Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coastal Foraging: Kaena State Park

Kaena Point Trail

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.

Crabs clambering over rocks

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.

Helmet urchins (ha'uke'uke kaupali)

Underside of helmet urchin (ha'uke'uke kaupali)

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...

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  1. So I'm the first to comment, feeling a bit under pressure... I'm glad you are showing us more of Hawaii. It's beautiful, and you 2 must be in an amazing shape with all this hiking. Bikini season ready, Me on the other hand trying to lose the blobs as fast as I can.

  2. Sounds like an amazing day. I think you are pretty daring eating the sea urchins from the beach and those surfers - wow...thats pretty daring too.

  3. Oh my! I need a trip like holiday...

  4. You really know how to get out there and explore life!

  5. You have so much knowledge about so many things I have no idea about! Things for me to learn...I love that!

  6. I've been to OAHU, not sure that I've visited this part of the area. Beautiful.

  7. Anna: Ah yes, the pressure of being the first to comment! But you did great. We’re not in nearly the sort of shape we’d like to be in, though we both exercise regularly. The hiking definitely helps. I have no worries about bikini season myself, but my wife has the same “blob” concern that you voiced. :)

    Gastroanthropologist: It was pretty amazing, yes. But we’re not nearly as daring as those surfers! 85-foot waves? Ha! Don’t think so. Pretty purple helmet urchins? Mmm, that’s more my style. And what better place to get them than in nature?

    Chef E: I need more trips like this myself, and I live here! I hope you’re able to take that mini holiday one day soon!

    Duodishes: Well, truth be told, when you live on an island as small as Oahu, it’s not so hard to get out and explore. It just takes motivation, which is sometimes hard to come by… :)

    Greg: Ah, you’re much too kind! I really don’t know much about Hawaii. One nice aspect of being relatively new here is that there’s still so much for me to learn. Getting out and exploring nature has become one of my favorite ways to do that. I'm sure you'll have the opportunity to do this sort of thing on the Big Island next month!

    Elra: Oahu has many beautiful places, but this is a special area for sure. Thanks for your comment!

  8. What a fun hike! Kaena State Park looks so beautiful!

  9. I am jealous of the gorgeous places you have access to. It must be fun exploring! I had to laugh when he asks him if he was afraid. He's quite amazing!

  10. Ha! Life isn't fair...the ladies always have to freak out before bikini season while you men just wait for it nonchalantly. I'm going to sabotage my hubby's food put some extra fat and give him lots of sugar... so he can understand what I'm talking about. Watch me!

  11. Living in Hawaii, do you feel like you are on a perpetual vacation? I know I would!

  12. Where do I begin? First of all, your description of the history and cultural meaning of the area was lovely - the kind of details that give even more color to the landscape. As for the big wave surfers, I'm in awe. I've heard that they tow out to open water but it's mind-boggling to see how monstrous these waves really are.

    Although your seaweed harvest was disappointing and those bugger crabs got the best of you this time, it sounds like another fantastic day of foraging. The helmet urchins look cool and I would almost want to carry around a small container of sushi rice for it!

    Where is your next foraging destination? 8-)

  13. The helmut urchins are so beautiful! And so tasty too. :)

  14. Those are some awesome photos! I would love to visit Hawaii some day. It been at the top of my travel list since I can remember. I do have a few friends from some of the islands. You're very lucky to be living near such a wonder place with a neat hiking trail.

  15. Kaena Point is absolutely awesome if you make it to the very end next time! The end of the hike is so peaceful and serene, and you reach a sandy area that's roped off in places because it's a shearling reserve, so don't bring your dog or else he/she will scare the heck out of the poor little things. Glad you guys went - so many people who live in HI don't venture off and explore the road less traveled. There's so much more to this island than the well-traveled beaches!

  16. What a gorgeous place! And the seals! I love stumbling upon wildlife, well, the safe kind anyway or at a safe distance. :) Thanks for sharing your adventures!

  17. nice holiday ur blog...nice to meet u...

  18. Every time I read your posts, I'm sure to learn something new! (this time, the helmet urchins & black nerite snails)

    Do let us know how many of those buggers you manage to catch next time! =D

  19. Thanks so much for the photos and the wonderful post, I felt like I had a mini trip following along with everything. I have never had sea urchin like that and based on your description would love to try. My husband took sometime off and worked as a mountain biking guide after law school on Kauai and surfed to his hearts continent - I don't think it looked anything like that - can't wait to show him the clip.

  20. 5 Star Foodie: It was a great hike, yes, and the only thing I regret is that it’s on the opposite side of the island from where I live!

    Reeni: It’s great exploring the island, yes, especially when it means getting outdoors. Most of Oahu isn’t like this, however! And yes, that surfer is definitely brave. Or insane. Or some of both. :)

    Anna: Haha! It’s true that I don’t worry about bikini season. My favorite activity is sitting on the beach eating and grunting, with food bits, sauces, and condiments splattering my body. It’s a guy thing, I guess. (Or a caveman thing.) Have fun sabotaging your hubby’s food. If it’s sugar you’re going to add, he may end up appreciating it.

    Sugarlens: Yes, sometimes I do feel like I’m on a perpetual vacation. I used to feel guilty about it, but I don’t anymore. In the winter months I hear people on the mainland talking about something called snow. (?) But I tune it all out. And then I go to the beach. :)

    Tangled Noodle: Thanks for your nice comments! I’d love to go to Kaena Point during the huge winter swells, though it’s probably pretty scary then. I can’t imagine anyone surfing 85-foot waves, either – I don’t care if they’ve been towed out there and have rescue teams on high alert! Crazy. And amazing. Oh, and my wife said the same thing about the helmet urchins: she wants to bring rice and soy sauce next time. As for our next foraging adventure…good question! I’m not sure where we’ll go. Perhaps to the beaches of Waimanalo or Kailua where there’s always tons of seaweed washed up on the beach. I hope I can eat it!

    Su-Lin: I was a little surprised at just how good the helmet urchins were! And that purple color is indeed striking.

    Jenn: Thanks for your kind words. Hawaii has something for everyone, and I’m sure you’ll have a great time when you make it out here! I definitely feel lucky living here. I just wish it were cheaper…

    Nutritiontokitchen: I’m glad to hear what awaits me at the end of the trail next time! It’s true that not many people seem to explore the road less traveled. During our three-hour hike, which was on a Sunday morning, I think we came across maybe ten other people. On our hike the previous weekend we saw maybe five other groups of hikers. Thanks for your comment and also for your encouragement to make it to the end of Kaena Point!

    Lori: Like you said, it’s really a magical place, in part because of the interesting local stories related to this part of the island. The wildlife is a great bonus, too, of course!

    Vialentino: Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment! I hope to see you on my blog again soon!

    Bangsar-bAbE: Ah, you’re too kind! And yes, I’ll certainly let you know how many crabs I catch. I need to get a crab trap, though, because they’re too fast for me on the rocks!

    Oysterculture: I’m glad you enjoyed my post about Kaena Point! In the future, when you and your husband come to Oahu, you’ll know where to go for some fresh helmet urchins. :) Your husband sounds like quite the adventurer – I’m sure he’d love this area. And if he likes to surf, he should come during the winter when the swells are at their biggest!

  21. What a fabulous foraging trip - I know you didn't catch any crabs, but you'll know to bring traps for next time :) As for the helmet urchins, I don't know if I would have been up for eating them right then and there like that, but seeing as you've managed to publish this written account, I take it you survived without any ill effects, so good for you!

  22. I had to come back and take another look :), I am going on holiday, but to my homeland, Texas, lol...I will be foraging some good Tex-Mex and seasonings I cannot get up in the NE. Also cooking for old friends who go crazy looking at my blog :)

    We also find living here with NYC, and Philly, as well as other wonderful places at a train ride away hard to step outside of our back yard...happens when you live some where after a few years, becomes like the books we forget are sitting on the shelf to read!

  23. Another great adventure! Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy learning about Hawaii as it is one of the destinations we plan to visit sometime with my husband. Also, I've never tasted sea urchins, but I've read about them in blogs. I cannot wait till I find some and get a chance to taste them.

  24. Hi Sapuche
    Thanks for telling us more about Oahu. I've been to Oahu with my fam once but the trip was too short we only got to do the tourist-cy stuffs. This definitely looks like a great place to discover, I could picture myself bringing a bucket and chase after the crabs haha.

  25. Wow, I’m only 20 days behind on following up with everyone’s comments…Agh!

    Daily Spud: It was a great trip, but I really can’t claim to be a true forager yet. I’m more of a dream forager at this point. I hear you about eating the helmet urchins on the spot, but for some reason inspiration hit, and I knew they wouldn’t get any fresher than right there on the wave-beaten rocks. And no, no ill effects. I was probably lucky!

    Chef E: Your Texas-style foraging sounds really good to me! And it’s awesome that you’re only a train ride away from so many great cities and their distinct cultural/culinary offerings. That’s one thing that’s taken some getting used to in Hawaii – you drive to the farthest point of land in any direction, and you’re still only an hour away from home.

    Mediterranean Turkish Cook: I hope you and your husband make it to Hawaii soon! I’m not a huge fan of sea urchins, but the more I eat them the more I appreciate their distinctive taste and texture. The helmet urchin was a totally different experience from the sea urchin I normally have – on sushi. Maybe you can try some when you get to Hawaii!

    My College Kitchen: I’m glad to hear you’ve been to Oahu before. The touristy thing can still be fun here, but this particular place is definitely a little off the beaten track. And yes, a bucket would have helped me, but I’m telling you, those crabs were quick!