San Francisco Examiner
THERE WERE BEASTS in both places, but nothing much else was the same about Michael Modzelewski’s two memorable “homes” – a football locker room at the University of Maryland and remote Swanson Island, 200 miles north of Vancouver in British Columbia’s Inside Passage.
Football came first, and it came naturally. Modzelewski’s father, Ed, and uncle, Dick, were college and pro football stars, and Michael followed them to the University of Maryland.
He was a good football player but not a great one like his father. “My locker was right under a giant picture of my dad,” Michael says. “It was too much. The pressure got too bad.”
Michael Modzelewski checked out of college for a semester and went to Europe, where his penchant for writing not only was accepted but encouraged. When he returned, he enrolled in English and literature at Indiana University and began free-lance writing. His first sale, to Sports Illustrated, was a piece on how his father lost his job to a fullback named Jim Brown.
But Michael Modzelewski’s interests were slowly turning away from athletics. He started reading authors like Jack London and watching movies like “Jeremiah Johnson.”
“I wanted to see if their world was still alive,” he says. He searched first in Aspen, Colorado. There were men in the mountains there, but only hybrids in the town. “The wilderness I was looking for was glossed over,” Modzelewski says.
He fell in love with a French architect who was visiting Aspen and followed her back to Vancouver. It was there, through the French woman, that he met the man who would change his life, “a big, old Russian Doukhobor” named Will Malloff.
“He reminded me of a human brontosaurus,” Modzelewski says. “He was a logger, a stage performer, a chiropractor, a hypnotist, a gourmet chef. He built his own boats.”
Modzelewski will never forget his first look at “Will’s island.” He rowed out in a kayak and in 30 minutes saw scores of things he couldn’t believe. Seals and bald eagles, big black bears spearing salmon out of the water and killer whales as an escort on the way back to shore.
“I knew this was what I’d been looking for,” Modzelewski says, “and that Jack London was still alive.”
Will Maloff had been on the island nine years without an extended vacation, and eventually he said to Michael Modzelewski, “If you want to live here and can handle the solitude, it’s yours.”
“I said yes, and we played student and teacher for a couple of months,” Modzelewski says. “He taught me to hunt and handle boats and cut firewood, and when he was confident enough in my ability, he said, ‘Bon voyage.'”
Modzelewski spent 18 months on Will’s island, and for 77 straight days he didn’t see another human face. Then a few Kwakiutl Indians who lived 20 miles away started coming by, he says, “but they joked that the next time they stopped it would be to collect my bones.”
But he made it — through the isolation and a winter with 200 inches of rain and 80-knot winds. He studied whales and bald eagles, shot pictures and was profoundly shaped.