When contemplating the scenario of people isolated from the rest of the world on an island, the distant settings that might come to mind are that of Tom Hanks and his volleyball, Wilson, in “Castaway” or the entire cast of “Lost” on whatever that place turned out to be.
Mike Clark found “Quarantine Island” not far from downtown St. Louis.
A couple weeks ago, as people around the city adjusted to directives from public health officials to remain home and socially distance themselves from others, Clark considered his situation.
During the pandemic, the founder of Big Muddy Adventures (BMA), a tour company offering guided paddles on local rivers, could either be alone at his home in north St. Louis, away from his two sons and other family, or he could live alone at his other home: an undisclosed island on the Mississippi River.
“I looked at facing a situation where I was just going to lock down in my own residence. Like so many people, my livelihood is basically put on hold for the foreseeable future,” said Clark, who is unable to lead trips during the current situation. The island is “down the street and across the river, and I have been out here so much over the years that it’s a very comfortable place for me to spend time.”
So, on March 21, Clark packed up his canoe and started paddling for the island. He’s been out there ever since.
Clark is one among many outdoors enthusiasts who, as the coronavirus spread, opted for fires and tents rather than couches and Netflix. People headed to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks in such great numbers that the National Park Service last week decided to close their entrances.
But Clark and his dog, Dolly, are alone at a location that he is not sharing and is now calling “Quarantine Island.”
He said he plans to stay out there until the “green light goes on as far as the rest of humanity” getting back to some sort of normalcy.
To help others, BMA has turned Clark’s island stay into a fundraiser for The Gateway Resilience Fund, an effort started by Roo Yawitz, the owner of BMA and co-owner of Terrain, to help support local independent businesses struggling during the pandemic. The company is asking people to pledge to donate a particular dollar amount for each day Clark stays on the island.
“The Resilience Fund is a magnificent idea and opportunity. This is for people like me whose livelihood depends on other people wanting to experience what we have to offer…for thousands of people who live tip to tip or check to check,” Clark said.
Clark is posting updates on social media, so donors can follow his endeavor.
“If everyone is at home and doing what I suspect they are, which is watching a lot of Netflix and locked onto their social media, then maybe this is a distraction of some merit,” Clark said.
And he has shared moments of levity.
When Clark set out for the island, he packed everything he would need: cooking supplies, dry bags, coolers, books, a solar-powered battery system. He just left out two things that were slightly important: his tent and sleeping bag.
So, once he arrived on the island and started unloading, he realized he needed to turn right back around and grab those items, which he left on his back porch.
It also took him two days to realize that he hadn’t grabbed a proper pair of river boots but rather was wearing two boots meant for the right foot.
He described these mishaps as Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moments and shared them on Facebook.
“It’s quite healthy to laugh at myself when I do these things that I expect I wouldn’t do. You know, like, I’m a professional, I wouldn’t do that,” Clark said, sarcastically.
But otherwise, it’s been a productive stay. Normally at this time of year, Clark does a paddling trip during which he records educational videos to try and help students “make a connection between the real world and something they are learning,” he said.
Clark started his career on the water two decades ago with a trip on the Mississippi River. He used a satellite phone to share curriculum and activities for students through a virtual education program he called the Big Muddy Schoolhouse.
“Weirdly, when I did it the first year, everyone was like, ‘Virtual schoolhouse? What the hell is that?’ Now look, the entire country is teaching in that format” while schools are closed, Clark said.
It rained for most of the first four days on the island, so Clark spent a lot of that time reading in his tent, but he managed to build a trash corral and, once the weather improved, he started collecting items.
Much of the plastic waste that sits in the oceans ends up there via rivers. Organizers of the Confluence Trash Bash, an annual effort to clean up streams and creeks near the intersection of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, had to postpone the event, which was scheduled for March 21, because of the pandemic.
So, Clark has tried to fill that void. He’s found items like old, buried tires, which he plans to take off the island.
Clark’s son and fellow Big Muddy staffers have also hopped in canoes and delivered some supplies, like a fishing pole for catfish. Like Clark, those river guides are also eager to begin leading trips, but no one knows when that will happen.
Still, such obstacles are not new to Clark. Last year, the first half of the local paddling season was wiped out because of flooding. A few years ago, the same thing happened with the second half of the season.
“Somehow, some way, we have weathered each and every one of those,” Clark said. “I am out here until such time as the coast is clear, whenever that is. And now with the Resilience Fund being tied to how many days I stay out here, I actually have a need to spend as much time outside here as I can.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.