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Fixing the Island

The Drake
Fall, 2018

We had just arrived on the island, and our first stop was the small grocery store up the street.  A bell on the door announced our entrance, but it would be hard to miss four Americans in nylon fishing shirts. A Bahamian woman behind the counter glanced up and smiled shyly at our hello, then turned back to the T.V.  Wooden shelves were stacked ceiling-high with canned green beans and carrots, frijole beans and bags of white rice. The refrigerator in back was nearly empty.  The store is stocked by a weekly supply boat, but its schedule and selection are spotty.    

This Bahamian island has long been a closely-guarded secret, a rare privilege for those anglers lucky enough to earn a place on the one local guide's crowded schedule.  With bookings scheduled years in advance, the guide can afford to be selective about his clients.  And one way to get dumped is to publicize the island and its fishing.  So the island will be unnamed, and our guide will be called Rick.

At the grocery store counter, we unloaded two cartons of eggs, a loaf of white bread, margarine, six gallons of water, and asked for Kaliks.  

"How many?" the woman asked as she opened the dorm-sized fridge on the floor.  

After a brief consultation and some math, we asked for a case. Or four six-packs.  Twenty-four bottles in all.  Whatever they had.

The woman at the counter looked at us, then peered at the small supply of bottles in the fridge.  

"Michael!" she yelled towards the front of the store where a lanky young man dislodged himself from the stoop and headed to the cellar.  He eventually emerged with twenty-four Kaliks, some with frozen brown froth under their caps.  There was a scramble to find empty six-packs to hold them.  

The locals welcome the few visitors to the island, though they are limited in what they can provide. Angling travel agents would refer to this destination as "Fishing Focused."  Clients stay on Rick's property, across the driveway from his home, in a white-washed duplex with tile floors and oversized couches, a small kitchen and two good-sized bedrooms.  Lunch coolers are packed and dinners delivered by a local woman named Anita, and we can buy basic items at the small grocery store up the street.  The duplex is ocean-front, but there is no beach for swimming. A concrete seawall protects the property from the rough surf below.  And the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are pretty bad.  

All Caribbean islands are affected by them, but the big resorts can commit the time, money, and personnel required to control them. Pest control companies will assess the property, locate breeding grounds, and implement a prevention program. This service doesn't come cheap.  But if a resort has the money, it's worth it to keep complaints about rampant mosquitoes and no-see-ums off Tripadvisor review boards.  

That night, Dan left the window open so I could hear the ocean and in the morning his body was dotted with dozens of small welts, bright red against his skin.  Robert and Lori were smarter than us, splitting up into separate bedrooms so Lori could keep the windows shut tight and run the AC at its lowest temperature and highest speed.  Robert and I may get bit, but Dan and Lori are tortured by the toxins.  Their bites become inflamed and fester with pus.  

Roosters outside the window announced the morning dawn.  I drank my coffee outside and watched them peck for insects through the brushy sand. As the dark sky turned grey over the water, we carried our gear to where Rick and his assistant waited, the back of their trucks open and ready.  

Rick drove fast down through town, mangy dogs scurrying out of his way.  The sun beat softly against the pink and blue trim of white-washed homes facing the ocean.  Most were in some stage of repair from hurricane damage.  Bahamians don't take out loans, Rick told us.  They build and repair when there's money.  Maintenance is the one consistent job on the island. 

Hurricanes have hit the area hard in recent years, and he's had to twice rebuild the seawall in front of his house.

The boat launch was where the sandy road ended, or where the last hurricane had decided it should end.  Once the boat was in high gear, Dan and I sat back and watched the waters change from turquoise to deep blue to green.  The boat sped through thick channels of mangroves, their red roots anchoring them to the seabed.  Glossy green leaves slapped the boat and sometimes our heads with each sharp turn through the maze.  

When Rick cut the motor, I laced up my boots and stuffed a sandwich and water in my bag.  We will walk for hours through miles of empty flats, and end up far from the boat before we turn back.   I adjusted my stride to match Rick's slow plod through the shallow water.  He walked silently with his hands behind his back, his face impassive behind his buff and mirrored sunglasses.  I would be lost among the patches of mangrove islands dotting the flats.  But to Rick, each was a distinct landmark with its own inhabitants and rhythms.  A large island of towering mangroves erupted with the pink flapping of Roseate Spoonbills.  

In the past, resorts controlled insects by bulldozing the mangrove colonies that served as breeding grounds.  But mangroves are now recognized as important ecosystems supplying life, energy, and protection to a myriad of flora and fauna.  The ecosystem is crucial to a fishery's health.  Seedlings travel hundreds of miles before setting down roots and developing colonies that become nurseries for marine life.  Mangrove leaves are eaten by fungi and bacteria, which are eaten crabs and other small creatures, which in turn are eaten by birds and fish.

I fumbled in my bag for Anita's Deviled Ham sandwich spiked with green chilies and onions, gulped down some water and tried not to get too far behind.  When Rick spotted a school of bonefish heading our way, I shoved the sandwich in my bag and got ready.  He pointed out a big one in the lead of the wake motoring towards us.   My heart rate doubled and my dry mouth tasted faintly of Miracle Whip.  The cast I landed in front of the fish was a little wild and sloppy but I felt a quick tightening and stripped back hard and the reel squealed.

"Six pound," he said.  "Nice fish."

We hooked many nice fish before the day was over. Schools of bonefish encircled the edges of mangroves, handling the curves like speedboats and plowing towards us like a submarine torpedo.  They made several laps, the wake surging forward even when we reeled a fish out of the swarm toward us. When the school veered off through a mangrove tunnel, we walked on until we spotted the next wake cruising our way.  

On the drive back, the boat trailer lurched and dragged in the sandy road.  Dan and Robert helped Rick change the bearings, rusted out from the salt in the water and air.  Back at the house, Rick and his assistant worked on the trailer.  Parts take weeks to arrive on the supply boat. Every evening their heads are under the truck's hood or the boat trailer, patching them together for another day.   

Anita drove up and unloaded rattan baskets covered in gingham napkins, and we sat down to pork ribs, corn on the cob and beans and rice. Once the sun set, the no-see-ums swept in so we scooped up plates and casserole dishes and ran for our apartment.  We ate under bright lights and a high-speed ceiling fan with the windows shut tight against the ocean breeze. We could have been in any Econo Lodge in any city.  The Kaliks just didn't taste the same.  

Lori pretended to stretch out on the chair so she could scratch her bites against its nubby fabric and we yelled at her to stop. She and Dan bemoaned their bug bites. Robert and I were sympathetic, which only pissed them off.  A morose silence filled the room.  The only sound was the fan humming above us.  We remembered evenings at fishing lodges, decks positioned so the wind carried the bugs away.  Warm ocean breezes against bare feet and legs, waves pounding against the beach.  Would we sacrifice great fishing for that type of evening?  The guys said no.  Lori and I were not so sure.


Dan and I spent our last day casting to tarpon that emerged from the mangroves like silent U-boats. The mangroves were alive with quiet splashes and the flapping of nesting birds, and the mosquitoes we attracted when we got too close. Dan slapped his ankle with one hand while the tarpon he hooked spiraled out of the water.

It had been a good week.  On our last night, we slathered on bug spray and walked to the Take Away shacks.  Smoke pumped out of grills with sizzling meats, and locals lined up at the doors to give their orders.  While we waited for our cracked conch, Lori and I walked next door to Hail Ma's Daiquiris and ordered two plastic cups of iced rum and frozen strawberries as drenched in red food coloring as they were in sugar.  

In the morning, we settled up with Rick, gave him a substantial tip and the rest of our food, and left the island with a firm booking for next year.  Six months later, Hurricane Matthew hit the island, and a photo showed the Take Aways collapsed in a tumble of boards.  By the time we returned the following April the locals had patched what they could and left the rest.  The Take Away shacks had been rebuilt on the other side of the road, further from the water. Hail Ma's Daiquiris didn't rebuild. 

While we unloaded our bags, Rick brought over the box we had shipped to him two months earlier.  Inside was a screened-in tent with 20 x 20 no-see-um strength mesh that we had set up in our garage and sprayed with Permethrin until it glistened and dripped onto the floor.  The box also held several plug-in insect repellants and replacement cartridges we couldn't take on the plane.  Our apartments would be bathed in this aromatherapy blend of chemicals to smoke out any bugs that crawled through the torn screens.  With ingenuity and the right equipment, we could add the one thing we missed from upscale fishing lodges--evenings without biting insects.

And the fortress held.  On our first night, we sat outside after the sun set and listened to the waves boom against the seawall.  Insects clung to the tent's mesh walls, smelling blood they couldn't reach.  We congratulated ourselves on fixing the island's main shortcoming.

But in defeating the insects, we must have disrupted the island's balance.  The wind howled that week, ruffling the water and beating back our line.  Flats that had been thick with schools of bonefish were now silent. We came back to find the wind had crumpled our screened tent against a tree like a tumbleweed caught in barbed wire.  The Take Aways were out of fried conch, the grocery store fridge empty of eggs, and Michael emerged from the cellar with the last two bottles of Kalik.   He shrugged.  "The boat didn't come this week."  

We took our overcooked hamburgers and Busch Crack beer and zipped ourselves into the tent. We tried to transform the island into something it was not, and the island withheld its best gifts in return.  

In September, Hurricane Irma hit the island and we scoured the news and blogs for its fate.  The mangroves held firm against the wind, their thick roots anchoring them and sheltering the spoonbills and tarpon and the island itself.  Irma tore shingles off roofs, threw boulders and boats onto beaches and stripped the mangroves of their leaves before she turned and headed north.  The mangroves stood naked in the water, their bare branches shuddering in the breeze, red roots reaching above the water line to breathe.

The leaves will grow back and the birds will return, as will the mosquitoes and no-see-ums scattered by the storm.  In Rick's garage is our screened-in tent and insect repellants, awaiting our fourth visit to the island.  But the island belongs to the people who patch together homes and cars with whatever the supply boat brings.  Who share the island with mangroves that breed mosquitoes but also offer protection from storms and a rich, self-sustaining life. 

It's up to the people who live here to decide what needs fixing.  

Fixing the Island: Work
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