When our friends from Jamaica asked us to house sit their off-grid cottage in Mountain View on the Big Island of Hawaii this past winter we couldn’t say no. My wife Christian and I had been to Hawaii a few times before but never to the Big Island and only for extended vacations. We were to spend November and December on the Big Island house sitting, then heading over to Maui to become certified International Kiteboard Organization Instructors. Action Sports Maui, one of the longest running kite-surfing schools in the world was the only location offering the course in the U.S. for the season, so we joked about how we had to go to Hawaii for job training.
We had heard so many things about the Big Island during previous trips to Maui – some amazing and some a little wild. One friend that lives on Maui commented, “People that are institutionalized on the mainland run free on the Big Island.” In addition to its wild reputation there are also more Native Hawaiians on the Big Island. While Hawaiians are some of the nicest and most awesome people I have ever met, occasionally there is still some justified resentment towards the Euro-American Forces that have drastically changed and impacted the Hawaiian Islands and way of life. With these themes in mind I didn’t really know what to expect leading up to our departure.
After arriving at the Kona Airport our hosts Sandy and Joey picked us up in their Subaru Surf Wagon and we started the drive across the island over the mountain gap between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Heading up the 8,000 ft. pass, eco-systems seemed to change every 10 minutes. Towards the top there were about a dozen rainbows and it felt like we were driving on another planet. Coming into Hilo we stopped at Honolii to check out one of the more famous local surf breaks. Getting out of the car and walking down to the beach I made eye contact with a big local Hawaiian. His eyes popped opening wide with eyebrows raised and he gave us a huge smile. “Aloha” he said like we were old friends and we chatted about the beauty of this place and perfect surf.
Our first night up in Mountain View Sandy whipped up a delicious dinner and we talked by candle light with some Kona Beers, aka: Liquid Aloha. Christian and I would be staying in a tent for a week a hundred yards up the hill before moving into the cottage while Joey and Sandy spent the winter in Lake Tahoe. Our friend Justin also came for the season and was living in an 8 x 8 ft. Rubber Maid plastic shed. That first night they kept warning us about the rain on that part of the island. “Sometimes it’s nice for a while but sometimes it will rain non-stop for days and days” they said. Cozied up in our tent that night we talked about how amazing it was to be on this incredible island.
At about 1 am the rain started. Within a few minutes it turned into a torrential downpour and the wind started to whip the side of the tent. After an hour the wind and rain picked up even more. There was an easy-up tent tied to a little hoop green-house over our tent to help keep the water off the tent. We felt a heavy gust and immediately heard a loud crash. The easy-up and the green house blew over. We peaked outside the tent and there was destruction all around us. The canopies were still catching wind and upside down poles seemed like hazards, so we went outside into the sideways rain to secure the easy up with heavy lava rocks and took the canopy off the hoop house. Back in our tent soaking wet we looked at each other and said, “Wow, they weren’t kidding about the rain up here – what did we get ourselves into?”
The next morning we came down to the cottage and the giant car-port had been demolished in the storm. Sandy and Joey asked how our night was, concerned about us braving the storm in the tent. “You guys weren’t joking about the weather up here! Was that normal?” we asked. They half smiled and said “No, in the three years we’ve been here that’s the worst storm we’ve ever had.”
With a soggy half-night’s rest we were amped to get on the water. They wanted to show us all of their favorite spots before they left the island so we took a tour of the “beaches” from Reeds Bay to Richardson’s Beach Park just east of Hilo. Our favorite stop was Carlsmith Beach where turquoise clear lagoons were sheltered by large jagged lava rocks and sea turtles enjoyed the cold fresh spring water jutting into the ocean. We pumped up our Pau Hana Inflatable SUP’s and explored this amazing spot with snorkels and camera. Just a minute from the road and we were on remote waterways filled with sea turtles. We took turns paddling and snorkeling while the sun moved lower into the sky. After a perfect first day on the water we drove into Hilo and were introduced to what would become our favorite restaurant on the island - Lucy’s Mexican that served up giant delicious burritos at very reasonable prices.
The next day Joey and Sandy wanted to take us to their absolute favorite place - the Southeast corner of the island featuring Pahoa, Pohiki, and the Red Road. Driving into Pahoa, this quaint little village began to reveal itself. The people on the streets seemed like they came right out of a music festival that was never ending. I have long hair, a heavy beard, and prefer to roam through this world barefoot, but I felt like a clean-cut businessman walking down the street. After the brief stop, heading out of town the vegetation thickened into dense jungle and Joey stopped at a pull-off for his secret Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) spot. After a few moments Joey and Christian came bustling out of the forest with this precious fruit overflowing from their t-shirt baskets.
As we came closer to the water you could smell the salt in the air. We came to a gravel parking area with coconut palms, noni trees and a small boat ramp that led into a bay. Just off the small break-wall was a perfectly pealing right that came almost all the way into the rocky shore. Past that wave were two more rights and a gnarly looking left that seemed to break over shallow water. The spot is called Pohoiki and thermals from the volcano warmed the crystal clear tropical water. We pumped up our SUPs, grabbed a few short boards and headed out into the water. The waves had a great shape and face but also seemed a little forgiving. There were surfers young and old, locals and guests, all getting along in the water. Black sharp lava rock lined the shore topped by coconut palms and thick vegetation. It was amazing feeling the power of ocean swell push by in warm blue water. Sitting in the line-up the first time at Pohoiki with the love of my life and friends, it felt like being in a childhood dream.
Pohoiki and the surrounding area would become our go to spot for the next two months, surfing there dozens of times. Every time we would make friends with incredible people in the parking lot and on the water. We would swing by the warm ponds after an all-day surf session or sometimes check out a nearby break called Secrets that jacked hard over a shallow reef.
On my birthday a local friend named Christian, one of the only kiteboarders in the area, told us about kiting at a place called Kapoho Bay near Pohoiki. The Big Island has the highest concentration of razor sharp rocks, being the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, and as such has limited accessible kiteboarding opportunities. Hilo Bay is a great spot on north winds but the trades mostly blow east. You could kite at Kapoho on the normal eastern trade winds, but it required a rough 4-wheel drive approach, rigging and launching on lava rock, then wading through sharp rock while flying kite and carrying board to get into open water.
Once out in the bay, the ferocious winds created crazy chop and there seemed to be two or three swells from different directions mixing with the wind chop making it feel like kiteboarding in a washing machine. Additionally, if you messed up kiting in Kapoho Bay a self-rescue would be extremely challenging to say the least. Dealing with the chop aside, the entire bay is enclosed by lava rocks and sea walls protecting the few homes that lined the bay making an exit strategy very difficult. In these conditions I was incredibly grateful to be wearing my Kokatat Orbit Tour PFD. Originally we used this life vest as a lower profile alternative to the Maximus Centurion for whitewater, but quickly noticed it fits perfect as a kiteboarding PFD. Most traditional kiteboarding impact vests are more focused on padding and lack the buoyancy I prefer while kiting.
That day was my first time kiting in Hawaiii and the wild conditions and location made it an experience I’ll never forget. After a quick session my wife Christian and I snorkeled in some sheltered water and swam through channels next to people’s homes enjoying this slice of paradise.
Now, less than a year later, Kapoho and Pohiki are both gone - covered in fresh lava from the 2018 eruptions on the Big Island. The eruption started in a residential neighborhood called Lelani Estates where close friends of ours lived. While everyone living in the southeast corner of the Big Island is aware of the risk of unexpected lava flows, when they happen the impacts are no less devastating. Living on an active volcano it is easier to remember that we are only here because of the unique combination of conditions that allow for land, fertile soil, fresh water, salt water, and ideal temperatures for life. In short we are only here due to the love between our fertile mother the earth and energy provided by our father the sun.
Over ten years ago I was introduced to some indigenous people where I lived in Western Colorado and became immersed in indigenous worldviews and spirituality. Since then I have always tried to stay open to looking at this world from different perspectives. While on the Big Island of Hawaii we experienced an incredibly unique culture and quality of people. It seemed as if we had gone back in time. Life there is slower and much richer. One day on the way to the water we stopped at a gas station with surfboards strapped to the roof. A local Hawaiian came up and asked if we ever had surfed on the North Shore of Oahu. We replied we hadn’t yet but would love to (and indeed we did 4 months later which will be shared in Part III of this blog series). “That’s where I’m from” he stated and began to tell us a story about growing up around the infamous Eddie Aikau, sharing insights into surfing and life with us. We talked to this man for over half an hour while parked at the pump. A truck full of Papayas pulled up next to us. Christian asked to buy some but the Hawaiian in the truck insisted we just have a few.
Towards the end of our time on the Big Island we made a trip to the remote Green Sands Beach just past South Point – the southernmost tip on the Hawaiian Islands. On our way there we stopped at a secret beach a young surfer had shown us called Kawa Bay, looking to score some surf. Every time at Kawa Bay there would be a local Hawaiian taking care of the land at this incredible spot where freshwater springs come out of the land into managed pools and fish ponds. We would talk story for hours, sometimes listening to the legends of the surrounding hills, plants, and animals. Looking back now on those conversations and thinking of the current lava flow, I am reminded that the forces that create the conditions of life can sometimes be destructive. But I think maybe the awareness of the interplay between destruction and new life can give us a foundation of acting in the right way towards each other and mother earth. Sitting at the top of Volcano National Park at twilight looking down into the glowing crater or hiking through its steam vents and gnarly rocks or being in the power of the ocean, it is easy to feel the power of the earth and sun.
While on the Big Island I have never experienced so much genuine human interaction. Every person you passed would make eye contact and say hello. Back on the mainland half a year later I would pass a stranger on the street and pop my eyes wide like a Hawaiian without thinking and generally get a strange look. But every interaction is an opportunity to spread Aloha.
(Stay tuned for Part II of Winter in Hawaii: Maui Kite, Surf, SUP & Farm Life)
Our favorite stop was Carlsmith Beach where turquoise clear lagoons were sheltered by large jagged lava rocks and sea turtles enjoyed the cold fresh spring water jutting into the ocean.