On the beach, but far from the crowdsSo there I was, dripping sweat, skin salted by seawater and flecked with tree bark, patches of sticky pine resin covering my hands and collecting grime. I needed to finish the shelter by nightfall, and I reflected on the irony in the fact that I’d just purchased an air conditioner.
I wasn’t worried so much about survival as I was about the symptoms of withdrawal from the modern world. My life was organized around fresh-brewed coffee, compelling projects, the smile and the touch of my wife and knowing that after a hard day of work and play, there was a place where I could kick my feet up with a cold beer.
For the next week, I’d have none of that.
According to the Ministry of the Environment, Korea has 3,153 islands, 2,689 of them uninhabited. I was on one ― an island off the northwestern coast of Namhaedo island. On my topographical map, this speck of land was called Mokdo. The size of about one and a half football fields, it was a rock ― a hill of thick brush surrounded by water. It was 200 yards offshore, which meant I could swim to it, hauling my gear under my own power.
It seemed like a good place to spend a week. The idea was to spend some time alone and reflect; to test my wits and endurance; and to live alone on a lost little beach in August, when practically everyone in Korea was doing just the opposite: swarming the seaside in frenzied crowds. I’d gotten here dragging some gear on a makeshift raft I’d made from the buoys of fishing nets. The south coast is littered with these Styrofoam monstrosities; they can be found nearly every 50 feet. It took me just minutes to round up four of them on the beach at Namhaedo. I lashed them together with rope, and threw my waterproof dive bag and two cases of bottled water onto it.
Swimming slowly and carefully so as not to capsize my gear, I made it to my new home easily. I hauled my bag and water up to the trees’ edge. It was a hot, sun-pounding day.
The spot I chose to make camp was shaded by mature pine trees and graced by two tiger lilies, which seemed an auspicious sign. The camp faced out toward the sea; sun-bleached boulders created steps down to the flat rocks that led to the shore.
I gathered driftwood and separated them into two piles: one for building, one for burning. The best finds were three long planks flecked with dried concrete, the washed-away remnants of a newly poured cement seawall. Angled against two pine trees, they became the main beams. Half-buried in the sand were tangles of fishing nets; they provided cordage for lashing the shelter together.
I’d brought the rain fly of an old tent; I covered the slanted frame with it. Some gaps were plugged with pine boughs along the edge; an orange strip of plastic that had blown into the shoreline trees covered the remaining gaps.
By sunset, the structure was finished. I’d cannibalized much of my firewood pile for building materials; forgoing a fire for the night, I rolled up in my beach blanket, exhausted and sweaty, and easily fell asleep.
Within a few minutes, I kicked off the blanket. It was thin cotton, but even that was too hot.
Laying there uncovered, I soon realized that there were no mosquitoes. Not the slightest buzz. With no freshwater on the island, they didn’t exist. It was hard to believe, but for the next six days, I wouldn’t endure a single mosquito bite.
The Human Shark
The next morning, the air tasted different. Rain clouds hung in the sky. Aching from sleeping on the ground, my stomach empty, I meandered out to the beach to do some yoga to stretch my back and joints.
In my dive bag were seven cans of tuna ― my backup rations in case I failed to collect any kind of food. From a couple of green twigs, I carved chopsticks, ate the bland tuna and sipped down the remaining oil.
With the rain clouds looming, I spent most of the morning collecting firewood. Some driftwood tree stumps couldn’t be lifted, and needed to be clumsily pushed and rolled to the campsite. The cloud cover made for good working weather. By midday, I’d amassed a pile of firewood the size of a compact car.
I went hunting for dinner, armed with a pole spear, kick fins, mask and snorkel. Amid the near-shore rocks, small fish darted. Holding off for something larger, I swam and studied the underwater structure. I caught glimpses of larger fish on the periphery.
Around a boulder, a mullet darted out and paused. I let loose the spear, and the paralyzer tip pinned the fish to a rock. From a shallow cove, two more mullet came fast; I aimed at the first one, and stuck the second.
As the sun went down and the rain clouds passed by, I built the campfire high. The flame flickered near the lower branches of the nearby trees; I imagined the legal problems I would have if I burned down an island, and knocked down the logs. The mullet were cleaned and skewered and charred over the embers. And there I feasted, living large and easy like a character from a Jimmy Buffett song, minus the margaritas.
The oppressive morning sun drove me to the shaded side of the island, where I explored the wood’s edge for useful items. So far, I’d only gone a few steps into the island’s interior, gathering firewood.
Flotsam and jetsam of all sorts lay along the high tide line: Small, brown “energy drink” bottles, too numerous to count (certainly more than 100); many empty plastic water bottles, rice wine bottles and soju bottles; Styrofoam buoys in various states of destruction, some in perfect condition, others smashed on the rocks. (Flecks of Styrofoam, mixed with the seashells, sand and gravel, are so common that they are part of the landscape on Korea’s south coast.) There were shoes: one sandal, one child’s flip-flop, one rubber boot, a woman’s high heel, one sneaker, a plastic slipper and a rotted leather loafer. On the flat rocks was an oil slick with the smell and gleam of motor oil.
I did find some useful items. I hauled a rusted, barnacle-encrusted anchor back to the campsite. Setting it on its blade, the shank bent over the fire circle at a 45-degree angle ― perfect for cooking. Fishing nets washed up from a bygone typhoon provided me with plenty of rope.
The most interesting find was a fish trap ― the cylindrical type, in which crabs or small fish enter through the wide-netted cone and can’t get out through the narrow end. In the trap was the skeleton of a cat. It could have been a domestic cat, but judging from the color of fur, it also could have been a leopard cat ― one of Korea’s last, elusive wild felines. Probably searching the seaside at low tide for an easy meal, it had become ensnared and, presumably, drowned at high tide.
Diving at the back side of the island, I found no mullet; after an hour, I hunted smaller fish. Greenlings darted around the seaweed and rock, and were easy prey once you spotted them. The thin rainbow fish were more difficult, but they lingered just enough within range. The small, silvery surf perch were fast and proved to be hard targets. By the end of the afternoon, I’d collected 11 small fish, none larger than my palm. I was dizzy from breathing through the snorkel, and as I made my way back to camp, I noticed huge thunderclouds on the horizon. Lightning cracked. The storm was moving toward the island.
by James Card
Tomorrow: Our correspondent kills poisonous beasts, gains respect for clam-digging ajumma and begins to talk to himself.