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Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

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By Elston and Jackie Hill

Midway Atoll, or Midway Island, surprised us on the upside, much more than we could have anticipated.

Midway is a 2.4-square-mile atoll located in the north Pacific Ocean near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. Today Midway is the seasonal home to about 70 percent of the world’s Laysan albatrosses and about 35 percent of the global black-footed albatrosses, supporting nearly 3 million birds.

 

Seventeen different species of seabirds nest on Midway, the rarest of which is the short-tailed albatross, also known as the “golden gooney.” Fewer than 2,200 of these birds exist due to excessive feather hunting in the late 19th century.

 

More than 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres of lagoon and surrounding waters, including the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened green sea turtle, a resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins, and the endangered Laysan duck.

 

Midway’s contemporary history began in 1903 when the atoll became the last link in a global telegraph system. In the 1930s it became a landing site for Pan Am Clippers en route to Asia. Midway was a significant World War II base and battle site and later an important naval air facility for the Korean and Vietnam wars.

 

After Vietnam, Midway became less important to the Navy and the atoll slowly transitioned to a wildlife sanctuary. The last contingent of the U.S. Navy left Midway in June 1997, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed management of the atoll. The service presently has a staff of four on Midway; the U.S. Geological Survey has a staff of two on Midway and is assisted by a private contractor which provides a support staff of about 35, most of them citizens of Thailand.

 

The population of about 50 people includes a few volunteers who serve for a period of several months. Up to 15 visitors a week are permitted to visit the atoll with a sponsor, using a charter plane. The wildlife season continues from mid-December through July.

 

This is the paradox of Midway. Today it is both a ghost town and a wildlife sanctuary. All but one of the runways have been abandoned. Old buildings going back to 1903 exist in a state of deterioration and the area still suffers from toxic waste from its prior uses. Some buildings are beyond repair while efforts are being made to preserve some of the historical buildings. Scattered all around these remains is one of the more astonishing wildlife reserves in the world.

 

Our time in Midway was very pleasant. We stayed in the officers’ barracks and ate with the other residents of the island, where we enjoyed a combination of very good American and Thai food.

Transportation around Sand Island consisted of golf carts and bicycles and we were free to wander when we were not participating with our group. The wildlife was in our faces from the moment we awoke to the time we went to bed. The gooney birds never slept, so even at night their constant chatter reminded us that we were in an unbelievable wildlife paradise. The trip was made more magical by the fact that one engine on our 50-year-old charter plane failed an hour into our return flight, causing us to make an emergency return and landing and giving us two bonus days with the gooney birds before another plane could be found to get us back to Honolulu.

About the presenters:

Elston and Jackie Hill love to travel. Elston was born in unoccupied China — unoccupied by the Japanese — during World War II. His missionary parents fled China a second time in 1951 before the Communist takeover of South China. Elston then lived in Japan and Brazil. Those experiences made him comfortable visiting places that are different.

 

Prior to meeting Elston, Jackie traveled abroad and her travels included leading nursing tour trips to China and the Soviet Union. Jackie shares with Elston the passion to visit places that are uniquely different.

 

Elston and Jackie met and married in 1988 in Santa Monica, Calif. Their corporate jobs limited them to two weeks’ vacation a year, so other than a honeymoon in Banff and more trips to Canada, their vacations were limited to the United States. The first year of their retirement in Port Angeles in 2002, they devoted themselves to hiking in the Olympics. In their second year, they took up sea kayaking.

 

In addition to enjoying the Olympics, they have used their newfound freedom to pursue their love of the outdoors on an international basis. To date their itinerary has taken them to the Arctic in the Northwest Territories, including the Horton River; to Patagonia; on safari in Africa and sea kayaking in Alaska, as well as to Austria, Greece, Bolivia, the Galapagos, Ecuador, Mongolia, New Zealand and Tasmania.

 

Whenever possible, they travel as a group of two. Traveling as a couple is often cheaper than going with a group, even with a private guide and driver, and they are rewarded with more freedom and better cultural experiences.

 

Important note: The final Traveler’s Journal Presentation of this year’s 20th anniversary series is April 7 when Willie Weir presents “Any Port in a Storm: Cycling and Wild Camping Through Portugal.” This is a reschedule of the presentation planned for February, which was cancelled due to bad weather. There will be no Traveler’s Journal Presentation on March 31.

 

 

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