Friday, February 10, 2012

Island Fever - Part One

             “There it is,” Jack called back from the pilot’s wheel, his words barely audible between the slaps of the little fishing boat bouncing from wave to wave.

Where?’ Adrienne asked. Craig loped up from the back where he had been keeping an eye on their gear and helped her direct her binoculars. The lighthouse was only a knob on the flat horizon of the calm ocean. Over the next fifteen minutes, Adrienne watched it rise like a phallus out of the sea. Her home for the next week.

And then, there it was, floating up and down on the waves, totally adapted to the wild ocean environment: a puffin. Its black Harlequin tear, its vivid orange beak, and its stocky little body made her chuckle with delight. This fellow had been living a solitary life, never coming to land, making his living on the Atlantic for three years. He was returning to his birth home to join others like him for sex and procreation. Craig, Adrienne and their companions would be carefully monitoring the activities of the puffins and their fellow nesters, the terns, guillemots, and murres on the islands along the northern Maine coast.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime. In the course of the summer, volunteers from around the world came to Maine to tenderly watch and protect the puffins. The Rock, set up with the cooperation of the Coast Guard who maintained the lighthouse, was considered a plum position because of the keeper’s cottage. On other islands, volunteers lived in tents through summer heat and Atlantic storms. Adrienne would have a real bed though it would be cold, she had been told. This far out, the waters were frigid in late spring. This last week in May, she, Craig and the six others who would arrive the next day, were to clean the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and organize the place for the summer’s work.

Only an amateur birder, Adrienne jumped at the chance to live among the puffins for a week. She lived a humdrum life, working at an insurance company. Shy, she lived with her mother. Her only friends were birders, who were not really close but didn’t mind a short, squat little woman in their ranks. She shared her hobby with them, that was all they cared about. She knew she should break away from her mother, go out and get a life, but her mother was an invalid…or thought she was.

             Craig, an ornithologist, met Adrienne on a Midwest birding expedition. He admired her knowledge of warbler calls and she admired the book he had written on the subject. He autographed her battered copy and asked if she would be interested in going to the Rock. They could use a few more volunteers. She didn't have to be an expert on sea birds since their week would be mostly cleaning and setting up duty stations for the summer.

A real adventure at last! Her mother warned of the dangers of planes, boats and lighthouses. She suggested that Craig was untrustworthy, probably a white slaver. Adrienne ignored all her mother’s warnings. She took her two week vacation at the insurance company and set off.

On the twenty mile boat trip to the rock, she was adding dozens of birds to her life list. Gulls, storm-petrels, puffins, auks, murres, gannets and eiders swarmed around the boats. It was spring migration and the sea was alive with avian life. Her binoculars swung from side to side as she tried to catch every one of them.

             Craig laughed at her enthusiasm, then paused for a moment. “I forgot to ask,” he shouted over the sound of the motor. “You aren’t claustrophobic, are you?”

             “No, why?”

             “Some people get island fever. The Rock is only thirty acres, just a pinpoint on the map and when it’s storming, we’ll be locked in the cottage.”

             “Can be a problem,” their pilot called back. “Kris got a bad case last year, I heard, before the accident.”

             Adrienne called back, “What happened to Kris?” but the motor got louder as Jack reversed the motor, stopping the boats progression as they drew near to the landing. Jack dropped anchor some yards off shore. Lithe Craig hauled in the little dory they had been dragging behind them until it was next to the rocking boat. He lumped two heavy gummy bags into it and rowed to shore to get the bigger dinghy stored in the island boat house. Soon he was back, his muscles straining against the current, to get Adrienne and another load of gear. One quick trip, and her wobbling sea legs were on shore on the island, alone for a few moments on the island, suddenly feeling lonely. She shook her head and got to work. As Craig went back to get the last three loads, she lumped as many packages as she could as far as the boat house to get them away from the ocean spray.

The boxes, bags and human cargo unpacked, Jack took off in his boat, dory trailing behind. They would see him tomorrow, when he brought the rest of the crew. Craig and Adrienne were alone with the gear, which they dragged up to the keeper’s cottage. They had boxes of groceries, enough food for eight people for ten days, Craig said, as well as cleaning gear, and scientific equipment. There were propane tanks for the stove and bottled water for drinking. Most important, there were batteries for the short wave phone connecting them to the mainland.

             The keeper’s cottage clung to the side of the lighthouse, a two story structure made of the rock it stood on. Over 150 years old, it had seen its share of keepers, but now the lighthouse was automated. Its light shone night and day. Every fifteen seconds the foghorn sounded, like a teenager beeping his horn for his girl,whether there was fog or not.

             “You didn’t tell me about that,” said Adrienne. 
             “You get used to it,” Craig told her. “I brought ear plugs to help us sleep. Besides, it is quieter inside the stone walls.”

             The cottage was amazingly clean after eight months of being vacant, she thought. Craig pointed out that there was little to dirty it over the winter. There were no animals of any kind on the Rock. Any mice or rats that somehow managed to make it twenty miles out to the lighthouse would immediately be devoured by the birds. The birds left once their breeding season was over leaving the island to be washed clean by winter storms. Salt water scoured away most of the topsoil, leaving only a few grasses behind to fight it out with the lichen in the cracks between rocks.

             Their week long home did need airing out. Everything was damp, and would remain so until mid-summer, Craig said. The Rock slept in fog through three-quarters of the year.

             Craig led Adrienne upstairs to upstairs where they selected their bedrooms and spread out their sleeping bags. There were only three bedrooms, but there were a dozen beds, enough for a sizable crew. The bathroom hadn’t worked since the last keeper left some fifty years before. It wasn’t worth fixing the plumbing for the summer crew.

Come on,” he said, taking her back outside to show her the amenities. Washing up was done in the rain barrels at the front door and bodily functions would be taken care of in the “biffy”, a toilet with walls on three sides on an overhang attached to the boat house. It had a great view of the ocean, he told her. “We all look away when someone is in there. If it makes you nervous you can tie something there as a warning.”

Most of the crew would be men and they would pee off the rocks, so this would not bother them all that much but Adrienne had always had privacy in her toilet at home.

He instructed her to throw in a cupful of wood dust from time to time. They could take a bucket upstairs for night time use and empty it out in the morning. There was a solar shower bag they could use to heat enough water to bathe al fresco but that would have to wait for sunny days.

             Terns, puffins, gulls, murres, and guillemots swarmed around their heads, screeching out their displeasure. The arctic terns were never quiet, day or night. They screamed and swooped. Adrienne clutched her hat by the brim. She wore one of the “shit shirts” he had told her to bring, extra large men’s shirts to cover their heavy jackets, in case those terns made direct hits. The damp cold was already creeping into the cotton.

             “Let's go,” Craig said. “I can't wait any longer.” He led her to the lighthouse tower. It was time to do their first bird survey. They went through a metal door, and climbed up the stairs, their footsteps echoing as they ascended in the semi-dark. Up, up, they went, pausing at the landings for breath. Adrienne had no sense of the height until they reached the top and went out the second metal door onto a platform. Flimsy rusting railing was all that kept them from falling onto the rocks below. Bits of the railing shattered as Adrienne touched it, peeled off and tumbled down. The concrete walk way showed signs of cracking That was bad enough, but Craig motioned her to a metal rung ladder attached to a wall. He climbed up to the next stage and pushed a trap door open to the light itself. She climbed up to the higher spot, balancing on the slippery, damp bits of iron. They trained their binoculars and worked around the narrow ledge, two strands of rusty metal rods keeping them in place.

             “I wouldn’t lean on them too hard,” Craig said. “And watch that trap door. It would be easy to fall down, and 9-1-1 doesn’t work out here.” They looked down at a big wooden platform below, a helicopter pad. In case of an emergency, they could call the Coast Guard station on the mainland and ask for help.

             “Unless the weather is bad,” Craig said. “Then we’re on our own.” He pointed out the solar panels that would give them light in the evenings, provided there was sun during the day.

             He told her to count the birds swarming around the island. They had to do a morning and evening count of the island species. She was confused. How do you count arctic terns that never sit still, not for an instant, to say nothing about puffins, common terns, guillemots, eider, cormorants, razorbills, all of them in flight. All of them variations of black and white? She did the best count she could, compared it to Craig’s and found her count lacking. He said she would get better with practice.

             “It’s warm today,” Craig informed her cheerfully as they climbed down. “The Rock has brought us here with a sunny welcome.” Adrienne was chilled to the bone. Her gloves and shoes were wet and in the dampness, nothing would ever be dry.

             That afternoon, they worked around the keeper’s cottage. Adrienne scrubbed down the kitchen with disinfectant while Craig set up the propane tanks.

             “What about heat?” she asked.

             “There isn’t any,” he said. “Except for cooking and lights and body heat. There’ll be plenty of that when the rest of the crew arrives tomorrow.”

             Adrienne excused herself and went up to put on the long underwear she had brought. She thought Midwestern winters were cold! This damp chill was terrible.

             Craig inserted the batteries and got the shore-to-shore radio working. He punched in the numbers to reach the survey center on the Maine shoreline. Rose answered almost immediately.

             “Bad news,” she said. “The rest of the crew have been delayed in Chicago. There’s a storm going through the Midwest, and they’re stuck at O’Hare overnight. It will be a couple of days before they get to Maine.”

             The Rock was theirs for the time being.

             “Cheer up,” Craig said, and brought out a bottle of wine. “I brought eight bottles, a different one for each day we’re here. Now there’s more for us.” They sat one of the deck’s benches and drank with gloved hands while they watched the the afternoon sun creating sparkles on the dancing waves, the “glimmer” Craig called it. It was enchanting, the water light show, the brilliant sun, the terns swirling in their millennial dance. Birds everywhere and they never collided. How did they do that? Tears stung Adrienne’s eyes as she thought of the many lives floating around on the sea breezes, as they prepared to raise another generation. God’s creatures.

Suddenly, Craig grabbed her arm and pointed down to the shore. She swung her glasses to the spot and there was a baby seal. Adrienne squealed in delight but as she watched, the pup turned over and she saw the gaping wound in its side.

             It would not be there long. The rapacious birds would soon have a feast.

             Craig cooked grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup and they sat in the kitchen eating while they set up a schedule for themselves. Craig would take the lighthouse schedule for the time being. Adrienne would be in charge of doing the scientific measurements below. She was to check the temperature of the water four times a day, note visibility, and listen to the weather reports on the weather radio. She would do the dishes. Craig was the better cook, so he would do most of the cooking.

        They sat in the sitting room for a while. He showed her the books past residents had left there, many of them bird books, some novels, even children’s books about puffins and terns. There was a shelf full of journals. Each band of volunteers left daily notes about their stays. Craig told her he wasn’t much of a writer and asked her to take over that task. She immediately scrawled a few enthusiastic paragraphs about their first day, peeking at previous entries to see what was expected of her. Most of the entries were written in tiny, scientific printing, but one entry from the year before caught her eye. It was a scrawl, almost indecipherable. Something about the miserable weather. It was signed “Kris.” Was she the volunteer with island fever? What happened to her? Craig was deep into an ornithological textbook, making notes. She didn’t disturb him.

             If the fireplace worked, it would have been a cozy evening, but she soon excused herself and went off to bed, taking the journal with her. Deep in her heavy duty sleeping bag, she was almost asleep when she caught sight of another Kris entry: “Island fever is getting to us. Craig is grouchy and so am I. He talks about our future together, but after we are married we will have to have time outs, maybe go on separate birding expeditions.”

             So Craig and Kris were a couple. They were going to be married until Kris fell on the rocks.

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