Hawaii 2/1/07

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 fantastic little Thai/Hawaiian 'hole in the wall' with Rich, Bailey, and her sister Inga; All three are blond, bronze, and handsome.  Tina herself takes our order and then dissapears for ten minutes while she cooks it, 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.   Suddenly 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 Island. 

Lunch, Hawaii style.  Rich picks wild oranges and tosses them down to Chris.

We paddle over last drop and going down the slide my paddle gets 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 visitor 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, through a serendipitous chain of events, we locate Harry, the only decked kayak builder on the whole island and use his tools to make short 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 each.



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 handle. 


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 own.

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 afraid of.

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 kindness.

After 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 with that information?! Rich takes the opportunity to redeem himself by picking Bailey up from her second job, on time.  We go to 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 out of 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. 

I 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 enchanting and 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 I 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. 

go to Hawaii, week two