How the Nomad Found Home
More than a decade ago, Mike Fay’s epic Megatransect walk across Africa spurred the creation of a string of national parks and made him a conservation superstar. So why, after a lifetime of fighting to protect wild places, is he questioning the very foundations of his work? And why is he looking for answers in a cabin in Alaska?
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.
Fay pausing on his 2,500-mile MegatransectFay pausing on his 2,500-mile Megatransect
Fay on the granite dome where he had his transformative moment during the Megatransect.Fay on the granite dome where he had his transformative moment during the Megatransect.
A self-portrait from his winter of solitudeA self-portrait from his winter of solitude
Fay at his remote bush cabinFay at his remote bush cabin
Fay piloting his Craigslist-bought aluminum skiff in Southeast AlaskaFay piloting his Craigslist-bought aluminum skiff in Southeast Alaska
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.
I proposed joining Fay at his remote bush cabin for a week to talk further, just before he went into hibernation. Although he was under extreme pressure to finish preparations for winter, he agreed on the condition that I not divulge the cabin’s location. “I don’t want anyone to know where I am,” he said.
FAY’S LIFE HAS BEEN defined by a quest for the ultimate primal wilderness. He found it once, in Africa, about two-thirds of the way through the Megatransect, while traversing a forest block in northern Gabon he called the Minkébé Archipelago. The date is precisely fixed in his mind: June 26, 2000. That evening, he left his team in camp and scrambled to the top of an isolated granite dome, or inselberg, with a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape. He reached the summit just as the setting sun cast shafts of golden light into the steaming rainforest. “I felt complete bliss,” he wrote in his online journal, “like I was alone on a virgin planet.”
The moment was transformative. “Something happened to me on top of that lump of granite last night,” he wrote. “I have been to the mountaintop.”
The Megatransect had its own powerful impact on the conservation community, due to the boldness of the endeavor and the acts of government preservation it inspired. When I first met Fay in Gabon in 1998, he took me and National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols for a flight in his green-and-white Cessna, traveling in reverse over his intended route, which would begin the following year near his research station in the Republic of Congo and end on a beach in southwestern Gabon. His goal was “to quantify a stroll”—to collect data on biological diversity and identify critically important forest blocks along the way. I was stuffed in the airless back of the small plane among our duffel bags, trying not to vomit, catching sporadic glimpses of what appeared to be a Lost World without end.
The National Geographic Society had agreed to bankroll the lion’s share of the project, but Fay wanted Nichols, writer David Quammen, and videographer Phil Allen to join his entourage for only several weeks at a time, at the start and finish and twice in the middle, at resupply points. Otherwise, he wanted no distractions. He would be “going deep,” as he puts it, in order to open doors of perception that swing wide for him only after weeks of uninterrupted immersion.
In the end, Fay walked the roughly 2,500 miles in 456 days. He emerged from the forest a celebrity—“the world’s greatest living explorer,” as National Public Radio correspondent Alex Chadwick would later call him. Some 20 months later, in August 2002, Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo Ondimba, decreed that 13 areas Fay and his WCS colleagues had identified as critically important habitats—some 11,300 square miles in all, or more than 10 percent of Gabon’s land mass—would be set aside as national parks. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell followed that same week with an American commitment of $53 million for the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an alliance of governments, conservation groups, and industries.
With a burst of enthusiasm, Fay took charge of conservation action for Operation Loango, an alliance between a Dutch ecotourism company and WCS to develop an economic base for a new coastal park. He plunged into training a staff of guides and rangers, who were to guard against game poaching and illegal commercial fishing inside the three-mile offshore protected zone. He recruited teams to clean up a 56-mile stretch of beach, ultimately collecting some 100,000 flip-flops, 90,000 plastic bottles, blobs of oil, castaway refrigerators, fuel drums, a kilo of cocaine, and other flotsam. A 10,000-square-foot main lodge was built, and Fay helped establish tent camps for viewing game and monitoring poachers.
Still, the new green Gabon wallowed in corruption. President Bongo had ruled the country since 1967 and amassed a vast fortune by treating Gabon’s natural resources, particularly its oil reserves, as part of his private estate. Meanwhile, at the Loango park, Asian-owned fishing trawlers would hang offshore in supposedly protected waters at the mouths of rivers, scooping up “concentrations of fish as thick as bouillabaisse,” according to Fay. He’d relay GPS coordinates of the violators to government officials, to little avail. Inside the park, Fay had to rely on local communities to fight poaching because his rangers lacked authority—they were not officially part of the forest department.
Fay, who says, “When I’m not walking, I’m not happy,” can be impatient to a fault, but he had endured African park building before. In the 1980s and 1990s, he played key roles in successful campaigns to carve out two huge national parks in Congo and the Central African Republic, an effort that required months of grinding paperwork and lobbying. This time, however, he was feeling itchy and stymied. His “appetite for action” was not being satisfied.
“I hit a brick wall in 2004,” he says. “The government and local NGOs weren’t acting on any of the things I wanted to do. I don’t accept complacency, and I can’t be stuck in my life. It drives me crazy.”
So he left for most of the next five years.
That June, he launched the Megaflyover, a seven-month aerial survey of the continent to find places where he could “make things happen instead of spinning my wheels in Gabon.” He and two other pilots flew a pair of vintage Cessnas 60,000 wandering air miles between South Africa and Morocco. By the time they touched down in Casablanca on Christmas Day, Fay had archived more than 116,000 digital photos documenting the “human footprint” on the landscape.
His next big project, launched in 2007, was a redwoods version of the Megatransect: a 2,050-mile, 333-day trudge from Big Sur to southern Oregon, the entire extent of the coastal species’s range. The goal was to “revolutionize forestry” by showing how you can have both productive harvests and a healthy ecosystem. I met up with Fay and his research assistant, Lindsey Holm, a sprightly 24-year-old former tree sitter, toward the end. Grimy and exhausted, and carrying 50-pound waterproof packs, they’d spent the preceding four hours struggling to progress just a mile, clambering over downed redwoods that littered the forest like colossal pick-up sticks.
The two struck me as a well-matched team, but there were times, Holm says, when Fay would fall into moods. “He’d brood and brood for days,” she later told me. “Then he snaps out of it.”
When the walk was over, Fay considered continuing north alone, but the prospect of trekking through the clear-cut forests of Oregon and Washington caused him to abandon the idea. Instead, he flew to Southeast Alaska, where he’d spent a summer after high school. “When I came back up here, I thought it was going to be messed up,” he says. “But the ecosystem was intact—no fences, trespassing signs, or roads. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve discovered a First World existence with the abundance of nature that you’d expect to find in the Amazon or Gabon. I’m in heaven.”
In December 2008, Fay purchased two and a half acres of forest overlooking Moser Bay, 20 minutes north by boat from Ketchikan. The following summer, Fay began building a cabin there to serve as his primary residence and also started negotiating the purchase of the bush cabin deep in the Tongass—“as far away as I could get from the bulk of humanity”—that he envisioned as a wilderness refuge and base camp for future megatreks.
“YOU’D BETTER put on everything you’ve got,” Fay said when he walked into my room at the Gilmore Hotel in downtown Ketchikan at 6:30 a.m. He’d spent the night in his van in the Safeway parking lot. It was a cold, dry, windy morning, and Fay’s wild, static-charged graying hair and wire-rimmed spectacles gave him a sort of mad-scientist look: Einstein turned sourdough.
At 56, Fay is five feet nine inches tall and has the compact, sinewy build of a rock climber. In one iconic photo taken during the Megatransect, he is shirtless and barefoot, hunched on the crest of that rain-slicked inselberg. Having dwindled to 121 pounds, he looks like a stringy gargoyle. When I met him in the redwoods, I thought he looked gaunt at 132 pounds, but he described himself as “buff” and said he’d never been in better health. (“Skinny is good for the body.”) In Alaska, I expected him to appear ravaged after his battle with whatever parasite (or multiple parasites) he’d picked up in Gabon, but he looked more robust than ever, having packed on some 30 pounds of muscle.
After four days in the Seattle hospital, with no diagnosis forthcoming, Fay had demanded his release—and immediately caught a cab to REI to buy a GPS, tents, and sporks, among other items. “I got there and said, ‘Holy shit, I’m not better,’ ” Fay says. He went to Sea-Tac airport, intending to fly to Ketchikan and tough it out. At his departure gate, lying flat on his back in the waiting lounge, he dialed Nichols, who is an old friend and a close collaborator on the Megatransect and other projects.
“I’m dying, man,” Fay rasped into his BlackBerry.
“He sounded scared,” says Nichols. “You’re talking about a person who doesn’t show emotion.” They agreed that Fay should come to Nichols’s home, near Charlottesville, Virginia. “When he got here, he was about three-quarters of the way to dying. He curled up like a dog in the corner, and we left him alone.”
A week later, Fay felt strong enough to fly to Ketchikan, and there, among the medications he treated himself with, was one for schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever. Caused by blood flukes whose intermediate host is freshwater snails, it can cause symptoms similar to Fay’s. Severe cases can be fatal.
After regaining his health, Fay pushed himself, working long days to finish detailing the Moser Bay cabin and ready his Tongass refuge for his coming winter. In the three weeks before my arrival, he’d been on a coast-to-coast outfitting binge, driving a used van he’d bought in Washington, D.C., and prowling Craigslist for supplies on the journey west. He picked up a Kevlar-hulled canoe, a 14-foot aluminum skiff and trailer, outboard motors, generators, tools, chainsaws, hunting rifles and ammo, fishing gear, bulk food, and a pair of renovated 400-pound clawfoot bathtubs—one for each cabin. The van also held all of his expedition journals, which he’d been storing at the Geographic’s Washington headquarters over the years, and portable hard drives containing untold terabytes of his digital photos, written dispatches, and biological notes. When he rolled onto an Alaska-bound ferry in Bellingham, Washington, with the bathtubs riding on top of the trailered skiff, he says, “It looked like the Beverly Hillbillies.”
Ketchikan lies at the southern end of the Alexander Archipelago, a mosaic of more than a thousand islands fringing the dramatic western slope of the Coast Range. It’s wet, steep, glaciated country, densely forested with hemlock, spruce, and Alaska yellow cedar. The Tongass National Forest sprawls for 17 million acres, with about a third of that acreage protected in 19 wilderness areas. Drenched by an average of 13.5 feet of precipitation a year, the rainforest forms a vast ecosystem that spills across the border into British Columbia.
It was dry on the morning we met, but windy and bitterly cold. Fay drove us to the Knudson Cove Marina, where we loaded up the workboat, crowded into its heated cabin, and motored into the heaving Tongass Narrows with Knudson’s burly owner, Mike Troina, at the helm. We made a brief pit stop at Fay’s Moser Bay cabin so he could pick up some tools. The nearly finished 20-by-30-foot refuge, built of prime, locally milled yellow cedar, is the first permanent address Fay has had since he moved to Africa shortly after graduating from college in 1978. In the past ten years, he figures he has slept outside 90 percent of the time, and in a bed maybe only 50 nights. After the Megatransect, when he returned to Washington, D.C., to begin building a database about the project, he rented a “cool” apartment near the Geographic’s offices. Two days after moving in, Fay felt so claustrophobic that he broke the lease and moved to Rock Creek Park to camp. He lived there, on and off, for a year.
In 2007, before embarking on the redwoods trek, he bought a fixer-upper house on 20 acres in California’s Humboldt County, with his then-girlfriend, Jane Sievert, the Patagonia company’s photo director. The two had been maintaining a long-distance relationship for seven years and were planning to make a go of domesticity. But Sievert—with a great job in sunny Ventura, California, and her daughter from a previous marriage still in school there—got cold feet.
“He was going to domesticate himself for her,” says Nichols. “But Jane wasn’t ready for it. It’s the only time he let himself be vulnerable. He may never recover from that.”
A few weeks before I arrived in Ketchikan, Fay was writing yet another shopping list in one of his notebooks (“50 lb. flour, 20 lb. butter…”) and slipped in a note to himself: “No more dates,” he wrote, before equivocating. “Unless they’re up here.”
Fay has maintained passionate relationships with several girlfriends, and he was once married, to biologist Andrea Turkalo, while the two worked in Africa in the eighties and early nineties. But over the years, he has concluded that he would rather live alone than with a woman—especially now that he has reached his mid-fifties. “Your sexual drive diminishes, and that hormonal confusion goes away,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been liberated. To people who take Viagra, I say, Are you nuts?”
On the other hand, women with field skills like Lindsey Holm are more welcome on his expeditions than men: “They eat less, they’re courteous, and they’re easier to handle in difficult situations. Men want to make decisions. Women won’t push you into a dumb-assed situation.”
“Sex for me is like a chore,” Fay says frankly. “I’m over it. But companionship? Definitely.”
WHEN WE TURNED INTO the braided estuary that leads up to Fay’s bush cabin, the shallow water dead ahead was glazed with an inch of ice, and only a narrow channel remained open. Troina nosed through as far as he dared, but with his hull scraping bottom, he was obliged to drop us off in the shallows.
Fay, unfazed, led the way ashore, icy water lapping at our boot tops as we shuttled armloads of cargo to the nearest beach. From there, the cabin was a quarter-mile upstream, and we made repeated round-trips in Fay’s canoe, filling it with supplies, dragging it across frozen stretches, and paddling where we could. After about three hours of grunt work, we managed to get everything inside.
Fay fired up two pressure lanterns and lit the woodstove, and ten minutes later the indoor temperature had climbed past 30 degrees. Constructed of peeled, honey-colored cedar logs, the cabin has an open 20-by-30-foot floor plan, with a kitchenette, a master bedroom at the rear of the main level, a large sleeping loft upstairs, and plenty of windows and verandas all around. Fay began unpacking about $500 worth of groceries: sensible, long-lasting provisions such as yams, acorn squashes, and bricks of cheese, but also indulgences like premium coffee and an enormous jug of Hershey’s chocolate-flavored syrup. He’d already squirreled away more food in the back bedroom—enough for two years, Fay figured. I made it more like five.
“The objective is to live up here for the winter and not to suffer and eat gorp every meal,” Fay said. “And I am extremely well prepared. Call me crazy or call me prepared.”
Both seemed accurate. His inventory included a dozen sleeping bags, four identical backpacks, six tents, ten headlamps, and a lifetime supply of neoprene boots. His wardrobe was heavy on technical outerwear and featured layer after layer of insulated jackets, pullovers, and merino-wool underwear. A gun rack in the living room held seven hunting rifles and shotguns. He had 15 fishing rods, an ice-fishing awl, and a plenteous supply of fur and feathers to tie his own flies. In making what he calls his “great transition from Africa to North America,” he’d whistled through $600,000, almost his entire life savings, on his two cabins, building supplies, boats, food, clothing, and other endless redundancies. (With most of his living expenses covered at field camps during his career, plus some inheritance from his parents, Fay had slowly built his nest egg; his WCS salary has averaged about $50,000 a year since 1991, and he receives a modest stipend from the National Geographic Society.)
“This is a much colder and wetter environment than I’m used to,” Fay told me as he busied himself in the kitchenette cooking dinner. “I can learn how to camp here, figure out how to walk on a glacier, and know which vegetation is easier to walk in, all within three miles of here.”
The cabin is also strategically located within megatrekking range of “one of the hottest, fastest-moving giga-resource zones on the planet.” Across the Barrier Range, in British Columbia’s Golden Triangle, lay billions of dollars in gold and copper deposits—and rivers that serve as salmon spawning grounds for Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Farther afield, in Alberta, energy companies tapping the Athabasca oil sands—estimated to be the world’s second-largest reserve—are planning a pipeline to pump the dense tar oil 730 miles west to proposed loading docks in a B.C. fjord. A spill could be catastrophic.
For Fay, developing a strategy to defend his new home begins with exploration. “I don’t have a plan yet except to educate myself—to walk, look, listen, and talk to people,” he said. “I’m new here, and I don’t know anything about this place. I want to live here, make friends, learn about the environment, and piece together the intricacies of the ecosystem.”
Eventually he’ll range into Canada, although when or how far, he’s uncertain. He might walk 800 miles to Alberta. He may go all the way to Hudson Bay.
“Coming up here is not about me checking out,” Fay said. “It’s about thinking how to reach the goal of conserving the planet, of achieving some balance. I have a skill set that I can bring to this place.”
WHEN FAY WAS 14 and living in suburban New Jersey, a friend’s mother asked what he wanted to be doing in 30 years. “I’m going to be walking around in the woods,” he replied. He was obsessed with fly-fishing, and earned money by selling mackerel he’d caught at the Jersey Shore to neighbors for 25 cents each, hawking his catch door to door from a wheelbarrow.
Fay had spent his earliest years in Southern California. His parents owned a home in Pasadena’s Hastings Ranch subdivision, with its two-car garages, water-guzzling lawns, and eye-stinging smog. To escape the haze, he and his pals would ride their Sting-Ray bikes up into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, behind his house. For pocket money, he caught snakes, tarantulas, newts, and blue-bellied lizards and sold them to a pet store, and at Christmas he roamed his neighborhood peddling foraged mistletoe. “My will to be outside came from being in those hills,” he says.
Fay’s father, an insurance executive, was transferred east when Fay was 12, and by the time he started high school he’d read all of Thoreau. During his senior year, Fay announced that he wanted to solo the John Muir Trail for his final project. His parents vetoed the idea but got him a waiter’s job at a Tucson dude ranch, and Fay studied the flora and fauna of a nearby national monument. The summer after graduating, he went to Alaska to guide two quirky British birding ladies who were family friends. For an astute young naturalist, Fay says, Alaska “was like Arizona times ten.”
At the University of Arizona, Fay majored in botany and was something of a loner. “I didn’t have any girlfriends, didn’t drink or smoke pot,” he says. “I just studied.” He graduated with honors in 1978 and signed up for the now-defunct Smithsonian Peace Corps Environmental Program, which sent students abroad to help develop conservation projects and national parks. At 21, he found himself dispatched to Tunisia for two years to document the plants and animals in a national park around Lake Ichkeul. He hung out with Bedouins and learned to speak Arabic. “They were trying to convert me to Islam,” Fay recalls. “I’d show them the wonders of nature and tell them, ‘This is my Allah.’ ”
Fay so loved the life that in 1980 he signed up for another tour, this time in the Central African Republic. In the meantime, he’d hooked up with a pretty 26-year-old American volunteer, Andrea Turkalo, and married her. She taught biology, and he became the botanist for an elephant project in Manovo-Gounda St. Floris National Park. “They gave me a Suzuki dirt bike and told me to go out into this vast African wilderness and collect every plant I could find,” Fay says. “It was a dream job.”
Exploring widely, Fay came across elephant herds numbering in the thousands but also piles of their rotting carcasses, their faces hacked off and their tusks missing. Most disturbing was that the elephants’ hamstrings had been severed and their trunks slit from tip to top. This was the work of the janjaweed, Sudanese outlaws and ivory poachers who years later would terrorize neighboring Darfur. They hunted on horseback using spears to cripple their prey and sabers to finish them off. The carnage transformed Fay from a scientist into a militant activist. “We started carrying guns and made feeble attempts to stem the bloody tide,” he wrote in an article about those times, “but it was hopeless.”
In the late 1980s, Fay worked with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Central African Republic’s first forest park and then, in 1991, moved across the border to the Congo to help the WCS create and manage an adjoining park called Nouablé-Ndoki. Turkalo stayed behind to oversee what’s become the longest-running study of forest elephants ever undertaken. While she was quietly observing the animals from a tree platform, he was tracking gorillas and conducting raids on ivory-poaching camps, torching them to ashes. They were living within 100 miles of each other, but their marriage didn’t survive their commitments to their work.
Fay has many near-death tales from his years in Africa, including his well-publicized goring by a female elephant while he was leading a beach walk in Gabon on New Year’s Eve 2002. He suffered 13 stab wounds—one for each of the country’s new national parks—and had to be airlifted to a hospital in the capital to undergo surgery.
Less known are incidents brought on by his own bravado, like his missions into the Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, in 1997, during the bloody civil war. On the last of several trips, he hitched a flight with a Lebanese friend, hoping to retrieve more than $50,000 in cash and $400,000 in unreimbursed receipts from the Nouablé-Ndoki project office safe.
At the chaotic airport, Fay hired a gang of rebels and raced into town in their stolen car, his guards hanging out of the windows brandishing AK-47’s and Uzis. He managed to get the money and data from the office and make it back to the airport, though without a clue as to how he was going to get out. After searching around, he found the keys to a Cessna 172 at the aero club, but the plane’s navigational system and radio had been stripped, and its battery seemed dead. He gave the ignition one last try, and the prop kicked over once, twice … before the engine rumbled to life. With rebels closing in, he took off as tracer rounds streaked the night sky and followed the black swath of the Congo River to an airstrip at Pointe Noire, on the Atlantic coast.
“I was having a fucking great time,” Fay says. “That was more fun than I’ve ever had in my life.”
FAY WAS POUNDING nails on his Moser Bay cabin in December 2009 when Gabon’s new president, Ali Bongo Ondimba—son of Omar Bongo, who died that June at age 73—called Fay’s cell phone. “Come to Gabon
as soon as you can,” said Bongo. “We will make it happen.”
Believing he had a mandate to “kick butt,” Fay accepted the position of technical director of the parks. “My job was to open cans of worms and expose the contents,” Fay says, “to get things on the straight and narrow.”
One of the first things he did was fire six of the park’s 13 wardens. “They were power-hungry, corrupt, horrible people who were completely undisciplined,” he says. “There were plenty of people of higher quality to replace them. Better to polish a rough rock than a turd.”
Next he focused on Sinopec, a huge Chinese oil-exploration company that was operating inside a once sacrosanct presidential reserve called Wonga Wongue. “No one knew much about it,” says Fay. “So we took a helicopter down and found that they were burying waste oil and drilling mud, and dumping raw sewage from camps that were all-Chinese into rivers that flowed past villages. They treated the Gabonese like rats.” Fay urged Bongo to step in and call the president of Sinopec. “He had an opportunity to say, ‘It’ll cost you more, but you can become a model for the greenest oil company in Gabon instead of the blackest,’ ” Fay says. “That never happened.”
Inside Minkébé National Park, an open-pit gold mine had doubled in size, to 6,000 people, since Fay had first seen it during the Megatransect. Around the park, logging companies had ravaged the forest, and the elephant population was rapidly declining due to habitat loss and poaching. “I felt like a gerbil on a treadmill,” Fay says. “I thought, Man, I only have about ten years left to do conservation work.
“I gave it seven months, and it wasn’t happening,” he continues. Before departing for Ketchikan last year, racked with fever, he met with his WCS colleagues and Gabon’s director general of the environment. “I said, ‘Call me when you’re really ready.’ ”
OUR FIRST MORNING at the Tongass cabin was windless and clear, and a brittle 19 degrees. Sometime during the night, a surge of incoming tide had buckled the river’s ice sheet, lifting it several feet and fracturing it into thousands of fragments. At sunup, the ice floe was being sucked down the middle of the river on a strong outgoing current, as if someone had pulled a drain plug.
Fay’s cabin was built by the previous owners in 2003 but sits on an 87-acre homestead established in the late 1930s. Although its crop fields have lain fallow for decades, two original log cabins are still being used seasonally as a hunting-and-fishing getaway. Next to those weathered buildings, Fay’s cabin, with its solar panels and thermal windows, looks a little out of place, but it still has a rustic outhouse. It came partly furnished, with twin beds in the loft, a dinette set, and a leather recliner couch in the living room.
Fay considered this first day of his winter hibernation a “holiday” and decided we’d spend the morning reconnoitering upstream. We set out across meadows glittering with frost and traversed sloughs of frozen muskeg that would become boot-sucking, mosquito-infested swamps come summer. Bear trails led us through willow thickets, past beaver dams, and around icy ponds simmering with methane gas.
We’d been walking for about a half-hour when Fay paused in a clearing to savor the moment. “I’m out here talking to myself all day when I’m alone,” he said. “Sometimes I just yell out, ‘I love this place!’ ”
Hiking on trails or in open forest, Fay has the limber, ground-eating gait of an African wild dog, but when the going gets thick he can turn into a bull elephant, charging headlong into obstacles, castigating himself as he goes. Holm, his research assistant, says that in steep redwood ravines she could keep track of him because he’d be cussing at the top of his lungs. On our walk, as he bashed through a riverside thicket, a twig flicked his glasses into the drink. “Goddammit, Fay!” he shouted. He fished them out of the water and kept pushing ahead.
After an hour, he decided to turn back. We left the river and found a bear trail that quickly brought us back to the beaver ponds. Inching out onto the transparent ice, testing his weight, Fay looked down just as a large beaver rocketed beneath his boot soles.
“Beaver!” he cried out, his face lighting up. “That was amazing,” he said. “It made my day.”
ROUGHLY HALFWAY through the Megatransect, in May 2000, Fay wrote a revealing entry in his journal: “Thank god I never had children—way too much of a burden. Solo is the way to go—depend on yourself only.”
At that point, he and the team were holed up in a desolate village on the Congo-Gabon border, and Fay confessed to being “frazzled.” The Congolese Pygmies had no entry visas for Gabon. Fay had been nursing one man who was on the verge of dying of highly contagious hepatitis. The other porters were making incisions on the poor man’s back to bleed out the evil spirits and smearing blood over his body with heated medicinal leaves. Fay went ballistic when he caught them ignoring strict orders not to share the infected porter’s fufu, his manioc porridge. “I am sick and tired of being a parent to 13 children,” Fay wrote in his journal.
Finally, he conceded that his men were spent. He sent them home with pay and hired replacements. The Pygmies left without saying goodbye.
Farther along, while waiting for a helicopter resupply that would also deliver Nichols, Quammen, and Allen, Fay seemed eager for company. He wrote in his field notes that he “couldn’t wait” to show Nichols the inselbergs. Yet when the chopper landed and Quammen gave Fay a gift of three pounds of French-roast coffee, Fay didn’t bother to say thanks. Nichols recalls that Fay seemed happy to see him “for a few minutes.”
“I could feel that [we] were encroaching on his concentration,” Nichols wrote in an account of the reunion. “He had become a tree, one with the forest. This is what he needed to do to accomplish his goal.”
“You could see that the team was going down,” Nichols told me. “They were on the verge of mutiny. Mike had called them everything but monkeys.”
Fay’s scalding tirades became so routine that Quammen used shorthand for them in his notes: “Riot Act.” The hottest outburst came only days from the finish, at a blackwater sump separating the team from their destination beach. Fay ordered the men to stay put while he swam off to find a way across. He was gone for more than an hour. Had he drowned? the others wondered. Had a crocodile pulled him under?
Finally, with dark settling over the forest, the team decided to move. A porter began whacking a tree with his machete, thinking he’d create a catwalk across the swamp. Just then Fay appeared, and he exploded.
In his telling, Fay said that the tree’s milky sap was so toxic that one droplet in the eye could cause blindness. And furthermore, whose idiotic idea was it to fell the tree? According to Quammen’s National Geographic story, he launched into a blistering harangue, railing about the crew’s “fecklessness, incompetence, childishness, stupidity and insubordination.” Nichols and Quammen were appalled.
“I could have killed the motherfucker,” Nichols says. “We thought we’d been left there. The Pygmies cut down a tree, but I didn’t know what they were doing. We waited as long as we thought we could and then—it was getting dark—said, ‘We gotta get out of here.’ Mike swam back to chaos.
“He is single-minded,” Nichols continues. “And because his mission is so important, nothing else matters. It’s not part of the arrangement to get any appreciation. I love Mike to pieces but hate him for that.”
Fay claims the tirades were calculated performances—merely tactical posturing—because one severe injury could have endangered everyone. Ultimately, his prime responsibilities were “the finish line, with no dead,” he says.
Now, more than ten years on, Fay seems as driven as ever to wander into wild spaces so that he can protect them, but also less tolerant of anything that might slow him down. “I’m a nomad who loves making things happen and loves to be in nature,” he says. “The good thing about being a nomad is that you follow your own nose and don’t take orders from anyone.”
“Mike is an impatient person,” says James Deutsch, who directs WCS’s Africa programs and is Fay’s de facto boss. “He looks for opportunities where his fearlessness and vision and laser focus can make the greatest contribution. His power depends on having the freedom to speak his conscience and the ability to choose what he’s working on to get the maximum conservation impact.”
Fay has an opportunity to make an impact in Alaska, but to truly do so may mean turning his back on Gabon. “It’s sobering to hear him wrestle with this life-altering question of whether or not to give up on Africa and surrender to the forces of evil after 30 years of blood, sweat, and tears,” says wildlife biologist Richard Ruggiero, who has worked closely with Fay since they were in the Central African Republic in the early eighties and now directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Africa programs. “It’s not like he snapped. It’s death by a thousand cuts—every time you see another dead elephant or deal with another corrupt official. Mike has a view of the world with the purest expression of wilderness of anyone I’ve met. His drive to preserve it both motivates him and breaks his heart and spirit. If we lose him to Alaska, it’ll be Alaska’s gain and Africa’s loss.”
ON WHAT WOULD TURN OUT to be my final two nights at Fay’s cabin, the temperature sank to 12 degrees. The river froze solid, and I grew increasingly anxious that the boat wouldn’t be able to make it back to pick me up—that we’d have to figure out some way to communicate to a passing plane that I needed a helicopter. But my worries were misplaced. From a watertight Pelican case, Fay nonchalantly pulled out a satellite phone. The next day, he called Troina at Knudson Cove and told him to return for me two days ahead of schedule. “I’ll take another 20 pounds of beef and some bread and milk, too,” Fay said before the connection failed.
We passed the time cutting and stacking firewood, except for one morning when we set out after breakfast to climb the woods behind his cabin, hoping to reach a ridgeline with a clear view. “Welcome to the redwoods transect times 333 days,” Fay said as he loped up the steeply forested slope, vaulting deadfall.
I fell behind, lost sight of him, and ended up blundering around in a patch of devil’s club on a 45-degree pitch, lacerating my sweaty, exposed forearms. “You need to go Zen, man,” Fay said. We never made the ridge.
Later that evening, he read me excerpts from Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” which he’d loaded onto a portable hard drive.
“Thoreau wrote about ‘the genius of sauntering,’ of developing a talent for walking, of being persistent in walking, and completely disconnecting from the world,” Fay said by way of introduction. “He wrote, ‘He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all.’ He had the right idea, but he never reached nirvana, that heightened sense of awareness, which isn’t spiritual but physical and mental. It takes months to get there, but once you’re there, it’s a steady state. Four months in Alaska is enough to achieve that.”
On the final morning, we stepped outside into stillness and lightly falling snow. Fay carried an empty backpack, the sat phone, and a .45-caliber pistol, to signal Troina if he happened to miss us at the designated pickup spot. We crossed the frozen river gingerly, sliding the canoe between us in case the ice gave way. As we hiked the half-mile downstream to the open waters of the bay, it began snowing hard.
Troina arrived at noon, right on schedule. He idled up to the cutbank, Fay took his supplies, and I hopped on board.
“See ya,” Fay said as we backed away. I was about to lose sight of him through the swirling snow when he waved once, shouldered his backpack, and turned to saunter away.
LIKE THOREAU, FAY didn’t quite reach nirvana. He came out on March 7, eleven days short of four months, and went straight to Gabon. Before holing up for the winter, he’d agreed to join Ruggiero and the WCS people there for high-level strategy meetings on how to kick-start a “quantum leap” of progress that would finally bring about the green Gabon originally envisioned—and on Fay’s role in the effort. He also wanted to be on hand to take delivery of a new surveillance plane donated by a wealthy WCS trustee.
Over the winter in the Tongass, Fay had not gone entirely without company. During a thaw, neighbors had boated up from Ketchikan to spend a few nights at their cabins, and they’d invited Fay to stop over for a meal. His own cabin, on the other hand, had remained inviolate. His only visitors were a group of martens that became his constant companions on walkabouts. “OK, boys,” he’d greet them every morning. “Where are we going to walk today?”
“I wasn’t lonely,” Fay said. “Quite the opposite. I was dreading coming out. It was killing me, knowing that spring was just about to unfold. Life was coming back to this desolate place. My chest was feeling this anguish: ‘Goddammit, I have to leave.’ I was bummed.”
In early June, he e-mailed me an upbeat progress report from Gabon: “Been kicking good butt in Africa.” He’d flown the new plane down to the Wonga Wongue reserve, where Sinopec is still operating, and captured aerial photos of 30 poached elephants, which persuaded president Ali Bongo to order a crack military unit into action. Soldiers descended on the reserve and arrested the poaching kingpin.
“Lo and behold, the poaching stopped,” Fay told me by phone several weeks later, after he’d returned to Ketchikan. “I said, ‘Alright, let’s see if we can take out the gold camp in Minkébé.” Seventy-two hours after the presidential guard ordered the camp cleared, the exodus was complete, without a shot being fired. Ruggiero called it “the largest and most meaningful large-scale operation in defense of a protected area in the history of the Congo Basin.”
Fay then turned his attention to offshore fishing. He flew the coastline and radioed illegal trawlers’ GPS coordinates to the Gabonese navy, which seized the boats. Their Chinese captains were jailed, and courts imposed more than $700,000 in fines. “All right!” Fay said to Ruggiero. “We’re actually able to do things.”
Still, he wasn’t convinced that the recent steps were enough. “We’re still only 5 percent of where we need to go,” he told me. “I’ll give Gabon one or two more shots and see if we can make it. But on a personal level, I’m more committed to the North American rainforest. It’s new and fresh and challenging for me.
“I’ve been trying to live two lives, here and in Gabon,” he went on. “People consider me an Africa guy. That’s where they think I should be. But if I’m just going to be a troubleshooter for the parks, well, that’s not why I went there.”
In August, Fay invited Holm to come up from California for a ten-day trek to a 5,000-foot peak behind his bush cabin. “Bushwhacking was crazy,” he told me several days after they got back. “On the way up, you couldn’t see your feet through the blueberry leaves. And on the mountain, the nighttime temperature fell below freezing. During the day, it was 45 degrees, windy and raining.”
He was feeling more hopeful about the progress he’d made in Gabon, now calling the closure of the mining camps and busting of the illegal trawlers a “turning point.” Even so, he knew it was time to commit to Alaska. “This is where my heart is,” he said. He’d informed WCS and National Geographic of his decision and received their blessings. Not only that, but thanks to another donation by a WCS trustee, it’s likely Fay will have a new Cessna 180 floatplane.
He plans to winter again in the Tongass. But this time, after experiencing the return of spring, he thinks he might retreat into the forest as people begin showing up in the valley.
“I could easily go feral,” he says. “I could go all the way. I can be completely in my own world.”