PAGAN, Northern Mariana Islands — The air in the abandoned church was stale.
Worried, we waited restlessly for our three friends — the expeditionary trio — to return with news that they had found the boat and we could promptly depart the island. A storm was coming and the tarps that covered up the church windows billowed playfully in the wind, as if trying to free themselves from the rocks and logs we used to weigh them down.
Hours later, the expeditionary trio returned and we all rushed outside, expecting to hear good news about the boat. But one look at Captain Keli’s expressionless face and we knew the answer before she said anything. They couldn’t find the vessel.
Keli broke into tears, worried sick that the boat and, more importantly, the crew aboard might have been lost.
That moment, standing outside an abandoned church in the middle of a massive storm, we realized we were stranded on this deserted island.
Having traveled on several occasions to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, I had been following the ongoing story of Pagan at a distance for some time. The Navy has a plan to turn the mostly abandoned island into a bombing range and training site for thousands of troops.
It wasn’t until recently, when a lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Navy, that I was able to get a closer look.
Specifically, I was asked to help provide more insight and imagery as to what exactly is at stake and what could be lost if the proposed bombings were to go ahead as planned. The assignment was relatively simple: provide photographic documentation of the island itself as well as some of the sites that would be destroyed as a result of live-fire training.
For me, going to Pagan was like being in a storybook. Though we had highly knowledgeable guides, Pagan retained an air of mystery, adventure and historical significance.
I had an inescapable sense that the island had its own spiritual energy, or mana in Hawaiian. Being there, I felt instantaneously connected to the island itself, not just the soil but the unseen spirit within; a heartbeat that is made up of the collective mana of all things – past and present – to have ever graced the shores of Pagan.
As our ship set off from Saipan on a hot, sunny August morning, our intrepid little group of activists, lawyers, documentarians and concerned citizens was brimming with nervous excitement. We were headed to a place that few have ever heard of and fewer have ever stepped foot on! We had a very busy schedule for the three days we were planning to be on Pagan and all of us were eager to get started.
Little did we know that the island had its own plans for us. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to happen on this trip.
We sighted the island around dawn. Light morning showers blessed us as the first light began to emerge from our starboard beam. All eyes were transfixed on the silhouette of Mount Pagan emerging from the sea directly ahead of us.
When we finally set foot on the island around midday, I remember feeling the blistering heat of the sun. But at that moment, nothing else mattered. We had made it to Pagan and adventure was afoot!
We spent the remaining time on the first day setting up our beach camp and getting familiar with the abandoned settlement area, which was home to numerous families before Mount Pagan erupted in 1981 and all families were forced to evacuate the island.
On the second day we got word that a storm was brewing in the area and might reach us within the next few days. Being that August was peak season for typhoons in this region, this news did not come as a surprise to us. If anything, we were expecting to be delayed an extra night to let it pass.
Though nobody seemed overly concerned, more than half of our group moved into a nearby abandoned church, a very sturdy, concrete structure that was built in the 1970s.
A few of us — myself included — decided that since the storm wasn’t forecasted to come until the following day, we would remain camped on the beach for one more night. I wanted to capture a few images of the Milky Way over Mount Pagan and saw this as my last chance to do so. But those images would never come to light because on that night, the storm rolled in and hit us hard.
It was shortly after midnight when the first strong gusts hit my tent. I was asleep but suddenly felt my tent beginning to shift. Some of my gear and bags started to roll over onto me. Groggy, I realized that these were formidable winds.
Around 5 a.m., I gave up trying to hold up my sad little orange tent. I packed all my camera gear into a Pelican case and abandoned my little shelter, joining Captain Keli and a couple of our local guides in a makeshift kitchen of plywood and sheet metal that held up surprisingly well in the gale-force winds. We spent the remainder of that miserable night hoping that the rest of our group were faring better in the abandoned church.
When the daybreak came, we were confronted with a much greater concern: we could not find our boat. Up until this point, the boat that brought us to Pagan was anchored in a safe bay near our camp with three seasoned crew members aboard.
Shortly after the first light, we ventured out into the rain and wind to try and make contact with the vessel. After an hour or so of searching without any luck, we concluded that the crew must have taken the ship to the leeward side of the island where the winds were lighter. With that in mind, Captain Keli and our brave local guides set out on an expedition up the coast to the north side to try to look for the boat.
But when they returned from the scouting trip, we suddenly realized that this once-in-a-lifetime trip was about to be even more unique.
It was definitely a big sinking moment for us. But in retrospect, this was also the beginning of our true Pagan experience.
This was an island filled with abundant resources and our group was full of competent survivors. Barring disaster, we were going to be just fine waiting it out on the island. All we needed to figure out was how to signal for help.
Once the initial shock of being stranded subsided, our group quickly shifted into a survivalist mindset. Food and water was inventoried then rationed, a hunting party was formed, and discussions began about how to reach the outside world.
It was then that I realized the key to our rescue was sitting in my Pelican case. Prior to departure, I was given a small DeLorme satellite texting device, which I unwillingly accepted because of the extra weight it added to my already heavy pack. But in this moment, when anxiety was high and group morale was low, this small device was the silver lining of our stormy situation.
We were able to notify our land crew in Saipan that we were okay but we’d lost the boat. The next 30 minutes stretched on for an eternity. I refreshed the inbox every 10 seconds waiting for a response. Finally, a reply — the boat and crew were both okay but had been battered from the storm and forced to return to Saipan.
We breathed a collective sigh of relief. They were safe!
The experience became considerably more enjoyable. We had a means of communication and peace of mind. All we had to do was wait to get rescued.
The wait would last for another three days and although it was not the most comfortable three days, nobody complained. We were safe, healthy and on an island full of food. We spent that time exploring, laughing, hunting and eating like island royalty. I could think of plenty of worse ways to spend three days.
Then one morning, after eight days of being stranded on Pagan, we saw a boat on the horizon. Our rescuers had arrived!
Seeing the ship was bittersweet. I’d gotten quite comfortable with the rugged island life. Nonetheless, we were all excited to get back home.
It took another full day, but we finally made it safely back to Saipan where a large crowd of family, friends and media greeted us.
What began as a straightforward assignment to help tell the story of Pagan Island ended up as my own personal story – one that I will not soon forget.
For me, this was a chance to experience and better understand the island and to communicate the struggle of the passionate people trying to prevent the U.S. military from bombing it. In retrospect, had the trip gone according to plan, I think it would have been a very shallow engagement with this amazing place. Three days wouldn’t have been long enough.
From a deeper perspective, I truly believe that the spirit of Pagan itself — the mana of the island – needed us to stay longer. It was as if the island was saying: “If you really want to protect me, you must first learn to understand me.”
Rather than merely tour the land as spectators, we were called upon to connect and feel the energy of the island. The storm forced us to really gain an appreciation of what it meant to live Pagan as residents and not merely guests.
Being stranded and forced to overcome obstacles as a group made us break down formalities. We got to connect with each other in a way that could not have happened otherwise. I got to connect to the people who call this island their home and see how they lived harmoniously with the land. This certainly would not have happened if we had left shortly after I had taken all my photos.
Ultimately, this experience became so much more than just a job for me — it was the beginning of a deeply personal and spiritual connection to a place that I still feel today. It is the stories, the feelings, and the mana that makes this island and its people so intricately connected.
I hope that the images I made can help convey the magic of Pagan Island. But, in all honesty, the only adequate way to truly feel that magic is to experience it for yourself. If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself on Pagan someday, go with pure intentions — and budget in a few extra days, just in case.