Traveling on Hawaiian airlines is truly an experience to be
missed. Six hours of video advertising, prostituting
Hawaii's beaches, rainforests, and
reefs, punctuated by a bad
full feature movie. Todays feature was The Last Kiss,
a movie about romantic betrayal so emotionally shattering that I
couldn't even watch it at home.
Aloha. Headsets were sold as usual but unlike all other airlines
I'd traveled, these were specific, preventing one from using headphones
brought from home; and in case you happen to own a 2 prong stereo at
home (???) a freindly announcement informed us that there was still a
five dollar access fee. Mahalo. Adventure began when
I accepted the lunch tray, I stabbed a white slippery glob with
my plastic fork and rotated it, inspecting closely from all angles, "Is
this chicken?". Perhaps the whole experience is
designed as a point of contrast from which you can aprreciate the
islands so much more when you actually arrive. Looking around at
the bovine tourists, many of whom would be filing directly from
airplane to rental car, to hotel, to dinner, to the television, and
then an hour of snorkeling in the morning. I tried to convince
myself I wasn't one of them, my purpose in returning to Hawaii after
doing just that sort of vacation on Kauai three years ago, was to have
any other type of experience. I'm here for a month, with local
friends who can sheperd me through the real Hawaii.
Forty minutes after touchdown in Hilo I'm sitting at Tina's, a
little Thai/Hawaiian 'hole in the wall' with Rich, Bailey, and her
Inga; All three are blond, bronze, and handsome. Tina
herself takes our order and then dissapears for ten minutes while she
returning to the table with the best Thai fusion cuisine I've
eaten. Discussion centers on paddling, surfing, sustainable
living, and permaculture farming. What else is there? Rich
takes a cell phone call from a buddy on the Kona
side of the island, the Waikoloa river is flooding.
it's a scramble of calls to employers, scheming and lying to clear
everyones schedule so
we can hit the whitewater by midday tomorrow. A good water event
is weighed with equal importance to college or work and I'm amazed
anyone here can get educated or stay employed. We'll have
ample opportunity to burn those calories tommorrow.
At the house Rich introduces me to a 10x17' carport I'll be
calling home. A bed, a couple shelves, metal roof, and lava
floor. Bright, multicolor walls, a hammock, a couple of
road bikes and a pinapple sits on the window sill. I
seperate my luggage into three piles, 1) helmet, elbow pads,
sprayskirts, fins, kites, and climbing gear, ect. 2) block
planes, chisels, saws, drill, plunge router, jig saw, ect. 3)
Computer, camera, lenses, tripod, cases and a tangle of cords and
charging equipment. Home sweet home.
Rich hangs a 3x5' nautical chart of the entire Big Island on the
wall and for the first time I get a good look at the journey we're
contemplating. Day one, south from Hilo traces 30 miles of
lava cliff, upwind, upwave, with only one possible landing site.
Day two, another 30 miles of cliffs with nowhere to land, and a dicey
reef crossing at the end. The trip continues in this
fashion, easing on the Kona side, with bays, and beaches, and reefs and
then doubly hard again once we round the north shore, including a crux
section so remote that we can't even scout it to see if there's
anywhere to land at all. 267 miles, it's an intimidating
itinerary, and one
that will require both an ideal weather window, and a willful bias
toward very conservative judgements. First though, we need to
build boats, and before that, I need to sleep. A
light rain is falling, the air is filled with chirps of the invasive
Coqui tree frog.
Rich shuttles me across the island where we rendezvous with his buddy
Chris, who is playing a video of truly awful whitewater beatdowns when
we walk into his house. Mellow and laid back, looking something
like a stunt double for James Bond, Chris explains in a South African
accent that the water
has dropped and that we should go look at the lower section of the
Waikoloa river. Apparantly 'just looking at it' meant unloading
the boats and all the gear
and hiking them across a mile of lava field desert. At first
sight the river is bony (shallow/rocky) and steep, almost continuous
class 4 drops with the horrible potential to grate your head and face
if tripped and flushed upside down.
Walking my kayaks past the first two drops, I take photos instead,
thinking 'theres no way I'm gonna run this', and then I get stung
on the face by a bee. I run to my boat, seal the skirt and push
off, paddling five feet forward, sliding through a culvert under the
highway and then plunge ten feet down over the first rock encrusted
drop. I suffer from potentially fatal yellowjacket allergic
anaphylaxis, so the river seems suddenly much safer than the
shore. The bee that stung me didn't trigger a reaction but I'd
rather not wait for another one to try.
From there to the ocean is more or less a continuous lava rockslide
with a bit of water flowing over it. My hands are as active as
the paddle blade, reaching out constantly and pulling on exposed rocks
to manuever mid-drop. The water is challenging but
not scary, and quite a bit of fun once I get the feel of the
borrowed Dagger CFS, a bulbous orange creek boat shaped roughly like a
potato. Chris only waves us off one
drop, and I trust his judgement, he is after all the head
captain life guard of the whole island, and he also guided for years on
Africa's giant and terrifying Zambezi river, where if the water won't
kill you, the Hippos will. Chris, his buddy Derrick, and Rich,
constitute the entire whitewater paddling population of the Big
Lunch, Hawaii style. Rich picks wild oranges and tosses them down
We paddle over last drop and going down the slide my paddle
stuck in a rock and try's it's best to decapitate me as I flush
past. Stretching out before us is the blue Pacific and we
paddle into the surf without hesitation. I line up right in the
drop zone for a
larger wave and it peaks right on cue as I accelerate down the face and
then bounce down the front of the foam pile. I'm smiling and
having a blast until for some unknown reason this wave doesn't die off
like all the others had. Grinning like a fool and hollering
"yeah, whoo! wait, uh oh, oh no, oh no." I flush straight into
the broken lava crags, but my reflexes are solid, I tumble, roll up,
and ride the next surge out of there. Oops.
That evening we drive ten thousand feet up to the Mauna Kea observatory
center, the road to the observatory is closed due to high wind.
Chris tells me he hiked to the 13,000 ft elevation observatory a few
weeks ago. He climbed nine thousand feet over loose lava in
a single day. The saddle road back to Hilo is beautifully paved
and the full moon reflects off the desert around us and the cloud layer
below us as we decend the west side of the island in Rich's car.
Tonight it's ice on the shoulder for an old rotator cuff tear that
never healed right. I'm not sure if getting that tear was worth
it, but for today at least, inflaming it certainly was.
A very strange sign at the Mauna Kea visitor center.
Todays epidode of culture shock theatre chronicles my
struggles in adapting to the concept of 'Hawaiian Time'.
Roughly translated 'Hawaiian Time' means that anyone you meet may not
be bothered to work too hard, and that trying to rush anyone, whether
it be at a traffic signal, grocery, or hardware store is likely to be
met with hostility or indifference. When inquiring about
the price of a piece of lumber I was flatly rebuked and further inquiry
produced no result. "Just take it" was the final irate
response from the large Hawaiian at the cash register. This place
is not like the west coast where people seem to interact shyly and
plainly, nor the east coast where conversation is rapid and direct, on
'Hawaiian time' exchanges may be surly or friendly but never with
effort. By midday I'm ready to kill my own buddy Rich for his
lack of preparation for our kayak build and the trip. Rich
has been infected with Hawaiian time for five years now. I have
to cut him a little slack though, he finished his bachelors degree just
a month ago.
Wind sweeps the city as the clock ticks by as my mood sours
considerably. All I need is a table saw, band saw, and thickness
planer. Anyone on the east coast would have had one waiting for me
complete with an itemized reciept for the rental costs. As a
person whose livelihood revolves around carefully arranged detail and
precise scheduling, I can tell this next week of kayak building is
going to be tough. For paddling, this flexible ethic is
ideal. I've always been prone to leisure and vice and I'd rather
let the surroundings dictate the terms, but any type of
boatbuilding takes focus and will. Late
in the afternoon,
serendipitous chain of events, we locate Harry, the only
decked kayak builder on the whole island and use his tools to make
work of the basic milling. We're still behind schedule, albeit an
arbitrary schedule that I imposed only because I want to be on the
water paddling the kayak instead of building it. Perhaps I have
my own version of Hawaiian time. Already I can tell if I can't
learn to flow with the vibe here, I'll be trying to swim to the
mainland in a couple of days.
Todays bright spot was a trip to the Hilo farmers market; a delighful
mix of common and exotic fruit and vegetables, and multicultural mix of
prepared foods. I bought as much as I could carry and ate as much
as I could. My favorite was a mixture of sticky rice, taro,
pinapple, young coconut and adzuki beans formed into an oily bar and
wrapped in a banana leaf. I also ate two fat papayas for 50 cents
You always remember the cars you owned in college and in
your twenties. Most likely purchased or even salvaged from
someone who didn't want them for a good reason, they were a vital
lifeline to a world that revolves around asphalt. They barely
climb hills, and coast down on dubious brake pads, the knobs and dials
have seen better days. Almost always there is a door that
one day for no apparant reason just refuses to open. It was
in this nostalgic condition that I found Baileys vehicle, and I
considered leaving it that way (two of four door already opened with
wire loops fed underneath the door handles). But, alas, the Dukes
of Hazard manuever looks something like a Jackass stunt when attempted
on the passenger side of a Toyota Previa minivan.
I've never pretended to have auto mechanical aptitude by sole
virtue of also having testosterone, nevertheless I spent two hours this
morning making barbaric use of a hammer, screwdriver and
WD-40. My thought was "Well, I'm not going to make it any
worse.", which proved briefly untrue when I also broke the door
lock. Through considerable exploratory surgery the problem was
diagnosed and a repair effected with a
zip tie and a hair band.
We hid the spare parts from Baileys sister, co-owner of the van, and I
declared victory and closed the patient. Some people in this life
need to do great things, I just feel great when I can fix a door
At noon Bailey left to go surfing and seeing her strap the Ginnak she
built with me last year onto her equally funky Saturn SC-1
(coincidence?) was one of the proudest moments of my life.
She casually slapped it on top of the roof and drove off to Honolii
beach, fabled home of Puff the Magic Dragon. She returned that
afternoon and excitedly related how she got pulled backwards and
bounced off the reef. What was so cool about it was that this
wasn't a special occasion. She surfs the boat I designed for just
this purpose, "...once or twice a week, sometimes every day,
depending on the surf." She also gets my award for the best
ultra-minimalist roof tie down system.
For the rest of the day Rich and I work on prepping the kayaks.
I'm not getting paid for this class so I make Rich do the plunge
routing. The key is keeping Rich busy, because as soon as
he's allowed to stop there is only about a fifteen second lag time
before the inevitable question, "Maybe we should go surfing Brian?".
I started the morning by banging on Richs' bedroom door at 6am.
"Dude, wake up! Lets go paddle." I'll have to include these
morning paddles every couple days otherwise Rich will go nuts during
the build, and I have to admit, I want to see the water too.
Honolii beach is a small cove in the shadow of the highway with a few
hundred feet of black sand, a channel, and reefs on either side.
We paddle out at sunrise and catch a few small waves breaking across
the reef, then head offshore. Paddling north we encounter large
humpback whales blasting out of the water and collapsing with a
tremendous slap and splash. One lolls on it's back flapping it's
flippers in the air and it all appears very recreational. The
whales are so much the quintessential perfect hupback whale sighting
that it seems unreal to me and I'm less awed than I'd expect to
be. I purposefully don't take any photos because the world is
populated with thousands of breaching whale photos much better than my
Five miles north along the cliff lined lava coast, the few steep
beaches we see are less than 100 yards long and completely exposed to
the swell, which still more beach than we'll see for many miles of our
journey. I get pulled into the pace and now it's me asking "Hey
Rich, what's twenty miles north of here?" My arms are strong and
I feel like a horse waiting to run, but first we need to build the
kayaks. Heading back to Honolii I push the last five miles flat
out but Rich still smokes me, his Greenland replica has two more feet
of waterline than mine and I can't pace him. We roll
simultaneously to get a few upside down shots but shooting through a
plastic bag and a face mask is challenging, I hope I can do
better. The blue of the water is hypnotic and it's only the
burning neccessity to breathe that snaps me back to reality. I
roll up. Rich doesn't want to roll anymore, he's convinced that
stopping invites lurking tiger sharks, something I should be
Two hours after launching we arrive back at Honolii, the waves have
picked up a bit and I really want to pick off a few, but I defer to the
local surfers and stay off the peak. This is called 'showing
respect' and it's esssential if you want to surf the same place twice
and could spare you a nasty confrontation on the beach, especially when
the surf is good. The reef is shallow and my view of it down
through the water is crystal clear, this is another thing I should be
afraid of but aren't. I've been trying to convince Rich he
should wear a helmet out here.
At noon it's back to the kayak build. I'm trying not to push any
deadines and just flow with the pace of the build, but it's very hard
for me, I'm a deadline oriented person. Despite the morning
paddling diversion we make decent progress on the frames.
Late that evening Rich imparts this valuable wisdom to me, "I've
learned, Brian, that living in a house with two girls, just fifteen
minutes of houskeeping can change the whole mood for the
day." A lesson I still need to learn.
We've converted the carport into a tight but colorful
kayak building workspace. My day consists of showing Rich what to
do and then playing with the dog 'Nalu' while Rich rounds ribs, ties
lashings, and pegs deck beams. This mini class is good for me, an
exercise in forced relaxation although I'm still pretty amped to get
the boats on the water. Daytime conversation is pretty much what
you'd expect from Rich and I, building kayaks, using kayaks, past
experiences in kayaks. We work all day and Rich forgets to pick
Bailey up from work and words are exchanged, but only with
the build we run the dog at the park where Rich warns me "Make sure he
doesn't lick any poisonous Cane Toads." What am I supposed to do
that information?! Rich takes the opportunity to redeem
himself by picking Bailey up from her second job, on time. We go
Tina's for dinner.
Another late start this morning, 'Hawaiian time'. Work, work,
work. Even when you love your work as much as I do, it doesn't
neccesarily mean you want to do it on vacation and by mid afternoon
Rich was sensing that I was, to put it delicately, becoming kind of a
dick. So he sent me packing down to the beach with skin
boats. It was really hard for me, it's in my blood not to leave a
skin kayak during the process and I had to run at least five errands
before I could drag myself to water and hour before sunset.
Pacing across a small lagoon with Rich's greenland replica kayak I
accidentally startle a camoflaged sea turtle which startles the hell
me. I lift the boat up at the edge of the reef and wait until the
surge rushes past my knees and then throw myself forward with the kayak
and ride the surge out to sea, I've
never done this manuever before, it just seemed instinctual. After
swimming the kayak about
twenty feet to deep water I place the paddle as an outrigger and crawl
into the kayak, I point straight offshore and paddle about ten
minutes when I realize that I am surrounded by humpback
whales. I'm not going to speculate on how many, but at any given
time I could pick out up to six on the surface, breaching, breathing,
slapping their tails, flapping their flippers. Their
vocalizations are strongly audible above the surface. Two whales
swim directly toward me and when they are no more than fifty feet away,
for the first time the natural fear of very large animals kicks in and
I am appropriately awed by their presence.
roll under just in time to see the dark shapes swimming straight down
into the depths. Even at dusk the color of the water is
I snap another bad self portrait before returning to the surface.
Everywhere there are whales, it feels like they are not endangered and
that is a wonderful feeling. Breaking the spell is difficult, but
have a reef to cross before dark.
Still dripping wet, I eat dinner at Tina's again which displays as it's
only marker the humble cryptic sign 'Garden Snack Club', and is the
least assuming of all the Thai places in Hilo. The pinapple curry
is amazing. Back at the house I finish the frames and prepare to
skin in the morning.
Bailey inspects the nearly finished frames.
I install sliding plastic foot braces.
Hawaii, week two