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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


Another Good Guidebook: Paddling Hawai'i

By Tamia Nelson

December 2, 2003

Hawaii. The very name is evocative. Tropical beaches. Tall palms swaying against impossibly blue skies. Surf lapping gently against white sand. Volcanic peaks with emerald green flanks. Gossamer waterfalls plunging giddily into enchanted pools. Thundering surf and lapis lazuli waves. Grass skirts and leis and luaus. Warmth.

Not such a bad dream for a snow- and ice-bound paddler, eh? But all dreams must end sometime, and not all awakenings are gentle. I've lived in a tourist paradise for decades, and I've seen the same sad story play itself out time after time. People travel hundreds of miles chasing a dream — a dream of pine-scented hills and pristine lakes, of quiet and solitude and majesty. Yet many of these hopeful travelers return to their homes disappointed. It's not because the things they came in search of can't be found. The Adirondacks do have pine-scented hills and pristine lakes. Even quiet and solitude can still be had, for a price paid either in cash or sweat. But the promotional videos and brochures that nurture so many dreams show only part of the picture, and what lies outside the frame isn't always pretty. Illusions can shatter painfully fast when they smash into the flinty rock of reality.

That's why, when wind-driven snow began to rattle against the window over my desk and I found myself dreaming of warmth and sun and sand, I pushed the nascent vision of tropical paradise gently away. Instead, I asked myself some hard questions about paddling in Hawaii. Where, I wondered, would I find the answers?

I didn't have to look far. As luck would have it, I turned first to Audrey Sutherland's Paddling Hawai'i, published by the University of Hawai'i Press. This guidebook doesn't waste time. As soon as you pick it up, you'll notice the reverse apostrophe in the cover title, indicating an unfamiliar glottal stop: Hawai'i. Open the book, and you'll find a handy guide to pronunciation and orthography right up front. That, and the glossary at the end of the book, are all that any reader navigating the shoal waters of a new culture for the first time will need.

You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, of course. We all know that. But first impressions are important, aren't they? And Paddling Hawai'i does very well here. A guidebook should be easy to use. This one is. It's a sturdy paperback, in a handy size. If properly broken-in, it opens flat. The text is crisp and legible, the maps are clearly drawn, and the black-and-white photos are used to good effect. Best of all, the index is both thorough and well organized — rare qualities in any guidebook. (I have, however, found one error: the entry under "charts" refers readers to page 174. This should be 176.)

My early impressions, good as they were, improved still more on longer acquaintance. Paddling Hawai'i is, in fact, two books in one. The first, "How To," is a guide to equipment, technique, and planning. While experienced paddlers will probably skim over much of this, anyone visiting the Islands for the first time — or returning to them after a long absence — should be sure to study the chapters devoted to safety, wind and surf, and trip planning. Though a kayaker whose skills have been honed along the New England coast will be pleasantly surprised by Hawai'i's less than three-foot tidal range, she could easily find herself at sea when faced with relentless 20-knot trade winds. There's just no substitute for local knowledge.

Foodies will also discover much to whet their appetites: 'opihi, pipipi, pepeiao.… The list of Island delicacies is long and mouth-watering. Sutherland even tells you how to husk and open a coconut. (If you've never done it before, be prepared to sweat a bit. But practice makes perfect.) And speaking of sweat, remember the fate of Coleridge's ancient Mariner? "Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink." Well, you and I can't drink seawater, either. So it would be wonderful if we could assume that all Island streams were safe. No such luck. Even in paradise, the usual rule applies: if in doubt, doubt. And then treat the water. Sutherland drives this lesson home in unforgettable fashion.

As useful as the how-to section is, however, the meat of any guidebook is found in its "Where To." And Paddling Hawai'i doesn't disappoint here, either. In addition to detailed trip notes, you'll find brief but helpful discussions of access issues and sanitation. ("Where to go" obviously has more than one interpretation.) An appendix also offers a comprehensive — if inevitably dated — guide to other sources of information. Moreover, Sutherland has broken new ground. When describing the difficulty of specific trips, she employs a six-point scale of her own devising. Though apparently modeled after the AWA's International Scale of River Difficulty, Sutherland's ratings apply to coastal waters. They reflect exposure, the distance between landfalls, and likely winds and sea-state. It's a novel idea, and one that ought to prove helpful to paddlers who are new to Hawai'i, provided that they heed the author's own warnings: ratings can change from hour to hour, and there are no guarantees.

The trip notes themselves are grouped by island. Each trip is introduced by a short summary giving its Sutherland rating (usually an average arrived at by excluding "the worst times of the year," though there are both summer and winter ratings for some areas), the names of all necessary topographic maps, total length, the locations of possible put-ins and take-outs, special hazards, and the best time of year. A sketch map and detailed discussion follow. Stippling is used to mark the seaward side of the land-sea boundary on the maps. This runs counter to the usual convention, but it causes only momentary confusion. There's a small-scale map of Hawai'i at the beginning of the book. It includes a key to the symbols used on all the other maps. Distances are given in statute (land) miles, wind speeds in knots. (A knot is one nautical mile per hour, or 1.15 land miles per hour.)

So far, so good. But one question remains to be answered: Is the information in the book accurate? Unless you're an Islander or a frequent visitor, you won't know. So how can the rest of us tell? We can begin by searching for clues. Longevity counts. Paddling Hawai'i was originally published in 1988, so the book was in print for a decade before its 1998 revision. That's a good sign. Pedigree is important, too. The author lives in Hawai'i and has done so for nearly five decades. She's paddled or swum many miles of its waters. That's even better news. And the imprimatur of a good publisher means a lot. The University of Hawai'i isn't exactly a fly-by-night firm. Three out of three.

Finally, perform the acid test. Find an old Hawai'i hand and ask him what he thinks of the book's contents. I did just that. A paddling friend, a former naval officer with long-standing ties to the Islands, read this edition of Paddling Hawai'i. He gave the book a thumbs-up. That's a pretty good indication it's worth adding to your library. Don't think you can substitute this book — or any other — for competence or common sense, however, and don't be surprised if some things have changed since the last revision. Hawai'i is a popular paradise, and popularity brings rapid changes in its wake. Use the book's appendix and the Web to find up-to-date information on any area that interests you.

* * *

What's left to say? Only this. If you're dreaming winter dreams of someplace far away from slush and snowdrifts, and if the Islands are in your travel plans, you'll want to look at Paddling Hawai'i. It offers good reading, straight talk, and just enough romance to nourish any snow-bound northerner's imagination. That's enough for me. Aloha!

Sutherland, Audrey. Paddling Hawai'i, Rev. ed. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, Hawai'i; 1998. ISBN 0-8248-2041-X.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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