Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 10.15.2009

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Pearls of Paradise Hawaiian Islands are an ecological paradox


Pearls of Paradise
Hawaiian Islands are an ecological paradox
By Roy Keene

The main Hawaiian Islands, closer to the equator than Key West, Florida, constitute the most tropical state in the union. Isolated in the middle of the Pacific, the islands have some of the sweetest air, cleanest ocean, and gentlest climates on the planet. Except for when the smoke from the volcano drifts in, floods wash raw sewage out to sea, or a typhoon roars across the land. Hawaii, the most fossil fuel dependent state, is also an ecological paradox. With 175 natural communities and 11 out of 13 of the worlds climate zones, the islands still suffer from mass extinction … more than 1,000 native species lost since human settlement!

I’m remembering a morning in Maui last February. We’re sipping coffees at sunrise in a little cove at the edge of Haleakala Volcano National Park. Humpbacks breach off shore, green turtles bob in the surf. A perfect breeze carries plumeria blooms and ripe mangoes to us. Hoping for crumbs, mynah birds and doves cuckle and coo around our bare feet. Some folks say this place is the fourth chakra of the planet. Maybe so. It’s definitely, in spite of its flaws, as close to paradise on Earth as I’ve been.

My first adventure in the islands was on Hawaii, “Big Island.” The morning after arriving we were snorkeling a coral reef south of Kealakekoa Bay. Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by spinner dolphins. Swishing by, smiling, squealing, saying “Aloha, come to our island.” After this encounter, I began to think seriously about moving across the Pacific.

Larger than the other islands combined, Big Island is the the farthest south, the youngest, and still growing as molten lava flows into the ocean to solidify into land. Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on earth, dominates, having erupted 39 times since 1832. Did Pele sympathize with the locals who curse tourism when she pumped up the sulphurous volcanic out gasses? “VOG” has partnered with the economic downslide to significantly decrease visitation to Big Island. If you’re OK with a little taste of the inferno, there are bargains to be had with rents, cars, and open camp spots.

While researching nene goose populations on Big Island a few years ago, I camped midway up the east flank of Mauna Kea in the Forest Reserves. Above 4,000 feet the weather cools, there are residual native birds, plants, forest communities, and old trails to seek and explore. On Mauna Loa’s flank, when VOG drifts westerly, you can hike in from the roads end south of Pahoa to where live lava flows. Exploring these volcanoes is to see creation.

Hilo, the big town in Big Island, can be wet but pleasant. A bit of old Hawaii when you get off the strips, it’s home to a University of Hawaii campus, the Merry Monarch Festival, and the best farmers market. Across the mountain, before the new volcanic spewing, the Captain Cook area, with its little coffee farms and bright coral reefs, was my favorite hangout.

Big Island’s shoreline is mostly rock. Its best sandy beaches, in the rain shadow of Mauna Kea north of Kona, are dry and warm in the winter, ideal for sun seekers. No wonder the accessible stretches are occupied by expensive resorts that begrudgingly share sand and surf with the public. At least, by law, they have to share. If you’re heading to the islands in the winter to find a wider range of warm sandy beaches, also consider Maui.

Maui has consistently been my main island for beaches. From Maui’s northern shore all the way down the windward side past Hana, expect strong wind and wave action during winter. Lots of board sport opportunity but not as much for swimmers, snorkelers, or divers. Winter generally limits calm and sunny ocean experiences to mountain rain shadows such as Kaanapili or Kihei south. I think the best underwater world is in the southwest, a walk from roads end into La Perouse Bay, locally the “fishbowl.” Most of Maui’s easy beaches are well peopled, especially on weekends. A Sunday crowd didn’t, however, prevent my daughter and I from snorkeling out off Black Rock to watch a mama humpback nurse her one-ton baby in 60 feet of water.

If you’re looking for nightlife, art, entertainment, and tourist flavored culture in Maui, Lahaina is the best choice. This historic whaling village is now whale watching headquarters in the islands. To duck the crowds, head to Hana on a narrow road that snakes along between ocean, forests, and frequent waterfalls. The Koolau Forest Reserve has maintained trails, beautiful tree groves, and surreal bamboo forests. South of Hana the road goes to dirt, the wind weakens, there are quiet coves and beaches, life is good. Fill up on gas and groceries in Kahului before heading south or pay the price at the Hana Ranch store.

Oahu, the “gathering place,” is the island that 75 percent of Hawaii’s permanent population calls home. This island also has a huge military presence: Air Force, Army, Marine, National Guard, and the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and Command. On a small sloop out of Honolulu, we were startled by a missile sub surfacing a quarter mile off our bow. Just because you can’t always see or hear the military doesn’t mean they’re not there. But don’t let this keep you from the gathering. There’s no place quite like the fabled North Shore when surf’s up or the mystical city of Honolulu on a balmy full moon night.

Honolulu is a social and cultural smorgasbord. If you visit in February, Fat Tuesday is a huge street party as is the Chinese New year celebration. First Friday of every month is Art Walk — like Eugene’s, only open later. China Town, especially early morning when markets are fresh and tea is brewing, is a trip into another country.

There’s some equally diverse architecture gracing the city; the Iolani Royal Palace, the Moana Hotel, the Capitol Building, surrounded by water to represent the island, the old Aloha Tower at harbor’s edge, and many unique temples. There’s the Pearl Harbor National Monument with its tribute to war’s sacrifices and the Japanese Byodo-In at Temple Valley with a great Lotus Buddha and three-ton brass Peace Bell. And, for the politically faithful, there’s the Obama neighborhood tour.

Honolulu’s serene temples and gardens contrast starkly with the hustle of Waikiki. If you haven’t strolled down this bizarre beach, be sure to, it’s a trip. Keep walking west, there’s a stretch of safer, saner beach called Ala Moana Park. A length of warm sand and sheltered water perfect for little ones. Bigger kids can rent a board, scoot out through channels in the sheltering reef, and catch outside breaks without the crowds.

Over the Koolau mountains from Honolulu, on the windward side of Oahu, is Kailua. No high rises or resort hotels, Kailua town offers laid back living if you can find a room or house to rent. The three mile beach is sheltered by an outside reef but not from winds, making it a kite board mecca. There are bike trails, parks, lots of barbecue, burgers, and sushi. If you’re after fine dining and late night life, stay in Honolulu. Still, last Christmas Eve, I was at a party across the canal from the Obama family compound, a very chique night out for Kailua. In early winter, Kailua can live up to it’s Hawaiian name, “Toilet Water,” when raw sewage washes into the bay during heavy storm runoff.

Northwest of Oahu, Kauai is a popular first-time destination for many visitors, statistically the only Hawaiian island many ever see. It is, I think, by default that it becomes many people’s favorite. The northern and smallest island of the main four, Kauai’s mile high mountain range is supposedly the rainiest place on the planet. Comparatively cooler and wetter than the southern islands, winter sun seekers with only 10 days to tan are cautioned.

I was hiking a ridge on the “rooster” island a few years ago when a brace of 747s landed. Soon the air space over the Na Pali coast and canyon was filled with tour helicopters. Kauai’s easily accessible areas, including airspace, can get crowded quickly. The wilder side is on the less populated windward beaches and in the north shore valleys that open up from the ocean.

Kalalau is one of them, a tedious 12-mile hike or a four-hour paddle from Ha’ena in calm ocean. State park land, there’s no private dwellings or resorts in the valley, just squatters, including savvy Gulf vets who trained on the islands and returned. My daughter Krista, friends with some of them, has been in the valley for months, honing her hammock weaving and survival skills. Once you learn the ropes, it’s a near perfect place to live outdoors.

The Hawaiian islands are a paradise for people living with the “aina” as well as many of us who visit. But the islands also hold a few paradoxes and perils. Get slammed hard in rough surf, stranded by a typhoon, caught in a cloud of volcanic gas, or sickened by sewage, and Hawaii doesn’t seem so heavenly. Some perils, however, are more subtle, often entwined within the sweet air, lush forests, and warm beaches. 

Perils of Paradise

Kenny Cox, a champion wrestler from Eugene, went to Kauai seeking a wild paradise. In his early 30s and physical peak, he was able to hike into remote locations and live simply with the land. Having never been to Hawaii before, Kenny visited with me and other island adventures to get the inside scoop. Along with monster centipedes and aggressive tiger sharks and pot growers, we talked about more subtle dangers like foot wounds, mosquito swarms, and untreated fresh water. Kenny, as powerful and capable as he was, died in Kauai. I think, as do my island friends, he suffered complications from a tropical bacterial infection. One that, coming from the Northwest, he had no immunity to.

My daughter Krista was in the Kalalau valley during Kenny’s visit. On the island 10 years and with a masters in Chinese medicine, she’s learned to be careful. She and her landed friends boil stream water before drinking. She carries antibiotics and a little household bleach in tropical back country. If you’re in a hurry, 12 drops of bleach per filtered gallon kills critters, rendering water safer, though chlorine flavored. Antibiotics, especially the cheap old-time “sulfa” drugs, will often check an infection until you can get medical treatment.

Once away from Hawaii’s urban and resort chemical controls, there will be more encounters with significant populations of not-so-aloha tropical bacteria, parasites, and pests. For example, mosquitoes, annoying here in the Northwest, can be dangerous in tropical climates. Among other diseases, Dengue fever is carried and spread by Aedes mosquitoes. Confined to more tropical latitudes before globalization and climate warming helped them spread, this black and white banded mosquito is a day biter. There was a mini outbreak of dengue fever on Maui a few years back. Best prevention is not to get bit a lot, which may require covering up with clothes, mosquito netting, or using effective (DEET) repellents.

Leptospirosis, a disease causing bacteria, is easily passed from animal urine and feces to humans. Fairly common in the islands, it’s found in fresh water sources shared with mice, rats, mongooses, goats, and wild pigs. Lepto can live a long time even in moist soil and can enter the body through many places. Swimming and wading can expose you as well as drinking contaminated water. Lipto comes on like flu with fever, chills, aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Antibiotic treatment is usually effective if diagnosed early. Untreated, this disease can be fatal.

Rat lungworm Angiostrongylus cantonensis, is a tiny tropical worm passed through rats and snails to humans, often through raw or poorly washed vegetables. There are cane rats and snails all over the islands and in nearly every garden. It’s possible for these parasites to migrate into the cerebral fluid, causing a form of meningitis. Victims may suffer pain, paralysis, or blindness. There’s no official cure, although the symptoms can be treated. Make sure those yummy organic salad greens are washed carefully carefully.

Hawaii medical care facilities reportedly have the nation’s highest infection rate for a dangerous, drug-resistant staph germ. Called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MERSA), it can’t be tamed by certain common antibiotics. It is potentially fatal and can be spread by touch. MERSA is commonly associated with severe skin infections, but can also causes blood infections, pneumonia and other illnesses. Staph germs live and spread easier in Hawaii’s mild climate and tropical environs than they do in the chilly Northwest.

The marvelous Hawaiian ocean, my favorite environment, is a major cause of tourist fatalities and injuries. An average of 50 people a year drown in Hawaii, often stunned by surprisingly powerful waves coming in from across the Pacific. There are periods, like during off shore winds or a week after full moons, of intense jelly fish activity. The Hawaiian box jelly fish, though smaller and more difficult to see than the Portuguese man-of-war, is every bit as painful and toxic. If you see fresh jellies washed up on the beach, find another spot to swim.

Hawaii trails Florida for the most shark attacks in the U.S., tying with California for second place. Of course Florida and Hawaii have more user friendly beachs and a lot more people in the ocean annually than, say, Rhode Island’s coast. To reduce a statistically small chance of a shark taste test, don’t swim or surf at night and stay out of dirty water during floods or runoffs. And be respectful with coral, not only to avoid damaging fragile reefs, but because the cuts are painful and easily infected, especially on the feet. If you get scraped, be sure to get even the smallest pieces cleaned out thoroughly.

A single cautionary word about automobile traffic in Hawaii: Jay walking a busy boulevard can get you into more trouble than it does in Oregon!

When Northwesterners visit a tropical place even as friendly as Hawaii, they should realize how little experience and immunity they have within the local environment. A good way to stay well in any environment, even when riding a bike in Eugene, is to be aware of the common perils and alert to the possibility of the uncommon.