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Brandon News

Brandon native spends year alone on Alaskan island

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Published:   |   Updated: August 29, 2013 at 03:52 PM

Jeanne Baird swears she didn’t worry when her son, Charles, set out to spend a year on a secluded island off the coast of Alaska. She bought him a dog he named Wilson, loaded him up on salves and herbs and wished him God speed, not knowing if she’d get to speak with him while he lived out his dream.

Turns out, technology worked better than expected during most of the trip for the 1990 Bloomingdale High School graduate, who got his finances in order, quit his job with BP’s TransAlaskan Pipeline Refurbishment Program, packed his supplies and headed to LaTouche Island, near Homer, on June 30, 2012.

Charles Baird, 41, had planned to live in seclusion, able to post to Facebook, but not receive electronic mail. Turns out, he not only received mail, but was able to call his mother in Brandon at least once a month, aside from the three month span when his cell phone died.

For the most part, though, Wilson was his sole companion. On his third day out, Thor, his goat, wandered away. Baird used the old trick of a baited box propped up with a stick to recapture him. But eventually, Thor became a magnet for bears and Baird opted to barbecue him on the beach, rather than risk an attack.

Though he had planned to hunt and fish for his meals, he didn’t have a lot of luck. But, he had plenty of rice and beans to get him through. The only salmon he ate was one that an eagle dropped from its talons on to the beach as Baird watched.

“In the first 16 days, I lost 30 pounds, because I was working hard, but only eating 500 calories a day and I was wet and cold,” Baird said. He ate mussels he found along the shoreline and fresh blueberries that grew on the island. By November, he had completed his cabin, but had to make repairs soon after, when hurricane-force winds blew off a portion of the roof.

Throughout the year, he saw an occasional hunter, read 200 books, wrote two books — one was his memoir — and shot his first short film.

The greatest challenge, Baird said, came early when he had to haul construction and living supplies from the beach, up a hill to where his cabin would go. He was cold and wet and a bit overwhelmed.

“The stress was a challenge,” he said. “Three weeks in, I felt like I might have bitten off more than I could chew. How far does your pride push you before you realize you are in too deep?”

He had a following on Facebook and back in Anchorage. He didn’t want to disappoint them or himself. This was a dream he’d had for nearly two decades. He wondered how far he’d go before realizing he just couldn’t do it.

As it turns out, though, it never came to that.

One of the more interesting time spans was January through March when his phone went out and he had no communication with the outside world.

“And as the year went on, I would run out of foods or break a tool. Instead of getting stressed out or angry, I just thought, ‘Well, OK.’ I kind of pared away the things in life to see what really matters. I did a lot of using my imagination.”

And he found creative ways to use what he had, like turning vice grips into clothes pins. His clothes would freeze stiff while drying, forcing him to thaw them inside. He spent a lot of time in the small cabin.

“It got down to 11 above zero,” Baird recalled. “We got so much snow. Up to three feet in a day, 275 inches, total.”

At one point, the island got 2 to 3 feet of snow and Baird worried the cabin would collapse. It was on blocks and the foundation shifted, a shelf got knocked off the wall and some of his canned food exploded.

“It knocked the house down by six inches,” he said. “I got out a jack and literally jacked up the house and put more supports under it and readjusted it.”

Each time panic knocked, Baird was able to answer with calm and common sense.

“I did go seven months without seeing another human. I would hear weird noises. My mind wanted to hear a human voice so much, I would interpret it that way. It’s not uncommon to hallucinate, like the Big Foot thing of seeing someone on the edge of the forest. Your mind plays tricks on you. At one point, I saw a boat and then wondered if I was really seeing it.”

Wilson, his white Labrador, handled the seclusion well.

“She did really well,” he said. “She stuck around me 23 1/2 hours a day. In mid winter, she got very clingy. She got spoiled with heated food three times a day. She stayed very healthy and happy,” even presenting Baird, on occasion, with a prized deer leg or other such oddity.

Baird, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, who has lived in Anchorage for five years, filled in some of his time sending weather information and other interesting information to home-schoolers in Alaska, his mom said. He also answered students’ questions about the animals and other things he saw during his year in seclusion.

Time blurred together, he said. Weekends and holidays were of no import during his year alone. He didn’t wear a watch. “I felt like the real world was a dream. I felt like where I was and what I was doing was the entire world. But, I felt okay with that.”

Baird has thousands of followers on his Alaskan Pioneer blog on Facebook, many of whom will likely continue to follow him as he heads to his next adventure.

He is now working on some photography projects and is thinking of doing a reality show where he takes groups of three to five people into the Alaskan interior to build underground houses where they would stay for the winter. “That would be insanely adventurous,” he said by phone from Anchorage. “Or, I may train for the next year to swim the English Channel.”

His mom said she is hoping he’ll be back in Brandon for a visit some time soon.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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