MIKE FAY IS WEARING a headlamp to cut through the gloom of his bush cabin in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National forest. It’s about 5 P.M. on a November afternoon, nearly dark outside and well below freezing. Fay, the famously tough conservation biologist best known for his Megatransect expedition of 1999 and 2000, during which he bushwhacked 2,500 miles across the Congo Basin with a band of Pygmy trackers and porters, is moving in for the winter. We’ve just arrived from the gritty fishing-and-cruise-ship port of Ketchikan with a boatload of supplies, after a pounding four-hour voyage along rumpled coastline, hydroplaning across yard-high whitecaps most of the way. The powerboat that brought us will return for me in six days’ time, and once I’m gone Fay will face four months of absolute solitude: icebound until spring in this narrow and darkly forested river valley at the western edge of the Coast Mountains, with no companionship, no music, no movies, no light reading, no alcohol or drugs (except caffeine), and no communication with the outside world.
I’ve come along to find out why, exactly, he plans to do this. Or, more to the point, why, after having invested 30 years of his life in studying and safeguarding the great rainforests of Central Africa, J. Michael Fay—distinguished field ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, and one of the boldest adventurers of our time—has apparently decided he’d like to live in Alaska as a mountain man.
His short answer: “I’m traveling paths not knowing where they’ll meet. I’m confused about the direction of global conservation.”
The long answer would unfold over the course of my visit but even then would leave me wondering whether Fay was just taking one of his hiatuses from Africa—or was terminally fed up with the entrenched corruption, bureaucratic inertia, and lack of action that has undercut his work there in the decade-plus since he completed the Megatransect. The grueling 15-month ecological survey sparked one of the most ambitious conservation initiatives on the continent: to create a network of national parks in Gabon and remake the country as a shining model of ecotourism and green development—the Costa Rica of Central Africa. But that vision has been slow to materialize, and Fay has been worn down by the effort.
In July 2010, while serving as technical director for the parks, Fay became gravely ill. “I had chills, a headache, diarrhea, a temperature of 103, and no appetite,” he says. “My piss was brown and my liver ached.” He suspected malaria, but drugs didn’t help. At the end of the month, he traveled to Southeast Alaska, a vast and mostly roadless region of islands, fjords, glaciers, temperate rainforest, and coastal mountains where Fay has purchased two pieces of property in recent years. In his three decades of African fieldwork, he had survived a horrific elephant goring, skirmishes with ivory poachers, forced landings of small planes he was piloting, plus many bouts of malaria and various parasites, which he usually cured by self-medicating. His hope this time was that the right combination of elixirs, along with a change of climate and hard work on a cabin he was building near Ketchikan, would bring him around. Still unable to eat after two weeks, on the verge of collapse, he dragged himself to the hospital, where emergency-room doctors ordered him to be evacuated by air to Seattle. At the University of Washington Medical Center, he was quarantined for fear that he might be hosting an emerging tropical disease.
Lying in the isolation ward, with doctors peering at him through biohazard suits, he was in a precarious state physically and mentally. And while he would eventually shake whatever had felled him—on his own in Alaska, as he’d planned—the nagging ambivalence about his future in Africa remained, along with fundamental doubts about conservation’s ability to prevent humans from gobbling up the planet. In his mind, global conservation was becoming all theory and no action.
“I’m not jaded or burned out,” he insisted when I called him in Ketchikan last October. “But what does a conservationist do? What’s our job? Our strategy?”
The fitful process of establishing the Gabon parks had him ready to reinvest his energies in what he considers to be “the greatest wilderness in North America.” Besides the months he planned to spend alone in the Tongass, he was contemplating a massive walk through Alaska and Canada.