Climbing Mt. Ka‘ala, O‘ahu’s Highest Point

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Views of the west side valleys on the way to the summit of Mt. Ka‘ala.

The west side of O‘ahu is known for its sunshine, even in winter, when much of the island is wet. Last weekend, for example, the west side was dry… and we got 13 inches of rain in less than two hours in Waimanalo on the windward side.

A few weeks ago, my buddy and I took the opportunity to soak in some of that sunshine and tackle the crown jewel of hikes on the west side: Mt. Ka‘ala, the highest point on O‘ahu at 4,025 feet. It’s not that high compared to what you can find on the Big Island or Maui, but you start out just a bit above sea level, and it’s a decent climb across steep, narrow ridges. It’s by no means a beginner hike or a lazy-afternoon excursion.

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Patches of clouds moved across the sky in scenic fashion as we climbed to the top of the first ridge, providing expansive views out Waianae Valley. At times, the trail climbs straight up the mountain like a staircase. Some parts are more stable than others, depending on whether it has rained recently. There are ropes in place where it tends to be muddy or overly steep. Some parts of the trail require you to climb over big boulders, which should not be taken lightly. There is little room for error – one slip and over the ridge you go.

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The path along the first ridge line is the best place to take photos of the valley. The summit of Mt. Ka‘ala is an ecosystem all its own, considered a cloud forest. The higher you climb towards its peak, the more entrenched in fog and precipitation it becomes. It reminds me of the area around the Visitor Center of Volcanoes National Park, which sits at the same elevation. It is amazing to see how the dry terrain suddenly turns into a mini rainforest.

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As you near the peak of Mt. Ka‘ala, you can expect to be under cloud cover. If you’re only in search of views, there’s no need to continue past the first ridge line. There is no lookout at the summit of Mt. Ka‘ala, only an Army outpost that’s closed to the public. It’s worth a trip in my mind, though, to see how the terrain changes and to see some of the unique plants that aren’t found in many places on O‘ahu.

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My buddy and I found a place to sit near the summit, amongst the ferns you see above, to watch the fog and clouds roll in and over the ridge line, clearing for a few moments before clouding back over again. The return descent provides the most in-your-face views as you ease down the steep trail and gaze out over the valley. Just make sure you stop in a secure place when you want to take a photo – again, one slip and you could easily tumble a long way down.

As you can see in the photos, there are many other peaks and ridge lines that surround Mt. Ka‘ala, including access to the Waianae Ridge Trail. I plan to go back and explore some of the other trails this summer to see what I can find.

A Delightful Detour to a Waterfall in Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i

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Remembering to take travel setbacks in stride.

It was a simple plan. Grab last-minute plane tickets, pack the tent in the backpack, and dip over to Kaua‘i for theweekend. Miraculously, despite it being a busy holiday weekend, I was able to get a rental car and a permit to camp at Lonomea, the most remote of the numerous campsites along the Koaie Trail in Waimea Canyon. It all fell into place nicely, and so early on Saturday we flew from Honolulu to Līhu‘e, picked up some groceries and a can of propane, and set off south towards Waimea.

With the errands and all, we got a late start. The afternoon clouds came in and out to provide cover from the hot sun, and we descended more than 2,000 feet down to the canyon floor, first over exposed red clay and then turning into thick, shaded forests. After you come to the first camp, Wiliwili, you have to cross the river several times. Things got a little hairy at that point. The water level was higher than usual, and crossing was difficult with a 30lb pack.

Our pace slowed to a crawl. It was getting dark fast in the canyon, the sun blocked by the tall walls. With the river the way it was, I wondered if continuing on was the safest thing to do. On a break, I saw a side canyon nearby. I took a short scout around the corner and saw that it was a rather big canyon and that a waterfall . I was at first disappointed we weren’t going to make it to Lonomea that night, our plan and destination.

I once read a memoir by a poet who expressed the joy his writing routine brought him. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m., light the wood-burning stove, and write. He loved to romanticize the idea that he was the only person in the world doing it, the only one up at that hour, writing poetry by the fire. Deep dude, for sure. But that image always sticks with me when I go into the wilderness, because that’s the place I go to do things that no one else is doing, to have it all to myself. In the quiet of nature, I feel fortunate in a way that no public place has ever duplicated.

This setback brought us that solitude. There are 70,000 people on Kaua‘i. A handful of them were at Lonomea that weekend. But that night and next morning, that waterfall was just for us. I’m happy to be reminded that, in the face of detours in travel and life, whether things go right or wrong is always a matter of perspective.

The next day the river was calm, and we ended up seeing other, bigger waterfalls and campsites as planned. But, for the most part, that little no-name waterfall is the one we end up telling everyone about.

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Drinking Beer for the Homeless in Kailua

You’ll feel good about yourself at Kailua’s newest craft beer tasting room — until you meet the owners.

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Tim and Holly Veling, Owners of Grace in Growlers in Kailua

Holly Veling feeds a worn twenty-dollar bill into the change machine, and I can hear the clinking as the quarters start to come out. It sounds like a casino, and in that moment, it makes a lot of sense to me, because for those that have come here seeking help, it is indeed the sound of a jackpot.

Holly and her husband Tim, along with a few other volunteers, are hanging out at a Kāne‘ohe laundromat for a few hours on a Saturday, paying for anyone who walks through the door. The outreach is an arm of the Veling’s Windwardside nonprofit, the ONEninetynine Initiative.

But to say it like that is a little bit misleading, because it insinuates that there’s something behind the curtain, that it’s not just Holly and Tim, choosing to spend their time at a laundromat, trying to help people who might not be able to afford to wash their clothes.

Most who show up are homeless. I can see clearly that Holly knows them all as she greets many of them with a hug. I take a bag of quarters and begin to load them into one of the washing machines. Having not been to a laundromat here, I was surprised at how expensive it was: Three bucks for a single load, then another three for the dryer. For someone struggling, I can understand why the stream or a public sink might start to seem like a more practical option.

Though their philanthropic efforts began well before, the Velings made them official three years ago when they registered as the ONEninetynine Initiative. At first, they raised funds by driving around the island and picking up large quantities of recycling from bars and restaurants, which they would then cash in. It was a good way to do double duty, to raise money and to recycle at the same time.

But the Velings always had their sights set on something bigger, something that could cement itself as part of the Kailua community and become a solid source of continuous funding for their nonprofit programs, like “Laundry Love” here today.

Something like a craft beer tasting room.

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Here, Grace Comes in a Growler

Tim and Holly’s idea was to pair the nonprofit efforts of their ONEninetynine Initiative with a for-profit business that would in turn fund the nonprofit (essentially rendering the for-profit a nonprofit itself, at least in theory if not by law).

“We didn’t want to be that nonprofit that’s asking for money all the time,” Tim said. “We wanted to be self-sustaining.”

While sitting at a packed bar one afternoon, the couple realized that the craft beer craze could be a bridge between their organization and the community. They envisioned a tasting room where local beers could be tried, where you were free to bring food and sit around and play games.

That was 2013. Last fall in October, Grace in Growlers opened on Hekili Street. The Velings’ decision and timing to open a tasting room was impeccable from a craft beer perspective, as O‘ahu is currently in the midst of a renaissance. In 2013, there were no functioning craft breweries on the island. Today, the number is approaching ten, and interest is booming.

The Grace in Growlers tasting room has 13 craft beers on tap that are constantly rotated as well as wine and local Sky Kombucha (Waimānalo) for a non-alcoholic option. It is decked out with recycled materials and carries what Tim describes as an “accidental school feel,” with wooden doors repurposed as tables, used lockers for coat and game storage, and old classroom desks and milk crates as seats.

The complete blueprint for Grace in Growlers, in addition to selling pints, is to also sell growlers of beer to-go, hence the (great) name. But selling beer for takeaway requires a separate liquor license, and Tim said it will be a few months until they receive the permit.

I’m sure it’s frustrating for the Velings, but to me, it’s a blessing in disguise. With the option for carryout absent, there’s no trace of transience. Instead, the place feels like a neighborhood pub, with people enjoying pints of beer, bringing their own food, sitting down with friends around a board game. There’s a sense of community. Tim said that several patrons have already volunteered their time to the ONEninetynine Initiative after chatting with him and hearing the story behind the tasting room.

“Sometimes people [we meet here at the tasting room] will come on a Saturday to help with our laundry service [Laundry Love], and then they’re back in here drinking beer again the next night,” Tim said. “Which is the most amazing thing. It’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”

Text Message to the Homeless

For the sake of transparency and good faith in its efforts, there is a 36-ounce limit per visit per customer at Grace in Growlers. It is also one of the 100+ establishments statewide to operate without foam and plastic as part of the Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program.

“We don’t want to be that business that gets everyone drunk in the name of supporting a good cause,” Tim said.

During the days leading up to each Laundry Love event, Tim and Holly send out a text message to the homeless community with the location and time of the service, and their generosity has developed a regular following. Holly hugs another woman as she walks in, then brings out a chart and makes a note to order new shoes for her. As I watch them work, I begin to question my own path. Tim and Holly are the kind of people who can do that to you, make you stop in your tracks and wonder, am I doing enough good with my own life?

For me, the answer is probably not. But thanks to them, I at least now have a place to go for a beer, a place to go when I’m looking to feel better about myself.

Spearfishing in Hawai‘i: Now And Then

We have guns and gear. They had spears and kukui nuts.

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With the skyline of Town rising up behind us, we cruise out of Kewalo Basin on O‘ahu’s south shore. It’s a clear morning, the seas relatively calm. The boat stops just beyond the surf breaks off Ala Moana Beach Park. Rob and I suit up, jump in, and swim out. The gun is at my side, the tip of the spear pointed behind me.

From the surface looking down, I can barely see the bottom. The currents aren’t crazy, but they are kicking the sand around, and everything is shaded and murky. Yet Rob seems to be having no problem. He keeps lifting his head and looking back at me. “See him down there?”

Rob Ryan has spent enough time in the water that he doesn’t need crystal-clear vision to spot fish. He easily identifies them simply by their shape, looking at the outline of the body and tail. To me, a rookie spearfisher, this is incredibly impressive, and a skill I immediately recognize as imperative to become a good hunter. I suppose you can’t shoot something if you don’t know what it looks like in the first place. I quickly realize that recognizing unfamiliar fish species in the shadows is a little different than spotting familiar animals of traditional hunting, like deer and pigs and goats.

But as my guide, Rob is happy to locate potential targets for me. He tells me to relax, that there’s a school of fish right below me, that I should just head down and check it out. These are all very simple tasks for an experienced free diver and spearfisher like Rob. But for me, I’m still trying to ensure I don’t accidentally shoot myself as I tread water. Rob comes over and shows me how to switch off the safety. “Dive down,” he says, “And nestle up to that reef.”

I have never shot a spear gun before, but I have been spearfishing as an observer. I went once with a few friends on Maui, and I watched my friend stab a he‘e (octopus) from his hole. I watched the ensuing wrestling match that ended with my friend biting out the brain (seriously, that’s what you do with octopus). I had fished plenty of times where I’d kept my catch, but that was different. This isn’t wait-and-see. This is straight up hunting, stalking, finding, and killing your dinner. I’m not ready to bite out anything’s brain, but I’m ready to take a few shots. I draw in my breath and dive down.

A Shore Thing for Ancient Hawaiians 

For those that came before us, spearfishing was a way to put food on the table. But it probably didn’t look much like the modern-day version, says Marques Marzan, Bishop Museum Cultural Advisor. Whereas we have technology that enables us to hunt from the water and on the ocean floor — like goggles and wet suits and weights and mechanical spear guns — Ancient Hawaiians were most effective from the shore. They used a long, thin spear with multiple prongs called a kao. One is currently on display at the Bishop Museum, if you’re curious.

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Though they didn’t have goggles, they did have tactics to help them spot fish. One way was to hunt at night with kukui-nut torches. Known as “lamalama fishing,” the fire would light up the surface of the shallow water, attract fish, and coax them into a sort of trance, making them easier targets for the awaiting fishermen. Even more impressive is how Hawaiians used kukui nut to “calm the water” and improve visibility. Marzan said they would chew the nut and spit the oily mixture onto the surface, which would create a “lens” that allowed them to see better. Free-diving was used to pick urchins and lobster, but not to spearfish.

Back then, there were more big fish in shallow water. “In many chants and stories, they talk about it looking like a walkway,” Marzan said. “The fish were so close together, so many of them in one place, and so close to the surface that it looked like rocks on top of the water.”

Today, there are two main spear weapons for us to choose from: 1) A speargun, whose trigger is loaded by a taunt wire, that is aimed and fired like a gun (what I’m using) and 2) a polespear, a spear propelled manually by an elastic band, similar in design to the kao that Ancient Hawaiians used with multiple prongs.

An Exhaustive Combination of Skills 

This is not to say that today’s version is soft because it utilizes new technology. Quite the opposite, actually. The gear allows us to push the limits, and along with that comes a whole new set of required skills and safety issues, mostly surrounding breath holding and ocean endurance. Rob, for example, tells me he stays out for a few hours when he’s spearfishing commercially. That’s a long time in the water.

I swim towards the bottom, holding the gun out in front in my right hand. Halfway down, at 15 feet, I hold my nose with my left hand and blow to equalize the pressure. I reach the bottom and head for a nearby rock, trying to cuddle it and let my weight — and the weight belt around my waist — stick me to the bottom. By the time I settle, raise the gun and look up I’ve already been under water for 20 seconds.

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Spearfishing gun and buoy. 

I tuck the butt of the gun into my body and shoulder, trying to stabilize it. I see the fish swimming back and forth in front of me, within range at 7 or 8 feet. It’s like I’m playing a game of underwater Duck Hunt, but it doesn’t prove to be so easy. My first shot misses and clangs into the rocks. I tuck the butt of the gun into my body and shoulder, trying to stabilize it. I see the fish swimming back and forth in front of me, within range at 7 or 8 feet. It’s like I’m playing a game of underwater Duck Hunt, but it doesn’t prove to be so easy. My first shot misses and clangs into the rocks.

It’s not until I’ve gone up and down and shot and missed four or five times that I finally get the hang of steadying the gun underwater and aiming at a moving target in the moving water. Rob explains that you want to extend your arm and the gun, not keep it in tight. With new knowledge, I settle in behind the coral, extend my arm out in front, and pull the trigger. My shot goes straight through the head of a roi, or peacock grouper. It’s an invasive species and good target practice, Rob says. We remove the fish, put it on the buoy line, and I continue diving down, looking for more. On one of the next few dives, I realize something: I’m tired.

Most people can hold their breath for a minute or two before becoming uncomfortable. In theory, it sounds like plenty of time to get down there and fire. But don’t forget that you have to do it over and over again. Think of a weightlifter on the benchpress. He lifts his max weight once or twice,  and does reps at a much lower weight. You don’t have that luxury when spearfishing. You either have the lung capacity and stamina to keep diving, or you don’t. For me, this becomes the biggest problem. Factor in the currents and the strength it takes to reload the gun at the surface and the constant testing of the lungs, and it’s not long before I find myself huffing and puffing, my breath-holding endurance, or lack thereof, severely exposed. I think Rob is trying to make me feel better when he tells me that even experienced spearfishers have this trouble. But he’s just shining more light upon its dangers. “A lot of freedivers have underwater blackouts,” he says.

Shallow-water blackouts happen when people overbreathe at the surface before diving down. Overbreathing lowers your CO2 levels, which then confuses your body. Instead of feeling the need to breathe at the end of your breathhold, you pass out without warning. Without a buddy, you’re toast. Rob says, “You choose your friends based on safety.”

Tired and treading water, I become paranoid that maybe I’m starting to overbreathe, and decide to call it a day. I’ve chosen my friends well, and Rob agrees to go back to the boat. I have a fish to show for it, and I’m humbled by the experience. It’s one thing to read about how Hawaiians only spearfished in tide pools and shallow water. It’s another to get in and experience one of the reasons why.

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Take a Spearfishing LessonTake a Spearfishing Lesson

Ocean Legends on Nimitz Drive (near Costco) offers freediving and spearfishing lessons. But their main operations are as an International Diving Academy with a full range of outings and classes. Through its Veteran’s Program, it encourages retired military members to use their GI bills to become a certified dive instructor. General Manager Charlie Allen used his Post 9/11 GI Bill to do all of his dive training and start a new career.

“Diving helps many people in many different ways, for some it’s an adventure, and for others it may be an escape,” Allen says. “I want to help those people build life experiences and knowledge so that they can go out and pass on the same to someone else.”  Learn more at oceanlegends.com.

Ancient Advice: Pay Attention, Like Our Ancestors Did

Cultural Practitioner and SEARCH Hawai‘i Co-Star Kainoa Horcajo contemplates the Kaulana Mahina – the traditional Hawaiian calendar – as he enters fatherhood.

On Father’s Day of last year, my partner Summer gave birth to a baby girl. For the 9 months prior, the questions replaying over and over in my head were about the perils and opportunities of raising a child in the world today. Throughout the pregnancy, I thought about what I would want to teach our daughter, what values we would instill in her and how we would deliver these lessons to her as she grows.

12063527_10153207412951705_4569849697719631851_n (2)Parenting, much like life itself, is something that can only be learned by doing. But as we seek the correct course of action we fall back on what we know, what we are familiar with. And luckily for us here in Hawai‘i, the kūpuna and ka po‘e kahiko (the elders and the people of old) have given us today much wisdom to look to. This wisdom has guided me and it will guide how I raise my child in this modern world.

Last year, in the early stages of pregnancy, Summer and I attended a conference on O‘ahu dedicated to better understanding the traditional Hawaiian calendar system, sometimes called the Kaulana Mahina or the ‘Aimalama (which was also the name of this conference). Being there, learning about the patterns of the moon, sun, and stars and how they affected every aspect of our life was a gentle nudge of the way in which we were determined to raise our child. As this little sprout of life blossomed inside of Summer, we listened to farmers, fishermen, and cultural practitioners from all islands describe the different times that life blossomed in their homes.

Everyone had something to add. The best of them had already spent years learning from their kūpuna and training in the traditional calendars. They understood when the fish were spawning, when the flash floods would come, when the best time to plant certain crops were. They could connect these events with the flowering of certain flowers, the ripening of certain fruit and the rising and setting of the moon.

We learned about the monthly drift of Box Jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war into our waters at the same time every month, about 8 days following the full moon. We learned about those little but numerous dots of clouds that look like little pigs or dogs running across the sky. They mean that rain will come in a few days’ time.

This traditional calendar system observed the movement of the stars, sun, moon, and all natural phenomena to create a holistic place-based resource and behavior management system. It not only outlined what could be gathered or harvested at what times in what ways, but it oriented the individual within a framework of patterns found in the natural phenomena that was a part of, and integral to, the life of that individual within the particular land area, family group, and larger community.

This is the genius behind the Kaulana Mahina. It recognizes that different things happen at different times in different places. It recognizes that principles will always win over techniques. Most importantly, it recognizes that one of the most useful skills a person can have, both at home and on the road, is the ability to “Pay Attention.” Perhaps this too is part of the essence of the Wake and Wander philosophy. It is not just a technique of going into new environments but a principle of opening oneself to truly experiencing everything one encounters, a commitment to being unapologetically curious about anyone one meets.

Yes, I want my child to be strong, to be beautiful, to be smart, to be kind, to be compassionate, to be cautious, to be courageous, to be adaptable. But most importantly, I want her to understand on a deep level the hidden lesson of the calendar system. That in order to be each of these things at their appropriate time, she will need to cultivate a heightened and unwavering continuity of attention to all things.

Children learn fast, and I too will need to pay attention. Let’s just hope I can keep up.