They spent 8 months in a remote place … and when they returned they found a world mired in the pandemic

HONOLULU. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread, in February, four people set sail for one of the most remote places on Earth: a small camp on Kure Atoll, on the edge of the uninhabited northwest Hawaiian islands.

There, more than 1,400 miles from Honolulu, they lived in isolation for eight months as they worked to restore the island’s environment. Isolated from the rest of the planet, their world was limited to a small patch of sand halfway between the American continent and Asia. With no television or Internet access, his only information came from satellite text messages and occasional emails.

Now they are back, resurfacing in a changed society that could feel as strange today as the isolation they did in March. They should adapt to wearing face masks, staying indoors, and seeing friends without hugs or handshakes.

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

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

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

Two field teams go there each year, one for the summer and one for the winter. Their main job is to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species and clean up debris such as fishing nets and plastic that washes ashore.

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

“A couple of times a day, we upload and download emails so that people can keep in touch with their family and friends. That’s a great morale boost, and I don’t take it lightly, ”Vanderlip said. « People in remote places trust your communication. »

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

The expedition was the first time she had been away from home for so long, but she was ready to tune out.

« I was sick of social media, I was sick of everything that was going on, » she said. « And I thought, you know, I’m so excited to get rid of my phone, to lose touch with everything. I don’t need to see all the horrible things that are happening right now. »

When Thomas left New Zealand for Hawaii, there were no nearby virus cases that he could remember. By the time he left Honolulu for Kure, the virus was beginning to « get a little closer » to the islands.

« We just watched stories on TV and that sort of thing, » he said. “But, you know, we’re leaving. We are going. It wasn’t a big concern for us.  »

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

« I think I really didn’t know what to think because we were getting so many different answers to the questions we were asking, » he said.

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Thomas is now in a quarantined hotel in Auckland, where he lives with his parents, sister, and a dog named Benny. He will miss the cuddles and « squashing five people on a bench for dinner, » he said.

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

His mother sent him an email to tell him that his 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 couldn’t cry with his family.

Then Butschek, 26, who lives near Dallas, got the news that one of his best friends had died 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 hard, » he said.

Kure’s isolation « felt strong » at the time, but she said she tends to like her space when she’s emotional.

“I had a beer for him and thought about the memories,” he said, describing sitting on his bunk alone after a long day of field work.

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

“It is not normal for me. But they all say, yeah, this is what we do now. This is how we live, ”he said.

Leading the camp in 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 been back every year since. She is 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 left Kure and arrived at 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. For a moment alone, he turned on a television.

« I think I turned it on during the middle of the World Series, » he recalled. “And it’s as if some people are wearing face masks and others are not. And there’s the problem of the guy who tested positive in the middle of the game or something. I was like, click, click, I don’t know, this is too much!  »

His focus for the next few months will be to start organizing Kure’s trip for next summer. You also fear for the health and safety of your friends and family.
« If something serious had happened when I left, they would have told me, but then again, maybe not, » he said.

He is also concerned about the cost of the pandemic in a broader sense.

« With so much uncertainty and so many emotions running high and, you know, our country is divided on so many things … there is a kind of underlying fear as to what the future might hold and how people might respond. »

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

In 2012, they began leading teams in the camp.

After so many years in the camp, Saunter said, isolation is not a big factor for him. He believes that the leadership skills he has learned in the wild will translate well into life in the pandemic.

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

« You know that people’s emotions are taking over, and it’s at everyone’s expense, so it seems very irresponsible, » he said. « If we had taken it more seriously and acted more precautions, we could have crushed this. »

He remembers being in 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, uh, maybe we should look for that, because ‘what’s the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic?’ »

Now, « it is a word that is in everyone’s vocabulary. »