Archive for January, 2011

“Stay Out!” … On the Howlie-Go-Home Highway

Monday, January 10th, 2011

When I tell people that I live in Alaska, or when I post photos on my Facebook fan site from Alaska, people often comment on how lucky I am to live in such a place.  But when people think of how lucky I am, they are likely envisioning the gorgeous scenery, the wildlife, the frontier lifestyle.  What people likely do not consider is how wonderful it is to live in a wide open state.  Most of the land adjacent to any road or trail is public land, whether state or federal.  When exploring across the state, you will likely not see fences anywhere, except for in some of the agricultural parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.  But just about anywhere in the state, you can get off the road and go for a hike in any direction without trespassing on private property.  You will likely not even need a permit, because with all of the public lands and the smaller number of visitors, there is no need to regulate access.  And if there is a public resource, particularly water (waterfall, stream, or glacier), there will be no restriction to access.

Hawai’i apparently is just about the opposite.  Additionally, the locals have a penchant for despising outsiders.  These two elements combined for a rather wasteful two-day trip down the Hana Highway, or what we came to call, the Howlie-Go-Home Highway.

Michelle and I had experienced the “howlie-go-home” syndrome during our last visit to the Hawaiian Islands, when we stayed in Hilo on the Big Island.  On the Kona side of the island, which is frequented by tourists, we found friendly, receptive and welcoming locals and businesses.  Not so much on the Hilo side, where we were warned by locals about how outsiders are treated and we had a bizarre experience at the local landfill.  The general sense was that outsiders were not welcome, that the locals would rather they just stay away.

On the Hana Highway, we experienced this disdain for outsiders at almost every corner.  Relying on Maui Revealed by Andrew Doughty & Harriet Friedman, we had identified several features we wanted to visit along the way.  The scenery along the Hana Highway is well-known for its waterfalls and pools.  But with several of the descriptions in the book came the warning that access to the particular waterfall may be through private land, particularly, private roads owned by the East Maui Irrigation Company, which diverts much of the fresh water from the east side of the island over to the central part for use in the sugar cane fields.  The authors also warn that on the many narrow, winding, blind curves you may possibly find a local driving across the centerline to spook the tourists for pleasure.

Our first roadblock that we encountered was along the Nahiku Road.  He had driven along this side road to check out an “idyllic” pond and a “jaw-dropping” view of the coastline, according to the book.  But as we progressed through a small community, we came upon a line of construction pylons stretched across the road with a make-shift sign saying that access further through this public road was for local residents only.  Disgusted, we were forced to turn around and return two miles back up the road back to the Hana Highway.

The next destination we wanted to check was a famous destination known as the “Blue Pool.”  The Blue Pool is almost straight out of a movie: a large pool with a waterfall spilling straight down into it, perfect for standing underneath and feeling the warm tropic waters wash over you.  To access the Blue Pool, you must again leave the Hana Highway and drive down the Ulaino Road.  Along the way, however, we encountered a sign stating that the Blue Pool had been closed off from any public access, and that anyone trying to access it would be prosecuted as trespassers.  Continuing down the same road, we thought we would try to visit the Kahanu Gardens, a large botanical gardens with some archaeological ruins.  Unfortunately, we arrived at about 3:00 in the afternoon to find a gate closed: the gardens are only open from 10-2.  Another detour and another complete waste of time.

The best access we had for any resources that were not directly adjacent to the road was in Haleakala National Park, where we were able to explore an area known as the Seven Sacred Pools and a well-known and oft-photographed bamboo forest.

The unwelcome feeling that permeates the Hana Highway is not restricted to blocked access.  The repeated warnings on signs and in literature to not leave anything valuable behind in your car because of rampant theft by locals added to the feeling.  Additionally, any trail or location off the road system was replete with signs warning you of every conceivable danger, as it either they considered tourists to be complete idiots or enough of them actually are to warrant the warnings.

But the Hana Highway was not the only part of the island where we found restricted access.  In Wailea, which is a resort area south of Kihei, there are long stretches of beach where access is completely blocked by private hotels and all of the land they occupy.  While the beach itself is open to the public, access to it is limited to one point with limited parking at the far end of the beach.  And consistent with our experiences in other states, most of the roadside property is private and blocked by fences.

I find the entire idea of blocking off whole tracts of public land and resources to be rather repugnant.  Many Alaskans complain about how much of Alaska is “locked up” and restricted from private development, but I think their attitude would change if access to their favorite salmon stream was blocked from public access, or if they were prohibited from hiking up a mountain to pick blueberries because of a barbed-wire fence.  I guess that I am spoiled and have become a devout believer in the concept of trust lands, with the state being responsible for allowing access to and use of public resources by its citizens.

The openness of Alaska is only matched by the warmth of its residents.  Yes, we are quirky and sometimes feel superior about our outdoor skills and knowledge compared to that of outsiders (the famous cases of Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless are resoundingly referred to as suicides, kind of like suicide-by-cop), but we will never make outsiders feel unwelcome.  Pretty much everywhere you go, Alaskans are friendly and helpful to visitors and willing to assist anyone who is in need, whether in need of directions or a lift to the nearest gas station.  The simple reason is that even the best of us sometimes find ourselves in compromising situations, with the unpredictability of the weather, landscape and wildlife constantly making life challenging.  You certainly would never find a local playing chicken with you on a narrow, winding road for entertainment.

Underwater photography

Sunday, January 9th, 2011
Underwater photography

As I planned my photo options for the Maui trip, I definitely considered underwater photography.  While we would only be snorkeling for this trip, I knew I would get some good chances for images.  As a new member of Nikon Professional Services, I contacted them to get a loaner underwater casing for my Nikon D700.  Unfortunately, Nikon does not make underwater housings and they do not provide third-party accessories.  I certainly did not want to invest the $2,000 for underwater housing for a two-week trip.  So, I resolved to see what my options for renting would be once I got to the island.  Certainly the many dive shops would have some good options.

As it turns out, I was wrong.  There are no dive shops on the island that rent professional-grade underwater camera packages, or even underwater housings for DSLRs.  It is simply too much of an investment for them and not enough return; that is, not enough people like me looking for that quality of gear.  So, I checked several point-and-shoot rental options, but did not settle on a rental.  I decided I would try to purchase an underwater digital point-and-shot for the price that it would cost me to rent one over three days.  I went to the Wal Mart (god forbid) and purchased a Fuji XP1o, which is 12 megapixel and rated to be waterproof down to ten feet.  I took it out on one snorkel at a spot we had been to before and was able to come away with some acceptable images.  But one of the things that irritated me about the camera is that I could not change the ISO.  It had only one ISO setting, and that was “Auto.”  I wanted a higher ISO option for the darkness of the water.  But when I took the camera out a second time, it filled with water and I returned it.

I went back to Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures, which was the first place I had checked out my options, and made arrangements to rent their Sea & Sea camera setup.  It included a basic point-and-shoot digital camera, but had its own housing and an underwater strobe.  After some tests underwater, I was able to find the best setting that provided for a higher ISO setting as well as use of the strobe.   But the major drawback to the setup, as is a problem with any of this class of camera, is that there is a delay between triggering the shutter and the actual taking of the image.  Additionally, as is typical for point-and-shoot digital cameras, the only file option is JPEG, with no opportunity for RAW capture.  As such, there is limited opportunity to correct the white balance in processing, leaving you completely at the mercy of whatever the camera selects. 

In addition to our own snorkeling destinations, Michelle and I took three snorkeling tours from Maui Dive Shop.  The first was their coral gardens trip, the second was a trip out to Molokini Island and “Turtle Town,” and the third was a ride on the Ali’i Nui out to “Turtle Point.”  The highlight was the Ali’i Nui, a 65-foot sailing catamaran, that took us out to a large coral outcrop that also hosted a large Hawksbill sea turtle population.  The waters were calm and clear, out to at least 60 feet.  After snorkeling for about an hour, we came back onboard to a great spread of food and exceptional drink selection.  I drank a POGmosa, which is a pomegranite-orange-guava juice with champagne.  On the trip to Molokini, the best part was not Molokini itself.  Molokini is a small half-exposed volcanic crater of an island, so situated that its sheltered crater provides for exceptionally clear conditions, with up to 100 feet of visibility.  But, quite frankly, I found it to be a bad snorkeling destination.  The rough seas – with at least ten foot swells – made for tough snorkeling and it was too deep in the areas where it was safe to snorkel.  I am sure it would be a great scuba destnation, however, because of the clarity.  After leaving Molokini, we headed toward Makena, seeing  bottlenose dolphins and a breaching calf humpback whale along the way.  The “Turtle Town” spot was much better, with shallower waters, great coral, abundant fish, and several turtles.  We even saw a spotted eagle ray, which was a nice touch.  Even then, it was still not as good as it could be because of the high swells that day.

All in all, I am now determined to do two things before my next tropical destination.  First, purchase an underwater housing and strobe for my D70o.  Second, wipe the dust of my PADI certification, so to speak, and familiarize myself again with the gear and techniques to make sure I can SCUBA next time.

Sunrise photos from western Maui

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
Sunrise photos from western Maui

One of the advantages of being on Maui in the winter from a photographic standpoint is that it is still possible to capture the sunrise, even if staying on the west side of the island.  While not as pronounced as it is in Anchorage, the sun rises and sets in a more southerly direction.  In addition, the morning sun lights up the nearby islands of Lanai and Molokini, offering good, lighted background subjects while the crashing surf is still in the shade. 

Since we have rented snorkeling gear from Maui Dive Company, half of our mornings have been spent snorkeling.  Because of the trade winds, the surf can get pretty choppy by late morning, creating hazardous conditions and silty waters.  By being in the water by 7:00 a.m., we have the best conditions and generally no competition for a good snorkeling spot.  In the other mornings, I have been in search of good first light locations.  In our first morning, we caught a good sunrise at La Perouse Bay.  Then, we stopped to catch the surf breaking on rocks at the Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Preserve.  Yesterday, we went to Big Beach, which is south of Makena, to photograph the sunrise and enjoy watching the incoming surf.  The angle of the light was a challenge, forcing me to photograph the landscape with my own shadow in order to get the compositions I wanted.  I will have to spend some time in Photoshop afterward to remove the shadow.  That is work for later.  Right now, I am on vacation.


Hits, Wins and Misses

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
Hits, Wins and Misses

We started with a visit to Iao Valley, or what we have come to call “All-Vowel Valley,” which lies on the east side of the ancient West Maui volcano.  It is a lush valley nestled among steep cliffs, but the drive and the ending parking lot and trails offers little chance to actually enjoy much of the valley.  The highlight, however, was getting the chance to see a bonifide god penis.  There is a needle formation, likely the result of volcanic karst geology, rising sharply out of the valley and presenting as a dominant feature at the end of the road.  The information at the park indicated that it was the phallic stone for the god Kanaloa, who is the god of the underworld.  Even though the lighting wasn’t the best, I had to take a picture; I was certain I did not have any god penises in my stock library. 


On our way back out the valley, we stopped at a fruit stand offering smoothies.  I had a passion fruit and banana smoothie, Michelle had a coconut-pineapple smoothie.  On our way out of Wailuku, we stopped at a taco stand, called Amigo’s Express.  We took advantage of the $1 taco special, and sat down for a real culinary treat.  My chicken had clearly been marinated in its subtle but savory spices for quite a while, not merely seasoned as cooked.  The homemade hot salsa was absolutely fantastic, adding some nice hot without overpowering the food.  Our fruit smoothies were the perfect compliment to the spices. 

After our tacos, we chatted with the owner, Ricardo.  He told us he was from Oaxaca, Mexico, and that he used to work in more upscale restaurants on the island before opening his own business.  He told us a great authentic salsa recipe.  Take dried whole chili peppers and put them in a gallon Ziploc, then shake to get out the seeds.  Heat up olive oil in a pan, then add the whole seedless peppers and sauté.  Take out the peppers, keeping the oil in the pan, then add whole garlic cloves to the peppered oil.  After a while, add the whole peppers back in and sauté.  Add salt, pepper and cumin (very little) to taste.  Then, take the whole mixture and blend it to a puree.  I cannot wait to make that when we get home.  Thanks, Ricardo for the great tacos and the recipe.


We then headed out on Highway 340 toward the north side of the island in hopes of catching a sunset from the northwest corner.  It took us about two hours to go twenty miles.  I have driven on many roads in the United States and overseas, and this was without question the narrowest, windiest road I have ever driven.  It is not really sketchy, just narrow and windy with lots of blind curves.  So long as you approach the blind curves cautiously and peek around the corner as you are rounding it, the curves are quite manageable.  However, it only works if the other drivers approach blind curves the way you do.  There was one harrowing moment when we came around the curve at around 15-20 mph and came face-to-face with a large white truck not taking the curve cautiously.  Fortunately, we both came to a complete stop at six feet apart.  Along the way, we stopped at a couple of art galleries (Michelle is always looking for new art or jewelry), and I stopped to photograph a nice pastoral scene with coastline, cliffs and rolling green fields with … cows being chased by egrets.  Yes, the cows were grazing and one of the cows and her calf was being shepherded along by a taunting egret. 


Unfortunately, the sunset was a bust, but before we rounded the top of the island, there was some beautiful light falling on the far side of Honokohau Bay.


The next day, we went up to the Tedeschi Winery.  We were told by our concierge that it was the only winery on the islands.  Then we had to correct him when we informed him we had visited the Volcano Winery near Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.  Michelle and I always make it a point to visit wineries when we travel.  Together or separately we have visited wineries and vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley in California, the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg, and South Dakota.  And, of course, both of us have visited breweries, two meaderies and one winery in Alaska.  I provide this back story because I wanted to give some context, to indicate that we have some experience in the tasting room atmosphere at a winery. 


If you want a great tasting room experience, don’t go to the Tedeschi Winery.  First of all, they only had four wines they were sampling.  Then, they sampled them in the wrong order.  They started with a strong-flavored wine and followed it with a milder one.  They also did not rinse glasses in between samples and provided nothing to clear the pallet between tastes.  But that was only part of the problem.  The other part was the speed with which they wanted to move you through, in between the busloads of tours being dropped off and rushed through the tasting room.  There was no personal attention, no explanation of the wines, no suggestions for pairings.  There were written pairing suggestions, but they were all wrong.  The “Maui Splash,” which was the only wine we were inspired to purchase, is a sweet, pineapple-passion fruit wine.  Their suggested pairing was with cheese or fruit.  But a sweet white wine should not be paired with sweet, but with spicy, like Thai food, or even savory.  The highlight of the visit was the winery Russian blue cat (named “Blue”), stretched out and lying in the grass on the grounds in the open sun, accepting pets from anyone who came by as it purred and kneaded the open air.  Needless to say, it was dissimilar to any wine tasting room experience we had ever had.  If you want a good experience in Hawai’i, then visit the winery on the Big Island. 


On our way back down the mountainside, we stopped at a pullout and sat in the beach chairs for a snack.  The view included Kihei as well as the western side of the island, then Molokai, Molokini, and Lanai.  Definitely a great view for a snack picnic.  On our way back into Kihei, we stopped at a beach with a row of outrigger canoes to enjoy the sunset.  I photographed the Hawaiian ocean canoes, the sunset, a paddle boarder, and the rich colors of dusk.  It was definitely a great way to end the day. 




Up on Haleakala

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011
Up on Haleakala

We had decided that we would spend our second morning up at the summit of Mt. Haleakala.  For many people, they go to the top of Haleakala because they have read, learned or been told that it is the place to watch sunrise on Maui.  My reason was a bit more personal.  The first ship I served on in the Navy was a Siribachi Class ammunition supply ship called U.S.S. Haleakala (AE-25).  Within the design of the ship’s seal was a silversword cactus, a rare succulent unique to the Haleakala crater.  I was determined that I ever made it to Maui, I would summit the mountain and see the silversword cacti for myself.


As a nature photographer, I am quite accustomed to getting up when it is still quite dark to go to some location to photograph first light.  I am also used to being the only person, or one of a small group at most if it is a well-known location, photographing at that location.  It is highly unusual to be one of a large crowd.  It started with a parade of vehicles going up the long, winding road to the 10,000-foot summit.  When we arrived at the end of the road at around 5:45 a.m., well over an hour before sunrise and still in the pitch darkness, the parking lot was nearly full and there was already a sizeable crowd waiting in the shelter at the summit. 


Michelle and I stayed outside, having brought a blanket for Michelle to keep warm.  I was dressed in full thermal layers, hat, gloves – everything I would need to keep warm as I waited for the light.  As the sky grew brighter, the colors began to develop and grow more vivid as sunrise approached.  The moon was also rising, showing just a sliver of light on its lower left side.  The colors peaked and then quickly faded about fifteen minutes before the sun actually peeked up over the clouds on the horizon.  A park ranger directed us to the view behind, where Haleakala was casting its own shadow in a point reaching out to the west side of the island.


After sunrise, I spent a little time searching for a silversword that was out in the sunlight, finding one that offered me the opportunity to photograph it in its moon-like landscape.  While the light was starting to already get harsh, even at only 7:30, we stopped so I could photograph down into the crater.  The light was prohibitive for photographing the cinder cones, so I instead focused on some craggy rock formations on the north side.


After Haleakala, we had breakfast at the Kula Sandlewood Café.  Not spectacular food, but good at a good price and a fantastic location, just at the bottom of the long, winding road up the mountain.  After breakfast, we chatted with a family visiting from the San Francisco area, and they suggested we visit a nearby lavender farm.  Located on the Waipoli Road, the Alii Kula Lavender Farm lies on a steep slope with expansive views of the western side of the island.  With a gazebo, exquisitely-manicured grounds, benches, and tables, it is a great destination for a picnic or a wedding.  And, of course, while you are there, don’t forget to visit the gift shop for a plethora of lavender products. 



We finished out the evening with a muted but colorful sunset from Kamaole II Beach near our condo.  An anchored sailboat off the shore added a nice element.




New Year’s Eve on Wailea Beach

Saturday, January 1st, 2011
New Year's Eve on Wailea Beach

When Michelle and I decided to get up at 5:30 so we could drive down to La Perouse Bay to catch the sunrise, we did not know we would be staying up until well after midnight. 

After our morning in La Perouse Bay, we learned that there would be a fireworks display at midnight off shore from the Grand Wailea Hotel on Wailea Beach.  Michelle was not thrilled with the idea of being up for sunrise and staying up past midnight, I was insistent on the rare opportunity of photographing and enjoying fireworks in warm weather.  While we have fireworks on the Fourth of July in Anchorage, it is still light because the midnight display occurs only about a half an hour after sunset.  Fireworks displays are just not the same unless it is dark.


We were warned that parking would be a challenge, so we went to Wailea at about 8:30 to catch dinner at the Shops in Wailea.  Upon entering the parking lot, we were greeted by private security guards who asked us if we were coming there for dinner.  “Yes, we are,” I responded.  After dinner, we tried to find our way to the beach.  Unlike Kihei, Wailea was designed from the beginning to be a destination resort.  Most of the shoreline is occupied by high-end resort hotels: the Grand Wailea, the Four Seasons, etc.  As a result, all of the shoreline from where we were parked is blocked by fences protecting these resorts, and their guests, from outsiders.  We started one way along these fences, but could not find a way through to the beach.  We turned around, heading toward the Grand Wailea.  Each time there was some sort of access, it went through the resort areas and was guarded by private security.  We eventually found our way to the public access, about a mile down the road, to the beach. 


We found a nice spot on the beach, laid down a blanket, and waited for the fireworks.  While we waited, other users of the beach could not, almost constantly setting off fireworks and sending massive plumes of smoke out into the harbor.  I became concerned that the smoke would obscure the official fireworks show.  But, I spent time photographing the beach scene and the multicolored lights on the palm trees at the Grand Wailea.  When the fireworks came, I worked furiously for the five minutes of the display, working hard to get both the fireworks and the surf together in the same frame.