Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Amanda Eller's heroic ordeal: How not to die while hiking in the Hawaiian Islands

Amanda Eller miraculously was found alive last week after enduring 17 days in the rainforest on Maui. Her story is about the enduring power of the human spirit, and also about hundreds of good people looking for her who were not going to give up—no matter what.

Note: As of May 30, a second Maui hiker, Noah 'Kekai' Mina, remains missing after climbing a ridge 10 days ago above Iao Valley. Godspeed to the rescue teams looking for him, and aloha nui to the family and friends of this beloved local man. Update: On May 31, Noah's body was recovered. He suffered a fall. The island mourns. Read on.

 Amanda's story is about the unique dangers of hiking in Hawaii—how a couple of slip-ups can turn a bad day into a tragedy. Almost weekly a visitor dies while on vacation, but the good news is that almost all of the hazards can be avoided.

Rule number one—no, let's make it rule number one through 10—is to stay on the trail. If you lose the trail, backtrack immediately to a known spot. While walking in on a trail, look back now and then so you will later recognize what it looks like coming out. If a location is reachable on foot, a trail will exist; don't try to point to a location on a map and blaze your own route. 

Don't try to use GPS or a compass to find a route. These tools might be helpful, but you will find the route using your eyes and feet. The mountain terrain in Hawaii is too steep and choked with greenery to walk in a chosen direction, even for King Kong.

Note the time you depart on a hike and the number hour of daylight hours you have. Know when half the hours are used up and then turn back. It's easy to get sucked into a beautiful spot (like Haleakala above) and not realize how far the return is.

The normal hiking safety tips apply doubly in Hawaii: Never start on a hike without an equipped daypack. Prepare for heat and cold. Bring water and food. If you do hike alone (not advisable) then make sure to let someone know where you are going. It's easy to get out of the car intent on just taking a peek at a trail, only to find yourself venturing farther. Take the pack. And—this goes without saying these days—take your cell phone.

Stay away from cliff edges. Hawaiian trails commonly go up ridges that are very narrow. Greenery disguises drop-offs. Being injured is no joke in remote locations, and a remote location may be only one step away.

Nothing can be more mellow than barefooting through the sand at the foamy shoreline of a Hawaiian beach. But, believe it or not, more people die in this situation than on mountain trails. The photo above depicts a safe day. But stay well back from the shore when high surf is present. Beaches in Hawaii have nuanced shorelines, resulting in freak wave action and with steep sand into the water. People get knocked down and swept away. Don't turn your back on waves and stay inland from wet sand. When walking coastal bluffs, don't venture out onto wet rocks.

Hiking poles are almost essential gear for Hawaiian trails—for stream crossings and navigating steep, rooted, slippery mountain descents. 

The sign above says, respect the land. This concept is ingrained in Hawaii, where people survived for nearly 2,000 years by keeping agricultural and fishing practices in balance with nature. Do or die. This concept cuts two ways: Respect means protecting nature from human impact; it also means respecting the power in Mother Nature compared to mere humans.

Playing in a pool beneath a waterfall is fodder for fantasy postcards. Remember that rocks and limbs can be falling with that water

Streambeds  are another common danger zone for hikers, and valley trails often require several crossings. Flash floods can be lethal, sweeping hikers away. Heavy rains are common in the subtropics, and steep terrain means stream levels can rise dramatically.

 It can be raining a few miles up the mountain and dry downslope. If you get caught on the wrong side of a stream during high water don't try to cross—wait until the waters recedes. In a narrow stream valley, get to high ground fast if you hear (don't worry, you'll know) or see a flash flood coming.

You'll do enough bouldering while on trails. Don't rock climb. The land is unstable.

All of the above is not to scare visitors. Nature in Hawaii isn't going to jump out and grab you. But many visitors get off the plane thinking the Islands are Disneyland.

Trailblazer guides—for Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island—have detailed safety precautions. Some of the tips are general, but the guides also list the hazards associated with a specific trail or beach. As long as you are aware, you will be fine. Aloha!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Highs and Lows of Hilo

Let's start with the finish: Until you've seen Hilo, you really haven't seen the Big Island of Hawaii. This is where most people of Hawaiian descent live and where the lush tropical greenery is astounding. 

The downside—and the reason it's so beautiful—is that it rains like a big dog, about 200 inches per year. A former downside—volcanic smog, called vog—is no longer present, since the volcano goddess Pele put a cork in her blowhole earlier this year, revealing blue skies for the first time in about 30 years. Another former downside that is no longer present is the long drive from Kona. Now, the spiffy new Saddle Road makes a day trip a breeze, cutting a smooth swath across the island between the massive volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. 

Several of the best beach parks in all of Hawaii are along the shores of Hilo Bay, a couple miles from Hilo Town. Onekahakaha Beach Park (above) is a family fave, featuring a large man-made swimming oval. The place is hopping on weekends.

A mile father out the bayshore is lovely Carlsmith Beach Park. Quiet lagoons are backed by gardens, and a short trail squirms through a pandanus tree grove (the leaves are used to make hats, baskets, and mats) that is the Lokoaka Wilderness Park.

Carlsmith also has a huge, protected swimming area, where you can stroke alongside turtles.

Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer recommendation

Closer to Hilo Town is Moku Ola (a.k.a, Coconut Island), a quick dash across a footbridge. From the island's tiara of palms is an unforgettable view toward the town, hunkered below the twin 14,000-foot volcanoes. The Wailuku River rages down the saddle between the peaks and through the center of Hilo.

Historically, Moku Ola was revered for the healing powers of its waters. Might as well give it a try, since the snorkeling is good for sure. Intrepid teens like to dive from the black-rock tower.

Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer recommendation

On the shore side of of the island's bridge is Liliuokalani Gardens, a fabulous freebie. The garden's Japanese designer, Kinsaku Nakane, was inspired by other gardens he created in Kyoto.

Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer recommendation

Old-west style Hilo Town hangs as loose as a hula dancers hips. Gentrification harmonizes with dilapidation, resulting in one of Hawaii's best walk-around towns. The Hilo Farmers Market (Saturday is best) is the most bountiful in the state—and that's saying something.

Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer recommendation

Right across the street from town is Bayshore Park, home to weekend events and daily outings by local outrigger canoe clubs.

Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer Recommendation

Historical and cultural sites are all around Hilo. The Pohaku Naha stone, all 3-plus tons of it, is now parked in front of the library. When, as a young lad,  Kamehameha the Great, was able to budge it, he was awarded custody of the war god, Ku. Smart choice. He went on to become the ruler of all the islands.

We're just getting started with all the stuff in and around Hilo, especially when you consider that  Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Puna Coast are less than an hour's drive away.

Get ahold of Hawaii the Big Island Trailblazer (look for the 2019, 20th anniversary edition) and give it a good looking over before your visit.