I Am (not) Moana: Kayaking Malaekahana Bay, Hawaii

DSC_1045(State #45/50) I felt my blood pressure rising as I tried to keep a level voice. “I’m not trying to be difficult,” I said, “but the name of my thing is Canoe50, not Canoe 49 and Kayak 1.” Matching my tone, the man replied. “So, you want to find a Canadian-style canoe on this island?” Canadian canoe? I thought. “Where I come from, they’re just called canoes.” I shot back, continuing our transpacific argument.

This guy wasn’t the first person to scoff at my inquiry to rent a canoe in Hawaii, but he was the first to make sure I knew I was an idiot for asking. He continued about the hazards of ocean waves and all the terrible realities which would befall me if I tried to pilot a traditional canoe in the sea surrounding Oahu. “Alright, I’ll take the damn kayak!” I relinquished and packed my bags for Honolulu.

DSC_1053 (1)Days later, the sun radiated tropical heat as I un-strapped a sea kayak from atop a rental car. Already struggling with the physics of carrying an unfamiliar watercraft, I blew out a flip flop in the parking lot. My soles burned as I lugged the kayak towards the crowded beach below Diamond Head. By the time I reached the water, I was a black-footed, sweat-soaked and red-faced mess. Melody, with KITV Island News, didn’t seem to mind and began the interview. Though it wasn’t my dream that my first moments in a kayak since 2010 were going to be on television, I was confident my off-key versions of Moana songs would distract the viewer from my poor technique.Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 4.42.11 PM

Afterwards, I drove through the rainy mountains to Malaekahana Bay, where azure sky and happy, white clouds stretched overhead. Above my tent, branches swayed and dropped fermenting fruit, which pattered upon the dried leaf litter and exuded a sweet, pungent smell. The breeze found a gap in the waxy vegetation and added the aroma of saltwater to the air. Through that corridor, a path extended from my camp and ended at the glinting, blinding blue sea.DSC_0026

I followed the trail, dragging the kayak through the loose sand and out into the cool surf. Waiting for my chance, I hopped on and used the double-bladed paddle to cut through the incoming waves. Saltwater lapped against my legs and filled the kayak as I sat right atop the ocean. I peered into the bay — straight down to a sandy bottom between rocks and patches of coral, all vibrant in the distorted evening sunlight. Twenty feet away, a green sea turtle popped its head above the water to investigate me. Then a big wave rolled over the boat. Nervous about ruining my camera and phone, I decided to hide the dry bag in the mangrove brush. I surfed in on a thrilling wave, which deposited me on the beach. A moment later, another crashed down and sent me and the boat tumbling.

After stashing my bag, I paddled out a half mile, up and over more large waves. Goat Island, a flat, grassy affair, protected me from the open sea to the north. The crescent sweep of La’ie Bay guarded the south. Straight ahead, a single small rock island marked the entrance to the great ocean. Already, ten-foot high, white-capped swells, curled and broke at my flanks. The trade winds nipped at their crests, sending sea-mist sideways like steam drifting off moving volcanos. The combination of this sight, my supreme inexperience and the knowledge of all the terrible things that happen out at sea gave me zero desire to paddle into the unprotected Pacific. Despite my singsong claims from earlier in the day, I am not Moana.DSC_0013

DSC_0004 (1)Beyond the developed southern end of La’ie Bay rose the Ko’olau Mountains, the main range on Oahu. Light from the dipping sun illuminated the towering spine of deep green. Each ridge spur cast a shadow, shading the vertical-running crevices between the lush, rainforest-coated mountainsides. Dark orographic rainclouds shrouded the tallest peaks, extending their arms of gray out towards my bay. The clouds only dropped a few sprinkles upon the water, but enough to precipitate an intense rainbow. My first urge was to take a picture, but I remembered I’d left the camera behind. Oh well. I just sat, rocking up and over waves, transfixed by the most vibrant display of color you can imagine.DSC_0031

On the way back, the sun dropped into the trees lining the steep, beige sand beach. It found a window through the thicket and cast wide, outward angled beams of gold through the visible humidity, like the classic shot of the steaming jungle. I landed near camp, ran to dig up the camera and capture what remained of the rainbow.DSC_0034

Then, drink in hand, I plopped down in the sand below a nodding pandanus palm and watched the clouds turn pink and orange. Ducks and sea birds flew towards Goat Island. A little DSC_0057shorebird patrolled the surf, tiny legs skittering along, beak searching the wet sand for creatures as the water receded, before fleeing from the next rush of sea. Crabs tunneled up out of their fresh burrows, scattering for cover when I tried to get a picture. The turtle surfaced again, spying from the waves, as I sat still and listened to the rhythmic pounding of the ocean. Night fell on Oahu and stars blinked to life.DSC_0087

I took a refreshing shower, grabbed my cold shrimp burrito and asked to join a large group under a tent. They were all local, tattooed, tan and worked at a Honolulu hospital. I listened to them talk, in their distinct Hawaiian accents, about everything from drunken parties to local school issues. When they asked about my trip, I mentioned my sea turtle encounter. “That’s a good omen in Polynesian culture. Seeing a sea turtle when you start a trip means you’re being watched over,” one man said. Though I doubt any spirit would choose me, I liked the thought of sea turtle protection.DSC_0137

DSC_0066 (2)The next morning, wild roosters began crowing by six a.m. Outside my tent, feral cats prowled, a mongoose scurried through the jungle and myna birds fed their young (all three are on the IUCN’s list of 100 worst invasive species*). Leaving the terrestrial pests behind, I drug the kayak back into the sea and paddled out into the bay. A large wave crashed upon me, but I remained upright. Bobbing up and over the rolling blue sea, I sat watching a pair of surfers catch breakers off Goat Island. The two guys found a few good rides, pumping down on the board to maintain speed before falling back into the Pacific. Part of me wanted to try to surf one in the kayak, but a larger part of me wanted to not die in Hawaii.

Zigzagging my way through the waves, I completed another circumnavigation of La’ie Bay. As I closed in on shore, my stomach fell as something large passed beneath me. My mind raced for answers. For some reason — some utterly absurd reason — my initial conclusion was a swimming deer. A half second later it took the form of a massive green turtle passing through the clear water. My spirit animal disappeared into the blue and I rode one last wave onto the beach, completing my foray into sea kayaking.DSC_0165

On the final morning in Hawaii, I strolled out from my campsite on the North Shore to let the tide rush over my feet. Taking one last reflective gaze over the tropical sea, something caught my eye in the surf; it was the head of a sea turtle. We regarded each other for a quick moment before the turtle submerged and I left for the airport. Good omen, I thought.DSC_0181 (1)

*Invasive species are non-native animals that wreak havoc and severely degrade natural ecosystems. Feral house cats and mongooses are incredible hunters, wiping out native animals where they are introduced worldwide. Mynas aggressively displace (stealing nesting sites) native birds from their natural habitats. For a number of reasons (small populations, lack of competition, restrictive specialization, etc.), islands, like Hawaii, are particularly susceptible to such unwelcome inhabitants. I recall the first time I visited Hawaii as a kid, we bought a guidebook and realized all these birds we had seen were the now dominant, introduced species… What a pity. Sometimes humans alone cause ecological disasters and sometimes we do something stupid, like bring cats and mongooses to Hawaii, and pit nature against nature.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts:

  • La’ie Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
  • Dates Canoed: 9-10/11-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 3 (about 1.5 miles each day, though difficult to gauge)
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point/ Campsite: Malaekahana State Rec Area (21.65934, -157.927331)
  • Songs Sung on Bay: Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet (mostly because I blew out a flipflop),
    Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas song), I am Moana and Flake by Jack Johnson.
  • Thank you to Go Bananas Watersports for the kayak and being flexible with my pick up and return times. Thanks to the group of locals for letting me crash their hang out and for the beer. Thanks to Melody and KITV for the interview, I had a good time doing it!
  • Birds: Great Frigatebird, Sanderling, Ducks, Seagulls, Chickens, Mina Birds, Egrets, small song birds I couldn’t ID
  • Mammals: Mongoose and Feral Cats
  • Reptiles: Green Sea Turtle (Honu)
  • Noted Species: Humuhumu nukunuku apua’a (Hawaiian state fish. Saw one snorkeling a few days later on the North Shore)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pandanus Palms, coco nut palms, salt cedar and mangroves (both of the last two are invasive to Hawaii)
  • Ecoregion: Hawaii Tropical Dry Forests
  • Current Threats: Invasive species (like Mongoose, feral cats, feral pigs, rats, mangroves, etc.). The islands native species are vulnerable to extinction (75% of all US extinctions have occurred on these islands). Development, sea trash and sea level rise and change due to climate change are also major concerns.
  • Trash Collected: 3-4 grocery bags filled with all manner of sea-garbage (part of the nation of The Garbage Isles no doubt). Soda bottles, thick hard plastic containers of unknown origin, shoes, ropes, buoys, and micro trash. Most of it was washed up from god knows where. I cleaned a 100 foot section of beach and not even completely.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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