From tree to canoe
By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer
A koa tree fell in a Big Island forest — and a Maui canoe club heard it.
Na Kai 'Ewalu Canoe Club had been without a koa canoe since its prized canoe, Kealaikahiki, was destroyed by a vandal's fire 13 years ago.
The club tried for years to locate a suitable log on Maui. But a 100-year-old koa tree, straight and strong for the 45 feet needed to make a six-seat canoe, is not easy to find.
In May, as some members of the club tell it, the tree they had been looking for found them.
Canoe builder Sonny Bradley of O'ahu came across a fine koa tree in Humu'ula, a state forest reserve on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea, in early 2009.
"I remember thinking, 'That's a pretty good log. Too bad it's still standing,' " he said.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources allows removal of fallen logs only from forests it oversees. The rule preserves habitat for rare and endangered native birds.
But DLNR officials also realize that they also have an obligation to help perpetuate native Hawaiian culture, said Paul Conry, DLNR's forestry and wildlife administrator. Just as cultural groups can get permits to gather plant materials such as maile or ferns from state lands, so too can canoe clubs get permits to take koa logs.
It's not exactly a booming business. Since 2000, only 10 koa logs have been removed from DLNR forests, all on the Big Island.
It's not that canoe clubs — participants in Hawai'i's official team sport — don't want them. They do.
But over the years, more koa has been taken than replenished, and it takes 50 to 100 years for a tree to become large enough for use as a canoe log. Trees are hard to come by.
For years, koa canoe makers have been functioning more often as canoe-menders, patching and retrofitting older koa canoes.
Bradley said he has made only four canoes from koa logs since 1976, versus mending jobs. Other makers give similar small numbers.
"I would have liked to have made more," Bradley said.
He's glad to have three koa canoes now, including Na Kai 'Ewalu's. Though the wood canoes are Bradley's love, his bread-and-butter money comes from making fiberglass canoes and from work as a heavy equipment operator.
FINDING THE LOG
Jake Freeman, canoe club president, remembers "tromping through the woods for a good half a day" in May 2009 before Bradley alerted club members and their cultural adviser, Kimokeo Kapahulehua, that he'd found something.
It was the log Bradley had seen before, and it was down, knocked over by another fallen tree.
"Sonny's eyes were like a man possessed," Freeman recalled.
When enough branches and debris were cleared to verify it was "the" log, Kapahulehua stepped forward to bless it and thank the Hawaiian ancestors and gods for the gift.
Freeman, originally from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, has spent a lot of time in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. But, he said, "I have never seen a forest like that of the koa forest where our canoe was born — so beautiful, so healthy. Just having the opportunity to be in that forest was life changing."
"When the opportunity presents itself to paddle the canoe that is built from that koa log, a new beginning to this story will emerge," Freeman said.
A koa canoe is not cheap. If the log comes from state land and the recipient is a nonprofit entity, there is no charge for it; however, the receiving group has to pay the considerable cost to get the log out of a forest — and pay a canoe builder for labor.
Na Kai 'Ewalu expects its new canoe will cost $80,000 — quite a sum for about 150 regular folks who like to paddle canoes from Kahului Harbor in their off-hours.
The club has raised about one-third of the cost and have much more fundraising to do, said Zac Bailey, the club vice president, a member for 26 years, and a key part of the koa canoe project.
Bailey credits a core group of members who've taken up the cause of the koa canoe with helping the club renew itself.
"They're gung-ho," Bailey said. "It really breathes a new life into the club. These are all hard-working, stand-up guys. They embody the majority of us out there, paddling."
Where before the lack of the koa canoe created "a bit of a hole," now that a log has been found and is in the canoe carver's hands, "we're all quite excited," Bailey said.
"There's a resurgence, based on what Na Kai 'Ewalu is all about — that feeling of 'ohana that's there with most canoe clubs. It's bringing everything into focus, with the idea that we're all one," Bailey said.
Beginning last May, Na Kai 'Ewalu has been thanking the Hawaiian Islands for the gift of their koa log in a demonstrative way.
Members first paddled around Maui in a three-day, 135-mile circle. Then, channel by channel, they proceeded to paddle each of the interisland channels.
The voyage has a particular resonance for the club, since its name translates from Hawaiian as "the eight seas," referring to the eight channels between the main islands.
Quite a few paddlers from other clubs in Maui and throughout the islands have joined in. The group has used the basic methodology used by the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society, a nonprofit group formed by Kapahulehua and others to support a 2004-through-2008 voyage spanning the entire 1,650-mile length of the Hawaiian archipelago.
Each canoe participating has an escort boat and a minimum of 12 paddlers. Each crew of six paddles for one hour, then swaps seats with those in the escort boat to rest an hour. Sometimes there are spare paddlers so rest periods are longer than an hour.
But according to Kapahulehua, it always works out just right.
The trips aren't races, though sometimes there were two or three canoes. Like the saying goes, it isn't the destination, it's the journey.
The sixth and most recent crossing was of the Kaua'i Channel on Jan. 2. With a 2 a.m. start time in Hale'iwa on O'ahu, two canoes made the trip in 14 and 15.5 hours, respectively. Sixteen men and 10 women participated, including a guy from New York City and two O'ahu women who are originally from Latvia and Germany.
According to Jimbo Eitel, one of the Na Kai 'Ewalu paddlers who has made all the trips, the Kaua'i Channel was "awesome."
"Here we were in the middle of rough winter weather, with huge swells" just the week before, Eitel said. And the group got a puka, or opening, of good weather that "was the flattest and calmest I've ever seen."
As soon as March, the club plans to paddle from Kaua'i around Ni'ihau. That will leave only the Kealaikahiki Channel between Lāna'i and Kaho'olawe.
That crossing was saved for last, in honor of its significance in Hawaiian history as pointing the way to Tahiti, and because the Na Kai 'Ewalu canoe burned in 1996 was named after that channel.
Hawaiian outrigger canoe tradition roots run deep in this story, and not just those of the koa tree.
Three elders have played especially significant roles in Na Kai 'Ewalu's koa canoe quest: the club's longtime coach William "Boogie" Wainui Jr.; cultural practitioner Kapahulehua; and Bradley, the canoe maker.
If there were such a thing as Hawaiian outrigger canoe royalty, "Uncle Boogie" would qualify.
His late father, William Wainui Sr., helped steer the team that won the first Moloka'i Ho'e in 1952. That channel crossing, which skeptics once said couldn't or shouldn't be done, has become the men's world championship of Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing, with clubs coming from around the globe to paddle the Kaiwi Channel every fall.
Its sister race, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai, gives women's crews the same chance to push the limits of their endurance a few weeks earlier.
Wainui did his channel crossings as a paddler in the 1960s, then settled into a long run as a coach , joining Na Kai 'Ewalu shortly after it was formed in 1971. It once rivaled the other Kahului club, Hawaiian Canoe Club, in size, with 300 members, Wainui said. Membership has dropped to about 150 paddlers, which suits Wainui fine.
But he misses the heartbeat of a koa canoe at the club's center and is pleased with the way club members have moved ahead with it.
Kapahulehua has coordinated Hawaiian fish pond and native plant restoration projects, including the planting of koa trees, over his 30 years on Maui. Three-quarters Hawaiian by blood, Kapahulehua was born and raised on Kaua'i, and also traces ancestry to the Big Island.
Kapahulehua's enthusiasm for his Hawaiian heritage is infectious and his willingness to share his knowledge with people from all walks of life and heritages goes far beyond rote recitations.
With his experience from the 1,650-mile paddle of the entire Hawaiian archipelago, Kapahulehua has guided Na Kai 'Ewalu in the ways of long-distance voyaging by outrigger.
Kapahulehua uses weather reports and other modern conveniences as would anyone else who is preparing for a voyage on the ocean.
Yet Kapahulehua's underlying guidance seems to be more from the intuitive and spiritual realm. He follows ancient protocols regarding the blessing of canoes and all voyage participants prior to each trip. And he concludes a trip with a ceremony as well.
It was Kapahulehua who had the intuitive thought that a previously set 5 a.m. start time for the O'ahu-to-Kaua'i Channel should be moved to 2 a.m. As it turned out, the wind and surf picked up as the canoes were nearing Kaua'i on Jan. 2. The last couple of hours paddling were tougher than all the rest, and by the next morning, high surf was back. The puka had closed.
"Yesterday, today and tomorrow are all in God's hands," Kapahulehua said after the voyage-ending ceremony Jan. 2 at Kaiola Canoe Club on Kaua'i.
"The key to voyaging is you just cannot leave," Kapahulehua said. "You gotta ask, you gotta thank, and make sure there is no pilikia (trouble) in the boat."