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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2003

UBC Student Survives Year of Self-Imposed Exile on Desolate Island

His only companion an epileptic kitten

By Michelle Cook

After six weeks of fierce winds and chilling downpours, Bob Kull didn’t think things could get much worse on the desolate island off the coast of southern Chile where he was trying to set up camp.

Then, one night during a raging storm, the wind flipped his boat and submerged both its motors in saltwater.

“I remember thinking I had no way to get off the island. I had a strong sense that the wind -- this elemental force of nature -- was out to get me, and I remember looking out at the boat and thinking, ‘maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,’” recalls Kull, a PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies.

That moment was the bleakest one Kull experienced during his year-long sojourn on the uninhabited chunk of land, separated from the nearest town 150 kilometres away by isolated ocean passages and the Andean mountains.

In February 2001, a Chilean navy boat dropped off Kull and his supplies on the island’s slippery shore.

His self-enforced year of solitude in a “raw, cold” landscape of dense underbrush, wind and rain is the basis of an unusual PhD thesis project. Through what he calls “lived-experience” research, Kull wanted to explore the psychological, emotional and spiritual transformations that can happen in solitude, and how these shifts in consciousness might transform our relationship with the non-human world, and lead to new ways of feeling and behaving.

Kull, who recently returned to UBC after two years in South America, is affiliated with the Forestry faculty but his project spans psychology, biology, philosophy, education and spirituality. It also encompasses nature and wildlife conservation studies.

Integrating real-life experience with academic work was a natural step for Kull, aged 56. Born in California, he’s worked as a logger on Vancouver Island and as a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean. After losing his leg in a motorcycle accident, Kull entered university for the first time at the age of 40.

Kull’s year on the Chilean island, 2,700 kilometres south of Santiago, was his longest retreat from civilization, but not his first. He spent several months alone in B.C.’s Chilcotin region when he was 28, and headed into the wilderness of Northern Quebec after finishing his undergraduate degree at McGill.

The location Kull chose to undertake his PhD research was so remote that he didn’t see any planes or boats for 12 months, except once when the Chilean National Parks Service came to check on him. His only companions were “birds, dolphins, trees, the rain, the sea, the sky” and an epileptic kitten that the Parks Service suggested he bring along to test for bad shellfish. Kull quickly became too attached to the cat to feed it anything but the same fish he ate.

Armed with self-taught survival skills, Kull eventually salvaged his boat motors, built a wood-frame cabin, and began the daily business of solitude. This included meditating, gathering firewood and fishing -- when the strong winds let up -- to supplement his staples of rice, beans, oatmeal, pasta, boullion cubes and coffee.

Deciding how much food to bring was simple, Kull says. All he did was cook up a day’s worth of food then multiply it by 365. More difficult was determining all the things he might need in a year -- everything from rain and fishing gear, solar panels, and a wind generator to the tools needed to repair those things if they broke. His lifesavers were three common household items: duct tape, shoe goo and wire.

“If Napoleon had had duct tape he would have conquered the world,” Kull laughs.

Kull’s other lifeline was a satellite phone linked to a laptop computer for emergencies and to send monthly “check-in” e-mails to the Chilean Parks Service, UBC and his family. The e-mail came in handy when he needed medical advice to treat torn rotator cuff muscles in his shoulders and pull an abscessed tooth. But when he found himself using it as a high-tech crutch to “escape emotional and spiritual difficulties,” he weaned himself off of it.

Apart from the physical challenges of surviving, Kull faced many emotional, spiritual and psychological tests. The fierce winds were a constant source of anger, frustration and fear but they ultimately offered him the opportunity to examine his relationship to the natural flow of the world. Another low point was the feeling, several months into his stay, that he wasn’t experiencing the enlightenment -- spiritually or academically -- he’d hoped for.

Eventually, he had moments when he felt, unexpectedly, that he was a part of everything flowing through and around him. He still can’t identify the catalyst for those brief transformations, but he’s happy his exploration ended with some questions unresolved.

“In some sense, I was looking to fail,” Kull says. “This project was not primarily about achieving personal success because failing is very much a part of spiritual practice, but I did experience feelings of sudden change, of joy and a sense of being deeply alive in a living universe when I was on the island.”

Kull ended his solitude after a year, as planned, hauling away everything that he’d brought in and leaving the landscape almost exactly as he had found it.

Perhaps that’s why, despite the urging of others, Kull has no interest in claiming the island as his own.

“People have said I should name it, but I don’t want to because part of what I was exploring was man’s relationship to the non-human world and, as humans, we have the tendency to continually want to encompass nature and make it ours,” Kull says. “My experience was about surrendering to and 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.”

Bob Kull is available to give slide show presentations of his year of solitude in southern Chile. For more information call 604.737.1374 or e-mail bobkull@exchange.ubc.ca. To see more photos of Kull’s journey, visit www.forestry.ubc.ca/portal/bobkull.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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