Flossie is Coming!

For the first time that I’ve been living on Kaua’i (10 years this fall), a named tropical storm is predicted to hit the island. This image says it all:

Click to enlarge. Source: Central Pacific Hurricane Center

The 2AM TUES mark is right on the island of Kaua’i. However, there are a few more details that are relevant:

  • Another map shows only a 20% chance of winds greater than 39 mph (62 km/h) on Kaua’i.
  • Hence, the storm is predicted to weaken to a tropical depression.
  • Previous storm track predictions showed Flossie passing over the Big Island and south of Kaua’i, so it could change track again.

Still, there is a TROPICAL STORM WARNING for all islands, and all ocean sectors around the islands. That makes for an all-red map:

Source: National Weather Service, Honolulu Weather Forecast Office

Note that the Tropical Storm Warning includes the Flash Flood Watch. In addition to the winds, the storm is expected to bring 4-8 inches (100-200 mm) of rain to Kaua’i, with up to 12 inches (300 mm) on the windward side.

Needless to say, do not plan any hiking or swimming from today through Wednesday. Conditions can get rainy and streams start to run high by this afternoon. After the storm, trails will be muddy and the ocean will be murky from the run-off for a few days.

Koloa Zipline Is Awesome!


About the same time that we moved back to Kaua’i, some friends of ours moved back from the Big Island. Derek had been working over there building a zipline course for his boss, and he was coming back to Kaua’i to build one for himself. So for the past two years, I’ve been hearing stories about him and his workers clearing the forest of 100′ trees, building platforms, stringing cables, and hiring guides. And last August, Koloa Zipline finally opened.

But my family and I had never actually been on a zipline before, so when he offered us a tour we said “yes, please.” I’ve been rock climbing and hanging on plenty of ropes (yeah, because I fall a lot), but my wife and daughter weren’t sure what to expect. They weren’t scared, just weren’t sure they’d enjoy the sensation. However, the guides were great and by the 3rd or 4th line, they loved it.

The day starts with a close-up of the Koloa sugar mill, where the zipline “baseyard” is. The zipline is partnered with Kauai ATV to run tours on the private Grove Farm land between Koloa town and the Ha’upu mountain ridge. Since the Lihu’e and Kekaha sugar mills are being torn down, this is the second to last of Kaua’i's now-closed mills, and the only one you can get close to. It’s actually very scenic, in a Mad Max sort of way (they still use it in movies).


First, we all got fitted with harnesses and helmet, the same for kids as for adults. Both of them adjust to give a snug and safe fit.

The harness includes the pulley that everyone has to carry around–this was the only thing that was a bit hard for my daughter, and I often helped her carry it (the 10 and 12 year-olds on the tour carried their own easily).
Everyone then gets hooked up to a test line to feel what it’s like to hang from the pully and sit in the harness. Here one of the guides, Jesse, helps my wife. The handles on the pulley are optional, you can use them to “steer” your body, but you don’t need to hang on.
Then we all climb aboard the Pinzgauer 6×6 military transport. These were developed near my wife’s hometown in Austria, and I’ve seen several on Kaua’i. I think Kaua’i Backcountry Adventures uses them to take customers on the dirt roads as well. KoloaZipline-04
KoloaZipline-05 The rough dirt road leads across the former sugar cane fields and into the forest at the foot of the Ha’upu ridge.

Soon you arrive at the first zipline. For those that don’t know, a zipline is a cable strung between a higher starting platform and a lower landing platform so that you glide by gravity down the cable as you hang from the pulley. Some ziplines are attached directly to trees, but this forest is mostly fast-growing and brittle Albezia trees. My friend Derek is replacing some of the invasive species with native plants, and then he built all the platforms on erected poles with guy wires solidly anchored in the ground. Part of the fun is climbing up the various ramps and catwalks.


The first line is relatively short so you can get a feel of zipping through the trees, as well as the clipping in, launch, landing, and unclipping. Here the first guide gets ready to go across and help with landings:


Since you’re completely buckled in to the harness, you can hang in any direction. On the second line, the guide shows off his upside-down bravado:


The second line is already an impressive length through the canopy above a small ravine. As invasive as it is, the tall vertical trunks of the Albezia are really photogenic:


This line is already long enough to pick up some good speed, and in the photo above, you can see the guide holding a line tied to a traveler on the cable that will catch and slow down the rider. Ziplines are based on physics: adults are heavier relative to their size and build up more momentum to overcome wind resistance.

My wife was a bit worried about the landing, either coming in too fast or too slow, but she quickly got the hang of it. Here she’s steering her body straight to reduce wind resistance and keep her speed up.
Then the guide slows her down with the braking line, and she lands perfectly to stand up and unclip the pulley from the line.

The third line starts from a tall structure and skims a few trees before crossing another small ravine. The road on the right is the same that we drove up, but closer to the mountain. In fact just after the curve in the photo, the road goes through a tunnel to the Lihu’e side of the mountain. Grove Farm had sugar fields on both sides and needed a shortcut to get the cut cane to the Koloa mill.


After a short but steep hike uphill, we get to the start of the 4th line, the longest so far and the 2nd longest of the course. It stretches an impressive 1700 feet (520m) to the next ridge. The guides hand out water bottles and we take a break after the short climb.


Koloa Zipline allows children as young as seven, but they aren’t heavy enough to go by themselves. So my daughter was attached to the line in front of me, each on our own pully, and then we were clipped together. Here’s the procedure:

As with rock climbing, the guide make sure everyone on the exposed platform, including himself, is clipped in to a safety line.
The safety line holds my daughter while the guide puts my pulley on the line behind hers. By this point in the tour, she was excited at every start and really wished she could go by herself.

And here we are all clipped in safely and attached together, ready to step off the platform.


Oh yeah, this is fun! You launch and then you pick up speed and you’re flying over the land:


Later on, my daughter asked me to flip her upside down, and she loved that too. I managed to flip over myself, but that’s one thing that was inconvenient when doing the tandem zip. By now, my wife was comfortable in the harness and could trust the equipment to do the backward falling launch on the 5th line:


After the long 4th line, the platforms are more out of the forest and give you some great aerial views. Toward the Ha’upu ridge:



And toward Waita reservoir, the largest man-made lake in Hawaii. Beyond, you could see the deep blue of the ocean stretching to the horizon. We take a snack break up here on the ridge with all the great views:


Then we continue on line number 7:


KoloaZipline-23 For every zip, there is one guide at the launch, and one at the landing. But if you’re thinking about these things, how does the first guide to cross slow down, since there is no-one there to catch him? The answer is: the old tennis shoe trick, just like on a bicycle without brakes.

And finally, we get to the BIG ONE. The guides have been dropping hints about the grand finale, and now we can see it–sort of. It’s the longest zipline in Hawaii at 2600 feet (790m), that’s half of a mile. The cable crosses the marshy end of the lake and ends at a 100-foot ramp you can barely see in this picture:


Needless to say, we’re loving it:


I love this picture of us, so I’ll post it again. It looks like we’re just taking off over the trees and lake, as if we’re old pros:


And if you squint, you can see us, the white dot, as we reach the landing platform:


According to my camera, this zip is a whopping 48 seconds long. Doing some quick math, that means we average 54 feet per second (16.5m/s), or 37 MPH (59 km/h). That’s why the landing ramp is so long, so you have space to slow down if you come in fast.

Here’s the view of the landing area, and you can almost see the red starting platform way up the hill. KoloaZipline-28
KoloaZipline-29 This view was taken from a different angle and shows the length of the line across the swamp. Again, the launch platform is barely visible in the upper-right corner.

While we were waiting for the others to arrive, I wandered down by the lake where there are nice views that you don’t see every day with Ha’upu summit and reservoir in front of it.


Then we were taken by regular van back to the baseyard to return the gear and chat with the guides. Thanks to their help to make everyone feel safe and comfortable, nobody got scared, and everyone was pumped up from a whole morning of adrenaline. They really love their jobs, and in the end, I really envy them.

Even before we got back in the car, my daughter started asking: “when can we go zip lining again?” And she hasn’t stopped for the past 2 weeks. No hesitation, no apprehension, she just loved it, and so did we. Let’s see–whose birthday is next, hers or mine?

Beach Geology

I have such a backlog of posts to write, but I’ll start with today’s photos. We went for a little exploring on the East Side of Kaua’i, starting at the north end of the bike path by Kumukumu (aka Donkey) beach.

There is a series of little coves to explore, however the paths in between (and the inland trail back) are getting overgrown and hard to find. These coves are more isolated, though on a beautiful Saturday like today, we saw people at every remote beach. Here’s an example:


But that is not the subject of this post. We had some big swells recently, and the beach combing was quite good. But let’s just say the rest of my family has more fun looking for seashells than I do, so I started exploring the rocks instead. When I started paying more attention to the rocks and the shoreline, I noticed many different shapes and textures:



I suppose this coast was created by several lava flows thousands of years apart. The first flow of dense lava created the black boulders that were eroded by the waves. Then a secondary eruption of lighter lava covered the boulders, and now they’re just being exposed again. This little formation in particular was striking, I’ve never seen such an orange-colored rock, and the eroded shapes were unique:



When dense lava cools slowly and creates basalt, it can make hexagonal columns that look like large cobblestones from the top (like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland):


But what kind of cooling and erosion created this?


Another part of the beach had lithified sand (essentially young sandstone) that was exposed in raised walls. I think this is formed when fresh water seeps through the beach, cementing the grains of sand together. Later, when the sea level changes (or the beach recedes), the hard cemeted sand remains. But in this case, the ancient sandy beach formed over basalt rocks, then was lithified, and is now a beach again:


Here, there was a dark flow over the lithified sand, but I couldn’t tell if it was a later lava flow or a layer of lithified black sand:


And a few steps further, the lithified sand contained chunks of ancient coral and seashells. The few seashells that you could see were definitely larger than today’s shell, so I wonder if they were thousands or millions of years old.


And here, the red and orange flows contained only a few boulders and were weathered fairly smooth by the wind and waves.


What is incredible is how the 3 processes of volcanism, erosion, and lithification are all overlapping and mixed together to create so many amazing combinations in just a mile or two of shoreline.

Repeal the Public Land Development Corporation

Long ago, I thought I could avoid politics on this blog. But in the end, everything is politics. If you hike and you want to protect the environment, if you live somewhere with limited resources and you want to save them, instead of being common sense, it’s politics.

Some background: After governor Lingle’s ferry fiasco, our new Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie seemed fairly progressive and environmentally minded. He fooled a lot of us. Last year, he encouraged and signed into law the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC). Like all states, Hawaii is losing tax revenue because of the economic downturn and having trouble funding all its departments. The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is one of those deparments that provides services to the population (state parks, among others) without collect much revenue (a few usage fees, but no taxes). So it’s budget was cut (as were services and quality of the facilities), and its new mission is to make money somehow.

That somehow is through development, as in building things on the land that you can charge money to use. But instead of granting commercial concessions to build and operate these developments, the politicians chose a semi-independent corporation. You can read more about its creation and rationalization in these articles from last year. Joan Conrow also links back to her earlier articles about the PLDC, she is one of the few who were paying attention and trying to raise awareness. In the end, the PLDC sailed through the legislature and was signed into law by the governor without too much public awareness, or even well-defined rules. Google “Hawaii Act 55” for more.

Fast forward one year to tonight, when the rules governing the PLDC have been written outside of the legislative process, and, fortunately for the citizens, are being debated in public hearings. Now the true nature of the PLDC is revealed, and people who want to protect Hawaii’s environment and natural resources are up in arms. Here is a video from the meeting on the Big Island. There is a petition you can sign that explains the worst issues. Even the former DLNR chairperson under Lingle’s horrible administration, Laura Thielen, is against the PLDC. In meetings on other islands, many people had come to denounce not just the rules, but the PLDC itself and how it was created.


The photo above shows the PLDC representatives running the meeting in the Lihue elementary school cafeteria. I think the man on the left is Lloyd Haraguchi, the executive director of the PLDC. As the meeting dragged on and one speaker after another attacked the rules, the PLDC legislation, and the people who passed it, I started to formulate my own protest. But there were so many speakers that I had to leave before I could give my testimony. So I wrote it down when I got home:

Good Evening Mr Chairman,

My name is Mr. Localshill, I’ve been hired by MegaDevCorp to comment on the rules you’re proposing tonight. MegaDevCorp is a world-wide investment and development partnership that looks for opportunities to take money out of local economies. We’re a lot like Bain Capital, you might’ve heard of them. We are based on the mainland, though our tax shelter–I mean corporate headquarters–are in the Bahamas.

Whew, it’s getting late tonight–good thing you and I are getting paid to be here.

Anyways, I’ve identified 3 development opportunities on Kaua’i, and I just want to make sure the rules favor us so we don’t loose money.

1. Your harbors. We can take over your harbors and run them for a profit. We need the state to pass bonds to rebuild all the docks and buildings, and then we’ll manage them for you and charge 4 times what you guys get. But there are a lot of boat ramps that cut into our potential revenue, so you’ll need to stop maintaining those. Don’t worry, we’ll run a marketing campaign about how the public-private partnership is better for the people and gives them the services that DLNR was too underfunded to provide. But if that doesn’t work, the rules must include a guaranteed minimum payment from the state, in case we can’t collect enough usage fees.

2. Haena Luxury Condos and Time-Shares. Think of how much we can sell pieces of Bali-Hai for. We need to take over the Hawaiian lands and state park there, but don’t worry, we’ll keep 8 parking spaces in the 3-level parking garage for public access, just like at Ka’anapali. Hopefully, your rules will allow us to disregard shoreline setbacks, so we can get a lot of units real close to the beach for the view–pack’em in for better profitability. For building those towers, we also need rules that let us bring in Mexican labor because local labor is too expensive and may cause trouble if we unearth any bones in the sand.

3. A hotel in Kokee–we got the idea from your plan a while ago. Think of the lodge at Koele on Lanai: a grand lodge in the meadow (to replace that museum) and take back all the cabins and turn them into luxury bungalows. So we need rules that allow us to develop the state park and, ahem, evict the group who runs the museum. Probably need to tear down the CCC camp and clear some forest. We also need bigger and better roads up there, and close the campgrounds to keep the riff-raff out. Then we need space for a golf course through the meadow, and probably a zipline somewhere. We’ll sell it as an eco-lodge and offer helicopter tours. We’ll need you to put up a gate and give us 50% of the entrance fees, because we’ll be running the park for you.

Just think of all the great development we’ll provide for your tourists–you’ll see arrivals skyrocket because you’ll have more destinations and activities for them. However, we’re still expecting the state to spend millions on promoting the pristine beauty of Kaua’i so that our hotels are filled. And just think of all the minimum wage jobs for locals after we staff our management from the mainland. Because of these great benefits to the state, we’ll need some tax breaks and development incentives.

I know that’s a lot to ask for, so let’s talk it over sometime in private. I’d like to invite you and your family to the St. Regis for a week, and we’ll have time to chat on the golf course.

As I try to highlight in these extreme examples, there are several serious problems with the PLDC:

  • The Hawaii government created an entity that has control of state (public) resources but which can exempt itself from the laws that apply to county and state government. The statutes of the PLDC clearly indicate that its projects are exempt from county zoning regulation. Essentially, this entity transfers the privileges of state sovereignty to private corporations.
  • The PLDC is privatizing the state resources. As is always the case in these situations, potential profits are privatized, while the costs and risks are borne by the taxpayer. For example: if a developer creates a hotel on state land, the state still has to pay for sewer and road infrastructure to handle the additional burden. Incredibly, neighboring properties of a development project can be required to pay for infrastructure upgrades to match the development, for example installing sidewalks or underground utilities. Alternatively, if a development fails to meet its overly optimistic returns, the state is left paying for bonds or subsidies it promised to the private developer.
  • A lot of native Hawaiians are opposed because most of the lands proposed for development are the so-called “ceded lands” that belonged to the overthrown Hawaiian Kingdom and are supposed to be held in trust. The state has always sought ways to get money for those lands, and being barred from selling them (they tried, the state supreme court stopped them) the PLDC was created to develop them with as little oversight as possible. The ceded lands are an interesting case because there are pieces of prime real-estate in towns, cities, and coastal areas that could be turned into housing or condos for tourists at prime rates. But then the land is gone and the development potential used up forever, in return for a small percentage of the revenue. The PLDC locks the native Hawaiians out of developing their own land, and gives the profits of development to outside corporations.
  • The money has to come from somewhere. Normally, the state collects taxes and fees to provide services such as running a harbor. If a private company provides the same services, they need the same personnel and thus have the same cost, but they have to collect extra money to pay the state for the privilege, as well as for their profit. So somebody is going to pay more, and it’s always the taxpayer, the service user, or the tourist. The puropose of the corporation is to control the resource in order to extract extra money out of it for the benefit of its executives and shareholders. The purpose of the state is to hold and develop resources for the benefit of (and lowest cost to) the taxpayer.
  • The PLDC is just another layer of bureaucracy, and a highly paid one at that. The cost of that bureaucracy is hidden because it pays itself by subtracting money from the money it collects for the state–thus increasing the cost of development. Also, the PLDC board members weild great power but don’t seem accountable to anyone. They are seeming free from state ethics and transparency rules and they have great leeway to change their own rules.
  • And perhaps worst of all: by design, the public is shut out of the development process. The state has strict rules for soliciting input and organizing meetings in the community of those who are affected by whatever it builds or develops. The PLDC is designed so that none of those rules apply to it. It can operate out of Honolulu, make decisions, and avoid scrutiny and legal challenges. It doesn’t have to hold hearing and take public input on the neighboring islands that are affected. It has the power, money, and land from the state, but it lacks the accountability to and oversight from the public.

The normal way to develop state land or redevelop existing facilities such as the harbors is for the DLNR to grant a concession. The private developer invests into the project, recieves profits, and pays fees back to the state. The difference between a concession and the proposed PLDC is that state employees seek bids, approve contracts, and manage the concession. They have to abide by state laws including holding hearings and considering public input. All records are public and can be obtained upon demand. They are paid their normal salaries, not from some monies collected from the developer. The PLDC is just a way to avoid legitimate oversight and skim money from taxpayers, which is why it should be repealed.

The scary part is that my examples may not be so extreme. All it takes is a rotten politician, or a really greedy corporation, or a governor desparate to balance the budget before his re-election.

Larry Ellison Buys Lana’i

Well, it didn’t take long for the update. The buyer was announced today as Larry Ellison, which seems very obvious in hindsight. European magnates like Richard Branson are too far and have their islands in the Carribean already (his is named Necker Island, which is also the name of a Hawaiian island). East Coast tycoons like Donald Trump are all about New York. And Larry Ellison is the poster child for brash and flamboyant West coast Internet billionaires–Bill Gates isn’t so flashy (though like I mentioned, he was married on Lana’i), Bezos is probably too thrifty, and the rest (Page, Brin, and Zuckerberg) are still “just” paper billionaires.

Of course, the speculation is still “what will Larry do with the island.” The luxury hotels on the island are losing money, residents don’t like the idea of turning the island into a wind farm (though in an odd twist, the seller seems to be keeping the wind farm development rights), and there is no surface water to resume agriculture again.

Some of the comments on the SFgate article are fairly insightful:

  • Solamie for the laughs: “Every day he looks more and more like a James Bond villain.”
  • Laughing_Gravy with more laughs (and an indirect reference to Kaua’i): “Does he plan to clone dinosaurs there?”
  • bustout: “About time someone kicked Castle and Cook out of Hawaii. They were historically one of the most egregious unconscionable exploiters of both the land and the people. Ellison will be a huge improvement.”
  • hsailor: “Ellison may be a jerk, greedy, and an egomaniac, but he’s not a developer. Considering the possible alternatives, it could be worse.”
  • Babel_on: “Better Larry Ellison than some greedy developer who needs to turn a profit. Ellison is so wealthy he can just let sit there as is and he will hardly notice the dip in his bank account. If he does develop it, it’s likely that he will do a beautiful job. He’s not a Donald Trump, vulgarian type. Quite the opposite.”
  • Mike_archangel: “Well now, we certainly know where the next American Cup will be held.”

The America’s Cup comment could be prophetic. It is currently planned in San Francisco, and despite both parties benefitting from holding it there, there have been a lot of issues between Larry’s yacht racing organization and the city. And just yesterday, the pier they were rebuilding as part of the America’s Cup event went up in flames. Assuming Larry can win in San Francisco and keep the cup, Hawaii seems like an obvious candidate to host the following race. In fact, in between Lana’i and West Maui, there is a natural, protected anchorage called Lahaina Roads. Along with Maui’s upscale Ka’anapali strip, the old whaling port of Lahaina, and Larry’s new properties on Lana’i, it does seem like an ideal venue.

This story is also interesting because it shows a new era of big landowers and big money in Hawaii. The “Big 5″ companies that used to “control” Hawaii are diversifying and divesting, and apparently they are ready to sell to the new monied dynasties. A lot of those companies built their fortune on agriculture in Hawaii, but with the decline of all local crops (except coffee), it’s hard to tell how they will hang on or what new owners would do with the land. I suppose it’s the backstory of the movie The Descendents being played out in real life. Here on Kaua’i, we have Grove Farm owned by Steve Case, retired CEO of AOL. Despite his ties to Hawaii, he has been a gung-ho developer, though perhaps not as bad as Alexander and Baldwin’s conspicuous Kukui’ula in Poipu.

And of course, Kaua’i has the neighboring Ni’ihau island, the only large 100% private island in Hawaii. Ni’ihau is almost exactly half the size of Lana’i (69.5 square miles to 140.5, respectively), and it has even less water, no development, a barely profitable ranch, and no public access. But it is still owned by the local land barons, the Robinson family, along with large parts of Kaua’i's interior and West side. The owners are getting old themselves, and who knows how that succession will happen, or should they sell, what would change. I think those potential scenarios are in the minds of a lot of people on Kaua’i as they watch Ellison’s next moves on Lana’i.