Lihue, Kauai, Saturday, June 5, 1993. Up at five. Today I am to meet my guide from Kayak Kauai, Mike, at Kapa'a, at 6 a.m., to drive up the north coast to Hanalei Bay and embark on a trip by sea kayak along the Na Pali Coast. I am filled with anticipation, but also with a touch of apprehension. A catchy, nagging, Latin tune from the 1940's races unbidden through my head, over and over: "No can do, no can do; My mama and my papa both say no can do." This could have been a charming memory from a bygone era which celebrated restraint; you certainly don't hear any such counsel in today's pop hits. But it is hardly what I want for my first ocean kayak expedition. I had been thinking for years of making such a trip but supposed that some necessary pieces were missing. I could handle a kayak on calm water; I could handle a rubber raft or a canoe on a whitewater river. But I have never handled a kayak in rough water, and the ocean would be completely new territory for me. However, the outfitter, Kayak Kauai, informs me that it's doable with a guide. All you need, they say, is to be in moderately good shape, not get seasick, and have suitable weather. From Monday, when I signed on for the trip, to Friday, the weather has been a question mark, but the next-to-final decision, Friday afternoon, is that the weather would be OK, without too much wind or surf. The wind is up all day Friday, but the forecast for Saturday is relative calm.
Mike himself had been a title-searcher in New Jersey and had been a white-water canoeist and kayaker on several legendary southern rivers -- the Gauley, the Cheat, the Nantahala, and others. He knew most of the members of the U.S. Olympic kayaking team, plus many from England and other countries. One day he got sick of searching titles, closed up shop, and moved to Kauai, where he eventually became a guide for Kayak Kauai.
At Hanalei we meet the two other members of the expedition, Adam Diamant and his friend Laura Bailey, plus a team of independent kayakers, Tom and Julie. Adam and Laura had gone to the Kennedy School together. Laura is a Pomona graduate, class of '82. We load the boats on Kayak Kauai's van and drive to the put-in at Haena Beach.
At Haena the waters are calm, as they usually are in the early morning, with the additional protection of a headland and reef on the right and a reef on the left. The sky is overcast, for the moment, with a promise of light rain. Our trip, in good summer weather, would be rated a Class IV run in the ocean paddling books, "Exposed Open Ocean." Class I is safe and easy; Class V is difficult and dangerous, even to an expert; Class VI is suicidal. I am dressed for the worst, for heavy sun and water, with taped-on, clip-under dark glasses, wrap-around and UV-resistant, with my glasses themselves tied to my head with an expansion cord. I have a broad-brimmed hat, also tied on, a long-sleeved shirt, and a tube of high-powered sunscreen. Earlier I emptied my wallet of everything but a credit card, driver's license, and $20 -- and then locked it in the trunk of my rent-a-car, taking only the keys and the credit card, which are sealed into the back pocket of my river shorts with a velcro fastener. Taking an ordinary camera is out of the question: too wet, bumpy, and rough. I also have a pair of open-fingered paddling gloves to minimize blisters on the 16-mile trip. Everyone has a life jacket, strapped on tightly, so it won't be torn off in rough water.
On a trip like ours, getting on and off the water is the most hazardous part, because waves break when they hit bottom, and breaking waves, which swamp you, are much more dangerous than non-breaking waves, which merely lift you up and down. For us, the put-in is surprisingly easy, with calm water and a bit of overcast. We have two hardshell two-seat ocean kayaks, a white one and a purple one, both with rudders. Adam and Laura will take the white one, since they were a pair and since Adam had been a mountain guide himself and is presumably in the best shape of the guest paddlers, and the most knowledgeable of what to do in an emergency. Mike and I take the purple one, with me in back at the rudder, even though Mike was much more experienced, since I outweigh him and the boat needs to be light in front to ride over waves, rather than punching under them. The rudder works by pushing levers with your feet. You paddle by pushing the up side of the paddle, rather than by pulling the down side. You can either use a straight paddle, with the blades at the same angle, or a feathered one, with blades at a different angle. The boat moves fastest if both paddlers dig in at the same time.
I try feathered for a while, then switch to straight, which comes more naturally, but is supposed to be harder on the hands and probably is. My paddling gloves are shredded at the thumbs by trip-end, but I don't have a hint of a blister. None of us gets seasick.
Once at sea, the overcast burns off and the sun comes out. We skirt an offshore reef and try to stay 50-100 yards from shore, close enough to enjoy the view and duck in, maybe, if the wind should change, but far enough out to avoid the breakers. The view of the north end of the Na Pali is spectacular, as is every other view on the trip. Savage, prehistoric cliffs with fluted valleys, waterfalls, flying, volcanic buttresses, and sea caves. Kauai is a favorite spot for jungle movies -- King Kong and Jurassic Park, as well as South Pacific, were filmed there. We round the Ka'ilio point and pass several giant sea-turtles on the way. We can see early arrivals at Ke'e beach, at the head of the Na Pali trail, and then at Hanakapi'ai, a beach and waterfall two miles up the trail.
Just past Hanakapi'ai are spectacular vertical cliffs, hundreds of feet high, and two sea caves, Ho'olulu and Waiahuakua, known as "Horseshoe." Mike studies the waves and decides it is safe to explore, first one cave, then the other. The caves are gorgeous, whuffing with the rise and fall of the waves. One has a waterfall outside, at the entry; the other has one inside, pouring through a hole in the roof.
Outside, after the first cave, Adam and Laura are falling behind. Laura has a charley horse in both arms and has to rest every few strokes and pace herself for the long remainder of the trip. Adam, who should be pacing himself too, is providing most of the power, and it's still not enough to keep up. We stop in midocean, grapple the boats together, and make some switches: Mike to the back of Adam's boat, Adam to the front, Laura to the front of my boat. Now both boats are trimmed right, light in front, and equal enough in paddling power because I am strong and rested, but all the ocean know-how is now in the other boat.
No matter. Laura is good company, and, despite her charley horses, we seem to be flying along at two or three miles an hour, covering in a morning a stretch of cliffs which takes all of a long day by the trail. (The real difference is that the trail twists in and out, rises, and falls for 11 miles, but the ocean distance is only six miles.) The Kalalau Valley, spacious and spectacular, with beaches, caves, waterfalls, pools, wild fruit, and steep, green, fluted folds of cliff, is just coming into sight. It was inhabited till the 19th Century, then abandoned. Now it is the pot of gold at the end of the long land trail. This is close to the most beautiful spot on earth, beguiling to sea people, as well as to mountain people, and the urge is not to fly by, but to linger and admire. Laura was an international relations major at Pomona, a student of my brother David, and of my visionary, venturesome friend, Frank Tugwell. Their doings, past and present, are of perennial interest. She is also up on the latest doings of the Harvard government department, and is, in fact, on her way to Indonesia to diffuse innovation, on a foundation grant, just as they used to do in the sixties. Has nothing changed since my first visit to the islands in 1969? We can chat about old friends, discuss how to save the world, and drink in the glorious scenery, all at the same time.
But our idyll is abruptly and rudely interrupted. The wind has risen, small-craft warnings have been posted, the waves are up, and there is a new sandbar off of Kalalau, which produces an unexpected breaking wave a hundred yards off shore, and virtually on top of us. High waves are one thing; they float you up and down and make you exhilarated or seasick. Breaking waves are another. They swamp you and dump you. This one does both. Mike manages to turn his boat into the wave in time to punch through it, but Laura and I can't get turned fast enough and are caught and rolled by tons of breaking water.
We dive free of the boat, struggle to the surface, and begin to collect items torn from the boat and from our hands and pockets -- the paddles, the spray skirts, then our sunscreen and chapstick, while waves continue to break over our heads. She is caught in a rip tide, which shoots her out to Mike's and Adam's white boat. She clambers in; Mike dives out; and she and Adam paddle furiously to a safer spot.
Though I started maybe three or four feet from where she started, I am not caught in the rip tide. I gather up all my flotsam and, with Mike, swim after my purple boat, which is quickly blowing toward shore. Mike told me at the outset that it was safe, and advisable, to wear my plastic watch, which is supposed to be water resistant to 100 meters. He was right. It is still ticking away, or is it humming that plastic watches do? The water is clear and warm and comfortable, and going my way -- much better than if it had been someplace cold, like the Alsec River, the San Juan de Fuca Straits, or the Inside Passage to Alaska. There the freezing water can take away all your strength in about a minute. Moreover, here, everything is flowing toward land, not away from it. And here the shore, to my great relief, is not a cauldron of rock and churning water, but a pretty, sandy beach with a little tide pool at the South end. The boat is there in the pounding surf, intact except for a smashed bulkhead, and filled with hundreds of pounds of water. "Sorry, coach," I say to Mike. Unwanted strains of that nagging song are again running through my mind.
The bilge pump and my river sandals are still strapped to the boat with bungee cords. The only thing lost in the spill was my water bottle. We pump till the boat is light enough to turn over, dump the rest of the water, and drag the boat to the tide pool. There is a navigable channel to the ocean, which permits us to button on our spray skirts, get into good position, wait a few minutes for a lull, and punch our way through the breakers to safety.
Once on open water, we rejoin Adam and Laura and switch seats once more, this time with Adam in the bow of my purple boat, and Laura in the bow of Mike's white boat. Adam is good company too, with lots of tidbits about the Kennedy School, but he is a bit drained and shaken by the events of the morning. So are we all. We pass Kalalau, noting a cave-in from the 1980's, and survey the super-isolated Honopu Valley on the other side, "the Valley of the Lost Tribe." It has a pretty crescent of beach, surrounded by soaring, 1,200-foot lava cliffs, with a lava tube, an ancient cemetery, and a waterfall with a giant rock arch on the South. Anyone could swim with the current from the Kalalau caves into Honopu, but only a strong swimmer could make it back against the current -- if he used swim fins and picked the tides and weather right. But we are headed three beaches down the coast and do not attempt to land.
Our next stop is another sea-cave, this one a lava tube, big as a house, whose roof has fallen in. The sun pours through the opening making the dancing waters a glowing, preternatural shade of emerald green. What a sight! Mike splashes in and swims to a small island in the center of the circle. The rest of us remain in the boats, gently rising and falling with the waves, admiring the view.
We then make our way down the coast to two adjacent valleys, both inhabited when Captain Cook sailed by, but now deserted. They are separated by a steep cliff, and their names are Nu'alolo Aina (land) and Nu'alolo Kai (sea). Nu'alolo Aina's hanging valley (which is mostly invisible from the sea) stretches a mile or so back into the rock; it is watered by a stream with two high waterfalls; and its inhabitants raised taro and other crops and buried their dead in the cliff walls. Nu'alolo Kai has only a thin strip of beach, less than 100 yards of it, and barely a bucket of fresh water. But it is the safest landing on the Na Pali Coast, and it is where we intend to stop for lunch. Its inhabitants caught fish and traded them with the land farmers for their crops. In Captain Cook's time, and for decades afterward, there was a trail with a terrifying coconut-palm ladder connecting the two valleys.
We thread our way toward the beach at Nu'alolo Kai, pointing toward a marker to skirt a reef and then angling north to the landing point. We disembark, pull the boats up, have our lunch, and then explore a thicket of trees where the inhabitants once lived. We are all a bit stiff from a morning of paddling. My legs are particularly stiff from the unaccustomed exercise of pushing the rudder with my feet. There are still a few guava trees, with guavas, and a large stone heiau, or shrine, backed against the cliff. It is dedicated to the Harvest God, Lono. Mike regales us with kayaking tales. I ask him what his most terrifying moment was, and he guesses that our encounter with the rogue wave would be a strong contender.
After lunch we set out again. The valleys and cliffs are now on the dry, leeward side of the island, and the shore ambience is reddish brown, not green. There is one more abandoned valley, Miloli'i, which has a landing place, a reef, a heiau, and waterfalls, but we pass it by. The day is wearing on, and we have lost a half-hour or so to the rogue wave. After Miloli'i there are five miles of high, dry, red valleys, too high and dry to have been inhabited by farmers or fishers, though one headland has an observation facility for the Pacific Missile Range.
Eventually, the Polihale Beach comes into view, the end of the road on the south side of the island, and also the end of our paddle trip. By now it is late afternoon. Small craft warnings have been up (unknown to us) since midday; Mike warned us at lunch that we might encounter some "slop;" and the waves are big -- maybe 10 feet high -- and fast, with no channel. They are booming into the beach, not straight, but at an angle from the south, in a long series, with spray flying off their tops. This will be a much tougher act than our put-in at Haena or our take-out at Nu'alolo Kai, maybe than our take-out before Kalalau.
On the other hand, we have sixteen miles more experience than we did in the morning, and we've got some help. I learn later that these are spilling waves, which surf people consider easier than plunging waves. Moreover, another Kayak Kauai guide is there as beachmaster. He has positioned himself at the best landing spot and is ready to shout instructions as we approach, and to help lug the boat out of harm's way when we land. We arc around to the south, wait patiently for the least threatening set of waves, and then blast our way in, aiming at the beachmaster, first Adam and I, then Laura and Mike. The waves get higher and higher as we near the beach, but we are perpendicular to them this time, and don't get swamped. There is no room or time in my thoughts for the nagging song. Our last wave is like a mountain of water, pouring over us into the boat and hurling us like a missile toward the sand. Amid the din of the wave, and on shouted instructions from the beachmaster, we backpaddle furiously to keep from "pearl diving" -- that is, from flipping end over end onto the sand. The bow hits the beach with a jolt, but there is no pearl dive. We leap out and struggle to keep the swamped boat from washing out with the receding wave, then to get it farther up the beach out of the way of the next wave and of Mike's boat. It is half full of water and very heavy, but we get it far enough to bail and dump. Its bow is OK, despite the jolt, but the rudder could stand some unbending. Mike and Laura land behind us, also with a jolt, but without a pearl dive, and we help pull their boat to safety.
The dangerous part is now over, at least the unconventionally dangerous part. I am sure that more people have been killed or injured in auto accidents driving around the island than in kayak accidents. We lug our kayaks and gear across the beach and up the bluff to Kayak Kauai's waiting van, then hand them up to the guides to lash on the top. The trip back to my car takes about an hour. I bid goodbye to Mike and my travelling companions. It would be nice to see them again, perhaps at some future Pomona reunion, or perhaps on another kayak trip spread over several days. I pick up my car at Kapa'a, find everything there where I left it, and drive back to the hotel, where my wife Myrna and my mother, who have been writing papers and feeding the ducks all day, are ready for dinner. So am I, and this time it won't be to the tune of that nagging, restraining old song.