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.
also discover much to whet their appetites: 'opihi, pipipi,
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
("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
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.