November 04, 2010
Primitive bowhunting skills on a primitive island can produce interesting mathematical calculations.
On the crest of Isla Mona, between Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, a Spanish goat took my cane arrow on the edge of a Caribbean cliff. The goat's path to that lonely place was 500 years in the making, while mine was only five.
But to the immediate point, the goat was supper and worthwhile only as meat, stripped from the bone and pared of extra weight to ease my hike to camp in the heat. The butchering was fast and left a bare carcass with the brown coat nearly intact, still formed over the bones behind a devil-horned head. A practical use for the remains then occurred to me.
Mona Island bursts out of the Atlantic Ocean, tall and clean and straight on her sides like a can of soup. On the island's highest edge, I straddled the goat and looked down a dizzying drop to the sea. The height seemed immense, and I wanted to know exactly how high I had climbed to chase my dinner. I decided to use the goat's remains as an altimeter.
Bracing to avoid hurling myself over the side, I threw the scruffy corpse off the island ledge, and marked time until impact with the ocean. The carcass produced such an explosion I thought the ocean would splash back above the crest as if I had dropped Wile E. Coyote himself.
Then, applying the formula Height = ½Gravity x Time2, I calculated the altitude at which the hunt had ended. The whole thing seems perverse now, but at the time it was an act of island alchemy that made me quite proud, and it answered a question of practical importance.
After resting a few moments, I climbed down the cliffs with my meat and traced my path back to the first leg of my unlikely island trip just a week before -- in the Miami Airport.
The flight was full as the attractive brown flight attendant leaned in close to ask where I was going on her island. Then she shrunk back when I told her: Isla Mona. "Death on that island," she whispered and turned her considerable Latin heat toward the next man in line. She had a point.
In the bars and gathering places in the seaport of Puerto Rico, tales of Isla Mona are shared like rum in church -- quietly, under the table, as if someone were watching. It was the lair of El Chupacabra, the Goat-Sucker, seamen said, and a smuggler's cove for "go-fast" boats guarded by trigger-happy opportunists. Latino newspapers were full of it: On Mona Island, hard men covered bad deals with short guns and long clips.
But in libraries and law firms, places I loitered in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to pass some time, educated men spoke of Isla Mona as the intersection of world history. Christopher Columbus, Ponce De Leon, Captain Kidd, and the architect Eiffel had all known the caves, beaches, and jungled cliffs of Puerto Rico's abandoned Mona Island. Each of them planned expeditions through the last five centuries with their own agenda, as had I -- the modern Mona Island was overrun with wild goats and pigs, descendants of Spanish animals put ashore as a renewable food supply. If I was to hunt in the Caribbean with my longbow, Isla Mona was my Hobson's (only) choice.
Hunting Mona was easier said than done, as bowhunting volunteers were scarce. In fact, it took me five years to organize the expedition with trip surgeon Dr. Jose DeMoya, bowyer and geologist Steve Hohensee, buffalo hunter Rick McGowan, diving expert Clayton Smith, Blackhawk helicopter pilot Dana Ravenberg, and magazine publisher Tim Conrads. The trip requires extensive planning, most of it in Spanish, which is where Dr. DeMoya would prove invaluable, as he would in suturing trip members back together after Caribbean accidents, which are common.
The Department of Natural Resources in San Juan still doesn't accept applications by mail or online, so we had to appear in person -- with no guarantee of getting permits or licenses. When, with relief, we had accomplished this task, we then had to drive across the island to Boqueron and charter a stout boat for the 50-mile crossing to Isla Mona. It is a difficult, cumbersome journey, but well worth the effort.
Columbus christened Isla Mona at the end of the 15th Century, and five centuries later, when my group arrived, Mona remained much as Columbus had found it -- insulated from the world by drought and blue water. Columbus surprised a ragged group of Taino natives when he arrived, but Europeans replaced them with livestock. Humans haven't settled Mona since, but the pigs and goats have flourished.
The pirate Captain Kidd hid in Mona's blue lagoons, lounging under coconut palms that still shade the sand. He should have stayed on the beach. Kidd was caught and hanged not once, but three times in England, as the rope broke on the first two drops. Gustave Eiffel designed not only his namesake tower in Paris but also the nameless Mona lighthouse, which now stands rusted, listing, and ready to fall.
Spanish and American miners excavated bat guano on the island in the 1800s, chiseling out excrement two meters deep. Small-gauge railroad tracks still cross the island heights, leading to cliffs above hulking iron boilers on the beaches, where nitrates were boiled out of bat dung and ferried away for gunpowder and fertilizer. Since then, only an overmatched group of armed rangers have occupied the island -- except for bowhunters in December.
As rich as it is, Mona's history is no match for her beaches. When I stepped ashore, five years of planning drained away into the wet sand pushing up between my toes. Where coconuts bent broad-leafed palms down for shade, I slid into a sandy bed and took a nap.
Banging from wave to wave all night in the dark, crossing the Mona straights before rough water turned the trip treacherous, I had earned the rest. When the sky and ocean finally parted, Mona was there, separating the blue horizon with her fresh palette of greens, browns, and blacks.
As we had approached, the lighthouse gave no sign of danger, but below the cliffs a freighter hung broken on the coral. We slipped around the wreck through a narrow cut to shore, guided by our chain-smoking captain, Paco. He off-loaded water, tents, and gear; waved and smiled goodbye; and left a handwritten list of deathtraps in my hand. Mona's trees, centipedes, rays, sharks, and caves have all killed, and each has its own deadly secret. Such things warrant attention.
Mona is 20 miles around, most of it too thick with cactus for travel, and only one, seven-mile trail spans Mona's middle from beach to beach. I wanted to see the other side. None of
my fellow castaways would sign up for the adventure, so I walked across Mona alone at 2 a.m. on a moonless night, as gator-sized iguanas, goats, pigs, and birds scrambled from underfoot in the dark.
Four hours later I climbed down from the heights to the western beach, comforted by the sight of water and sand again. I still had a hard two-hour climb back up into the northern plains in the dark. Paco had said that goats and pigs clustered there, swarming in schools like tropical fish, sweeping from cactus to cactus. But, then, Paco believed in Chupacabras, too. I was hoping he could be as right about one thing as he was wrong about another.
Mona's limestone rocks give a metallic ping when struck by a boot or stone, as if hollow. Paco promised I would find goats by the ringing of their hoofs, following their music as if the herd were collared and belled. Alone and tired in the dark, I didn't believe him anymore.
But at first light, just as Paco had said, hollow rings played in the air above the high stone fields. The melody moved toward me, and with the increasing daylight, I hoped soon to be in a concert of goats.
On the highest point of the island, I slumped behind a pile of stone and waited. With the sun sharp on the edges of their wings, sea birds circled me and flared to land. They also landed on Isla Monita, Mona's barren little sister, 500 yards away. Cactus spines made for a prickly bed, and I stood and extracted spines from my hands and boots while waiting for the waves of goats Paco had promised.
To deal with these goats, I carried an unbacked, Osage wood longbow made by my friend Jim Jones in Florida. The handle on this takedown model was wrapped in stingray hide, fitting for where I sat overlooking the ocean. The arrows in my quiver were feathered cane, gathered from Florida swamps, likely similar to those used by the original Taino natives on Mona. Two were tipped with stone heads I had knapped myself, while the other arrows wore all-steel two-blade STOS broadheads. For years I had practiced with this gear in the heat and wet of Florida, and I was confident in my choices. I liked the feel of the wood and leather in my hands in such a desolate place.
Split hooves rang on the hollow rocks from all directions until three dozen Spanish goats -- billies, nannies, and kids -- swooped into sight among the rocks and cactus above and below me, tearing green pulpy cactus pads free, their beards dripping with juice.
With the brilliant blue Atlantic as a backdrop to the brown herd, I chose the closest, not the largest, goat and released a flint-tipped arrow at 20 steps, my Osage bow bending and snapping without a sound. The arrow hit the heavy shoulder and dropped to the ground.
This ended my experiment in Caribbean stone head hunting, and to prepare for a second shot I removed an arrow with a steel head from my quiver.
Few Mona animals have ever seen people, and they have no predators above the waterline. The nanny seemed unfazed as she continued grazing, chewing, and dripping cactus juice into her beard. When she presented a good angle, I sent a cane arrow and steel broadhead through both lungs, collapsing her in place. The herd rang away into their caves and hides to escape the heat, taking their music with them.
I was alone then, the new corpse my only company. The birds had swooped off and gone silent, the musical hooves and gnawing sounds were hushed. The far-below crash of the sea against the cliffs worked its way into my head, competing with my heavy breathing.
The heat turned wet and covered me with sweat.
That feeling came over me then that always does when I take an animal. I used to feel it as a lonely letdown after the chase and the adrenaline rush. But that day on Mona I felt it differently for the first time. I felt it then as a sense of belonging, a calm sense that my position in the world had been affirmed. In the farthest reach of the world I had yet hunted, so distant from my own lands and my own people, I knew my place. I was man, the hunter.
I shouldered 20 pounds of purple island meat and stood sweating in the Caribbean sun. I had time for history now, and scarcely felt alone. Columbus was keeping me company, and I couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever measured the height of Mona's cliffs. I personally timed the drop at 6.5 seconds and calculated the height at 210 feet.
Jay Campbell and his wife, Karen, live in Tampa, Florida.