Week 9 – When one door closes…

Closing a remote island is no simple task, especially when you are doing it unexpectedly in four days. The number one priority, for us, was making sure that all of the wildlife and plants had the best chance of surviving in our absence – removing hazards and clearing out shade houses. There are all kinds of hazards we’ve brought in, but we’re pretty good at covering them up. The Laysan finches have a bad habit of crawling into anything that is big enough to crawl into and getting trapped, especially if there is water in it, then they drown (buckets, holes, even water bottles). So we had to close up any holes we could find. Anything over four feet tall is technically a bird hazard because they might fly into it. And the shade houses… we had at least ten FULL of plants. There, the priority is saving endangered plants, so the Pritchardia palm we have and Cyperus pennatiformis, the Laysan Sedge. We had a lot. I helped with over 300 palms, but have no idea just how many CYPPENs they planted. Once cleared out, the shade houses were left open so that they would not trap burrowing birds or finches.
After making the island safe for animals, we had to make sure that all of the gear we had and would have to leave on the island was safe. This meant most everything had to get inside the tents and shade houses. All of the buckets finally found a home inside, plus construction equipment, action packers, external frame backpacks with crates attached… Just everything got pulled inside. Except the giant water tanks we brought. A little too big to come inside. These got pulled up the beach to a point that the surf should not reach it (excluding another severe tsunami like two years ago), ratchet-strapped together, surrounded by water jugs (almost a ton of water, literally), and then tied to the water jugs. Hopefully they won’t be going anywhere.
The last steps in closing the island was closing down support systems (propane, electricity, the RO system, and the Lua) and closing the doors. Because they were support systems, we could not turn them off until we were definitely ready to leave, which meant the morning of the Kahana’s arrival was a very early one for us. Frozen food had to be packed back into coolers and taken off of the island so they would not return to large quantities of very spoiled food. Refrigerators were cleaned out. Generators were packed into action packers. Personal gear was accumulated and prepped to go. The kitchen was cleaned again. The RO tank was drained of all water. Propane was turned off. All output from the solar batteries was turned off. The doors to all tents were screwed or tied shut. The Lua was screwed shut (also a finch hazard…). Then we grabbed everything we were taking (personal buckets, frozen food, first aid kit – 3 coolers, 3 generators, all of our communications equipment, and 4 RO filters) and got it on the Kahana on thankfully relatively calm seas. All week we had been seeing the results of an aggressive swell out of the NE.

And we left Laysan. Less than 20 days after arriving, we had to leave. That sucked.

For better or for worse, the ride back to Honolulu made that hard to think about. Well, it made anything hard to think about. The seas were opposed to our leaving, too, I guess. We fought 6-10′ swells out of the NE the whole way back. The Kahana was light and she rocked and rolled and shook and shimmied almost the entire three and a half days. Barely saw the other passengers as we all spent large quantities of time nestled into our bunks. Horizontal in the dark was the least uncomfortable way to ride. We had a brief respite from the waves a day and half in when we picked up another MedEvac passenger from Tern – good timing on their part? It was all a memorable experience in that I would rather not remember most of the trip.

On Wednesday night, though, we got our feet back on terra firma and were passed into the capable hands of the Honolulu FWS’s bossman. He picked us and our gear up (our crew leader was whisked away by her husband to the hospital for an MRI) and returned us to the bunkhouse we had left a month or so before. We had debriefing on what was going to happen to us, what was currently being done to figure out what we could do next. In summary: we don’t know a lot about anything that you can do yet, but you have to be out of the bunkhouse by Tuesday afternoon. Awesome.

For Thursday and Friday, we had to clean and inventory all of the FWS things that we brought back: the first aid kit, the electronics, and the RO filters. Plus, the summer crew’s trash buckets had not been thoroughly cleaned yet due to a few compounding factors, so we were “asked” to assist their crew leader taking care of them. When we delivered the inventoried supplies to the office downtown on Friday, we also got an update on how other volunteer opportunities were looking. So, here is what is up. On the big island, there is a national wildlife refuge (NWR) forest on the east side of Mauna Kea, the northern mountain on Hawai’i. This is the Hakalau Forest NWR. It covers about 33k acres of rainforest (below 4000′) and pastureland (above 4500′) which is being monitored and surveyed, pest-controlled, re-vegetated, and otherwise managed to support the native population of birds (8 endangered), plants (12 endangered, 29 rare), and mammals (including the endangered Hawaiian Hoary Bat). The opportunity sounds and looks amazing. For better or worse, though, they’ve never had long term volunteers before, so it is unclear as to what we would be doing. It is not completely clear what living and transport arrangements would be (the buildings they have are located 20 miles up a 4WD required dirt road). On the positive side, we know that they have room for two volunteers and are excited to take me and one of the other Laysan-ers. We do kind of want to know what we’re doing, though. On Tuesday morning we have a conference call to find out more from the Biologist and Refuge Manager from Hakalau. Hopefully it’ll come through for us and be super awesome, which I think it will.
For additional opportunities, the bossman brought in a woman who had recently transitioned from State work to Federal work to see if she could located some State volunteer opportunities. She was nice enough to send out an e-mail to her friends in various State and partner organizations inquiring as to whether they could offer volunteer positions with housing and (preferably) with a food stipend, along with our resumes. Maybe something will come up. However, we won’t find out until Tuesday, at least because this is a three day weekend. We’ve all got our fingers crossed.

And then it was the weekend, finally. Its felt like a long time since a real weekend. Friday evening, we roasted chickens and made scalloped potatoes. Saturday, I got to have delightful conversations with my sister and favorite Adventure Buddy for a long time. Then, our crew leader (oh right, she is almost entirely fine – the MRI didn’t show any serious problems, she just has to have another appointment with the dental surgeon who took out her wisdom teeth because their might be a smaller infection going on) and her husband came by to take us to the beach again, back out to Bellows at Wiamanalo! And afterwards, we got to have puppy therapy! Because she will be home for the winter, they decided to get a second dog to play with their current dog, and found an exceedingly adorable Lab-German Shepard mix puppy. And by puppy, I mean about the size of a football puppy. Nihoa (the new puppy) and Aurora (their Sharpe-pit mix) got a lot of attention from all seven of us.

In case you were wondering, I had considered returning to the continental US for a while when we found out we were getting pulled off of Laysan. Mostly, I didn’t expect that other volunteer opportunities would come through out here. However, looking at job opportunities back east, there is even less available, especially in field positions where I am interested. I guess that whole winter thing gets in the way. Weird.

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