An Amphibious Journey along the NaPali Coast
Some inner wildness, there since childhood, surged up and answered that wild country and said very simply, “Yes, I’ll come.” (excerpt from Paddling my Own Canoe, by Audrey Sutherland)
Pic, my Kiwi adventure companion, motions to me to breathe, her long graceful hands and flaring nostrils mimic a deep inhalation. I’m teetering on a precipice, holding my breath, glancing back at her for some reassurance that I will survive this. We are backpacking the NaPali Coast, tramping along Kaua’i’s infamous Kalalau Trail, rated as one of the top ten most beautiful—and most dangerous—hikes in the U.S. At this moment, I am startlingly aware as to why.
A ridiculously narrow footpath carved into a precipitous ledge has risen out of the jungle. Sweat pours down my face and my stinging eyes follow, in disbelief, this rocky path that snakes around the cliffs above the sea for at least a half mile. We are on day number three of a six-day journey where we will traverse five major valleys, replete with waterfalls, sea caves, and sandy beaches. Up until this point, the trail was arduous but manageable. Now it’s morphed into potentially deadly with one split second of inattentiveness. Every tentative step stratospheres out of my comfort zone and demands every ounce of my attention. We’re at mile eight, and I’m told it will get harder before it gets better. We’re about to experience what the locals call “Crawler’s Ledge”, which to this sea-lubber seems like a cruel joke, its extreme exposure highlighting a sheer drop 200’ below, dead into the sea, not to mention the lack of solid handholds. Oh, and the signs strategically placed firmly stating that “YOU CAN DIE” didn’t help with my terror.
How does a person with a fear of heights end up in such a predicament? I suppose I could blame it on my hero and inspiration, Audrey Sutherland, and a well-meaning and innocent email inviting me on an amphibious journey of swimming and backpacking the NaPali coast. Yes, you read that right—swimming was also a part of this adventure equation! In the 60s and 70s, before she became passionate about sea kayaking in Southeast Alaska, Audrey explored the isolated and spectacular north coast of the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i by land and sea. Where topography prevented hiking, she swam—around 3,000-foot cliffs with finsmaskandsnorkel while towing a styrofoam case wrapped in a shower curtain. She wrote about these adventures in her book Paddling My Own Canoe.
Synchronistically, her book sat dog-eared and sticky-noted next to my computer when this email arrived from Mark Hutson, former Tsunami Ranger, and acquaintance of Audrey. My research into Audrey’s past led me to Mark and he happily answered my battery of questions via our back-and-forth emails, the latter of which he invited me to join him and Pic on this amphibious adventure.
“We’ll swim a portion of the coast with mask, snorkel, and fins and tow our packs with all our stuff waterproofed, then hike the rest,” Mark, a veteran of these kinds of trips, casually stated. My knee-jerk reaction to say HELL NO quickly caved to an intense desire to experience the Hawaiian coast like Audrey did, gliding through the warm salty water beneath towering cliffs, aided by fins, peering down at the ocean’s depth with a face-hugging mask, and breathing through a snorkel. One big difference though: high-tech gear wasn’t yet available in Audrey’s time, so she fashioned a waterproof floating pack out of a styrofoam typewriter case wrapped in a shower curtain, tethered to her body by 12’ of floating line. We would tow modern-day backpacks, filled with supplies ensconced in EXPED drybags and waterproof pack liners.
“Hula’ana, in the Hawaiian language, is a place where it is necessary to swim past a cliff that blocks passage along a coast, a sheer cliff where the sea beats,” reads the first sentence in the first chapter of Paddling My Own Canoe. This was the case along the north shore of Moloka’i, noted on the charts as “highest sea cliffs in the world.” Granted we weren’t taking on this coastline, but rather the more benign coastline of Kaua’i, where Audrey had also swam. Child’s play compared to her rough and tumble experiences on Moloka’i. Still, it promised a hands-on experience of what drove her to live a life of adventure with seemingly inexhaustible energy.
So I commit. As an adventure ambassador for EXPED, I also drag them into this narrative. Alex and Kaj, my friends and main EXPED contacts, were fully onboard, and over-the-top excited about gearing me up for these uncharted waters. Their Lightning 60 Women’s ultra-lightweight backpack arrived lickety-split and off I went with my fins, mask, and snorkel to a nearby lake to test everything out. Although I never looked back, I could sense a smattering of eyebrows being raised as beach loungers watched me waddle into the water with a large, bulging backpack, tether it to my body with 12’ of floating line, and start swimming. It floats! Success! Now, to work on my swimming technique, which was one step up from non-existent.
… I know it often in and under the sea, in that blue world where I can move with a dancer’s leaps and spirals, a seaweed’s supple sway… Audrey Sutherland. I had much to learn about Audrey’s amphibious journeys and the passion that drove her to do them. I wasn’t much of a swimmer and was pretty sure I would not move gracefully as Audrey did along these steep coastlines, but I’d do my best. When I wasn’t towing a pack behind me in calm, warm waters, I hit the trails with weight on my back trying to coax this sea kayaker’s body into other forms of forward propulsion.
Ready or not, a six-hour flight has my nose pressed against a window pane, peering down at the verdant Kaua’i coastline. A tapestry of mountains, valleys, waterfalls—and vertiginous cliffs shaped the landscape. ALOHA! Mark and Pic scoop me up at the Lihu’e airport and whisk me off to a bustling shoreside Tiki Bar. Pic, a delightful woman with a natural glow and energetic vibe, and I hit it off right away. Mark, the “keeper of the talking stick” keeps the conversation going to match the atmosphere at this lively tropical bar. We spend a couple of days playing tourist and gearing up for our little adventure. Soon it’s time to shoulder our packs and catch our ride to the trailhead. We wade out to knee-deep water, pull our masks down, clamp teeth around mouthpiece of snorkel, study the wave sets over the reef, and dive in! The water felt silky as I fluttered my legs, following Mark and Pic over the reef. Schools of fish darted beneath me, and then the ocean floor dropped away; my underwater view is now only of Pics sinewy legs and blue swim fins fluttering a few meters in front of me. Confidence. I was doing this!
Swimming and hiking the NaPali coast was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The biggest gift was truly, wholeheartedly, unequivocally being present. Every step was purposeful, every pole plant calculated, every crawl stroke intentional. And when I safely got to the other side I vowed I would focus on the gratitude of simply being alive. Challenging journeys are always teeming with lessons. Here are a few I learned along the way:
I learned about my challenges, strengths, and gifts. That I can truly do anything I set my mind to. That I COULD walk the ledge, that I can control my fear, and that I don’t have to put up mountainous walls to maintain my own inner calm.
I learned rope management when coming in through the surf with a fully loaded backpack—and have the scars to prove it.
I learned that the biggest dangers on this route are feral pigs, centipedes, heat exhaustion, flash floods, drowning, and falling off a cliff.
I learned the joy of meeting people with extraordinary smiles and inspirational wisdom.
That Hawaiian women are absolutely gorgeous.
That I really don’t like hot, humid temperatures but I do enjoy a good Mai Thai.
That Hawaiian miles are three times as difficult as “standard miles” anywhere else in the U.S.
That Exped packs are amphibious things as am I. But I personally prefer to be ON the water versus IN the water.
That I’ve come an incredibly long way in my fear of heights. From getting woozy atop a 6’ ladder to hyperventilating on the ascent of a fire lookout tower (with handrails) to conquering the “Crawler’s Ledge” high above the NaPali coast where one mistake can result in your last few breaths.
After the trip was over, I learned that 24 people had drowned at Hanakapiai Beach, the beach we swam to. A few people have fallen to their deaths on the trail, but I’m not going to bother looking that statistic up. Some things are better left unknown.
I learned about the splendor of the Hawaiian islands. Sheer lava cliffs plummet into a turquoise, empty ocean. I’d come around one viewpoint and think “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And then, a few more bends in the trail a completely different vista looms into view, and suddenly the last vista has a rival. This feeling happens over and over again, and it supersedes any other frustrating or terrifying moment.
In the end, I did gain a sense of getting under Audrey’s skin. Feeling her passion, her deep connection to the sea and the Hawaiian landscape made the journey all worthwhile.
Below are some photos I captured along the way.
Mark, Me, and Pic just before the swim. Seas are calm; what could go wrong?
My EXPED backpack became my floating island when the trade winds picked up.
The Lightning backpack followed nicely in the wind and swell. Who knew?
Fun in the Hawaiian sun!
Pic setting up her EXPED UL Hammock.
It's a jungle out there; better have a siesta.
Shampoo Ginger or Awapuhi plant.
Always play heads-up ball when loitering under a coconut tree!
A wee bit trail-weary.
Hot and sweaty, and I haven't even gotten to the hard part yet.
MAJOR GNAR, stolen off the web. I was in survival mode on this part and didn't take one photo.
Watch your step!
A monk seal came and visited "our beach."
Room with a view. My EXPED Mira I tent served me well, weighing only 2 pounds.
Audrey's book was my constant companion for inspiration.
A Schnozzle Sunset!
Eroded cliffs of fantasy-castle shapes alternate with lush valleys.
Kalalau Falls -- the fountain of youth, as long as a rock doesn't hit you while filling your water bags.
Successful water run at Kalalau Valley.
Pic, letting it all go to her head.
Changes in attitude.
The end of the trail!
A stunning vista around every (steep and scary) corner.
Got some odd looks from other hikers noticing the swimming gear on the back of the pack...
Everybody is out getting a slice of heaven.
Ever devoted to her yoga practice, Pic strikes a warrior pose.
We hung our food out of reach of the bad-ass wild pigs.
Pull up a boulder and take a load off.
Going surfing or down for a nap?
The nap won out!