Last weekend, wanting a coastal hike that might yield some edible seaweed and a sea critter or two, my wife and I headed to Kaena State Park in northwest Oahu. It's a one hour drive from where we live, and the trail starts just past Yokohama Beach, which is named for the Japanese fishermen who frequented the area early last century. (Its much older, local name is Keawa'ula, which means "red harbor" in Hawaiian, referring to schools of cuttlefish whose reddish backs colored the waters long ago.)
At its longest, the hiking trail extends 9.5 miles (15.3 km), but our shortage of bottled water and the sunscreen I accidentally left in the car meant that we could only go to Kaena Point, which is more or less the trail's halfway point. It's also a great destination unto itself, as the scenery changes from worn footpaths above surf-beaten volcanic rock to gorgeous dunes covered in naupaka shrubs. And where the beach slopes down to the water, outcroppings of rock surround pools of clear blue water that remind me of outdoor hot springs in Japan. But the highlight is finding yourself in the presence of endangered monk seals and Layson albatross. Much of the indigenous plant life here, too, is rare and protected.
Exciting action photo of a monk seal racing back to the ocean
A Layson albatross flying over the dunes and shore
In Hawaiian, Kaena means heat, an apt name for this dry, almost entirely unshaded area. Kaena Point also has spiritual significance to native Hawaiians. The area is about as isolated as you can get on this island of one million people, but even in ancient times it was apparently considered no less so. Kaena Point was once believed to be the wandering place of the souls of dying people. Upon death, the souls would leap into the abyss from a large sacred rock, where their aumakua (ancestral spirit guide) would catch them and lead them to the hereafter. Along the trail one comes across volcanic rocks stretching in a long, flowing pattern, which I assume relates to Hawaiian beliefs about Kaena Point.
During the winter months, the surf from here all the way east past the North Shore can get to monstrous sizes, as the following video attests. People generally don't surf here, however, but in less remote parts where rescues are easier and the undertow isn't so dangerous. If you want to see what big wintertime surf can mean in Hawaii, check out the video below.
The trail followed along an old dirt road that fell into disuse when a portion of it slid into the ocean long ago. The remains of the road provide a perfect path for hikers, though it does get a little hairy at times. A railroad originating in Honolulu used to link the area to the former sugarcane-growing town of Haleiwa, on the North Shore, but the railroad, too, fell into disuse nearly seventy years ago.
In any case, I took my camera with me so I could photograph the plants we encountered in the hope of matching them up in field guides later to see if any were worthwhile as wild foods. (Except for the pea pods of non-native mesquite trees I came across, the ones I've identified so far are not.) I was really hoping to collect a sample or two of seaweed, since virtually every variety seems to be not only edible, but also a rich source of nutrients. Collecting seaweed proved almost impossible, however, because the shore was composed of large rocks that were being slammed by powerful waves.
We were also hoping to capture a couple crabs. These guys were all over the rocks, and they were huge. They were also incredibly fast, and I was pretty sure I heard them laughing at us as we stumbled around the shallow water like the idiotic landlubbers we are. We caught zero of the buggers. What we really needed were nets and cages.
We also came across black nerite snails, or pipipi. These were clustered on rocks and easy to pick off, but my wife has an aversion to snails and I decided to leave them in peace.
Black nerite snails (pipipi)
We even came across sea salt lying in depressions atop some of the more highly perched rocks, which had apparently been filled with seawater that evaporated long before under the hot sun.
We did find one edible, however, which is the whole reason for this post: helmut urchins or, as they're known in Hawaiian, ha'uke'uke kaupali (which means "cliff hanging"). To me, these look like ocean mangosteens, and their insides contain flesh that's nearly as delicious. How do I know? Because my wife plucked one off a rock and hammered at it with a stone until it broke open.
While I'll eat sea urchin, I'm not a huge fan of its deeply briny taste and slick, somewhat lumpy texture. But these were otherwordly. The taste was of a salty, creamy custard, and the texture was more uniformly smooth than I expected. We each had two of the pieces you see in the photo below, and yes, in case you're wondering, we washed them off before eating them.
It may look unappetizing, but it overwhelmed us with its flavor
The hike was totally worth the sweat and sunburn, and it was nice having Yokohama Beach to come back to and cool off in. Although Hawaii's wintering whales are long gone, and the dolphins we've seen on previous visits didn't show themselves this time, Kaena Point is stunningly beautiful and as close as you can get to an unspoiled coastal environment on Oahu. Next time I come here, I'm going to make a point to reach the end of the trail -- toting crab traps, of course...