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Seeking Wisdom in Extremes
By Robert Kull
New World Library
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One FEBRUARY 2001
Food, Water, Stove, Pot, Cup, Space-blanket, Blanket, Tarp, Rope, Machete, Satphone, GPS, Compass, Ratteries, Jumpsuit, Life-vest, Kayak, Foot-pumps, Anchor, Oars, Paddle, Waders.
- Reminder to myself, taped to my cabin door
FEBRUARY 6, 2001
I left Puerto Natales yesterday at dawn on the Chilean Navy patrol boat, La Yagan. Looking back as we headed down the channel, I watched the town diminish into the landscape and realized that, if all goes well, it would be the last time I'd see a town for a year. The early sun glinted off the windows and tin roofs and shaped the still-snowy peaks beyond. A rainbow arced from land to sea, and I decided to take it as a sign of good things to come. Why not? Then I turned to look northwest toward the remote wilderness where I planned to build a camp and live alone for the coming year. There I saw storm skies and wind-chopped water.
It took us ten hours to travel the hundred miles to the tip of the peninsula where the navy had decided they would leave me. While part of the crew began to ferry my supplies to shore in their small Zodiac, the others lowered my own inflatable to the rough water, Once in the boat, slapped by wind-driven 40ºF spray, I noticed the navy guys were all wearing survival suits-and I wasn't. Hmm. Not bringing one seems like a fairly important oversight in my planning. I can probably keep dry in chest waders and raincoat, but if I capsize or go over the side, I'll be in serious trouble.
The weather continued to deteriorate, and the captain decided it was too dangerous there for his crew and me in our small boats. He moved to calmer water to drop the rest of my supplies on this tiny island where I now sit writing. Unloading took a long time. The navy guys piled my gear high on the rocks, but knowing they were in a hurry I told them to just leave the lumber I'd brought to build a cabin on the beach. It was a tough grunt wrestling the two heavy crates I'd shipped from Vancouver and the 55-gallon drums of gasoline from the inflatables up into the bushes. We finally had all the supplies ashore as dark was falling. They immediately left to seek safe haven from the building storm.
The lower beach in this small cove is covered with rocks; further up, there is grass, dense brush, and trees. Working in the dark with my headlamp for light, I laid down a semilevel platform of 2x4s and plywood in the grassy area, set up my tent on the plywood, and then watched the tide come in ... and in.
I'd assumed the grass would be above the high-tide line, but I was wrong. It turned out to be sea grass, and at 1 AM water started splashing against the underside of the platform. I jammed more 2x4s under there to raise the plywood, while cursing at and pleading with the tide to stop. Uh-huh. I finally moved my sleeping gear out of the tent and up to higher ground. By this time all the lumber was floating in a foot of water, so I waded over to heave it up into the bushes before it could drift away.
Just when it seemed the tide was at its peak, the wind picked up again and drove the sea back up to the bottom of the plywood. Exhausted, cold, hungry, and discouraged, I crouched in the dark on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, pounded by wind-driven rain and far from other people. I felt pretty damned forlorn and started to wonder what I'm doing here. Crying in his cardboard box inside a plastic garbage bag, the kitten didn't seem too happy either. But the tide finally started to ebb and I put the gear back in the tent and slept. My body hurt everywhere.
It's been raining and blowing on and off all day today, but here in the lee of the trees only the strongest gusts can get to me - unless the wind shifts from northwest to southwest, then I'm screwed. The navy captain told me that seldom happens. I've moved the tent platform higher up the beach and raised it two feet above the ground. I'm glad to have stayed dry so far, but I'm a bit worried about all my food on the beach where we started to unload a mile from here. I hope they set everything above high tide, but until the wind drops I have no way to check.
FEBRUARY 7, 2001
Still blowing, and it may be tough to move my gear the fourteen miles south to the small bay where I want to go. I'm waiting for the wind to die and feeling frustrated even though it's very beautiful here. Across the channel to the west I can see more than thirty waterfalls cascading down the rock cliffs of Staines Peninsula to the sea. In the other direction, when the clouds lift, the snowy peaks and glaciers of the southern Andes loom.
FEBRUARY 8, 2001
Maybe the weather is never calm here; this may be as good as it gets. The wind has eased, but it's still raining. A while ago I went to check my food and the propane tanks. Everything is still there, but the tanks had floated around and the food bags had been washed by the sea. I hope the waterproofing held, but won't know until I get a cabin built and have a dry place to unpack. I brought back the first-aid kit and a jar of peanut butter and moved everything else to higher ground.
FEBRUARY 9, 2001
I'm training the kitten to go outside to crap. A tent full of gear with sleeping pad and blankets on the floor is not the best place for the task. I've never had trouble with such training before, probably because I've had cats only in the tropics where it was warm and I cut a hole in the door for them to freely come and go. Here I need to unzip the tent flap to let the kitten in or out. He must have dumped a load in here half a dozen times, and cat shit is not my favorite smell. We have a new rule: "No! Outside." Then a small swat and a heave out of the tent. Also a thump to stay away from the camp stove when it's lit and away from my food. I get particularly upset when he claws at the tent's mosquito net to come back in. But for the most part I'm glad he's here with me. He sleeps curled up behind my knees or snuggled into my belly.
I'm trying to just be here rather than feeling prevented from going to the bay where I want to be. Waiting is part of the process, too. I don't control the world. During preparations for this journey, over and over I had to let go of my plans and let things happen as they did. It's the same here.
FEBRUARY 10, 2001
This is summer? I've been here five days and have seen the sun for a total of maybe twenty minutes. There's almost constant wind now, but supposedly there won't be in winter. Four dolphins (Chilean Dolphin or Peale's Dolphin) swam around in front of camp for a couple of hours this morning. I went out on the rocks to call and sing to them. In the afternoon, I took the boat five miles down the inlet toward the bay, then turned back because of rough water. It settled at times, but never really flattened out. I'm anxious to get going, but don't want to take foolish chances.
The GPS unit worked great the other day: located satellites with no problem, gave readings for location, direction of travel, and speed. Today it won't work at all. Damn! It's supposed to be waterproof but I suspect there's a bad seal. Luckily I brought a spare, but now that this one's broken, I have only one that works and no backup. I plan to make some long trips through this archipelago of islands, and if the remaining GPS dies while I'm out there somewhere, I could easily not find my way back to camp.
I'm keeping the down sleeping bag wrapped in plastic until the cabin is built, because if it gets damp it will lose its insulating capacity and be difficult to dry. Meanwhile I'm sleeping in long underwear, T-shirt, flannel shirt, wool vest, Hollofil vest, hooded sweatshirt, and a snowsuit. On top of that I have two blankets. I barely kept warm last night with the tent sealed up. The weather's so bitter raw and damp now in summer, what will winter be like? It's not easy here, that's for sure.
FEBRUARY 11, 2001
Today I stayed late in the tent - a small bubble of dry in the wet hugeness that surrounds me. I feel like an alien in this watery world. All the creatures here, except kitten and me, seem to be water beings. This morning, vague tendrils of terror crept through me. Alone. A tiny solitary speck completely vulnerable in the face of an infinite universe intent on my annihilation. Eventually I'll cease to exist, and death is possible at any moment - right now. Yet I know from other solitary retreats that there's light and peace beneath the terror.
In Buddhism, one takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Who is my guide and inspiration; who do I lean on that has wandered this pathless land before? Yes, the Buddha. What is my Dharma, my source of knowledge and understanding? There are many: Buddhist teachings, the wisdom of Deneal Amos, the I Ching, Chuang Tsu, the Bible, and, most importantly, my own actual experience. Who is my Sangha, my community of fellow journeyers? Patti is primary now. I wonder if she always will be. Susan, not so much in terms of wisdom as for her love and respect. My supervisor and committee members, David, Lee, and Carl; my family; and my friends Pille, Diane, Madeleine, and Wil. There are many.
I've been here a week. In planning, I somehow never thought I might be stuck like this. I wonder if I really am. If I take half loads, I can probably make it to the bay without problem. It's the trip back against the wind, chop, and spray that concerns me. I'm trying to be patient and wait for the weather to improve, but in the back of my mind I question whether it ever will. The wind might quit for a day or two, but I'll need a week to move all my gear. Strange that I never asked anyone which month I should arrive. I just assumed that summer here, as on the coast of British Columbia, would be best. But this weather is exactly what I'd hoped to avoid until I get a cabin built. Always risky to extrapolate from what you do know to what you don't.
A while ago I tried the GPS again and it worked for a few seconds. I was pretty sure it had moisture inside, so - against all the warranty disclaimer warnings - I pried off the water seal, opened it up, and dried it over the stove for a few minutes. Closed and tried it. It worked! This is excellent news. From now on I'll keep it in a plastic bag when I use it in the rain.
NO ENTRY FOR FEBRUARY 12, 2001
FEBRUARY 13, 2001
Yesterday I did chores. I mixed two-cycle oil with gas for the chain saw and got it running, then assembled the mounting bracket for the backup outboard motor. I hope I never need it, but if the 15 hp outboard fails, the 4 hp should let me limp back to camp. I also cleaned up the tent and readjusted the tarps I've stretched over an A-frame structure I built to protect the plywood platform, tent, and area in front of tent where I usually cook and eat. And I put together a survival pack of food and other gear to take when I go out on the water in case it gets too rough to return before nightfall.
I'm more and more restless to move down to the bay so I can start building a cabin. I feel very vulnerable here, and on the map the bay looks much more protected from the wind. It's also more hidden and remote. Even though unlikely, it is possible that fishermen might come by here occasionally. German told me no one ever goes down there.
It's slightly warmer today and the black flies came out for the first time. Hungry buggers. Guess there's not much flesh around. Two dolphins came by for a while. Kitten is not crapping in the tent any longer, but he did get into my cheese. I discover I'm pretty impatient and violent in my castigation: not just "No!" but also a shake or a swat and at times a toss through the air. I've decided not to hit him anymore, or at least pause so the cuff is not in anger.
I've started to read about working with anxiety in Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, a book of Buddhist meditation instruction by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. It presents a clear, pragmatic approach that I hope will help defuse my fear. But I sense that Buddhist philosophy and meditation will not be my only path here.
FEBRUARY 14, 2001
Finally a calm morning with some blue sky. I went to the bay but didn't find a good building site. A couple of places are well protected from the wind, but the hillside there is steep and wet with thick brush. On my way back, I stopped to pick up the food and one propane tank from the beach where the navy dropped them. This way I'll be ready tomorrow morning to head straight to the bay. But as I returned to this tiny island, I realized I can just stay here if I want to. There's no stream, but it's rained every day since I arrived. I plan to collect rainwater from the roof of the cabin, so water shouldn't be a problem. There are some standing dead trees in the forest nearby, and if they're not rotten I could use them for firewood. I think the solar panels would work ok except in June and July when the sun might dip behind the trees.
The view here is spectacular, and it feels much more open and wild than down at the bay. Another lovely thing is that dolphins come by here, and I'm not sure I'd see them in the bay. The biggest plus in staying here is that I wouldn't need to move all my gear. The biggest potential problem is southwest wind; this spot isn't at all protected from that direction. I don't know what to do, sleep on it I guess.
FEBRUARY 15, 2001
I set the clock for 7 AM. Rain. Went out to check the ocean. Not bad, but not calm enough that I wanted to chance a trip to the bay with a loaded boat. I felt very reluctant to start moving all this stuff with a small boat and unpredictable wind. I imagined having half my gear at the bay and the weather turning foul for weeks or getting stuck down there with tent and sleeping bag still here. None of my imaginings were encouraging.
I guess I'm letting go of another preconceived ideal and accepting a gift from life. This is where the navy dropped me, and it's probably the best all-around spot I've seen. Maybe I've just stopped to really look at what I already have instead of reaching for an imagined something better. I consulted the I Ching to ask if I should stay here. The hexagram was "Wanderer" changing to "Retreat," which seems to support my decision to stay.
I unloaded the boat, carried everything up onto the rocks, and covered the food sacks with a tarp. Checked a few and none seem to be wet inside. That's very good news. Back in Punta Arenas a local outdoor guide told me that considering the weather here, he strongly recommended I put all my food in watertight barrels. I couldn't afford barrels, but I took his advice to heart and sealed everything in a second layer of plastic and nylon sacks. Very glad I did. Water has seeped through the rice sacks' outer layers. If I hadn't double-wrapped them, I'd have a serious problem with wet, probably moldy, rice.
One of the things I learned during logistic preparations was to really listen to other people's advice rather than pretend to already know everything. Many people have been generous with information and support, and listening to their suggestions has saved me a lot of grief.
As I unloaded the boat I felt light and happy for the first time since arriving here. It's been only ten days but feels like much longer. I've been stewing and fretting about the need to build a cabin while it's still summer, but now that I can start anytime, I'm in no hurry. Typical.
FEBRUARY 16, 2001
It was a wild night with wind and rain roaring in the trees. Sometimes, like a huge presence, the wind swooped howling down, and even here in this protected nook the tarps over the tent cracked and shuddered under the assault. I'm glad I took time yesterday to tie things down more securely. As far as I can tell, everything is still dry.
Excerpted from solitude by Robert Kull Copyright © 2008 by Robert Kull. Excerpted by permission.
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