Finding diversity in Hawaii…

The trip was doomed before it even began.  My wife and I (mostly my wife) had been planning our first anniversary trip to Hawaii with focus on spending time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  We poured over places to stay and tried to compile a list of things to do inside the National Park as well as outside the park.  We settled on a promising little cottage just outside the park in the village of Volcano where we would be close enough to the park entrance that we could easily get in early and have no trouble staying late (so I could get my sunrise and sunset opportunities).  But things began to unravel early…

Two weeks before our departure from the mainland my knee decided to fail me.  I had been training again trying to get in shape from my foot being broken nearly all Summer.  Miserable as that was, I was excited to be out again and getting in shape in time for some Winter fun and our anniversary trip.  My knee thought otherwise and I was reduced (once again) to painfully hobbling around the house with limited mobility.  Awesome…Hawaii here we come!

Also looming on the horizon was the giant black cloud of the government shutdown.  In my mind, it would be a game of chicken until the 11th hour and then someone would give in and the crisis would be averted.  Never did I expect it to actually happen and, even if it did, I didn’t expect the National Parks to shut down.  I guess that’s the naturalist in me that considers the National Parks and Monuments part of the “essential” services that would be untouchable during a shutdown.  I also, naively, thought of the National Parks as truly public spaces that would still be accessible even if the Park’s services were closed.  But clearly I was mistaken…

Honolulu and the North Shore

North Shore of Oahu

Honolulu, Oahu Hawaii

We arrived in Honolulu for the first leg of our trip.  We would be staying one evening here before moving on to the Big Island so that I would get to see the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.  My wife has been, but since this was my first trip to the islands we made time to make sure I would be able to see the Memorial.

The long flight had been hard on my miserable knee so we reluctantly chose to push Pearl Harbor off to the next morning and explore the North Shore a little bit and maybe catch the sunset.  We fought our way through afternoon traffic to get outside Honolulu and head toward the beaches.  Still pretty sore and stiff from the long flight, I had a hard time getting around but luckily the road pretty much follows the shoreline and there wasn’t much hiking to get to the beaches along the North Shore.

Turtle Beach on OahuWe stopped at a few places, got to see some turtles, had a little snack and waited out the sun as it slowly settled to the horizon.  We stopped at Sunset Beach and while my wife got out the beach towel to lay in the sand and soak up the last hour or so of sunlight, I hauled out the camera gear and set up to catch the fading light.  The weather was nice, there was a slight breeze and a nice set of clouds in the west for the sun to play with as it set.  The sunset wasn’t spectacular but it was pretty nice and it allowed me to get the equipment dialed in.

After sunset we headed back to Honolulu for a nice sushi dinner and some much needed rest.  My knee kept me from getting much rest, but we were excited to get out to the National Memorial before our flight to Hawaii.  My wife turned on the news as we were getting ready and that’s when we found out about the closure of the National Parks.  Blindsided and somewhat devastated that we were going to be denied access to the only reason we stayed in Honolulu AND potentially miss out on the main reason we were visiting Hawaii we scrambled for some answers.  I called the number listed for the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center and spoke with a woman who assured me that the memorial, or at least most of it, was still open.

She was partially right, the collection of memorials and monuments at Pearl Harbor are managed by the NPS but some of them, like the Pacific Aviation Museum are actually on the military base property and were therefore still open.  DOD funding was intact, so the USS Missouri and the museum were still open but access was now cut off so they were shuttling visitors onto the military base to access these memorials.  It was a mess and no one really knew what was going on.  We spoke with some very helpful NPS Rangers stationed in front of the visitor’s center, but their news was grim.  This would not be a quick resolution, the parks would likely be closed for a while.

We reluctantly gave in and headed to the airport.  After a pretty rough flight (my knee was really having a fit with all this travel) we landed in Hilo, grabbed our car and headed to Volcano to check in to our cottage.  We rented a private cottage from Hale Ohai cottages in Volcano.  Our place was awesome and set back in the thick jungle vegetation making for a beautiful setting.  Unfortunately, we wouldn’t get a chance to spend much time there.

As most everyone knows now, the National Parks stayed closed for over two weeks which meant that our 5 day adventure in Volcanoes NP was spent outside of Volcanoes NP.  Every morning we woke up hoping that the shutdown was over the park would be reopened.  It was sort of our obsession throughout the trip.  The upside of being locked out of the National Park was that we got to see much more of the rest of the island than we had originally planned.

There is so much to see on the Big Island.  Even being limited by my meager mobility we still got to see a ton of diversity in Hawaii as we ventured out from our home base in Volcano.  Exploring the gardens and waterfalls around Hilo, the rough and rugged coastlines around the southern tip of the island, the high grasslands between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and various beaches.  Ultimately we had a great time driving around the island exploring State Parks, beaches and old lava flows.  We had some great meals in Kona and Waimea and found some amazing little roadside mom-and-pop restaurants.  Parks closed or not, we still had a great time exploring the diversity in Hawaii and spending time with each other on our anniversary.

Cape Kumukahi

Cape Kumukahi near Hilo

Cape Kumukahi is just outside Hilo near Puna and was a rough and tortured coastline of old lava flows broken and twisted by the relentless action of the waves.  Throughout our trip, this area was usually cloudy and raining but we happened to catch it one morning when the sun was out and the clouds were still gathering in the distance.  It’s beauty is in it’s hostility, the sharp black lava rock with very little vegetation and the hard crash of the waves on this side of the island.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls near Hilo

Just minutes outside of Hilo is Ranbow Falls, one of the most visited falls on the island from what I’ve read.  It’s really easy to access and there are paved walks to view points to see the falls.  Many tour buses drop off loads of cruise ship tourists to come in and snap some pictures and gawk at the dramatic falls and lush vegetation.  It is no doubt a beautiful spot, and the falls is much larger and more dramatic during other seasons but I would have liked to visit more remote falls had I been more ambulatory.

Lava Tree Gardens State Park

Lava Tree Gardens outside Hilo

Lava Tree State Park is also near Puna and hosts a unique feature on the island.  Vertical lava tubes dot the park.  These unique features were created when molten lava washed through the area in the 1790s and cooled faster around the large trees as it washed over the land.  The trees burnt out leaving hollow vertical tubes that still stand today.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Black lava shores of Punalu'u beach

Past the south end of the National Park is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach County Park.  It’s a small protected black sand beach area with some cool lava formations and a small section of black sand beach where we saw another turtle on the shoreline.  We actually visited this spot a couple of times during our trip because it was close enough to Volcano to be an easy drive.

Southern Tip of Hawaii

Southernmost tip of the US

The southernmost tip of the Big Island is also the southernmost tip of the United States and is a pretty harsh area.  The seas are calmer here but the currents are still strong.  If you can brave the undertow, there is supposed to be some excellent snorkeling at the base of the shear cliffs.  There was a lot of long-line fishing going on here when we stopped by.  The rugged, windswept cliffs and the expanse of endless ocean beyond really do make this spot feel like the “edge of the world”.

Grasslands outside Waimea

Grassy hills outside Waimea - diversity in Hawaii

Totally unexpected to me were the rolling hills and open grasslands dotted with cattle.  I never expected to see expansive wild grasslands in Hawaii and I found myself staring out at it every time we drove through these areas.  It was different than anything I expected to find on a Pacific Island I was slightly in awe of it.  We stopped one evening on our way from Kona to Waimea as the sun was setting to grab some pictures at the edge of the highway and these ended up being some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

As disappointed as we were to NOT make our trip about the National Park in Hawaii, we still made the best of it and had a great time checking out all that Hawaii had to offer.  As I said to my wife several times throughout the trip, there’s no way to see it all in a week.  We could spend years out here and never get to see it all.

We are already talking about getting back to Hawaii soon to handle some unfinished business.  Keep those parks open, Hawaii, and we’ll be back soon!

Trip Report: Paddling Buffalo Bayou…

We had talked about this for a while.  I had heard, and confirmed, that the Houston REI rented out kayaks.  So, once I got a few extra bucks in my pocket, I made arrangements for us to rent a couple of kayaks from REI and paddle part of the Buffalo Bayou.

 

Twin kayaks on the Honda

They said it couldn’t be done…

The look on the face of the guy at REI who saw us pull up in a 2004 Honda Civic to pick up our kayaks was priceless.  With some help, we got them secured to the roof of the car.  He found the spectacle entertaining enough that he insisted on getting a picture.  The put-in for Section 5 of the Buffalo Bayou was less than a mile away so I was not all that worried about the kayaks.  We drove out of the parking lot of the Houston REI and up a side street through a beautiful neighborhood to Briar Bend Park.  Access to the Bayou at Briar Bend is behind the park.

Access was pretty easy, even toting heavy 10ft plastic recreational kayaks.  The beasts we rented were not like the sleek, light sport kayaks I’m used to.  These were the heavy, lumbering Old Town Vapor 10 kayaks.  Short, wide and made of heavy plastic, these boats were nearly 50lbs without any gear and made to take a beating.  I would consider them a pretty good beginners kayak, with a relatively flat bottom and very wide mid-section they were very stable.  I’m not sure if I could have tipped it over if I tried.

Buffalo Bayou kayaking

Our plan for the day had options: We initially thought we would paddle downstream from Section 4 (Briar Bend Park) to the put in for Section 5 (Woodway Memorial Park) and if it didn’t take too long we would just paddle back upstream to Briar Bend.  The Bayou is a pretty slow moving water way and paddling upstream would not be difficult.  Plus, we did not schedule a shuttle or plan for leaving a vehicle at a designated take-out.  Plan B was to drift on past Woodway Memorial on to the other side of Memorial Park and perhaps further if we kept up a fast pace.  We expected to be out for about 4 hours.  Without a shuttle, we had decided we’d just pull off the bayou wherever we wanted and grab a cab to take one of us back to our car while the other waited with the kayaks.

So, with options for the day, we carried our giant hogs down to the water and prepared ourselves for an afternoon of paddling.

LESSON ONE:

Always bring more food than you need.  We were running a little late that morning getting started, so we did not get the chance to run by the store to stock up on snacks for the afternoon.  I had packed water, almonds and a couple of apples.  Turns out almonds and a couple of apples are not enough food for a 5+ hour paddling trip.  Make sure to pack enough food and water to last longer than you anticipate being gone.

The put-in at Briar Bend is nice.  It’s tree covered and an easy walk to the water’s edge.  The Bayou is very narrow here so this is one of the few places with an actual riffle of fast moving water.  I set up Merelyn at the lower end of the rapid so she didn’t have to push-off in to a fast current and then set myself up a little higher (just for fun).  Once on the water, we got ourselves settled in to our boats and began our paddle trip.

The water on the Bayou is slow and murky, exactly what I expected from a Bayou.  It is definitely a leisurely paddling trip, we kept up a decent pace but it was still plenty slow enough to enjoy some of the more scenic turns.  Old growth trees, hanging their heavy, gnarled limbs over the water as if guarding the muddy shoreline.  Vines draping low as they weave between the tree branches added to the dense vegetation.  The Buffalo Bayou winds it’s way through the heart of Houston.  So, from time to time, the trees open up to reveal some building or another peaking through the greenery.  Much of the Bayou is adjacent to high-end private estates or golf communities so the architecture seen from the water can be impressive.

As we paddled along, learning how to handle the new boats, we started to see the signs of wildlife along the waterway.  Often, something would slip in to the murky water before we could get a good look at what it was.  But we did see snakes, turtles and fish as well as a variety of birds.

LESSON TWO:

Know the skill level of your party.  Little did I know, Merelyn had virtually no experience in a kayak.  I’ve seen her use the sit-on kayaks on trips to Mexico and she handles the paddle with confidence so I never suspected her lack of experience.  On most whitewater trips, I don’t assume anyone has experience unless I’ve paddled with them before.  I would normally run through a quick “how-to” and talk about fitting the kayak, posture, paddle grip and technique.  Along the way, once I realized she was struggling with certain parts of paddling, we did a quick lesson on steering, stopping, correcting, etc.  It’s important to know the skill level of your adventure partner and, if you are the one lacking experience in a particular skill, you should not feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.

We reached our first take-out option pretty quickly.  We stopped for a minute to discuss our options: paddle back, or keep on going?  Ultimately we chose to keep on going under the assumption that the next leg would take us about the same amount of time as Section 5.  We had a quick snack of some almonds and I ate one of the apples (Merelyn was afraid they were too old and not good anymore).  The next section proved to be much more technical than the first.  The path of the Bayou became more twisted and littered with debris.  Consequently, the water moved even slower forcing us to work harder.  We both had assumed that as we neared the Memorial Park area, there would be places where we could get out of the Bayou prematurely if we were getting tired…this was not the case.  The shoreline continued to be a thick, matted jungle of shrubs, vines and tree-limbs.  And where it wasn’t so heavily vegetated, the shore was either too steep to ascend or was private property and clearly not welcome to trespassers.

We paddled on.  The map we had picked up from REI showed the Bayou Paddle Trail and the areas where access was available.  However, the map was remarkably small and lacking in detail and many of the supposed access points were not marked.  Without knowing exactly how far we had to go, or how long it would take us, uncertainty began to weigh on my hungry companion (“almonds are NOT food”).  The Bayou was loosing it’s charm.  The shear volume of litter and trash that choke the waterway was disturbing to both of us.  Some parts were worse than others but it seems that the Bayou has been the personal dumping ground for the population of Houston.

LESSON THREE:

Know your equipment.  The ability to rent expensive equipment like rafts and kayaks is great, it grants you the opportunity to participate in an activity that you otherwise couldn’t afford.  The problem is, most times you are renting equipment you may have never used and may never use again.  In some cases, this can be a deadly problem.  Luckily, in our case, I had experience with several different styles of kayaks and once I knew there was an issue I could address it.  Again, don’t be afraid to ask about your equipment.  Let the outfitter know that you want them to walk you through the features of the equipment you are renting.  You’re paying to use it, get the most out of it by knowing what it can do.

Shortly before we came to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, Merelyn and I stopped and she complained about not being able to find a comfortable position in the kayak.  It was wearing her down, constantly having to shift around to find a stable position.  This is when we realized that she had never found the foot braces.  They had been pushed so far forward by the last person to use the kayak that she didn’t even know they were there.  Once we adjusted them so that she could reach them, and fine tuned them until she was comfortable, everything changed.  Suddenly, she was comfortable in the kayak, had better posture and a stronger stroke.  She was re-energized and anxious to reach familiar ground.

We never did see the exit point at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary (beginning of Section 7) and looking at the map, decided we’d shoot for a take-out at Eleanor Tensley Park (just short of Section 8).  The Bayou straightens out after the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and we were able to make good time, especially with Merelyn’s new-found mastery of her kayak.  The cruised along at a good pace, the bayou opened up at the shore and we no longer felt “trapped”.  We pushed to a spot along Eleanor Tensley Park where we could pull the kayaks out and wash them off a little before dragging them, and our gear, up the hill to the parking lot.

LESSON FOUR:

Always have an exit strategy.  It’s always good to have a plan, and a backup plan.  But makes sure your plans are well thought out and you are prepared for them.  As much as “eh, we’ll figure it out when we get there” can make for a great story and adventure, it can also create pain, misery and resentment.  It’s best to have a clear, well designed plan for concluding your excursions.  One that everyone is informed about and agrees with.  

It was getting late, so I called a cab company (the only one in town) and put Plan B into action.  The answering service for the cab company hung up on me when I failed to find a physical street address for the park.  Turns out, this park has NO listed street address.  It has no address on any of the signage either, nor the website, nor the map.  This, as we were to find, makes the park invisible to cab drivers.  I looked up an address (not even sure it was a proper address) online for the park, but without the numbers displayed somewhere we were gonna have problems.  I finally convinced the dispatcher to send a cab our way.  I watched, who I believe was our cabby, drive by the park 3 times before I got a phone call from him angrily asking where I was.

I was berated, in broken English, for sending this guy on a wild-goose chase to an address that “does not exist!”.  I watched him drive by two more times while I had him on the phone and could not get him to understand that the giant green grassy area with the trees was THE PARK!  I finally waved down the irate cab driver who was crawling along the roadside, getting honked at and I’m sure receiving various unpleasant gestures, and had him pull in to the parking lot.  I sent poor Merelyn with this inconsolable, and incomprehensible,  man who would not stop insisting that the park did not exist.  As they left, I pulled the kayaks the rest of the way up the hill, into the shade, and crawled in to one (hammock style) to take a nap.

LESSON FIVE:

It’s all about attitude.  Even in some of the most stressful and crazy situations, laughter and calm sets everyone at ease.  Life is too serious to take seriously.  When things start to go wrong, they can be made worse by arguing, complaining and fighting with others about the situation.  Or, when things turn for the worse, you can accept it, go with the flow, have a sense of humor and unite to meet the challenge head on.  Cooler heads prevail.

Some time later, Merelyn arrived in her car.  She had brought food (hers was already consumed, I’m sure within seconds of it being passed through the drive-thru window).  She filled me in on the antics of the poor, distressed cab driver who clearly had signed on for more than he could handle that evening.  He really could not let go of the fact that the park address did not exist…it could also be that the address issue was the only thing Merelyn could understand between his thick accent, propensity for leaning on the horn and apparent inability to navigate traffic.

We loaded up our gear and strapped the kayaks to the top of the car again and headed home.  We ended the day sunburned, tired and hungry but we laughed all the way home (mostly at the cabby).  It was an adventure and, like all good adventures, it was more than we had bargained for.  In the end, we had a fun day together and a story to tell.  What else really matters?