Rain-soaked in Hawaii — making the best of it

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 20:00

On the Hawaiian island of Kauai three weeks ago, the rain was coming down in buckets, turning small streams into raging torrents, causing mudslides and flooding that closed roads and schools. Kauaian old timers were saying it was one of the biggest rainfalls in recent memory, wondering if they had done something to offend the great Hawaiian god Kane.

On a vacation to flee Alaska’s endless snows, a friend and I were right in the middle of it. We’d managed to salvage at least 2 1/2 days in late February for an 11-mile trek into Kalalau Beach on the famed Na Pali coast, where scores of movies have been made.

Trekking carefully along the narrow trail that was first cut into the steep slopes and cliffs by Hawaiians in the early 1800s, we noticed humpback whales breaching less than a mile offshore. Like us, they were migrants from Alaska, but they were now engaged in courtship prior to mating.

Hiking was slow on the muddy, washed out trail, so we didn’t reach our permitted Kalalau campsite until sunset, which meant putting up our tent by headlight. At 21 degrees north latitude, dark comes unbelievably fast, like someone pulling down a window shade. And it’s can’t-see-the-hand-in-front-of-the-face dark, not the semi-darkness we have in Alaska.

We spent two idyllic days exploring the Kalalau Beach area, set against the towering cliffs and spires that remain cloaked in green throughout the year. We hobnobbed with locals, some nude, who eke out a living in the area with the help of gardens and supplies brought in by friends either by boat or on the trail. We didn’t trust the weather, however, so on the third day decided to pack up and get back on the trail.

Our plan was to camp one night at Mile 6, Hanakoa Valley, and journey a mile up to the waterfall on the following day.

As it turned out, March came in like a lion armed with a hose connected to the most water-laden clouds nature has ever created. At Hanakoa, the clouds let loose with a deluge that flooded all the campsites and soaked us to the bone. We managed to cross the swollen stream and kept on moving. Because the muddy trail was so slippery, we attached those spring-coil ice creepers to our boots that we use in Alaska. Slipping and sliding, other hikers were intrigued by our unique accessories.

We made another successful stream crossing at Mile 2, Hanakapiai, and could see that its level was also rising quickly. People sometimes get trapped on the far side of that stream and must be rescued or wait until waters subside. About a week after we were on the trail, a woman attempting to cross the stream was swept out to sea and drowned.

Not long after we returned from Kalalau, the main community on Kauai, Lihue, was drenched by continuous rains for days on end. One of the communities on the north shore, Hanalei, received 17 inches in 24 hours and 10 inches the day before.

“No problem,” I told my friend Carl, who, like me was becoming disgruntled with the weather. “All we have to do is head out for the west side of the island. It’s ALWAYS sunny over there when it’s raining everywhere else.”

My rain-dodging trick had worked many times before on other visits, but not this time. The dominant weather pattern in the Hawaiian Islands is formed by the trade winds that flow from the east and northeast. The current pattern, a big low stalled right over Kauai, was bringing winds from the southwest. The western side that is normally desert dry was being saturated, and typically wet areas like the eastern and northern shores were being inundated.

We were going stir crazy. Outside the condo window we could see small ponds turning into lakes, as the parking lot quickly grew into a solid body of water. Then I recalled a remark from my mother when as a child, I complained about Seward’s incessant rain and how there was nothing to do.

“You just have to make the best of it,” she would say. “You have to make your own fun no matter what the weather is like.”

“Let’s go for Honopu Ridge up in Kokee State Park,” I said.

“It’s raining everywhere,” Carl sighed.

“Let’s go for it. We’ve got rain gear and the grippers for our boots.”

Again, we were fortunate. Up at Kokee Park’s 4,000-foot level it wasn’t raining nearly as hard, and we had a Kauaian friend to accompany us. She’s a naturalist, author and former tour guide, and her extensive knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna made the trip quite special, despite the rain. The clouds even parted for about 10 minutes to reveal a breathtaking view of Honopu Valley and the Na Pali coast.

Of the 10 days spent on the island, only half were partly sunny. But I felt we’d made the best of it, as my mom had advised those many years ago.

It’s no different anywhere, I guess. I have a good friend who recently relocated to Perth, Australia. An avid Alaskan mountain climber and backcountry skier, he is now getting into water sports like surfing.

When I lived in Houston, Texas for a brief spell, I became an avid bicycler.

It’s the same here. Soft, deep snow means big snowshoes or long skis. Cold means dressing appropriately. Longer days mean longer outings.

A few days after returning from Hawaii, I went outside and sat on my front porch, taking in the sun, working on the tan that eluded me while on vacation.

I was finally home, and I wanted to make the best of it.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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