Na Pali Coast, Kauai — THE second time we capsized, my canteen went east and our kayak headed west.
"Better grab it," said my boat mate, Carlos Holguin, as the Nalgene bottle bobbed in 4-foot swells. Our guides had said we would need two quarts of water for the 17-mile paddle along Kauai's dramatic Na Pali Coast. Now half my supply was at sea.
Of course, they also had told us to get back on the two-person kayak immediately if we capsized. After snagging the canteen, I could see why. The wind-driven swells that helped propel us were now taking our ride west without us.
The kayak trip last summer was the highlight of a 10-day trip to Kauai, perhaps Hawaii's most beautiful island. National Geographic Adventure magazine rated Na Pali by kayak No. 2 on its list of America's top 100 adventure treks a few years ago, topped only by rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Unspoiled by roads and only partly accessible by trail, the Na Pali Coast -- with its sheer, jungle-green cliffs soaring above turquoise waters -- is best seen by boat or helicopter. Kayaks get you into sea caves and hidden coves that larger vessels can't reach, and there's the satisfaction of seeing the Na Pali Coast the way Hawaiians did centuries ago.
Just be prepared: This isn't a pleasure cruise.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," said Amy Jubelirer, 52, who took the trek with her husband, Rob, also 52, and their 25-year-old son, Matt. "I was so out of my league physically."
Outfitter Micco Godinez, who co-owns Kayak Kauai with his brother Chino, conceded that the trip is "perverse." For the pleasure of taking what the Godinez brothers call the "longest and roughest ocean kayak trip in the world," you'll pay about $200 and paddle to the point of exhaustion. And there's always the threat of being hurled into the sea.
"The common denominator is, you should be comfortable in the water," Micco Godinez said.
At the moment, I wasn't. Partly it was concern for my video and still cameras, tucked in a "dry bag" lashed to our two-man, upside-down kayak. As I had packed the cameras the night before, I came across a warning on the bag: "Not for use with optics." The outfitters also advised against putting cameras in dry bags.
I decided to take them anyway, figuring the bag would just get splashed a bit.
Now, with the satchel fully submersed for a second time, Carlos and I swam to the kayak as quickly as we could. Soon we righted the craft, and I clambered aboard. Whoosh! The kayak flipped back over.
"Shoot!" I yelled, or something to that effect.
"Don't panic," Carlos said.
Panic? Well, perhaps I was overly eager to get back on the kayak. Besides fretting about the cameras, I wasn't too thrilled about being tossed into 40 feet of heaving water, half a mile from shore. Just a couple of miles away, teen surfer Bethany Hamilton had lost an arm to a 14-foot tiger shark in 2003.
Even so, I let Carlos get on first this time, and then hoisted myself up. Success. A few minutes later, another wave flipped us into the sea again.
Shouts and recriminations filled the air. Then laughter -- not from us but from guide Melissa Hosono and her buddy Jennifer Brodie, as dry as hay bales in August.
Kauai, by water
A week earlier, it had looked so easy. After hiking to remote Lolo Vista Point, Carlos and I had peered down on a flotilla of kayaks in calm, turquoise waters about 3,000 feet below. We had talked about a Na Pali kayak trip back in Los Angeles. Now, hot and sweaty from our walk, the small boats seemed the perfect way to see Kauai's roadless northern coast and the steep, fluted cliffs known as \o7pali\f7.
We knew the waters off Na Pali Coast could be treacherous. The season for touring it by sea, even by motorboats and sailing vessels, generally runs from May through October. Even in summer, trips can be canceled if the waves get too strong.
Kayak Kauai, based in the north shore town of Hanalei, is one of three companies offering Na Pali kayak treks; the company pioneered the treks 21 years ago, but Micco Godinez says the experience offered by all three is comparable.
We ended up booking ours on what would be the last full day of our trip. We were advised to each bring two quarts of water, a snack and plenty of sunscreen. The outfitters would provide sandwiches and drinks at our lunch stop.
We were surprised that we weren't questioned about our physical condition, kayaking experience and so forth. The company does warn about the rigors of the trip on its website, but it doesn't try to scare people off, and no kayaking experience is required. That was good for us because I had spent only two hours kayaking before this, and that was two hours more than Carlos.
People tend to self-select for adventures such as these, said our 27-year-old guide Melissa. "If you're an outdoorsy person, you can probably do this," she said. "And if not, you can pick it up -- especially after 17 miles."