You park the car in the same spot as last time, knowing that the large tree will shade your car from the afternoon sun. You pass the signs at the trailhead and make your way into the familiar, wooded hills. There’s no reason to look at the map when you already know the landscape like the back of your hand.
All of us have that one trail, crag or river that we frequent. It’s close to home or holds a special place in our heart. However, over time, every visit to these familiar places can start eroding the feeling of adventure. Familiar settings cease to be wild.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Noah Couser gets out of his comfort zone and find adventure while in familiar territory.
Picture yourself standing on a mile long white sand beach, gazing at the shimmering turquoise water, listening to the crashing waves mixed with the sound of nothing but your toes hitting the sand. Turning away from the water you are smacked in the face with a view of hundreds of knife-edged, 3,000 foot cliffs that jut straight up from shore. As you look around, you only share this view with a handful of other people who were committed enough to make the trek into this tropical paradise. It is this location, this Hawaiian Narnia, that has consumed my thoughts for the past three years, consistently beckoning my return.
This was one of those adventures that consumes your thoughts in a way that you cannot shake from your focus. Robbing your attention span during work, seeping into your consciousness as the Montana winter months seem to drag for an eternity. Nine years ago, I hiked the Na Pali Coast on Kauai with my wife for the first time, astounded at the beauty of this wildly rugged place. We repeated the trip six years later, drawn back by the tropical beauty and uniqueness this land possesses. Every sweaty step of the unforgiving Kalalau Trail left me thinking, “What if we had paddled this instead?”
Staring down at the ocean, I began to imagine what it would be like to not be looking down at my muddy shoes along the trail, but to be gazing up at this intoxicating terrain from the water itself. The next time we returned to Kalalau, we’d be traveling by water.
Fast forward to a chilly November evening in Montana, three years after the last time we had been to the Na Pali Coast. I had finally had enough of the day dreaming, enough of the drooling over Google images and aerial flyovers of the coast. It was time to go back. It was time to paddle the coast I had frequented so often in my dreams. It was time to make it a reality.
After months of planning and gathering beta, we were finally standing at the road to Ke’e Beach. We spent the next hour inflating our paddleboards and tying down our gear, prepping for the 17 miles of open ocean. The trip before us consisted of a seven-mile paddle to the popular Kalalau Beach, followed by a five mile paddle the following day to the lesser known Miloli’i, and finally another five mile paddle to Polihale, the only other road access to the coast. Our crew consisted of myself, my wife, and four other friends who had accompanied us from Montana. We were all experienced inland paddle boarders, but this would be the first open ocean trip for each of us. All of those hours spent dreaming of this trip didn’t prepare me for what was in store. As we paddled out from shore into the current and the waves, an overwhelming sense of commitment came over me. I had been repeatedly told by local sources, “Once you leave Ke’e Beach, there is no coming back.” An incredibly strong current runs southwest along the rugged coastline making a retreat impossible. Even though a giant rainbow had stretched itself over our heads as we paddled away from civilization, I felt out of my comfort zone.
Living, working, and playing in Northwest Montana, I am at home in the mountains. I feel safe on trails, on bikes, on rivers, or climbing peaks. On a mountain, I don’t hesitate to stray from the trail, explore a new area or take the most interesting path toward my destination. I am confident on land, capable, and calm. On the ocean, I am timid at best, constantly second-guessing myself in the face of the daunting power of the ocean.
We had booked our trip in June because the direction of the trade winds would be in our favor and the surf was typically nominal around this time of the year. However, an unseasonably strong Northwest swell that blew in un-forecasted the day of our departure, along with the two foot waves and 20 mile per hour winds, added to my uneasiness. My stomach churned as anxious beads of sweat began to form across my forehead.
As I cautiously thrust my paddle forward into the unknown, I began to slowly find confidence with each successive stroke. As our launch point at Ke’e Beach faded into the background, the emerald green cliffs began to captivate our attention. The gigantic rock cliffs, exploded upwards from the rugged coastline in a dramatic fashion. We paddled in silence for a long time as the splendor of this foreign land began to draw our concentration. I watched facial expressions of my friends as their eyes gazed upwards and their mouths dropped open. One of the guys actually fell off his paddleboard into the ocean because he was so distracted by the landscape we were passing and got taken out by a wave.
We found that paddling was light work with a fierce wind at our back. The ocean seemed to drag us along like a moving sidewalk. Our biggest challenge was staying upright on the board as it swayed and rocked violently in the surf. The idea was thrown out to use our Slacker Hammocks as makeshift sails. Our first attempted involved tying the hammocks to two SUP paddles stretched between two paddlers, but this failed miserably. Next we tried adding more control by holding the edges of the hammock with our hand and angling it so the wind could fill the sail. Eventually we figured out that if we clipped the hammock pocket on the bottom of the sail to the Chaco strap of the inside foot of one of the paddlers it allowed the sail to fill completely with surprising control. With a hand in the water to steer, we started flying towards Kalalau.
Occasionally, after catching a glimpse of sweaty hikers slogging along, I couldn’t help but smirk thinking how they must be drooling over our speedy vessels. Loaded to the gills with gear, food, and drinks while being chauffeured by the wind on our SUP-sailboats must have been quite the scene.
Stretching out under the stars that night on the beach, we recounted our favorite twist or turn of the coastline, remembering the vivid details of the day. Eager with anticipation of what the next day would bring, I found it quite difficult to fall asleep. I also thought how wildly different the day had been in comparison to three years ago, coming back here as I laid underneath the very same tree as our last trip.
We awoke to crashing surf, chest-high breakers smashing powerfully onto the shore. Tentatively approaching the water’s edge, we geared up the boards, wincing a little as each set increased in size and power. Struggling to get just one board and paddler past the sizable waves, we noticed a local on a jet ski headed our way. After collecting the yard sale of gear smattered down the beach, we welcomed the assistance of the jet ski’s tow line. Within minutes, we were high-fiving past the break and showering thanks to our hero. Struggling to find our rhythm, we were caught off guard when a pod of dolphins surrounded us. Having never seen dolphins before, I was ecstatic to watch them weave around our boards and treat us with a few fantastic jumps out of the water on their way by. We made our way down the coast, and we encountered calmer seas and a changing landscape as the cliffs changed from dazzling green to brown and red rock.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved when we finally stepped ashore at our final stop, Polihale Beach. There is something nerve racking about being completely out of your comfort zone that I couldn’t help but hug the sandy shore. This was a trip that I would not soon forget. Climbing countless peaks, backpacking to alpine lakes, and sleeping under the stars in grizzly country is all too normal to me. Trips like that tend to blend together in my memory. This had been different. The challenge and the struggle of doing something so foreign had seared itself into my mind. The ocean had tested my resolve in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time, pushing me forth into new reaches of my ability.
Although I had been to this area multiple times, this trip pushed me way out of my comfort zone. Finding a new way to interact with a space that I already loved so much made me think about all the other wild places I love and the new adventures these places could hold.