up to the realization that I would just see one more sunrise before being picked up. I tried to soak it all in. Part of me wanted to visit all my favorite sites, both above and below the waterline, and explore new underwater territory beyond the reef. Part of me said leave well enough alone. Don't get eaten by a shark on your last day.

I decided to split the difference, visiting my favorite sites without exploring new territory.

I still needed to eat, so after spearing my last fish for the week, I raced toward shore, hoping that I'd beat whatever might be following the trail of blood. Unlike the lagoon side, where I could see a good distance around me, here on the ocean side I was swimming around and over a virtual obstacle course of coral heads. I also had to pay close attention to the ocean surge. It was strong enough to hurl me into the coral.

I found myself thinking, "Just one more obstacle, just one more wave, just a few more kicks and I'm safe." It was strange. I'd been doing this all week, and now I found myself getting spooked. It was like I felt I might be the last casualty in a war, one whose demise was inconsequential to the outcome. I reached the shallow water using the surge of the wave to carry me over the last coral head. I breathed a big sigh of relief.

Day 8, Epilogue

I sat on the ocean-side beach scanning the horizon, waiting for my boat to arrive. I'd been talking about this adventure for two years and, now that it was nearly done, I was resigned to the prospect of the conversation returning to politics. I wasn't sure I was ready for that.

I started my final hours the same way I started each day on the island, by cracking open a coconut, drinking the milk and chewing as much of the meat as my sore jaws would endure. I suppose that on the final day it was appropriate to catalogue a few of the things I did and didn't miss during my week as a willing castaway. First and foremost, I missed Cheryl and the kids, and human companionship in general.

In terms of trivial modern conveniences, I missed having a chair with a back. In fact, had I known how I would miss this item I would have whittled one out of a tree on my first day.

I've concluded that hammocks are best suited for napping in the back yard for a few hours, not sleeping on an island for seven nights.

Surprisingly, finding food was less of a challenge than I expected. I speared and cooked as many fish as I wanted.

I packed up my gear by early afternoon and strained to hear the sound of a boat motor. I followed the path I had now traveled so many times to the ocean side -- to the right, around the two coconut trees with a pile of coconuts on the jungle floor next to my camp, turning left through the cutout in the vines and into a sandy area, across the sea turtle tracks, turning right and through more vines to another coconut tree with low-hanging fruit, taking another left through the opening in another set of vines and onto the beach. Still, no boat.

I walked to the coconut tree and twisted off a small one, returning to the camp for one more -- please just one more -- coconut meal. I took my hatchet and removed the husk, then tapped the brown shell several times around the middle, hoping to crack through the shell and meat without spilling the milk. Then a strange thing happened. When I grabbed the top of the shell to remove it, it came off in one piece, leaving the meat intact. Hmm, I wondered, could I remove the bottom part and keep the whole coconut, sans shell, together? I gave it a go, gently tapping the shell for several minutes, until . . . I did it! I had "peeled" a coconut.

Just when I realized that counting that as an accomplishment meant that I'd probably been on the island too long, as if on cue I heard the faint sound of a boat engine.

Several spinner dolphins playfully accompanied the inflatable dinghy around the western end of Jabonwod toward the boat, a few hundred yards out. I was welcomed aboard and seated in the galley, where a deli sandwich and a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream were placed in front of me. Hungry as I was for a meal not composed of fish, crab or coconut, I returned outside to get one more look at my little island before it faded from view.

I looked at the lush shoreline, where the ocean meets the sand and the sand meets the tree line. As long as I live, I'll never see a sunset as peaceful as the seven I saw there. But those same brilliant colors will be on display tonight despite the absence of an audience. The footprints I left on the beach this afternoon will be gone when the tide comes in this evening. And by the time the rain washes the numbers off 126 hermit crabs near my camp, there will be no trace that I was ever there.

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