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As Lonesome As Can Be

Bob Kull had a "crazy" idea. Spend a year in total solitude on a nameless island off Chile's wild shores. That'll teach you.

Cecilia Jamasmie 1 Dec
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Tucked away on a nameless island four hours by boat from the small town of Puerto Natales in the south of Chile, Robert Kull had a nagging toothache. Pulling it out on his own would be agonizing, but the California-born Vancouverite couldn't call for help. That would mean abandoning his quest to be absolutely alone. He intended to finish what he started - a year-long experiment in solitude.

So Kull decided to use the old method of tying a string from tooth to doorknob and slamming the door. Problem was, he didn't have a heavy enough door on an island that doesn't even appear on maps. Kull tied the string to a hefty rock instead and planned to drop the rock. After three not very serious attempts he realized that wasn't going to work. Finally he tied the string to the leg of a table, closed his eyes and pulled. It worked. Meditation and several several pain killers helped, too.

Whenever the traffic, the crowds or the relatives crowd in, it's easy to dream of escaping to be alone. But how much solitude can anyone really stand?  Who would dare spend a year in the middle of nowhere with only a cat for a companion?  Bob Kull, for one.

Kull, now a PhD candidate in the University of British Columbia, acknowledges his "crazy" experiment was the most unusual step in an already unusual journey to find himself. But he says every minute was worthwhile. "I learned that solitude is sometimes dark and difficult, but there is deep joy abiding in the flickering stillness." Solitude, he says, "can remind us there is no true spiritual freedom except through surrender to our own lives just as they are -- here and now -- in each moment."

The 56-year-old intentional castaway shuns the look of an academic, with his brush cut hair, logger-type shirt, big, thick boots. But Carl Leggo, a UBC professor of language and literacy education who is helping to supervise Kull's dissertation says Kull's research is "extraordinarily fascinating and significant."

'Your ego disappears'

Kull started his quest for self-discovery when he was only a teenager. It's been a journey that has taken him around the world - from being a truck driver and logger on Vancouver Island to work as a scuba instructor in the Caribbean.

"I'm not what I do or what I've done," he says. "I'm just another soul, a part of the Universe, which is sacred and alive."

The first place Kull wrestled with solitude was in Canada's forests, when he was 28. "In nature," he learned, "your ego disappears and you become one with your surroundings."

With the few dollars he was able to save during a decade in Canada, Kull went to the Dominican Republic. There, he wiped out on his motorcycle and had part of his leg amputated. "It was very hard to accept I couldn't continue doing the things I had been doing," he admits. He came back to Canada and enrolled at McGill University in Biology and Psychology.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Kull headed to Northern Quebec for a few months for a solitary retreat. While there, he experienced "a major shift."

"I felt myself come back alive. I could see I had become an empty shell at McGill. It was all theories and hypotheses, academic life had no relation to my real life," says Kull, who then went traveling through South America. There, along the rugged coast of Southern Chile, Kull was moved by the nearly untouched forests, the blue icebergs, the wild and challenging wind, the sound of frequent storms. "Nature was inviting me, seducing me."

After taking up residence on his 200 by 300 meters island, Kull says he didn't notice how the first six weeks passed by. He was too busy getting a supply of firewood, building a shelter and outhouse, making a rainwater collector for a water supply, and, for electricity, setting up solar panels and a wind generator on a tower. He also brought a satellite telephone and laptop, having agreed to send regular "I'm okay" emails to his family, the committee, some friends, the Chilean National Parks Service and the Chilean Navy. By agreement, if they didn't receive his message each month, they would go looking for him.

For more than a year, Kull faced merciless winds, pouring rain and temperatures below minus 5C. Once, after four weeks of fierce winds and chilling downpours, a raging storm flipped his boat and submerged both its motors in saltwater, leaving him with no way to leave the island.

"I remember thinking I had no way to get off there, unless I would send an e-mail to the Chilean navy and finish my experiment." He had a strong sense that the wind - "that elemental force of nature" -- was out to get him. "And I remember looking out at the boat and thinking, 'maybe I've bitten off more than I can chew,'" recalls Kull.

His friend Cat

But eventually he came to accept the wind, and at one point, "watching the condors and the seagulls just grooving on the wind," Kull got the idea to build a kite, which he attached to the end of his fishing rod.

"It would disappear into the clouds and I would be controlling it with my rod, and I was literally sky fishing for the wind...The wind was a major teacher in surrendering."

Another of his teachers and companions was a kitten named Cat (because there was only one), which the Chilean Parks Board had recommended he take to test for toxic shellfish. However, he quickly became close to Cat, gave up the idea of using him as a test animal and only fed him the same fish that he ate himself.

Kull said that what he learned from Cat was that "everyone and everything are manifestations of life we cannot own or really control." In other words, he learned to accept things just the way they are.

Kull didn't have a regular routine. Some days he slept three hours, some days ten or eleven. "I spent time everyday in meditation, listening to the sounds of the water and little by little, things got simpler. I started to see in this practice the basic Buddhist teachings of what causes our grief: desires and aversions, wanting things to be different than they actually are," he says.

This spiritual practice helped him to cope with more of the difficulties and rigours island life presented him with. He slipped on some rocks and tore a muscle in his right shoulder and then, just a few days later, he fell again and damaged his left shoulder. "The injuries limited my activities for a long time and right until the end my shoulders were very painful after any strenuous effort, such as cutting and hauling firewood, fishing or dragging the boat up and down the beach," Kull says.

Kull took with him food and materials to last a year, including rice and beans, oatmeal and dehydrated soup, bacon and cheese, as well as camping equipment, fishing gear, clothes, tools and building materials, a wood stove for heat, propane stove for cooking, an inflatable motorboat and a kayak, fuel, spare parts, and a medical kit.

"The experience was so wonderful and all encompassing," he says, "that I seldom longed for the comforts of civilization or for the actual presence of other people.

"But what I missed most in the cold, rainy, windy climate was hot water for a shower or bath."

Hard to go home

The next challenge for Kull was coming back to society. "After the year in solitude, my friend Patti Kuchinsky went to the island and stayed for a month so that I could have somebody that I could reintegrate with before I returned to society."

Kuchinsky told him two things upon arrival, that a close mutual friend and spiritual teacher had died, and that the World Trade Centre had been attacked. "His reaction to the September 11th attacks was one of detachment," she says, "But the loss of his friend impacted him deeply."

"When Patti told me about the Twin Towers," Kull says, "my response was pretty much 'uh huh'. It didn't strike me very deeply at all. I thought, Why are these people being treated in a special way, why are they more important than all the other people who die everyday in wars, earthquakes or accidents?"

Kull ended his solitude as planned, hauling away everything that he'd brought in and leaving the landscape almost as he had found it. His friend Patti took Cat back with her, while Kull was adjusting himself to society and travelling inside Chile. Cat disappeared three weeks after arriving in Texas.

Now in Vancouver, Kull lives a peculiar life. On a very tight budget, he can't afford to rent a suite or a room, so he lives in a small trailer parked in the backyard of a house near UBC. He only enters the house twice a day to use the bathroom and, every now and then, to watch TV. During the day he stays at his office at the university, preparing his dissertation and teaching part-time at the faculty of Forestry. He usually works there until after midnight. Alone.

Kull has just put up a website where he has posted pictures and reports made during his time on the island.

He says he is grateful to his UBC academic advisors, whose various disciplines include Commerce, Biology, Education and Forestry.  Of those professors, Kull says, "All of them are very open-minded and supportive." Kull says when he left on his adventure, "They said: 'This is a very important journey for you, spiritually as well as academically. If concern about earning a PhD starts to get in the way of your own personal spiritual quest, then forget about the PhD. Your own personal search is much more important."

Now that he's back, Kull says he returns to wilderness solitude whenever he can. But he knows he has to become again at least a little more of a people person.

"My experience was about letting go, integrating into nature and trying to realize a deep inner connection. Now my work is to practice what I learned in solitude back here, in the world of people."

Cecilia Jamasmie is an international journalist who has written for Chile's El Diario, the Dutch magazine TijdZone,, Elle, Marie Claire and UBC's The Thunderbird.  [Tyee]

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