If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Kayaking Hawaii

Explore paradise's freshwater finds


I'm pondering microclimates as I paddle up a quiet flow of water, the Kalihiwai River, on the north shore of Kauai. Yes, there are “rivers” in the Hawaiian Islands, though they would be called rivulets in, say, the Amazon, and in fact only this one island has any – three named rivers, all three the result of torrents of rain that fall just six miles inland on the 5,148-foot heights of Mount Waialeale, which may be the world’s wettest spot. Rivulets though they are, in Hawaii you make do with what nature and geography provide. Kalihiwai River is just 20 feet wide at its widest, possibly six feet deep and stretches barely a half-mile inland from the lagoon where it spills out on the ocean shore.

It’s a gorgeous half-mile, though.

At the input point (which is also the take-out point), tall coconut palms wave their fronded arms over a sun-braised Pacific shore of gold sand. At the back of the beach, you drop your kayak into malachite water and stroke gently upstream into a modest flow through a streamside forest colored every shade of green. Vines dangle from trees, late morning sun laces the vegetation and tropical birds tweet and twitter in a delightful fashion that reminds me of the meaning of those words before Big Tech stole them.

Birdsong beautifully indicates that freshwater adventure in the islands is generally more serene and reflective than saltwater. There’s no time for reflection at the Kalihiwai outlet, whose beach is a large crescent where North Pacific swells ride in like elephants and where I had just bodysurfed a 12-foot breaker. Biggest ride of my life and, yes, I have a witness.

Now, on the inland river, all is calm.

I must look close to detect a millimeter ripple.

I snack on a fresh guava I picked from a hillside tree a half-hour earlier.

I rinse my hands in river water the hue and temperature of picnic lemonade.

Wait a while for Godot. No show.

Time passes, I think. I’m becalmed in what Henry David Thoreau called the “infinite leisure and repose of nature.” Paddling back downstream is a combination adventure, nap and meditation.

If that sounds perilously dull, you may need a little work on Zen equilibrium. Failing that, there are other options.

Nowhere in Hawaii is the world’s largest ocean not overwhelmingly present by sight, sound, or smell. Thus, the islands’ also-vast bounties of freshwater are often overlooked, specifically when it comes to outdoor adventure. And especially because the islands hold some of the world’s most pronounced hydrographic microclimates. With steep mountains in the middle of all the main islands, torrents of rain fall up high onto the northeastern windward slopes, but rain shadows mean sea level deserts line the western shorelines mere miles from some of the wettest places on Earth.

You can, and I have on many occasions, park at a scrubland trailhead, and hike up to a deliriously gorgeous tropical pool beneath a tumbling mountainside waterfall and dive into a picture-postcard scene. The water is fresh, cool, and clean as a sub-alpine breeze, a welcome treat as the hike invariably traipses uphill through hot, steamy thickets of bamboo, guava and mango. Should you need a little excitement, keep alert for falling rocks from above, hidden within the gush of water. I’ve never seen such, but hazard is the theme of the moment in adventure travel and perhaps strict attention will yield a sighting, whereupon you can ponder the huge logical question attending such warnings: What are you supposed to do, duck?

No Brooke Shields in sight, but everything else is perfect.

Perfect and meaningful.

In the islands, there are two cardinal directions, mauka and makai, and they indicate toward mountains and toward the Pacific. The mountains are the birthplace of Hawaii’s life-giving steams, and this is world-class hydrology here – the high points of Kauai, Maui and the Big Island all variously claim the most rain on Earth, ranging up past 600 inches a year and, in one amazing episode, totaled 705 inches in the West Maui Mountains in 1982. That’s 58 feet of rain, enough to fill a five-story building. Geographers generally award the ongoing prize to Waialeale, the pinnacle of Kauai, from whose sodden slopes issue the state’s three rivers, including the rarely traveled Kalihiwai. Most tourists rent paddleboards or kayaks, or board tour boats, farther down the east shore for a scenic pass by a lush fern grotto on the Wailua River.

Atop Waialale is the world’s ultimate rainforest, a hike here is an eye-opening experience. You expect torrents of rain and instead find a steady, persistent drizzle. You expect towering jungle trees and instead find bedraggled, twisted sparse-leafed skeletons clinging to a landscape where the rain has leached most nutrients from the ground. Inconsequential as the rain seems at any given moment, the Kauai highlands emit so many cool-water freshets that some enterprising settler years ago stocked rainbow trout in a reservoir and truly adventurous trekkers can bring along gear for a piscatorial escapade.

If you’re seeking a less artful prize and want to witness exactly how the West Maui Mountains scraped 58 feet of rain from Pacific trade winds in 1982, tie on mud shoes and hike into the hills above Lahaina along a tumbling-stream valley where “wild” coffee trees grow. Pick your own berries (called “cherry” in coffee parlance for their close resemblance to the popular tree fruit) and utilize them as dessert for a picnic lunch while you enjoy soothing tired feet in the stream.

Rain patters down in lace-falls of droplets and mist. Shafts of sun follow the showers like massive searchlights. The hills below are a carmine canvas of volcanic dirt, with the azure Pacific far beyond.

It doesn’t seem like the wettest place on Earth, just clean, fresh, lush and wild.

Respect Your Mother

With Pele’s volcanic forces adding new land to Hawaii almost every day, it is one of Earth’s youngest landscapes. That’s cause for awe and respect, not arrogance and bad behavior. As one of the planet’s most popular, high-visibility travel destinations – especially among winter-weary Northwesterners – the Hawaiian Islands bring joy to millions of visitors who, in turn, provide employment and livelihoods to island residents.

But not all is fine here, and state and local tourism agencies have in recent years been popularizing a philosophy that asks all, especially visitors, to treat the land and its people with respect and care. Malama Hawaii, it’s called, which simply means practice care for the place and its people.

First and foremost, even though Maui is now open to travel (including the fire-ravaged West Maui region), gawking at disaster is awful and disrespectful. “Dark tourism,” it’s called, and it is as soul-gouging to gawkers as it is to residents. Don’t try to tour Lahaina, OK?

  • Don’t go traipsing around the landscape unless you are sure you’re in a public area where visitors are welcome. Not all private land is fenced or marked – and some upland areas are considered sacred by Native Hawaiians where, just as in ancient times, not everyone could wander about.
  • Don’t go in the ocean unless you are a strong swimmer, know how to read the Pacific, and know you are at a safe place at a safe time.
  • Not all streams, pools and rivers in the islands are open to visitors – especially the so-called “Seven Sacred Pools” on the southeast lowlands in Maui’s Haleakala National Park, which are subject to periodic flash floods that occasionally turn greenhorn visitors into fish food in that big ocean out there. Check with local visitor centers in all the islands to ascertain which adventures are legit.
  • Don’t take anything from the land. Pele will get you, even if authorities don’t. Don’t leave anything either. The same rules apply here as in mainland preserves, parks and wildernesses and, we hope, your own backyard.
  • Don’t build rock cairns or inukshuks – the latter are an Inuit tradition and highly disrespectful to an indigenous culture, Native Hawaiians, that sailed the world’s largest ocean 1,500 years ago while Europeans were still barely paddling around the Mediterranean.
  • Do treasure the beautiful and unique facets of these islands – the waters, mountains, trees, birds and lovely people who live here. If you can cherish and respect Hawaii as much as they do, all will be well.    X

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, squash and apples; and where there are no rivers at all.