Monday, July 18, 2016

Go By Bike!

When I was weighing the pros and cons of taking on this job there were lots of factors to consider but one of the real attractions was that I’d be living on an island where bicycles were the primary mode of transportation. What I wasn’t aware of was the reasoning behind it. Sand Island – the largest of Midway’s three islands and the only one where people live – is certainly small enough (about 2 ½ miles long and half a mile wide) that one might argue that automobiles just aren’t necessary. But there are lots of places even less expansive where cars rule the roads. Here, it turns out that the sheer number of ground-nesting birds is what makes bicycles and other more nimble modes of transportation more practical. Even if one had a car, it would take forever to get anywhere as during the nesting season it would need to stop every few feet to move birds out of harm’s way.

Use of bicycles on Midway dates back at least to the early days when the island was a Naval base, I wasn’t able to find any references to their use during the very early days of settlement (records indicate though that in 1904, a certain Dr. Martin Crook, who’s mobility was hampered by having one wooden leg, had two donkeys shipped in to help him get around the island). 

Bikes have been a popular way to get around on Midway since the "Navy Days" (photo courtesy Roy Warren).

The only “good pavement” on Midway is the main runway of Henderson Field which is kept immaculately paved according to strict Federal Aviation Administration standards. All the other roads and paths on Midway are much more rustic but serve their purpose well, getting people from their homes to workplaces to the Clipper House and to the (few) recreational facilities that the island provides. From my house it takes less than five minutes to get to the office, the Clipper House, the Ship’s Store, or the beach.  More extensive touring can also be had by circumnavigating the island, a total distance of just under 9 miles. I like to do this on Sunday mornings and it’s a great way to re-acquaint myself with parts of the island I don’t typically visit from day to day. Nearly all the bikes on the island are single-speed "cruiser types" with old school "coaster brakes" which took a while to get used to. Visitors are strongly encouraged to rent bikes while long-term residents, such as myself, are given one to use for the length of their stay.

At just around two square miles in area and with a fairly extensive network of narrow roads, Sand Island is easy to explore by bike. Crossing the runway is the only tricky part as the airport must be contacted.

It would be misleading to suggest that bicycles are the only way folks get around out here as golf carts and four wheel UTVs (“utility task vehicles”) are also commonly utilized, most often for work purposes that require the hauling of cargo or tools. A golf cart “limousine” that seats eight is used to ferry passengers back and forth from the airport to “town”. Several very small motorcycle/scooter things are also used by some of the Thai workers. I’ve asked where they came from and how it is just a couple of guys have them but have never gotten a straight answer. In addition there are a couple of trucks and some heavy equipment on the island that you see once in a while. It is quite a spectacle to move a front end loader on one of the small roads as it must go very slowly while an escort vehicle moves ahead to clear its path. The most impressive (and most expensive) vehicle on the island is a super fancy fire truck that is dedicated for airport use and probably worthy of its own blog post someday!

When a bicycle isn't practical, golf carts are commonly used for transportation. Clockwise from upper left: "Congestion" at the community garden; golf carts are "albatross friendly"; it's important, however, to check under the cart before driving off as albatross chicks often crawl under them for shade; the "limo" takes a group of passengers to the airport.
The lack of motor vehicles at Midway definitely adds to the peaceful and quiet nature of the place. It also makes you realize how much space automobiles require both in terms of roads, garages, and parking spaces. Lacking the need for extensive paved areas, our little community here on Midway  has a whole different character, the narrow lanes and footpaths lending it a much more intimate feeling. Getting around by bike also puts you into contact with your neighbors on a regular basis and makes it easy to stop and have a quick conversation. And , of course, getting around by bike is a great way to get exercise as part of your daily routine.

Bicycles are a great way to get around on Midway and are the primary mode of transport. Clockwise from upper left: the biology crew cycling from one restoration site to the next; a Sunday morning circumnavigation of the island; Refuge manager Bob Peyton (right) stops for a quick chat with Eric Moore who heads up the Chugach operations; bike valet service is provided by a Laysan albatross chick at Charlie Hotel.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t live on Midway forever as the isolation of this faraway place would almost certainly prove too much. But my experience here has me thinking that I would definitely consider sacrificing some of the conveniences that car-centric communities provide if I could live in a place where, like here, people and wildlife take priority over roads and automobiles.


  1. hello robert,

    maybe you need a little bigger island! Lawrence Durrell--novel writing older brother of the naturalist Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals) wrote island books about Cyprus, Rhodes, Corfu, and probably a couple of others. He refers--in the Rodos book--to those special people who are comfortable living on islands. A special class. Maybe that’s you!

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    1. Hello Robert. Could you tell me where you got the information about Dr. Martin Crook bringing donkeys? I have collected information about donkey's at Midway and have found no verifiable information about him bring donkeys to Midway and have conflicting information about how and why they were brought there. Thank you.

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    3. I read that in a compendium of Midway Atoll historical info from a man named Warshauer. The only copy I know of is a hardcopy that is at the Midway Atoll NWR Visitors Center. I will email you with more info.