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  Field Notes From

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From Author

Alex Chadwick

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From Photographer

Randy Olson

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by David Doubilet (top) and Fen Montaigne

image: spider
In a Pacific Paradise

Field Notes From Author
Alex Chadwick
Palmyra is a phenomenally intact ecosystem that illustrates what the Pacific island region is like when it hasn’t been exploited commercially by fishing and logging interests. It’s a beautiful place where bird colonies, patches of rain forest, and healthy fish populations thrive.
We came upon a series of trees where hundreds of large, colorful, migratory birds were nesting. I was able to walk within 5 or 6 feet (2 meters) of them, and they didn’t fly away. They were wary because they’re not used to being approached like that, but they didn’t fly away in fear of humans. They didn’t flee my presence. Those kinds of encounters with wildlife left me with a sense of Eden-like innocence. It was extraordinary to see these creatures at such close range.
There’s no airport on Palmyra. The only way to land is to touch down on this little crushed-coral landing strip that was built during World War II. We were flying to the island in a twin-engine plane, but we couldn’t see the island beneath an approaching storm.
We circled for a while, hoping the clouds would clear. When they didn’t, the pilot decided to try to land. Just when we broke through the clouds and spotted the water below, we hit another torrent of clouds, fog, and rain and were blinded again. That happened over and over until we finally saw the island a couple of miles in the distance.
We touched down and were streaking along doing maybe 110 miles an hour (177 kilometers an hour) when we hit the first of these enormous ponds that had formed on the rutted runway. The world just disappeared in the spray that swept over us. Then, when the pilot hit the brakes to slow us down, we started to hydroplane. We eventually stopped safely, but this was the most harrowing plane trip I’ve ever been on and the worst landing of my life—and I’ve flown in combat.
Working with a photographer and trying to accommodate his needs was a novel experience for me. I’m a radio correspondent, so it usually doesn’t occur to me to plan my day around light. That’s about the last thing that matters to a radio guy who’s out with a microphone. But the needs of a photographer can be very different. I wanted to record early-morning birdsong the same day Randy Olson needed to take some aerial shots of the island. When you’re out recording birds, the last thing you want is an airplane flying over your microphone. But Randy has to go when the light is right. It was challenging, but it was a great experience. I’d like to do it again.

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