Round and Round We Go

First off, a hearty welcome to the nearly 200 (!) of you who started following this blog in the past few days. WordPress picked up my Finger Lakes post about waterfalls in Watkins Glen, NY as one of their “Discover” favorites (see the cute little medallion at right), whereupon my email inbox immediately exploded with hundreds of views, “likes”, comments, and subscriptions from an astounding 41 countries. The power of the Web! But now I feel obliged to feed the proverbial beast with a new post.

If I had been alive in about 1890, I might have had the insight that people would pay money to get a panoramic birds-eye view of their surroundings. And so I would have built an open-frame tower with some kind of elevator-like platform. People would buy a ticket and I would hoist them up and down maybe a half dozen times. Maybe I’d called it “Rich’s Tower”.

One day, a guy named George Ferris might come along, ride up and down a few times, then come up to me and say, “You know what, Rich? You’ve got the right idea but you are a moron.” Then he’d punch me in the nose and go invent the Ferris wheel.

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Well, the last four words of that tale are basically true. George Washington Ferris , Jr. (1859-1896) did in fact invent the modern version of the Ferris wheel, building a 264 ft (80.4 m) iron behemoth for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. He was motivated by wanting to “out-Eiffel” Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower (which is much taller) had opened in Paris four years earlier. Ferris’s original wheel could carry over 2100 people at a time.

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So-called “pleasure wheels” had actually been around for centuries, made mostly of wood and usually quite small by modern standards. Ferris’s contribution was an all-iron design and construction — particularly the central axle — that could support much more weight and thus be made much bigger. Here’s a view of a contemporary bit of Ferris’s handiwork, the hub of the 180 ft (54 m) “Capital Wheel” just outside Washington DC. (All of the photos in this post are from that wheel, which is about a half drive from our home.)

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Ferris’s name is thus famous throughout the English-speaking world, entirely because of its association with his wheel. But most other countries have left him out of the nomenclatural picture: in most languages, the object is simply called the equivalent of “giant wheel”, or something similar. One of the exceptions is Spanish, in which it is a rueda de ferris. But as for most of the others, see for yourself:

  • Dutch/German:        Reuzenrad/Riesenrad
  • French:                      Grand roue
  • Italian:                       Ruota panoramica
  • Russian:                     колесо обозрения (koleso obozreniya, “overview wheel”)
  • Japanese:                   観覧車 (kanran-sha, “viewing wheel”)

…and so on. But my favorite is definitely Farsi, in which it is چرخ فلک, pronounced charkhe-falak. It means “wheel of the universe”, which I find very poetic. (Shout-out to my friend Mo K for telling me this!)

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The name notwithstanding, the world seems to be engaged in some kind of Ferris wheel arms race to see who can build the biggest one. The famous London Eye, built for the Y2K millennium celebrations in 1999, was a wonder of the world at the time, 443 ft (135 m) high, but has since been eclipsed by 476 ft (145 m)  and 525 ft (160 m) ones in China and a 541 ft (165 m) giant in Singapore. But this is America, dammit, and if we’re going to Make America Great Again we need the biggest Ferris wheel on the planet. Which is why the tallest in the world at this moment, at a stratospheric 550 ft (167.6 m), is in… Las Vegas! It is called the High Roller, which I must grudgingly admit is extremely clever. But there’s an even taller one being planned for New York City.

Of course, the world being what it is, this won’t last. As I type this, the oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are with characteristic understatement constructing the Dubai Eye, which will give a panoramic view of sand — lots and lots of sand — from a dizzying 690 ft (210 m) height.

Alice and I are Ferris wheel fans, though not obsessively so. We’ve been on a few famous ones, e.g., in Vienna (which has appeared in a number of movies), Santa Monica, and Capetown. As it happens we will be in London in late September and will certainly ride on the Eye. So I will close with this shot from the Capital Wheel, in which a (literally) reflective Alice surveys her domain from on high.

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Pretty cool, huh?

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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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Last Day on Kauai

A week ago I promised a photo of our AirBnB on Kauai, the aptly-named Asia House. Here are two:

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Our room was off the hall through the doorway left of center in the picture.

Our last day in Princeville was a beautiful one, sunny and warm, and so we undertook the somewhat precarious hike down the hillside to Queen’s Bath, popular local swimming hole. (And I use that term literally, as you’ll see in a moment.) When I say that the hike was precarious, I am paraphrasing the local authorities, who are little more emphatic as evidenced by this sign at the trailhead.

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The path down was muddy, rocky, root-tangled, and generally difficult, but the view at the destination was hard to beat:

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The Queen’s Bath itself is an idyllic natural tide pool adjacent to the above scene. We were lucky to be there at low tide on a relatively calm day, and so the dire warnings on the trailhead sign were somewhat less applicable than usual.

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The pool is seven or eight feet deep and attracts a lot of families on nice days (of which this was one). Waves occasionally crashed over the left side, injecting the pool with white sea foam that made it look like some kind of giant tropical soft drink. It’s pretty easy to see how on a rough day the pool and surrounding rock shelf could be incredibly hazardous: there’s a nearby hand-carved sign with etched tick marks indicating the number of drownings (29 so far over the past few decades). But it was heavenly yesterday.

A storm moved in last night. We left Kauai this morning under heavily overcast skies and landed a half hour later in Honolulu in the middle of a downpour. The weather is supposed to stay bad for another day or two, but no matter… we’re here primarily to visit our old friends. Then it’s off to Arizona before heading home.

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Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.

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The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:

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If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.

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The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:

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When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:

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(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.

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The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.

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We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:

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Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior

 

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One of six zillion waterfalls

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Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista

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Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:

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Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:

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Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.

 

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Kauai? Because I Said So, That’s Kauai!

(Stop groaning. If our flight here had been canceled then the title of this post would have been “Kauai? Kauai Not!”)

Hawaii is on the move, as you may know. The entire chain sits on a continental plate that is sliding in a northwesterly direction over a “hot spot”, a magma plume in the Earth’s mantle, racing towards Japan at the breakneck speed of about 3″ (8 cm) per year.  (I would suggest that the entire archipelago is fleeing the results of the presidential election, but it has actually been going on for a lot longer than that.) The underlying magma plume is actually the very source of the islands, each in its turn having been born as a volcano over the hot spot. And indeed, the next island in the chain has already been spotted in its expected location, southeast of the Big Island, still in the form of an underwater volcano. It even has a name — Loihi — so if you’re a canny real estate investor you want to get in on the ground floor of some great beachfront property in half a million years or so.

The major Hawaiian islands average roughly 80 miles (130 km) apart. Moving at 3″ a year over the hot spot, do the math and you’d expect each island to be roughly a million and half years older than its neighbor to the southeast. And you’d be right: the Big Island is about a million years old; Kauai, which is four islands and 315 miles (500 km) away, about 5 million.

I mention all this geology because it explains the important differences in appearance between Kauai and the Big Island, i.e. the islands appear to be eroding “in reverse”. Back on the mainland, young mountain ranges like the Rockies are all sharp and craggy; as they age they are eroded down into more gentle slopes like the Appalachians. But the Hawaiian Islands are different: unlike the granite Rockies or Alps, they are made of comparatively soft basaltic lava. Since lava is more or less liquid, the young Hawaiian islands, e.g. the Big Island are smooth with gentle slopes; the wind, rain, and sea gradually chip away at the lava like aeolian parrotfish gnawing on coral, sculpting it into rough craggy shapes. So where the Big Island has the smooth slopes of Mauna Kea, Kauai has the angular, crenelated Na Pali Coast:

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…and vistas like this:

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That’s taro growing in the foreground, by the way, the stuff from which poi, that famous Hawaiian staple, is made. It looks and tastes like library paste. If you visit the islands, eating poi is an experience that is definitely to be missed. And no, I did not unintentionally leave out the word “not” in that last sentence.

For similar reasons, the very sand and soil of Kauai differ markedly from the Big Island. On the Big Island they are basically crushed lava, black and granular. On Kauai the elements and plant life have had more time to do their work: sand and soil are finer, and rather orange in color from the high iron content. And very, very fertile: Kauai is nothing if not green.

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We arrived early yesterday afternoon and will be here for a week. However, I confess that we made something of a tactical error in choosing where to stay. Kauai is small and oval in shape, about 33 miles (53 km) wide by 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. There’s basically only a single main road, one or two lanes in each direction,  encircling the island… except that it doesn’t actually encircle it. There’s a chunk missing in the northwest corner where the Na Pali coast is in the way, so if you’re staying on the north side of the island and you need to get somewhere in the southwest, you basically have to drive 3/4 of the way around. This is happening to us.

The southern and southeastern parts of the island is — with the exception of the Na Pali coast itself — where a large fraction of the island’s activities take place: snorkeling, sailing, and such. That is especially so in the winter, since the surf on the northern shores is especially rough at this time of year. The other times that I have been here have always involved staying near the town of Poipu in the southeast; Alice and I decided to do something different this time and stay up north, near the town of Princeville, a rather more lush and wild area that is closer to Na Pali and home to a lot of the island’s very upscale resorts (i.e., places that are too rich for our taste and bank account). But precisely because the north shore is so rough in winter, a lot of our planned activities are going to involve 1-2 drives. Oh well.

The north does enjoy the most beautiful beaches on the island — pity that we’ll die if we actually use them, since their surf these days is up to nearly 20 ft, which is a damn big wave. At least we can look at them before driving an hour if we want to go snorkeling. One of the most beautiful beaches is at Hanalei Bay, fronted by a tiny town of the same name that consists of 500 residents and a couple of locally-themed strip malls with restaurants and souvenir shops.  A lot of movies have been filmed at Hanalei because of the spectacular beach, and it is a popular legend that the name of the town was the inspiration for “a land called Honalee” in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There is alas no actual evidence for this whatever. (Feel free to pass it on as an “alternative fact”, though.)

As you can tell from the above photos, the weather today was mostly overcast, though we did get sun in the afternoon. As you might expect on a small tropical islands, conditions can change dramatically with very little notice, though only up to a point: the north shore is relaiably rough in the winter, and the sailing and diving tour operators shut down their operations on this part of the island during the winter months. But the Na Pali coast is still accessible on foot and can be viewed from the sea; we hiked about a half mile into it (and up it) this afternoon to get the topmost photo and this one:

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The white surf in that image tells you everything you need to know about the desirability of going into the water. The hike up to this point was real work, a steep and treacherous stone, mud, and tangled-root path whose reward was these vistas and a gale-force wind at the top. How windy was it? While I was taking these photos the wind blew every hair clip out of Alice’s hair. That’s how windy it was. Oh, and here are the signs at the trailhead welcoming you to this particular undertaking. “Have fun! You’re going to die!”

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Roads on this part of the island are scenic and a little too exciting, being narrow and frequently punctuated with hairpin turns overlooking green cliffs. (This is especially fun at night, there being no street lights or towns to provide even a ghost of illumination.) There are a number of one-lane bridges over small rivers; the local convention, when there is a line of traffic in both directions, is for about a half dozen cars from one side to go, then switch to the other. I accidentally transgressed this tradition at a somewhat confusing juncture that had two consecutive bridges separated by a tight turn: two consecutive drivers coming from the oncoming direction informed me of my error in terms that very definitely lacked the Aloha Spirit.

But what northern Kauai lacks in infrastructure it makes up in local charm in a glorious setting, e.g, this farmer’s market where we bought local fruit, nuts, and other goodies:

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Our B&B certainly has its own share of atmosphere. It is called “Asia House”, a rather incongruous pagoda-like residence in the midst of a spectacularly-manicured upscale golf resort community. It is the residence of a cheery unconventional couple who I’d guess to be in their 60’s: short and portly Coral, an artist who makes jewelry, and her husband Ian, a tall and lanky Scot who designed the place. They have quarters for two sets of guests but most of the house is their residence. I’ll post some photos of the place later if I get a chance.

We are hoping that the changeable weather is not too changeable, since we are scheduled for a helicopter tour of the island tomorrow afternoon. If that comes off, you’ll see the pictures here.

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Something Fishy This Way Swims

Not much to report today other than an afternoon snorkeling session at Kahalu’u Beach Park here on the Big Island, a few miles south of downtown Kailua and less than a mile from our house. But first a word about beaches…

Say the words “Hawaiian beach” to someone and their immediate mental image is in all likelihood a vast expanse of white sand, lined with palm trees. And it is true that there are a few beaches like that in the islands, most notably Waikiki in Honolulu, though at that particular locale there are probably as many hotels as palm trees. There’s one like that on the Big Island as well, called Hapuna, located a good half hour north of Kona. But remember that these islands are volcanic, which means that most of the beaches are made of coarse black sand, usually punctuated with some ropy hardened pahoehoe lava. (The palm tree part of the mental picture is still accurate, though.) None of this means that you can’t lay out a blanket and pick up a nice case of skin cancer as well as on any white sand beach, but at least now you have the right picture in your head.

Kahalu’u Beach Park is a typical black sand beach in this regard, especially well suited for a beach outing because it fronts on shallow Kahalu’u Bay, protected from the not-always-pacific Pacific by a coral reef a few hundred yards offshore. The bay is in most places less than 7′ (2.2 m) deep and studded with coral outcroppings, making it an excellent snorkeling venue. Its only difficulty is occasional strong currents as the tide goes in and out. But from where we stay, it’s hard to beat both for convenience and for the variety of sea life it supports (notably a colony of green sea turtles, known in Hawaiian as honu). So here are some photos from today’s outing:

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Honu. Some of the turtles in Kahaluu have tracking devices on their backs, courtesy of NOAA researchers

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Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)

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Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)

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Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)

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Left: Threadfin Butterflyfish (Kikakapu). Right: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau)

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Left: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau). Right: Parrotfish (Uhu)

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A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)

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Clown Wrasse (Can’t find the Hawaiian name!)

There are many other colorful species that live in the bay, notably a healthy number of reef triggerfish. The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii and sports one of the best native names of any creature anywhere, ever: humuhumunukunukuapua’a. I once got a discount on a tee shirt by pronouncing this correctly.

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Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

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The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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