How to live on a desert island

By Michael Flaherty
Illustration by Tara Fleming

Michael Flaherty is a bonafide desert island expert if we’ve ever known one. This summer he spent three months living alone on The Grey Islands— an uninhabited island group off the east coast of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula—as part of an interdisciplinary ceramic art project, where he spent his time constructing an inside-out ceramic kiln in which he “fired” the islands. He’ll be giving an artist talk about The Grey Islands project at Eastern Edge Gallery on Monday, November 9th at 7pm.


Admit it: you’ve thought about it more times than you can recall. Remember that horrible break up a couple years ago that almost sent you over the edge? How about that time at work when your incompetent manager took credit for your work? Or that Saturday afternoon when you wasted a half hour searching fruitlessly for sesame oil at Sobeys?

Civilization, as becomes apparent at times like these, is ridiculously over-rated. Why not go live by yourself on a desert island?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. It can be done, and fortunately for you Newfoundland abounds with deserted islands (Count yourself and your escapist inclinations lucky that you don’t live in Regina.) There are so many locations to choose from that it shouldn’t be hard to find the perfect island for you.

But where to go?
So how do you decide? Start by asking yourself a couple questions: How much time do you have? How isolated do you want to be?

An easy overnight excursion can be made to Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, while a week might be sufficient to experience Merasheen, near Placentia. Traveling to Belle Isle between the Northern Peninsula and Labrador would, however, require a significantly different level of material and psychological investment.

When you’ve narrowed it down a little, consider some other key elements: geography, history and aesthetics.

Talk to the locals
When you’ve figured out where you’re going, you next need to get to know the locals. Sure, your island is deserted now, but it wasn’t always. Humans, opportunists that we are, inhabited virtually every neck and arm in this part of the world until resettlement happened in the 1960s. Someone out there knows a lot about wherever it is you’ve decided to go.

Talk with fishermen, tour boat operators and cultural organizations in the area. These people can give you information you need to know, like where fresh water and a good campsite can be found—the sorts of things that won’t necessarily be obvious when you look at your topographical maps. They can probably also tell you whether your cell phone will work, or what stations you might be able to get on your AM radio. Don’t worry about them thinking you are a bit flaky—even if they do, it’ll probably motivate them to check in on you now and then. In any case, you’re going to need to hire a local with a boat who can drop you off and pick you up later.

Food as company
Bring a lot of food. A lot a lot. I can’t emphasize this enough. Bring more food than you could possibly ever eat. Food won’t just be your sustenance—although I don’t want to suggest nutrition isn’t important—it will be your company. And eating will be your entertainment.

Remember: you are going to be on this island all by yourself without much else to do. Keeping the kettle boiled is going to be the closest thing you have to your usual habit of continually checking your Facebook account.

For a short trip, fresh fruit and vegetables with plenty of canned food might be all you need. To prepare for a longer trip, though, a food dehydrator is a must. Through the miracle of dehydration 100 pounds of bulky, spoilable raw ingredients can become 10 pounds of edible, easy to pack, virtually indestructible fruit leather and beef jerky. Mac and cheese is a great staple meal, so bring plenty of pasta and cheddar (which I was astonished to find would last months if unopened). Rice with lentils and dehydrated vegetables is another.

And for a quick snack, nothing beats popcorn doused with lots of spices and cooked over an open fire.

Other gear
Of course you’re going to need a lot of other gear, too. Get the best tent and sleeping bag you can afford. Bring clothes for every possible type of weather—you’re likely to get any or all of them on any given day. You’ll need a good knife and an even better axe.

And don’t forget your emergency supplies—a first aid kit, any medicine you might need, and, if you can afford it, a personal satellite tracker.

Boredom is the enemy
Most importantly you’ll want something to keep you sane while you’re out there. Sure, living on a deserted island seems romantic enough in itself. But if you don’t have anything to do you’re going to get bored.

I suggest you give yourself a project, preferably one that keeps you on the move. Bring a plant guide and make a list of every species you can find out there. Pick berries and make fresh jam every morning. Make detailed records of the temperature/winds/precipitation/tides/phases of the moon/whatever. Build cairns on all the highest points of land. As long as it’s time consuming and enjoyable it doesn’t really matter what you do.

You’re going to love it! Your first night alone might be a little scary, but it quickly gets much easier.

Maybe the hardest thing will be coming home at the end.

Ever spent time on a desert island? Leave a comment below.


  1. Ray · June 4, 2012

    this is well good, but how do you plan and find places like this?

  2. jamie · June 4, 2012

    the planning is the trickiest but to find the right place is to do the research. Me and my husband are planning to do just this. but we were thinking of doing of for a year. it is still up in the air.

    this is a very good site for anyone who is looking for something like this.

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