Our Hero Sets Foot in His Own Private Eden, Eager to Test His Mind, Body, and Spirit.
The idea first takes my fancy on a 747 stuck in a holding pattern over JFK. Looking down from my miserable prison in the sky, I notice what I never do on a map: islands. Little egg-shaped ones in the East River, specks of green just past the harbor’s mouth; there are even some surprisingly sizable blobs right next to the airport itself. What if, I think to myself in a high-altitude fever dream, the plane crashed and no one noticed? What if I were a modern-day castaway, marooned on an island? Could I survive in the wilderness? Did I have what it took? On my favorite TV show, Man Vs. Wild, I’ve seen Bear Grylls make insect repellent on the hoof, squeeze drinking water from elephant poop, and set up a homey little camp with little more than the clothes on his back. Surely, I think, I could hold my own for a couple of days in the wilds of New York.
It’s just a silly notion until I’m introduced to Duke Riley. Duke’s an artist and the owner of a tattoo shop, and, I’ll admit, the coolest guy I’ve ever met. Long before I came to know him, I’d read about him. He’s the guy who, during the 2004 Republican National Convention, “liberated” Belmont Island—a scrap of rock in the East River, directly across from the U.N.—by rowing out and hoisting a 21-foot-long flag of his own design. Of course, I have to tell him about my Robinson Crusoe fantasy.
“Aw, man, that’s an awesome project,” he says. “I’m actually kinda jealous. You’re gonna have a blast.”
In his charming Massachusetts brogue, Duke walks me through the logistics. It turns out he has spent the night on most of the islands I had spotted from the plane. Mulling over my options, he suggests Ruffle Bar, a 143-acre sandbar in Jamaica Bay that had been an oyster outpost until the mid-twentieth century. The last known resident, a subsistence fisherman, left around 1944. Duke seems sure that I could live off the land, too, as fish and seafood abound in the surrounding waters. He then very kindly offers to row me to the island. Within 48 hours we are launching from Floyd Bennett Field and heading across the bay. To make it “real,” I’m marooning myself with only the bare minimum: little more than the clothes on my back, a knife, a tarp, and some matches. It’s all happening so fast that I don’t even have time to feel unprepared. But that’s the point, right?
The morning of the launch is hot and muggy, but the wind starts to pick up and cool things down as we cast off from the shore in Duke’s inflatable dinghy. Broadsided by the increasing gusts, we take the better part of an hour to get the wilting rubber boat across the choppy gunmetal waves. Unbeknownst to him, Duke is testing my heterosexuality to its very limits. He’s a spry, charismatic, Mad Max–era Mel Gibson doppelgänger, with seadog tattoos and a mischievous glint in his eyes. My scrawny frame and fey affect make me slightly embarrassed to be in such rugged and self-assured company. I make a conscious effort to butch up, pretending not to be bothered that I’m sitting in an inch of chilly seawater that’s filled the bottom of Riley’s overloaded vessel. Duke hands me an oar, and we paddle the final 150 yards canoe style, enabling me to feel at least a little useful.
True to his word, the island teems with delectables: a collection of birds’ eggs; expansive beds of pearlescent, silver-blue mussels; fields of perfectly edible seaweed; and, most surprising, dozens of coconuts strewn about the shoreline. Not quite a wayward polar bear, but still, their presence leaves me perplexed. “I think it’s from a Hindu festival,” he says as we pull his little boat farther up the beach. “They put coconuts and other fruit in the water, and they eventually wash up over here. Looks like you’ll have a lot of options for dinner.”
A considerable amount of less exotic flotsam has wound up on the island. Several skiffs in varying states of disrepair, about a dozen living-room chairs, a bunch of plastic buckets, and a disgusting amount of city trash. Among it all, I find a decent metal bowl that I could use to steam mussels, half of a fishing pole, a fishing lure, and a jar of Golden Blossom honey with the lid rusted on solid.
“That honey will still be okay to eat,” says Duke.
I recently learned that honey excavated from the Egyptian pyramids is still okay to eat.
“But if you feel like it, you could probably eat some of those.” Duke is pointing to what look like a lost shipment of Wehrmacht helmets on the sand—horseshoe crabs, possibly the most vile and demonic-looking creatures I’ve ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on. There are several supine specimens in various states of wildly odoriferous decomposition, but that doesn’t dissuade the gulls from hungrily picking them apart. Duke strides over to a live and particularly massive helmet and deftly flips it over with his foot. The crab’s molasses-colored legs flitter like jazz hands, its underside oozing an oily blue gel.
“They’re edible,” he says. “I’d definitely cook them first, though.”
It takes about 45 minutes to walk around the whole island and arrive back at the dinghy. I unload my meager supplies, accept Duke’s good wishes, and excitedly push him out into the bay. “See you soon, man,” he calls out. “You’ll have a blast!”
My first plan of action is to build a shelter. For guidance in that regard and in all other outdoorsy matters, I’ve brought a copy of Bradford Angier’s How to Stay Alive in the Woods. For inspiration, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. After constructing a home, I plan to gather firewood and throw some lines in the water using the abundant mussels as bait. As I survey the landscape, it starts to rain, and I’m forced to throw something up in a hurry simply to keep dry. The theme song to Gilligan’s Island is stuck in my head and given that I am all alone, there’s nothing to dislodge it. A three-hour tour.
Our Intrepid Castaway Runs Afoul of Inclement Weather, Falls Into a Watery Pit, and Fears for His Safety.
I map out the island in my mind, naming each area after its most prevalent physical feature. Goose Crap Bay, Stinky Harbor, Nonbiodegradable Heights, etc. A stone’s throw inland, I find what I think is a decent location: a collection of three or four trees rooted in the sandy soil a few yards beyond the high-tide line. One of the trees forks at about waist height. I find a similarly forked branch and sink it into the ground about six feet away, then sit the longest, straightest branch I can find in the two Y-shaped nooks. I then take several branches and set them diagonally from one side of the horizontal branch to the ground. All pretty slapdash, really, but I have to hurry. I throw my tarp over the whole thing and use smaller sticks like tent pegs to anchor it to the ground. Finally, I gather all the leafy limbs I’ve hacked or snapped off the boughs and throw them atop the structure to camouflage my spot from the harbor Five-O who have been circling the bay in a helicopter since we launched. (The legality of my being on this island is unclear, so I plan to keep a low profile and hope for the best.) I scramble inside just before the first crack of thunder and the driving rain it announces. My new dwelling is cozy enough, though too small to do anything other than lie down in. I rather ingeniously fill an old plastic bag with sand as a pillow, then take out my notepad and sketch designs for the more impressive home I will build as soon as the rain lets off. I feel a burning desire to impress Duke with my travails over the next few days and imagine his nodding approval at the structures, traps, and gizmos that I shall fashion from nature.
One hour becomes two, two becomes four, and the rain is truly torrential. Friends had suggested that I postpone my adventure, as the tail end of Tropical Depression Barry was projected to roll through the metro area during my stay. I certainly would have stayed home for a Hurricane Xerxes, but Tropical Depression Barry sounded utterly benign. Duke hadn’t seemed at all concerned about the stormy forecast, and I certainly hadn’t wanted to bring it up. I figure that it is sure to blow itself out sooner or later.
The sound of heavy rain on the tarp is like just-immersed Rice Krispies amplified through a Marshall stack. Rainwater pools on the sections of the tarp that aren’t pulled taut, and I realize that water, the one thing I’d brought in abundance, is the one thing I absolutely do not need. What I should have brought instead is a slicker, some warm socks, and some decent boots. The sound of the rain is comforting at first, but six hours in and with no sign of letting up, Barry loses his charm. The Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which connects the Rockaways with Brooklyn, is now completely obscured by the thick, low rain clouds. If it wasn’t for the roar of the descending airliners overhead, I could be fooled into thinking that I am marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. I read Robinson Crusoe, keeping one eye out for a break in the weather that isn’t forthcoming. The rumbling in my belly soon eclipses the rumbling in the clouds, and I decide that although I’ll get soaked through in the process, I will have to find food and search for some dry wood. I gird my loins by imagining a romantic scene, an hour hence, in which I sit with a full belly, reading Defoe, dried and warmed by a simple, cheerful campfire.
I make a beeline for the mussel beds, but since our landing, the tide has come in, transforming the landscape. In the diminishing daylight I have to negotiate a new route and, in doing so, spectacularly misjudge the depth of a saltwater creek and am now not only up to my elbows in cold water but also sinking into oily mud. In this very instant, I grapple for the first time with the idea that, should something just like this happen, I am well and truly fucked. I have a mental image of Duke scouring Ruffle Bar two days hence and eventually coming across my uncallused hand protruding from the mud at low tide. I’ve let my geographical proximity to the city lull me into thinking that I could never really be in any bona fide danger. But in this panicked instant, I grasp the idea that I can be bested by the wilderness, even with the Empire State Building in full view. With considerable effort and a fresh perspective on my own mortality, I extract myself from the waist-deep mud.
Our Protagonist’s Quest for Sustenance and Warmth Comes to Naught.
Mollusks, it turns out, can be terribly single-minded when you attempt to remove them from their moorings. I’d imagined that gathering the mussels would be akin to picking grapes from the vine, but I soon realize that I would need some elbow grease and the pliers of my Leatherman to pry them away. I inadvertently crush a great many mussels before I manage to yank off a puny one and throw it into the kid’s pail that I’ve found. A streak of lightning lights up the sky immediately followed by a deafening thunderclap. I suddenly realize that, wet and standing in a salt marsh, I am well qualified to be struck. I harvest two more dinky mussels before the worsening conditions send me scampering back to base camp.
My survival book says that “standing deadwood” is choice fuel for a campfire. En route to camp I quickly snap off the brittle—if slightly damp—limbs of a tree that has long since expired. I re-pin the tarp to the now oozing soil, throw what I’d gathered inside, and jump in after it. Like Duke’s dinghy, the deck of my hovel is now a sandy puddle. Water has even got on and into my bag containing my books, spare T-shirt, notebook, and—most critically—my book of matches. Of course, the outdoorsy books say to bring large wooden matches in a waterproof box, but again, I made an ill-advised shortcut. I set to work kicking sand to the perimeter of the shelter to dam the rainwater spilling into it.
In the black of night, Manhattan gives off a sickly yellow glow, and the twin red lights of the Gil Hodges blink in the distance. The wind picks up and whistles right through the shelter, leading me to dig down into the earth so my bed is essentially a damp, steep-walled ditch bordered by a parapet to keep out the pooling rainwater all around. It’s then, lying in my shallow grave, that I begin to shiver. I am far too damp and cold to sleep, so I intermittently read by flashlight, in the knowledge that at some point during the night the batteries will be spent and I’ll have no further distractions from my discomfort. I discover that my flashlight radiates a considerable amount of heat. After using it to consult my survival book, I press the hot end to the numbest parts of me. It seems that though everything is now damp, half of my book of matches has somehow survived the worst of it.
I read that in the absence of any man-made flammable materials (my books and notepad are now too damp), strips of birch bark are nature’s touch paper, and it just so happens that birch branches are what I’ve used to make the skeleton of my shelter. With my knife, I cannibalize my home from the inside out, peeling off swatches of bark and cutting them into ribbons. I collect them in a little pile on the lip of my shelter and arrange my damp, dead twigs in a wigwam shape over the top of it. It takes very many attempts and I am down to just two matches before I finally have a little flame going. The twigs don’t catch but instead hiss and steam a little bit. My kindling is spent, my last match is used, and I realize the full gravity of this self-inflicted danger. I think about death. Specifically, my death. I think about how unsympathetic I feel when I hear about death by misadventure; when someone meets a sticky but self-inflicted end from base-jumping, running with the bulls, climbing Everest, etc. It’s just asking for it; theatrical hara-kiri. Then I think about how much less sympathy my own ridiculous demise will garner.
Wind, Rain, and Carnivorous Beasts Conspire to Rob Our Adventurer of His Sanity.
Around 2 a.m., after four hours of sitting in the dark, I feel exhausted enough to try to get some shut-eye and bury the lower half of my body in sand as insulation. I only doze off for minutes at a time before a thunderclap or mysterious shriek jolts me awake. But in those mini-pockets of snooze, I am having the most vivid dreams about death, the amputation of my legs at the knee, and an armada of clicking, hissing horseshoe crabs storming the beach like some Paleozoic D-day. At the climax of one particularly distressing vignette, I find myself looking into a pair of glowing eyes. It takes a couple of seconds to realize this isn’t a continuation of nightmares but that I am actually face to face with a large and rain-sodden raccoon. His head is under the tarp, his face about eighteen inches from my own.
“Fuck off!” I scream, but not having spoken in almost twelve hours, my voice cracks, and this surely gives the creature the notion that I am more scared of him that he is of me. Accordingly, he seems to shrug and slinks back off into the downpour. There is no sleeping now.
It being June, true darkness lasts only about seven hours, and just after 4 a.m., I kick off my shoes, brush off some of the grime, and look at the state of my tingling feet. They are translucent, bruised, and cadaverous. I start freaking out. (But justifiably—I learn later that I am suffering from a WWI-era malady called trench foot, which, if not treated in time, can lead to gangrene and, if you’re really unlucky, amputation.) It’s only the shame of disappointing Duke that prevents me from calling for a rescue.
Instead, I decide that I have to eat something and run out into the storm to collect some seaweed. I grab a handful from the sand and rinse it off in the surf. I come back, nibble on it, and, of course, it is foul. I then pry open one of my little mussels and poke at the slimy innards. Perhaps it’s the act of steaming that makes them look less like phlegm. A moment away from chugging it, I remember what I’d read about Jamaica Bay’s four water-treatment plants’ not being able to deal with excessive storm water, and how, during weather like dear old Barry, raw sewage is often dumped into the bay. As hungry as I am, my misery will be many times worse if I have some sort of gastrointestinal episode, so I try instead to cheat hunger by filling up on water. I remember the coconuts farther up the shoreline. Excitedly, I run across the sand and, after finding three or four empty shells, pick up a nut whose weight promises sweet sustenance. I engage the chisel from my Leatherman and hammer a hole through the shell with the aid of a brick. I tip the milk into my mouth. It is seawater tinged with merely a hint of coconut flavor. But there is still the flesh! I crack open the nut on a rock and slice out a morsel of bright white meat. Unfortunately, in the weeks, months, or years since this fruit was set adrift, seawater has penetrated the shell and pickled the interior, resulting in something inedible, sour, and putrid. I manage to get a few bites down before a protracted bout of gagging.
Our Fallen Hero’s Spirit Is Broken, His Pride Cast Off; Plus, the Journey Home.
Barry has been intensifying overnight, and the collecting runoff water looks set to breach my levees. I scurry out of the shelter and trudge through the silt to the crashing waves on the beach, and attempt to haul an overturned fiberglass boat to higher ground for use as cover, but it proves much too heavy. Running back to the shelter, I gash my shin on an upright bit of decaying driftwood and a trickle of blood streams down my leg. By 9 a.m., with a limp, a coating of grime, hunger, fatigue, trench foot, and still no break in the weather, I shamefacedly text Duke an SOS signal. He isn’t scheduled to pick me up until the afternoon of the following day, and I later find out that in order to mount a rescue mission, he had to cancel two tattoo sittings. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
He says that he will be there just as soon as the bay calms down enough to cross safely, and knowing that I won’t have to endure another night shivering in the elements is a massive relief.
The rain that commenced just as Duke had dropped me off magically ceases as soon as I catch sight of him rowing toward me, at about 3:30 p.m. By the time he makes landfall, Ruffle Bar is a subtropical idyll, making it even more difficult to explain how I’ve fallen afoul of my surroundings. My embarrassment is eclipsed by the feeling of relief that I am now just a few hours away from a meal, a hot shower, and clean linens.
“You okay, man?” he asks with genuine concern. “I brought something to warm you up.”
I expect a blanket, but instead, Riley produces a bottle of Irish whiskey. Yo-ho-ho and all that. I take a gulp and wince.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I just didn’t expect the weather to be quite like that.”
To ease my blushes, he says that he’d been thinking about how the weather might have been playing hell with my schemes. “I was having dinner last night and I heard the thunder and I was like, ‘Aww, man!’ But, hey, your shelter looks like it did the trick, looks wicked cozy.”
Everything in my body language screams for us to get back across the bay, but Duke is in no hurry. He stands on the shore drinking it all in (along with another snort from the bottle) as I examine the grime and grit that has infiltrated my every pore, and long to be hosed down and scrubbed hard. He collects fragments of thick, colorful glass bottles embossed with the names of the local distilleries and breweries.
“See those bits of purple on the clamshells?” he asks me. “The Canarsee Indians who lived all over here used to make beads out of it. That’s wampum.”
He’s transported: seeing the island as Giovanni de Verrazano had seen it in 1524. I, on the other hand, need to be transported to a McDonald’s, and soon enough, we are headed back.
“New York City has been sort of superimposed on a group of islands,” says Duke between effortful oar strokes that propel us slowly but surely toward Floyd Bennett Field. “But it’s designed in a way that the people who live here can totally be unaware of how fucking awesome it is.”