Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Flying Monkey and Pagan Rites

In honor of my first Kahana bay crossing that has taken me 4 years to achieve, I thought it would be appropriate to write a story. But, bay crossings seem to be rather routine, so perhaps a story about a recent non-flying trip to Guam might be of more interest. Besides, with a new, European adventure about to begin, this story will never be written if I don’t write it now!

My ongoing quest for traveling and exploring new places on somebody else's dime has borne fruit again in the form of a project on Guam. Not the sort of place I would have chosen, but if it's someplace I've never been, and it's free, then I'm there! Fortunately, my low expectations yielded a pleasant surprise as I found a number of things there that I really liked: very friendly people that had a lot of aloha, a nice warm ocean with beautiful coral reefs that have not yet been trashed, really spectacular sunsets almost every day, and a distinct absence of low-lifes, and island people that can actually drive. It is interesting to note that Saipan, which is only a 40 minute flight away, was originally named Isla de los Ladrones by Ferdinand Magellan, and I was told that not much has changed there in the last 400 years. For those of you that are boning up on French and not Spanish, that name translates to Isle des Voleurs, and no, it does not mean Island of people who fly...

Speaking of flying, one of my eyes is always looking for flying sites, I did see a few places that might have had some possibilities for the tradewind like conditions that were there during most of my stay. I also heard rumors about somebody often flying a paraglider somewhere on the southern part of the island a few years ago, but I had neither a wing nor time to do much exploring.

My work there consisted of mapping water and drainage utilities using very accurate survey grade GPS equipment and collection various other information about these utilities. The base was mostly abandoned, and many of the buildings had been demolished in recent years, so only thing that was still working there very large parabolic antennae and various other communications functions secreted away in dozens of large radomes. Breakfast was easy since you could just set some eggs near one of those things and come back a while later - but only if you are not planning on having any kids. Guam is where a most of troops currently stationed in Okinawa are going to be moving in the next 10 years, so I am really baffled as to why the DoD would want maps of decrepit old utilities to +/- 1cm accuracy when it will all be buldozed for new construction, but over the years I have learned to never expect logic in anything DoD does. As a contractor, one simply takes the money and runs.

While I was there in Guam a couple of other projects conspired to take away my free weekends. The first one of these involved contour mapping the island of Pagan. The contours are derived from satellite imagery, but in order to give those contours real-world coordinates and elevations someone needs to go there and survey several points that are discernable on the images. Sounds rather simple, but it turned out to be the coolest adventure of the trip. There had been some idle talk of me going there at the office before I left, but I just blew it off as so much carrot waving. No one knew anything: how do I get there, is anybody on the island, is it feasible to even hike to those points, would I be sleeping on a deserted island with no camp gear, etc. I knew nothing until about 6 hours before leaving!

As it turned out, there were some scientists from Fish and Wildlife (people that count bugs and lizards) on the island and there was a boat going there to deliver supplies, and after a couple of bureaucratic hurdles, I was given permission to hitch a ride. Of course, the boat would be returning right away, and it was unknown when it would come again, so I had to charter a plane to come get me. Since this was over water, FAA requires than it be a twin-engine plane. Furthermore, the 1981 eruption on Pagan had covered much of the air strip with a 25' thick layer of a`a. There was only one twin-engine plane on Saipan, so the owner could charge whatever he wanted. Fortunately the boat ride out was free, so there was just enough money in the travel budget to get me back.

Pagan is an island in the northern Marianas islands about 200 miles north of Saipan that had a few people living on it, but unfortunately for them, Pele also lives there. In 1981, she got very angry and all the people had to be evacuated, never to return. The island has volcanoes on either end, and a nice level plain between them and was thus used as a landing strip by the Japanese air force during WW II. There are still several wrecked Zeros, a crashed B-29 bomber and numerous concrete bunkers as well as bomb craters all over the place.

The 13 hour boat ride was uneventful except for the numerous squalls that were on every point on the horizon that made for a breathtaking show at sundown. When we arrived at the island in the morning, I was surprised to find a whole bunch of these scientists there as well a crew of guys that were hired to run a camp and go find them when they got lost. The camp manager forbade anybody from going anywhere until all the supplies had been ferried to shore and about a dozen of the scientists had been ferried to the boat on teir way back to Saipan. This was a bit worrisome to me as I estimated it would take me about 12 hours to hike to the points I was to survey and back. Fortunately, the same camp manager fixed it by arranging for me to go down there on a Zodiac, plus an added treat: a stop at the coolest hot spring I have ever been to. It was a pool about 50' across that opened to the ocean through an underwater tunnel and the top 10' of water was heated to about 100*. I would have loved to stay on this island for a few more days, or even weeks, but alas, the chartered plane arrived on time and took me away.

The following weekend I had to do a similar task albeit with much simpler logistics on the island of Tinian. It was from this island that the Enola Gay took off with "Little Boy" on its way to Hiroshima. These days there is not much there on Tinian: a small village with two gas stations and a big fancy Casino. Due to the Casino's appetite for Japanese tourists, there are regularly scheduled flights on 6 seat Piper Cherokees. Supposedly they are allowed to fly across the 5 mile channel between Saipan and Tinian with a single engine because it is within glide distance. I have my doubts as to whether or not a Piper can glide that far with a dead engine from 1100 feet... While surveying a couple of those points on the island, I kept hearing a drum somewhere off in the distance. Eventually I came to a Japanese monument at the end of the road that have a view of what is known as the Suicide cliffs. Towards the end of WWII, when Japan was losing all the island it had taken earlier in the war, hundreds of Japanese jumped off these cliffs rather than be taken prisoners by American marines. The mysterious drum revealed itself in the hands of and old Japanese man who was there, bowing towards the cliffs, and chanting.

The hectic work schedule made the month go by in a flash, but I had one more trick up my sleeve: as an alternative to the nonstop Guam to Honolulu flight, one can take the "island hopper" flight with a stopover at one of the 5 islands that it stops at along the way for the same price. I chose to stop on Chuuk for some diving. The work on Guam required two people and since there was no one else in the company that had any experience at this or was willing to spend 8 hours a day walking and opening manholes, so I was able to get my friend and former coworker Dimitri a temporary gig. Of course, the real reason was... dive buddy! Chuuk, also known as Truk Lagoon, was the site of a major Japanese naval site during WW II and was attacked by American bombers in 1944. This resulted in some 70 sunk ships and 200 downed aircraft and is now the ultimate wreck diving site in the world. I expected there to be a lot of tourists there, but there not very many at all; in fact Dimitri and I were the only two divers staying at the hotel at the time. Each day a local Chuukese diver, Jacob, would take us by boat to two different wrecks and guide us through the wrecks. This was great as I had never done any wreck diving, and the idea of swimming into some black torpedo hole at 90' and getting lost in the labyrinthine passageways inside the ship was a bit disconcerting, and I would have missed a lot of the cool things he pointed out due to sensory overload! Since we had to wait a couple of hours between dives, we went to a couple of the other inhabited islands but there are no cars, markets, restaurants, or anything else. The people there have to go to the main island of Weno for groceries bu boat. Otherwise, they have a lot of time on their hands – there are about 5 times as many kids on these islands as adults. Our last diving day we went to one of the deeper wrecks at 125' that still had a tank on the deck, and then for the second dive went to a place where sharks hang out to just sit on the bottom and watch them swim by. There were 17 of them there that day, between 5 and 7 feet long. Very cool! Alas, all things must end, and in the wink of an eye it was time to board another plane back to Honolulu.

As usual, click on the pics for more pics, and check out my first video below!


Duck said...

Pika Wai,
First off Congrats on the bay crossing! You are now officially a bay crossing bastard. I, for one, really enjoyed your write up. Sounds like it was a great trip interspersed with work...I know how that goes. Work always gets in the way of a good time, but it is always interesting traveling to new places and seeing things you have not seen before. I get to Guam every once in a while for work, and have been planning a trip to Chuuk and Palau for years...someday maybe I'll make it there. Pagan sounds amazing! Great pics.

If you are so inclined, I would still like to hear about the bay crossing. I got to watch you cross from the beach, but I always love reading about peoples flights.

Duck said...

Sorry, meant Puka Wai...

Thom said...

Puka Wai, awesome wirte up Donna spnet some time in tinian you should compare stories.

Can not wait for France trip, bring your passport when we fly, I am going for it

Sharky said...

Wow...what an awesome story. Not a Flying Monkey story, but an Exploring Monkey story the way you told it was pretty neat!

@Thom, if you ever plan on going to Palau, let me know. I may come...My Mom is from there and I'm overdue to visit our land there.

Nice story Puka Wai!

Bon Bon said...

Puka Wai,

congrats on your bay crossing! i liked the write-up too, very cool story, pictures, and video!