One should never take for granted, the technology that allows one to go from somewhere near the top of the planet, where the air burns one’s face with cold, to somewhere closer to the middle, where the air envelopes you in a warm embrace, by climbing into a winged cylinder with engines that suck, squeeze, bang, and blow you there in a mere six hours. It’s a fantastic time to be alive.
My family and I landed in Honolulu just before 7pm last night. My wife’s bag didn’t make the flight (the flight apparently was overweight and her bag was one of the lucky few that were held for the next day’s flight). This meant that as soon as we grabbed our rental car our first experience with the local shopping scene was a quick trip into Target for some of the essentials that were supposed to arrive with us in her suitcase.
Famished as we were, we ate at the first restaurant we could find: a joint I had never had been to before called Ruby Tuesday. Their smokehouse cheeseburger is a seriously good eat, but we all agreed that my wife’s Chicken and Broccoli Pasta was the best dish on the table.
We were excited to get to our house, so we hit the road. From Honolulu to Laie–the town we’re staying at–the highway cut us through the middle of the island towards the eastern coast, which we then followed north to Laie. It’s a one-hour drive, but that’s only because most of the drive has a speed limit of 35-45 miles per hour. Much of it was two-lanes winding along the coast. It was dark, so our views were limited. Occasionally, the road skirted close enough to the beach that streetlights illuminated the water. I think I even saw some turtles, but I’m the only one that believes me. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our home for the next week plus.
We rented a large, five-bedroom house right on the beach. We’re sharing it with my brother-in-law and his family who are arriving a day after us. After a most brief tour of the house, we went out back to check out the beach. Apparently, some of the beaches on Oahu are seasonal and we were expecting ours to be one of them. To our good fortune, a most quintessential sandy beach is just outside our back door and ready for our enjoyment. It was too dark to see much, but from what we could make out by the light of my LED headlamp (which I never leave home without!) we had quite a space to enjoy as soon as the daylight showed itself.
The stars were magnificent. Fortunately, the light pollution here is very minimal and I had a limitless view into the heavens. Stars and planets glistened brilliantly above the crashing surf below. The Geminids meteor shower peaking, it was almost too much to believe.
After a long day of traveling and the extra fatigue that always accompanies 3,000 miles worth of flying, we were all exhausted. The wife and kids went to sleep, but I was too excited to follow suit. I was up until nearly 2am sitting in the back yard, photographing the stars and watching meteors streak across the sky. Some of them brilliantly shot below the eastern horizon, appearing as if they were landing in the ocean. I sat out there on the wet grass and breathed humid air until Jupiter had climbed well above the horizon. I finally came inside and let the ocean lull me to sleep.
The next morning our plan was to get the rest of the things we needed for our stay: a trip to Costco, acquiring our snorkel gear, and arranging the delivery for our missing bag. My son and I swam in the ocean while waiting for the other two to get ready to go. The current is remarkably strong on our beach, almost impossible to swim directly against. It was fun letting the current pull me along the coast while I floated.
Everyone ready to go get our shopping out the way, we hopped in the car. We skirted the north shore on the way to the Costco in Waipio, driving past endless roadside shops, fruit stands, food trucks, and surfers. We passed myriad fields, growing coffee, sugar cane and pineapple. We stocked up on groceries and then made the return trip back. We stopped at a few places along the way. We bought fresh fruit and a few trinkets (I got a wooden beaded bracelet for $3.50 from a store that had the most docile cats lounging around. I thought being a cat in Hawaii might not be a bad reincarnation.)
Back at the house, the kids and I went to play in the water. I had warned my daughter about the current and had her experience it for herself as I swam nearby. Eventually, my son wanted to try out the bodyboards that came with the house. The waves, at that time, weren’t the best for bodyboarding but it was fun floating around on the things. I paddled out near a reef that’s just off shore and tried to ride the current back onto the beach. As I neared the beach, I came upon a shallower spot with jagged rocks below me. I scraped the top of my foot against one of the rocks. I tried to stand and wade away from the potential danger but it was too late. A larger wave crashed over my head and pushed my body down onto the razor-sharp rocks. I received a couple cuts on my wrist, one of my fingers, and my foot. Nothing serious, but enough to reinforce the potential danger to my kids. Unfortunately, they seemed less concerned with my wounds and more excited by the fact that my blood might attract sharks. “Stay in the water, dad! I want to see the sharks!”
We cooked tacos for dinner and sat around watching movies. I cracked my bottle of Laphroaig, which paired nicely with the sea breeze flowing through the beach house.
I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. – Leonard Cohen
July 4-6, 2012, My brother-in-law and I, along with our families, set out to spend a long Independence Day weekend in Caines Head State Recreation Area, south of Seward, Alaska. We reserved the Derby Cove cabin for two nights, planning on that serving as our home base as we explored the surrounding area. Since we were staying two nights, and we were bringing all of our kids, we weren’t exactly packing light. To accommodate this more conveniently, we decided to hire a water taxi to take one of us and all of our gear over to the cabin while the rest took the coastal hike to the cabin. While the trail isn’t particularly arduous (save some challenging spots on the beach if you grow impatient waiting for low tide), lightening the load allowed the kids (and adults) a more comfortable hike over and allowed us to carry more gear. We decided that I would take the water taxi and all of the gear, secure it in the cabin, and then hike back towards Seward after the tide had lowered to meet the rest of the group somewhere in the middle.
The water taxi took me from Millers’ Landing, at Lowell Point, to Derby Cove in about 15 minutes. The captain of the small skiff pulled the boat right up onto the beach, I threw all of our gear onto the beach, and hopped out. The taxi pulled away and headed south to some other patron. It was now just me, a hundred or two pounds of gear, and everything that this Alaskan wilderness rainforest had in store for me.
From the beach, I couldn’t see the cabin and wasn’t quite sure where it was; however, an orange buoy hanging from a tree seemed to be propitious. I walked towards it and noticed a trail heading back into the rainforest. I pulled our gear up to a point that I felt was out of the reach of the tide and waves, strapped on my pack, and headed up the trail. A raven flew overhead just as I entered the trees. It made a call and plopped down on makeshift bench fabricated from driftwood.
Just a few steps into the trees, I became slightly overwhelmed as the rainforest instantly consumed me. To my right, a steep slope was decorated abundantly with ancient spruce trees adorned with large clumps of soft moss on nearly every branch. To my left, a low-lying wetland with small meandering streams drained the mountains into the ocean. The path was narrow, but the footing was fine. I felt small amongst these ancient, behemoth trees. About 50 yards in, the trail widened. I could see a gray outhouse ahead. A few more steps in, the cabin became visible. To the right of the cabin, a small, yet powerful, waterfall came cascading down through the trees. Near the front of the cabin its flow slowed and pooled up, from there becoming a more casual stream that, after a few twists and turns, relinquished itself to Resurrection Bay. This all made for one of the most wondrous camping locales I’ve ever experienced. A small foot bridge took me over this stream and to the steps of the cabin. Inside, two sets of bunk beds, a wood stove, a picnic table, and some shelves. Enough light came through the windows to allow me to observe the cabin’s interior, but the light came filtered through the thick forest which created a surreal and subdued atmosphere. The quality craftsmanship of the cabin softened the sounds of the rushing water just outside. To sit in this cabin and to do nothing else would have been a relaxing retreat all on its own.
But there was some work to do; no time to get comfortable yet. I made a few trips to the water and back, dragging most of the gear up to the cabin. I left a larger, heavy tote to cart up with the help of my party once they arrived.
Excited to be able to show off our new home for the next couple of days, I decided I’d skirt the coast and head north towards everyone else, albeit at a pace dictated by the shrinking tide. A light rain combined with the ocean to create a comfortably humid environment. The coast in this area consists of steep cliffs to the west and Resurrection Bay to the east. Sections of these cliffs jut out further towards the ocean, while in other areas they recede for a few yards, exposing a larger beach area. My trip north had me waiting for the tide at some of the rocky outcroppings. The rock was slicked with slimy green algae, and sloped directly into the water. I, admittedly ill-conceived, risked climbing over some of the segments; one simple slip on this frictionless foundation would immediately crash my bones down on the rock and then summarily deposit me into the frigid ocean.
I got lucky: I only slipped in once.
So I trekked north, crawling into pockets of exposed beach and waiting for a few minutes for the tide to recede so I could make it through another segment. A tour boat slowly motored up the Bay. I could feel the passengers training their binoculars on me.
“Is that guy trapped? Should we call for help?” The vessel’s Park Ranger would assure them, “Nah, he’s just stupid”, and then resume his lecture on how evolution has spent millions of years naturally selecting only the best-adapted wildlife to find this environment habitable.
After making my way just over half a mile, I passed the other public use cabin in the area: Callisto. Unlike the Derby Cove cabin, Callisto is fairly visible from the beach and the water. It’s not immediately on the beach, but the area in front of it is cleared out making it easy to spot. Damp wood was burning in Callisto’s stove, exhaling soft white smoke through its rooftop chimney. A family of four were on the beach in front of me, presumably Callisto’s residents for the day, exploring the rocky beach. I passed them by, continuing towards my approaching family.
I came upon a large rock that rose abruptly out of the water and connected with the cliff bluff. As I examined it for a potential way to get over or around it, I heard voices over the other side. I was able to climb up enough to peer over the top, and there was the rest of the gang. Terry was just on the other side of the rock, facing the direction of the rest of the family that were huddled up a dozen or so yards further north. I made some sort of loud silly remark, activating Terry’s hyper-startle syndrome. The noise he made attracted the rest of the family and we began talking to each other over the rock. For awhile, I was just a few feet away from my family, but I may as well have been separated by miles. Through very careful and deliberate acrobatics, I was able get up and over the rock and reunited with everyone else. Our team was complete, but we were still over a mile away from the cabin. Between Terry, a dog leash, some grippy barnacles, and myself, we got the entire family–and dog–over the rock and safely onto the beach from whence I had just came (honestly, by the time we were all over the rock I do believe the tide had receded enough that we could have just walked around it). No more obstacles to maneuver, we had an enjoyable walk to Derby Cove; whales splashed just off-shore and the kid investigated the nooks and crannies of the cliffs bordering the beach.
We arrived at the cabin and got settled in. Terry popped open a 10-serving can of Chili Mac Mountain House and we had ourselves a splendid little feast. It had been a long day for all of us, getting up and driving to Seward, the hike and water taxi, and hauling the gear to the cabin. The rain picked up and we snoozed under the sound of rain beating down on the cabin’s tin roof.
The next day we got up, had breakfast, and set out for Caines Head proper and on up to Fort McGilvray. The rain continued through the night and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. From our cabin, we had a short hike that climbed us over the hill that dropped down to what’s officially considered Caines Head State Recreation Area. There you’ll find a ranger’s cabin, a rocky beach, and–most likely–tents, kayaks, and fellow adventurers. From the beach, an old military road, though now a trail, was our path to Fort McGilvray. You could tell that the trail was well-cared-for and normally pleasant to travel upon. On this day, however, the trail seemed less footpath and more streambed. The trail had a few moderately steep sections that, when covered in running mud and water, were tricky to get us and the kids through. There was no getting through the trek without getting soaked, and the sooner we realized it the easier the hike became. We were all thoroughly soaked, but we all handled it well. The trail alternates between dense forest and jaw-dropping views of Resurrection Bay. Along the way we found and explored a couple of bunkers or caches of some sort, concrete and steel that a World War would inspire. We continued on and finally arrived at the fort.
Fort McGilvray is a subterranean military fortification built into the rock cliffs 650 above Resurrection Bay. It existed as one of a number of facilities built by the Army during World War II in an effort to thwart any attempted Japanese invasions. Short-lived, construction began on the various facilities in 1941 and by 1944 the installations were ordered to be dismantled. Many of the buildings were simply abandoned and are–though empty–well-preserved to this day.
We all put on our headlamps that we brought specifically for the fort, and began exploring. Numerous pitch-black rooms are connected to the main corridors. Every emitted sound echoed throughout the entire building, making it nearly impossible to gauge where it originated. I had my fun sneaking around and spooking the kids. Around the outside of the fort, we explored other buildings, assumably lookout positions, and massive pads for gun mounts. I located and signed a surprise geocache that contained the most-delicious Coors Light I can remember drinking.
After an hour or so playing around the fort, we headed back down the even wetter trail back to the cabin. When we arrived back to the beach by the ranger’s cabin, the tide had risen and met the swollen drainages from the mountains. A rushing creek now blocked our path. Our kids graciously accepted the challenge and foraged for a number of large pieces of driftwood and created an improvised bridge; it worked perfectly. Once back at the cabin: We ate. We dried out. We slept.
The next morning we got up and packed our things up for the hike back to Seward. This time I took the hike with the kids, while Terry took the gear in the water taxi. I was glad to get to experience this half of the trip that I had missed previously. Our timing was perfect and there was no waiting for the tide or any challenging obstacles to cross, just an enjoyable walk along the beach to Tonsina Point, where the forest trail connects you to Seward, via Lowell Point. Some of the forest we went through near Tonsina Point was even more amazing than the forest outside our cabin. This was straight out of the Star Wars world of Endor. The rain even stopped for a few moments here and there, as sunlight filtered through these ancient behemoth trees. The smells, the sounds, the sights: it created a beautiful piece of zen.
After crossing some creeks, the trail climbs up a few switchbacks and then descends down an old road and into the parking area at Lowell Point.
Even though the rain was unrelenting and prohibited some of the side excursions I had hoped to undertake, our time at Caines Head was an Independence Day I’ll never forget. The area is one of my favorite places and I anxiously look forward to the next time.