A Stuff Sack Pillow, an Artist, and an Albatross Meet On Midway Atoll
Words, Artwork, & Images by Eric Baker
I'm sitting in the middle of a seabird colony on Midway Atoll, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Albatross. Oblivious to my presence, they're caught up in their frenzied social interactions with one another. Un-paired birds gather in small groups to practice their elaborately choreographed dance moves–rapidly clacking their bills, mooing at the sky, dancing on their tippy-toes, and respectfully bowing to one another—all in the hope of finding the right partner. Mated pairs snuggle together quietly on their nests, gently preening one another. Nervous parents get up, check their eggs, then rearrange themselves on their nests once they're satisfied. A few Albatrosses already have a chick; tiny down-covered heads peek out from underneath them. But it's the juvenile Albatross, the ones not yet old enough to breed, who are especially inquisitive about their surroundings. Any stray item—a twig, a backpack strap, a shoelace—all these items need to be grabbed with their beak and aggressively yanked to determine their nature. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch as one juvenile Albatross does just that, yanking on the subject of my gear story.
The piece of Hyperlite Mountain Gear this Albatross is vigorously yanking is simply cataloged as "Stuff Sack Pillow." While not as sexy as my Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Windrider, whose once-white Dyneema is now stained to prove it has trail-cred, it's my stuff sack pillow that gets almost daily use. I'll start with its intended function. Yes, I highly recommend it as a backcountry pillow. The large size offers the most pillow-like enjoyment, stuffed to your preferred firmness with whatever number of socks or apparel you have at hand. As it's going next to your head, I suggest NOT using three-day-old socks.
From there, its utility is bounded only by your imagination. The semi-transparent Dyneema lets me see where that PayDay bar has migrated before I go digging for it. It weighs basically nothing. In my day-to-day world, it serves as a slightly padded refuge in my backpack for an iPad. A benefit of its Dyneema and fleece construction is that items easily slide in and out, useful when it comes time to produce said iPad for TSA inspection. It's a most excellent entropy containment device. But for me, it serves a purpose that its designers never envisioned; it holds all my watercolor gear in one convenient place. My preferred Canson 12-by 17-inch watercolor block fits perfectly inside, along with a metal Windsor & Newton watercolor box that contains my paints, brushes, and other art accouterments.
On my time off from work as a biology technician, I return to the colony to paint. The wilderness ethos of "sit quietly and nature will come to you" holds true on Midway as it does elsewhere. After I sit down, the Albatross pay no attention to me—they're here to find a mate. Albatross only return to land to breed. The majority of their life is spent navigating a realm just a few feet above the windswept waves, gliding on a six-foot wingspan, day-in-day-out, under the summer sun, and through gale-force winter storms. They are long-lived, some over 70 years, and lead a solitary existence as they traverse the trackless expanse of the open ocean. On land, Albatross are devoted parents, tag-teaming the duties of attending to their single chick on the nest and foraging at sea, making multiple 2,000-mile round trips to cooler northern waters, searching for their preferred prey item of squid to sustain their chick and themselves. It's a bit humbling to sit within arm's reach of such amazing creatures. More than once, I've had to ask myself: What am I doing, and how did I get here?
Getting here isn't easy. Because of its isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge isn't accessible to the public. Everyone has to have a reason to be here. An "eco-tourism" program ran for a brief period of time many years ago, but it proved economically unsustainable and was at odds with the interests of wildlife. Those wanting to make a meaningful contribution can apply to Midway's volunteer biology program, which offers a unique opportunity to work in one of the world's most remote locations restoring seabird habitat. The work itself is physically demanding and not exactly glamorous. Much of it is habitat restoration, which amounts to crawling about on hands and knees, removing invasive plants, and replacing them with native species. But it's the seabird work that is unforgettable and intimate—banding seabirds, gathering population data, and performing seabird reproductive surveys—all while fully immersed in the world's largest Albatross colony. The payoff is a sense of having done something worthwhile.
While Albatross are the most iconic and well-known seabirds on Midway Atoll, there are a dozen other species, all filling the air with a cacophony of sound. Sinister-looking Great Frigatebirds perch on branches, looking like morose undertakers. Comical little Bonin Petrels scurry about on legs too small to carry them, trying to attract a mate. Red-tailed Tropicbirds, whose legs are even shorter and functionally useless on land, can only scoot themselves forward on their breast to get around, but in the sky, they perform elaborate looping flights around one another to attract a mate, their long, red tail feathers streaming behind them. Plump little down-covered Albatross chicks, looking like a cross between a pineapple and a bowling pin, wait patiently for their meal ticket to return from the sea to feed them. The same seabirds, minus the Albatross, surrounded me when I returned to work on the even more remote and uninhabited Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of seabirds and a field crew of only five, we saw no other humans for six months. Not a bad shelter-in-place location to sit out a pandemic, but that's another story.
As romantic and magical as the experience was, painting in the wild didn't come without its frustrations. Sometimes my subjects would be quite rude and would fly away without asking permission. An unrelenting sun would beat down from a cloudless sky. Brief rain squalls would come and go without warning (rain and watercolor don't mix). Sitting in the middle of a colony, I became convinced that those thousands of seabirds flying overhead were intentionally targeting me and my paper. And those inquisitive juvenile Albatross would yank on my shoelaces, on my paintbrush, on my pillow. But it's the surreal and unexpected experiences in wild places that make the most memorable stories.
Eric Baker spent thirty-five years working as a photojournalist and artist for newspapers throughout the West. He spent his vacations doing volunteer fieldwork as a way of giving something back, eventually leading to his most recent seabird work on Midway and Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuges. He laments being born too late to work as an artist on some grand voyage of exploration. Eric currently freelances, and daydreams of his next remote fieldwork gig.