Iso­lated for months, is­land crew sees pan­demic for first time

Miami Herald - - Nation - BY CALEB JONES

Just as the coro­n­avirus pan­demic be­gan to take hold, in Fe­bru­ary, four peo­ple set sail for one of the most re­mote places on Earth – a small camp on Kure

Atoll, at the edge of the un­in­hab­ited North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands.

There, more than 1,400 miles from Honolulu, they lived in iso­la­tion for eight months while work­ing to re­store the is­land’s en­vi­ron­ment. Cut off from the rest of the planet, their world was lim­ited to a tiny patch of sand half­way be­tween the U.S. main­land and Asia. With no tele­vi­sion or in­ter­net ac­cess, their only in­for­ma­tion came from satel­lite text mes­sages and oc­ca­sional emails.

Now they are back, reemerg­ing into a changed so­ci­ety that might feel as for­eign today as is­land iso­la­tion did in March. They must ad­just to wear­ing face masks, stay­ing in­doors and see­ing friends with­out giv­ing hugs or hearty hand­shakes.

“I’ve never seen any­thing like this, but I started read­ing the book ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, which is about a dis­ease out­break, and I was think­ing, ‘Oh my good­ness, is this what it’s go­ing to be like to go home?’ ” said Char­lie Thomas, one of the four is­land work­ers. “All these . pre­cau­tions, these things, peo­ple sick ev­ery­where. It was very strange to think about.”

The group was part of an ef­fort by the state of Hawaii to main­tain the frag­ile is­land ecosys­tem on Kure, which is part of the Pa­pa­hanaumokua­kea Ma­rine Na­tional Mon­u­ment, the na­tion’s largest con­tigu­ous pro­tected en­vi­ron­ment. The pub­lic is not al­lowed to land any­where in the North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands.

Kure is the only is­land in the north­ern part of the ar­chi­pel­ago that is man­aged by the state, with the rest un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. A for­mer Coast Guard sta­tion, the atoll is home to seabirds, en­dan­gered Hawai­ian monk seals and co­ral reefs that are teem­ing with sea tur­tles, tiger sharks and other ma­rine life.

Two field teams go there each year, one for sum­mer and an­other for win­ter.

Their pri­mary job is re­mov­ing in­va­sive plants and re­plac­ing them with na­tive species and clean­ing up de­bris such as fish­ing nets and plas­tic that washes ashore.

Be­fore they leave, team mem­bers are of­ten asked if they want to re­ceive bad news while away, said Cyn­thia Van­der­lip, the su­per­vi­sor for the Kure pro­gram.

“A few times a day, we up­load and down­load email so peo­ple stay in touch with their fam­ily and friends. That’s a huge morale booster, and I don’t take it lightly,” Van­der­lip said. “Peo­ple who are in re­mote places . rely on your com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Thomas, the youngest mem­ber of the team at 18, grew up in a beach town in New Zealand and spent much of her free time with seabirds and other wildlife. She fin­ished school a year early to start her first job as a deck­hand for an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to clean­ing up coast­lines be­fore vol­un­teer­ing for the sum­mer sea­son on Kure Atoll.

The ex­pe­di­tion was her first time be­ing away from home for so long, but she was ready to dis­con­nect.

“I was sick of so­cial me­dia, I was sick of every­thing that was sort of go­ing on,” she said. “And I thought, you know, I am so ex­cited to get rid of my phone, to lose con­tact with every­thing … I don’t need to see all the hor­ri­ble things that are go­ing on right now.”

When Thomas left New Zealand for Hawaii, there were no virus cases nearby that she can re­call. By the time she left Honolulu for Kure, the virus was start­ing to “creep a lit­tle closer” to the is­lands.

“We were just see­ing sto­ries on the tele­vi­sion and that sort of thing,” she said. “But, you know, we’re off. We’re leav­ing. It wasn’t re­ally a big con­cern for us.”

Once on Kure, get­ting a full pic­ture of what was hap­pen­ing in the world was dif­fi­cult.

“I guess I didn’t re­ally know what to think be­cause we were get­ting so many dif­fer­ent an­swers to ques­tions that we were ask­ing,” she said.

Thomas is now in a ho­tel in quar­an­tine in Auck­land, where she lives with her par­ents, sis­ter and a dog named Benny. She will miss hugs and “squish­ing five peo­ple on a bench to have din­ner,” she said.

Join­ing her on the is­land was Matthew Butschek II, who said he felt most alone when he re­ceived news about two deaths.

His mother emailed to tell him that her brother had died. Butschek said his un­cle was ill be­fore the pan­demic, and he was not sure if COVID played a role in his death. He could not grieve with his fam­ily.

Then Butschek, 26, who lives near Dal­las, re­ceived word that one of his best friends had been killed in a car ac­ci­dent.

“I re­mem­ber read­ing that, think­ing it was a joke and then re­al­iz­ing it wasn’t, so my heart started pound­ing and I was breath­ing heav­ily,” he said.

The iso­la­tion of Kure “felt strong” at that mo­ment, but he said he tends to like his space when emo­tional.

“I drank a beer for him and just kind of thought about mem­o­ries,” he said, de­scrib­ing sit­ting in his bunk house alone af­ter a long day of field­work.

While in quar­an­tine last week, Butschek looked out the win­dow of his cabin in Honolulu and saw schoolaged chil­dren play­ing on rocks and climb­ing trees – all wear­ing face masks. It re­minded him of apoc­a­lyp­tic movies.

“It’s not nor­mal for me. But ev­ery­one is like, yeah, this is what we do now. This is how we live,” he said.

Lead­ing the camp on Kure was wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Naomi Worces­ter, 43, and her part­ner, Matthew Saunter, who live to­gether in Honolulu.

Worces­ter first vis­ited the is­land in 2010 and has re­turned ev­ery year since. She’s a veteran of re­mote field­work in Alaska, Wash­ing­ton, Wy­oming and the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains.

Work­ing on the atoll means get­ting in­for­ma­tion about the world slowly, and of­ten not at all, Worces­ter said.

A few weeks ago, she de­parted Kure and ar­rived on Mid­way Atoll, where she and the rest of the crew

stayed for sev­eral days be­fore fly­ing back to Honolulu. Mid­way has lim­ited in­ter­net ac­cess and ba­sic ca­ble tele­vi­sion. Dur­ing a mo­ment alone, she turned on a TV.

“I think I turned it on dur­ing the mid­dle of the World Se­ries,” she re­called. “And it’s like some peo­ple are wear­ing face masks and some peo­ple aren’t. And there is the thing about the guy that tested pos­i­tive in the mid­dle of the game or some­thing. I was just like, click click, I don’t know, this is too much!”

Her fo­cus for the com­ing months will be to start ar­rang­ing the Kure trip for next sum­mer. She also fears for the health and safety of her friends and fam­ily.

“If there was any­thing se­ri­ous that hap­pened when I was gone, they would have told me, but then again, maybe not,” she said.

She also wor­ries about the pan­demic’s cost in a larger sense.

“With so much un­cer­tainty and so many emo­tions run­ning high and, you know, our coun­try is di­vided on so many things … there is kind of an un­der­ly­ing fear as far as what the fu­ture could hold and how peo­ple could re­spond.”

Saunter, 35, has worked on Kure since 2010, the same year he met and be­gan dat­ing Worces­ter. They have been part­ners in life and on the is­land for a decade.

In 2012, they be­gan lead­ing teams at the field camp.

Af­ter so many years at the camp, Saunter said, iso­la­tion isn’t much of a fac­tor for him. He be­lieves the lead­er­ship skills he’s learned in the wilder­ness will trans­late well to life in the pan­demic.

To be suc­cess­ful on Kure, you have to tackle prob­lems head-on and con­trol your emo­tions, he said.

“You know peo­ple’s emo­tions are get­ting the bet­ter of them, and it’s kind of at the cost of ev­ery­body, so it seems very ir­re­spon­si­ble,” he said. “If we had taken it more se­ri­ously and prac­ticed more pre­cau­tions, we could have squashed this thing.”

He re­mem­bers be­ing on Kure when his sis­ter called the out­break a “pan­demic.”

“I got an email from my sis­ter and she used the word ‘pan­demic,’ ” he said. “I thought to my­self, huh, maybe we need to look that up, be­cause what’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a pan­demic and an epi­demic?”

Now “it’s a word that’s in ev­ery­body’s vo­cab­u­lary.”

MATT SAUNTER Hawaii De­part­ment of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources via AP

From left, Char­lie Thomas, Matt Butschek II, Matt Saunter and Naomi Worces­ter pose at a field camp on Kure Atoll in the North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands, one of the most re­mote places on Earth. Cut off from the rest of the planet since Fe­bru­ary, they are re-emerg­ing into a so­ci­ety changed by the coro­n­avirus out­break.

MATT SAUNTER Hawaii De­part­ment of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources via AP

From left, Matt Butschek II, Char­lie Thomas and Naomi Worces­ter clean up fish­ing nets at a field camp on Kure Atoll in the North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands.

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