UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar.
UBC Student Survives Year of Self-Imposed Exile on Desolate
His only companion an epileptic kitten
By Michelle Cook
After six weeks of fierce winds and chilling downpours, Bob
Kull didnt 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 Ive 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 islands 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, hes
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.
Kulls 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
The location Kull chose to undertake his PhD research was
so remote that he didnt 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 days 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.
Kulls 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 wasnt experiencing the enlightenment -- spiritually
or academically -- hed hoped for.
Eventually, he had moments when he felt, unexpectedly, that
he was a part of everything flowing through and around him.
He still cant identify the catalyst for those brief
transformations, but hes 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 hed brought in and leaving the
landscape almost exactly as he had found it.
Perhaps thats 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 dont
want to because part of what I was exploring was mans
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more photos of Kulls journey, visit www.forestry.ubc.ca/portal/bobkull.