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10 Years Ago

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Sep 11, 2011

[Note: I wrote this 10 years ago.]

It was Tuesday. I paddled on Tuesdays.

The water outside Nawiliwili Harbor is confused. It travels some 2,600 unobstructed miles from the U.S. West Coast before hitting Kauai’s east-facing shores. Our canoe run would take us outside this east side harbor and south to Kipu Kai. It’s a beautiful run. Mossy cliffs rise straight up out of the ocean. Waves smash onto the rocky coastline with untold speed, as water sprays and foams in all directions as explosive as fireworks. But I’ve never enjoyed paddling this part of the coastline, no matter how beautiful to the eye, because rebounding waves collide with incoming ones to create a washing machine effect.

In Hawaii, half a world away, I wondered if all my paddling friends had heard the news. Some live here expressly to get away from the bombardment of fear and negativity on which mass media seem to thrive. Others had already called and invited me to prayer vigils that very evening. My choice, it seemed, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was spiritual or physical.

I had debated going to outrigger canoe paddling practice when thousands lie dead below what was once the World Trade Center in New York City. It didn’t feel right to go on with my day as usual. More, I just didn’t feel right. My body in shock, I ambled through my day in a kind of mid-winter hibernation. Yet the sun shone and the tropical flowers continued to bloom in the perennial summer of the island paradise I call home.

It was Tuesday. I paddled on Tuesdays. I chose the path of least resistance.

Our canoe club is located on the Huleia River, emptying into Nawiliwili Harbor, destination for barges, our lifeline. They arrive every Tuesday and Friday with groceries, batteries, toilet paper, furniture, gasoline, 90% of what we need to survive.

And, yet, the harbor was closed. Closed to barges. Closed to cruise ships. Closed to fishermen.

Eleven of us showed up for practice, almost enough for two crews, sitting in our outrigger canoes, lined up like six peas in a pod.

Ordinary days, we filled four canoes. Ordinarily, too, we chatted, catching up on lives, re-living moments from past races, making our coach, Buddy nuts. For him, organizing us women into crews was like herding cats.

On this Tuesday, we stood mute. My body ached in some new, inexpressible way.

Buddy said, “I know we all have all kinds of feelings right now, but let’s just put those feelings aside for an hour.” He filled the sixth seat as steersman to round our our second crew.

I still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do--paddling when people had died, some victims, some heroes, climbing stairs instead of descending them or taking out a plane before it could crash into the White House. But I was just glad someone was telling me what to do. So, I climbed into a canoe.

We ignored the harbor closing notice, paddled straight through the middle of the harbor, outside the harbor mouth and south down the break wall for Kipu Kai, the only sounds our rhythmic paddles dipping in and out of the water and the calls of “Hup” when it was time to switch from one side to the other.

No one stopped us. There was no one there. No boats. No fishermen on the jetty. No fishing lines to dodge.

Past the break wall, where the cliffs began, waves reverberated with a loud chorus, drowning out the haunting silence weighing down our canoe. I could barely hear Buddy in the boat next to us, “Focus. Focus. Keep your heads in the boat.”

I imagined if I looked to right, I would see the cliff, at my finger tips, and I heard my mother’s favorite refrain, “Oh, Kimmy, that’s so dangerous.”

If we lost our concentration, got out of rhythm, or if a wave flipped our boat at that moment, we’d end up in a heap on the rocks.

And something in me responded to that. I realized I liked it close. I liked danger at arm’s length. I craved teetering on the edge of life. Right then.

Perhaps I felt closer to those who had perished, closer to those who were grieving, when I feared for my own physical self. It felt good to hurt.

I followed the rhythmic motion of the paddler in front of me, with my eyes and my stroke. I sat up a little taller, twisted at the waist and thrust my shoulder forward before planting my blade, getting a good bite, and pulling hard through the water. Again and again and again and again.

We made it past the point safely. We made it to Kipu Kai safely. We made it home safely.

Unlike so many.

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