Elemental trials of a lone 'crazy gringo'

April 25, 2003

To study humanity's relationship with nature, one man spent a year alone on a tiny, desolate island. Philip Fine reports

For more than a year, the stoutly built wooden shelter had provided Bob Kull's only sanctuary from the elements. The 55-year-old mature student had tried hard to embrace the forces of nature. But Kull, voluntarily marooned on the nameless island off the southern coast of Chile, had faced a merciless wind, driving rain and temperatures that often dropped below - 5C. He had endured astonishing trials in his unorthodox bid to explore humanity's relationship with the environment and, hence, secure a PhD. Now it was time to go home, and Kull set about dismantling the shelter he had built with his own hands.

The Chilean authorities had suggested that he leave the structure in place.

They wanted to keep the outpost, perhaps as a memento of their "crazy gringo". But Kull was adamant that no lasting trace of his year-long occupation remain on the island. "My desire was to leave gracefully and give the area back to itself: to the wind and sea and sky, to the trees and birds, sea lions and dolphins," he reflects a year after his return. "To leave the shelter would in some sense have been laying human claim to the area."

California-born Kull is a man with a strong personal philosophy. He is obsessed with finding his place in the natural world. His latest adventure required complete solitude so he could study his interaction with an environment empty of any other people. The interdisciplinary course Kull is still pursuing at Canada's University of British Columbia gave him great scope to pursue his quest. The university provided him with funds for a satellite phone, solar panels and some camping equipment, and his thesis advisers were primed to raise the alarm should his regular emails fail to arrive. There was to be no other contact except in an emergency.

Some of his advisers were nervous about the whole affair, not least because Kull had lost a leg in a motorbike accident and had to get around with a prosthetic limb. Typically, he does not regard this as a disability, merely something else to consider in making plans. But the loss of his leg did help determine where his commune with nature would take place - a location where he could move around on water rather than on land, paddling in an inflatable kayak or farther afield in an outboard-powered dinghy.

The island itself was just 200m by 300m in size, a tiny part of a sparsely populated archipelago. On its densely forested terrain, Kull faced a daily struggle to keep dry and warm. Life was tougher than he had anticipated.

The wind was an especially unforgiving constant, tugging at his shelter and, on one occasion, flipping over his boat and causing its engine to flood with seawater. That was a low point for Kull. Only once did the temperature climb above 15C, and he had to endure three times as much rain as in his notoriously wet hometown of Vancouver. Furthermore, the salt-soaked firewood rusted away his shelter's chimney.

There was a physical price to pay for living in this wild world. One day, Kull lost his footing on the treacherously slippery rocks while trying to sneak a close view of a sea otter. In the fall, he tore a muscle in his right shoulder. A few days later, he fell again, this time damaging his left shoulder. "The injuries limited my activities for a long time, and right until the end my shoulders were very painful after any strenuous effort, such as cutting and hauling firewood, fishing or dragging the boat up and down the beach," Kull says. He also suffered terrible toothache and was forced to extract three abscessed crowned teeth. With emailed advice from his friend Patti Kuchinsky, he numbed his mouth with a topical anaesthetic, wrapped gauze around the loosest and most troublesome tooth and simply pulled it out with his fingers. The other two followed in a similar fashion.

Although the experience was testing in the extreme, it did indeed change Kull's perspective on nature. He would wake to a view of the snow-capped mountains of the Andes and notice such things as a tenderness in the rain hitting the plastic tarp of his shelter or the way the light shone on the nearby water. By the time he started flying a makeshift kite from the end of a fishing rod - a pastime he dubbed sky fishing - his adversarial relationship with the harrying wind had changed to something more playful.

Sometimes Kull's mind would wander and dream of hot showers. He reflected on the difference between luxury and necessity. An offer by the Chilean authorities to bring him supplies had him inventing shopping lists in his mind. The promised delivery never arrived, however, so Kull found ways to get by without the boat parts, chimney and food staples he had requested.

As the foul weather and his sometimes foul moods challenged his sense of self-sufficiency, he came to realise: "I cannot control my inner world just as I cannot control my outer world." Nevertheless, he got through.

On February 16 2002, Kuchinsky's arrival on the island marked the end of Kull's ordeal. After a year in which Kull's only companion had been a cat, she expected he might be somewhat withdrawn. Instead, she recalls: "He wouldn't shut up." She then told him that their meditation teacher had died and finally broke the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

His reaction was one of detachment. A journal entry records: "When she told me, my response was pretty much 'Uh huh'. It didn't strike me very deeply at all. In fact all the activities of humanity seemed no more than a vague smudge on some far horizon." Back in Canada, though, Kull became far more adept at socialising than before, having freed himself from a constant need for reassurance. However, he is still wrestling with his thoughts as to how best to record his expedition and submit a thesis to his PhD advisers.

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