Kayaking Napali Coast: Breath-Taking and Breath-Giving

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Kayaking Napali Coast: Breath-Taking and Breath-Giving

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Jun 26, 2013

"Stay to the right of the monster," my friend Susan said from another kayak, as my husband and I paddled toward Polihale Beach. From our two-person kayak, I could see a series of waves falling like dominoes onto the shore of the longest and westernmost beach on Kauai.

On our kayak-camping journey, thus far, we had encountered all kinds of water: nice bumps and rollers off Kalalau; confused wind chop outside the reef at Milolii; surge at the openings of several sea caves, and, for a short distance as we approached Polihale, our destination, flat water. We had even landed in small surf at Kalalau. But we'd faced nothing like the on-shore break that was closing out west-facing Polihale, what Susan called monster waves.

Nature has a way of reminding us we are not in charge. Even though we build enormous buildings, we create invisible ways to communicate, we devise mechanical devices to save and extend lives, we are, in the end, mere humans. In the process, nature also teaches us we are stronger than we think we are--and in ways we hadn't expected.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

A Sunny Start

We started our self-guided, kayak-camping trip five days earlier on the shores of Haena Beach Park. If Kauai were a clock, that would be high noon.

Our route took us northwest around waves breaking off Kee Beach where we got our first glimpse of Kauai's famous Napali Coast. We watched as a whole colony of brown noddies flew out of a sea cave. We paddled past several sea turtles floating in marine blue water. And the line up of cliffs making up this coastline splayed before us in a dramatic show of majesty--an endless view of cliffs that ghosted into the early morning light far to the west. 

That's when I realized I hadn't really been breathing. At least, not the kind of breathing my yoga teacher Maile encourages. You see, Napali with its ever-changing--and imminently dangerous--waterscape can take your breath away in an instant. That would be the breath of fear as your kayak tips precariously left and threatens to dump you and all your carefully-packed gear into the ocean as you curve around a rocky outcropping in choppy seas. But Napali also gives your breath back--and in a new way, a more connected way than any Internet, mobile phone or social media network can. This is reality, I thought. Nature is the real world.

We took our first on-kayak break in the shelter of a sea cave, one whose waterfall entrance felt good on long-forgotten muscles getting a sudden workout.

"Is that Kalalau," Laurent asked. 

We could see a long ribbon of sand in the distance, Kalalau, our day’s destination. And we could see it long before we reached it. 

With cliffs rising several thousand feet straight out of the sea, the concept of perspective on Napali is challenging. The next rocky point--the demarcation of another valley--looks so close. It's not. It wasn't until we realized the tan, moving dots we saw on some rocks were people sunbathing on boulders the size of trucks that we could put scale to the distance.

A tour boat passed us, leaving their wake for our small kayaks to maneuver. "Couch potatoes," Susan called out.

I've been on those tour boats before. Many times. Evening is my favorite time to go--when the golden hour lights up the cliffs in warmth. But every time I've gone on a motorized sailing catamaran tour of Napali, I've gazed at the kayak-campers with envy. 

I've paddled Napali numerous times in a six-person, outrigger canoe. I've cruised Napali in a motor boat. I've even paddled the 17 miles in a kayak. But that was a one-day tour. What I'd always wanted to do was kayak the coast and spend a couple days camping at each of the campsites along the way--Kalalau and Milolii Valleys. And since this was the year of the Big Birthday, there was no better summer than now.

Making Landfall

We made our day's destination--Kalalau--in good time, something like three hours. But who really knows? I didn't wear a watch. And who's counting, anyway? Time is foreign concept on Napali. Just as the Internet and mobile phones are. I didn't bother packing my iPhone, because there is no wi-fi on Napali. No personal hotspot. No cellular. Not even a single bar.

And I didn't miss it a bit. Never once did I feel the urge to post a photo to Instagram, to send a witty comment over Twitter, to express my glee at being in Kalalau with friends on Facebook.

"It's interesting how the concept of getting away from it all has changed in these times of connectivity," said Charlie, Susan's husband.

Back on the Water

Two days later, we timed our departure from Kalalau with the wind. That is, we waited for the trades to pick up, so they could push us down the coast to Milolii, our next campsite. But they also pushed the surface of the ocean into a checkerboard of bumps and white-caps that made entering sea caves more of a challenge. But we didn't pass up the open-ceiling cave, where Mary J. Blige once produced a music video. Here the waves ironed out and brown noddies could be seen roosting on small cliff ledges.

We passed another roiling point--Alapii--taking it far outside, so as not to get hung up in the rocky reef hiding just under the water's surface.

I don't even remember landing at Milolii--it was that un-eventful. Glory be. But I do remember looking back and seeing Kalalau veiled in dark clouds and thinking, We got out of there just in time.

One of the many interesting tidbits about the setting of Napali is how quickly the scenery can change. And it all has to do with the trade winds. 

As the trades gallop their way across the Pacific Ocean from the northeast, they hit the high mountains in the center of Kauai, gather into clouds, and release water--a mix of mist, rain, and torrential downpours. So, while the windward sides of the islands can be, well, windy, they are also lush and green and tropical. Everything you imagine Hawaii to be.

But the leeward sides of the islands are another story. They are not the recipients of the greenifying rains. They are drier, scrubbier, known for their red dirt. And just as beautiful, in a rugged sort of way. Along Napali, the demarcation from tropical to dessert is Alapii Point, which means at Milolii, you can stare at the mostly bare walls lining the valley and make out shapes in the rocks--owls, rabbits, and faces.

Shifting Seas

The day after landing at Milolii—the last day of our trip—we woke to changing wind conditions. The last thing we wanted was to paddle into winds from the south, known as "Konas." Too, a south swell was building, wrapping around the reef. Not good. Polihale is notorious for its on-shore break, even on a calm day. In a swell, it could be quite dangerous.

As we walked to our kayaks to push off from Milolii, Charlie wore a large smile. "This has been a great trip," he said, and I agreed.

"But it's not over yet," I said, my stomach more jittery and upset than any other day we'd pointed out kayaks for the deep, blue sea. Maybe it was the mystery of the unknown. We didn't know what awaited us around the corner. But there had been other corners, too. Perhaps some sixth sense was at work.

We snuck out of the channel, making a wide berth around the encroaching swell. Far off-shore, at the wind line, we turned south, and let the shifting northeast/north winds push us. 

Sometimes, your kayak tilts to the left. Other times, it slides right. Sometimes the back end lifts and points the nose down, hard, as a wave gains on you. Your stomach dips. Your breath catches. Your heartbeat picks up. And, then, you look up, and you see a dozen spinner dolphins heading your way. It's a super pod, hundreds of animals. They swim in small groups, synchronized, alongside our kayaks, cris-crossing our wakes, porpoising in the air, spinning in circles. And that's when Napali gives you your breath back again, and you think, This is my life? I am so blessed. I am so grateful.

Bobbing in Big Seas

And that brings us to the start of this story and the monster off Polihale. We approached it from behind and waited, stalking, studying, planning our approach, our race for the shoreline.

"Line up the brown tent with the puu behind it," Laurent said, referring to an extinct cinder cone behind the beach. "That's our line." He then counted out the waves in each set. "Waves are coming seven or eight at a time, anywhere from a three to 10 minutes apart."

Laurent and Polly offered to go first--to be the "guinea pigs," Laurent wanting to catch the last wave of a set and riding it to shore. They did, and it was a tumbled landing, with their boat flipping at the last go and Polly losing her sunglasses. But they were safe and gave us the universal SCUBA "all OK" sign.

We waited for another set of waves to pass. On the beach, Laurent and Polly threw both hands in the air, and Charlie and Susan took off for shore. They landed upright, a perfect execution, slipping in between sets of waves, dry, without a hair out of place.

Eric and I waited for the next set to arrive, backpaddling to keep from getting sucked into the wave's impact zone and maneuvering to keep the kayak from getting broadside to the waves. It took the full 10 minutes--or maybe it just seemed that way--but finally, we counted the waves...five, six, seven...and saw four sets of arms go up on the beach, a gesture that signals a touchdown in football.

We paddled hard for shore, my husband keeping our kayak perfectly aligned, heading straight for the brown tent and our four friends. But I really don't remember this part. Because what stands out clearly in my mind is what I saw out of the corner of my right eye. It was a new set of waves, racing in right behind us. I remember seeing the first wave build, and I saw the clear water at the peak of its growth, as the wave started to curl, and I knew it would break right behind us--or on us.

Admittedly, we could have stayed home this weekend. If we had, we'd be safely ensconced on dry land. But we wouldn't necessarily be safe. I don't actively seek the adrenaline rush of adventure--the thrills of death-defying feats. But I do want to go places, to see things, to bear witness to the awesome nature of this world. And to do so is to face some risks and to put myself in uncomfortable places. That's all a part of living, if you ask me.

"Keep your line straight," Laurent called. "Ride the wave to shore."

Strangely, something in me shifted at this point. I realized I'd been here before--tucked in front of a cresting wave. It was a memory shaken loose from years of paddling outrigger canoes in the open ocean, and I was no longer worried. Something else had replaced my fear.

And, so, we rode the wave, and my husband held our line almost the entire way to shore. At the last go, though, the long kayak with the sticky rudder, veered right, dumping us into shallow water. It wasn't a graceful landing, but it was done.

After pulling the kayak ashore, we six hugged and high-fived and talked really loudly. We laughed, our nervous energy expending. We passed water bottles and food around and hugged again, our spirits high. When I leaned in to Laurent, our guide to safe landings, I said, "That was fun."

"Do you want to go again," he said. And meant it.

Here's what I learned in those thirty minutes studying the ocean and slipping in between wave sets: Even in the chaos of breaking waves, there is a path to safety. You just have to be patient. You have to surrender to the power of nature and go with the flow. Maneuvering a small craft in the biggest sea in the world is a humbling experience. Physical strength isn't what's most important here. Mental strength and stamina is. And we six discovered that strength within each one of us as we bobbed in a growing south swell off Polihale Beach on a day when we saw no other kayaks on the ocean.


Melony | Jun 27, 2013 01:11 PM

YOU are so AWESOME to take this trip and tell us about it!!!

Michael | Jun 27, 2013 03:24 PM

I really enjoy reading about your adventures. Dr. Burney is taking his Kauai Archaeological Field School to NUK on Saturday. I hope the hose is there. I want to go next time ;)

Heulwen Pool | Jun 30, 2013 06:30 PM

Sounds like a great adventure. Beautifully written! Dynamic descriptions conveying dramatic settings and fluid situations. Right amount of suspense throughout! Sounds like you had a very exciting time! Check out potential adventures in the Seychelles next time!

Kim | Jul 02, 2013 08:57 AM

Thanks, Melony, Michael and Heulwen, for your comments. It was a great adventure, and I'm happy to share it with others here. And, Heulwen, my arm could easily be twisted;-)

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