2016: A year in review

January, 2016. My teeth chattered as I rushed to load my suitcase into the taxi. The cab driver stepped out to assist. Long white shocks of hair stuck straight out under the rim of his newsboy cap, and the edges of his trench coat swirled, chasing snowflakes in the wind. His leathery hand shake said I have a story, catch it if you can.

Five minutes into our drive to the airport, the pages began to turn. 

"I worked at a suicide prevention hotline for years," he recalled, " and the number one cause of suicidal ideation was always isolation. People think nobody else can understand what they have been through, but the basic emotions are always the same. Fear. Anger. Loneliness."

His solution? Simple- if somebody is having a hard time, take them out to eat. To him, a happy stomach was love. He believed this so deeply, he proposed to his wife with a bowl of soup. The words "Will You Marry Me" at the bottom of the bowl were revealed after her final sip. Sure enough, their marriage had been a happy one, good to the very last drop. She had passed away a few years ago, so now he made soup for his friends.

Several hundred pages later, we arrived at the airport, and I took off for Vancouver, Canada.

Andrew and I spent the next month exploring parts of Canada and the West Coast. He took photos for a travel article, and I interviewed the characters - a hermit turned dog sledder, an ambitious skier turned businessman. In between, we snuck away to explore ice caves and test our own wobbly ski legs.

When I returned home to Hawaii, I resolved to uncover more stories of the human emotions that inexplicably link us together. Stories that said you are human - you are not alone.

I began a personal project- a series of street portraits and interviews, which I called People in Paradise. At first, I was terrified to approach strangers, but the more I practiced, the better I got.

Only a few weeks later, I was able to put these newly honed interview skills to work, and I covered the Eddie Aikau for the Guardian, the first of several stories I wrote this year.

I flew over to Maui and met up with the athletes from a travel racing TV show called Boundless. We shot their own athletic challenge they dubbed The Maui Wowee - 90 miles of tangled bike spokes and rubber soles, frenetic warrior chants, and smeared zinc oxide.

Back home, I continued to shoot, and brought a few creative visions of my own to life.

I taught a 6-week photography course to 4th and 5th graders, which I called Developing Empathetic Storytelling with Photography. We utilized iPads to explore creative ways to tell their stories. I wanted to explore the concept of empathy as it applied to viewing things from different perspectives, and we spent time studying photographs from the lives of other children around the world, comparing and contrasting their struggles, and discussing times they had experienced similar emotional circumstances.

Several wrote in their reflections "I feel like I'm from another planet and nobody understands me." The kids loved finding ways to take creative photos, but many said the discussion component was their favorite.

Then, in June, just three days before Father's day, my own father passed away, without warning or explanation.

When I was 10, my dad planted the seeds for my photography and handed me my first film camera. "A good photograph tells a story," he said. Throughout our childhood, we ducked and moaned as his ever-clicking camera haunted our most awkward moments. 

Now, back home with my family, I spent hours shuffling through the boxes of photos - stories he had left behind for us.

In a bittersweet twist, the painful circumstances brought me and my six brothers and sisters together for a few weeks - the most time all seven of us had spent together in quite awhile, and the most precious moments of my 2016.

Back home in Hawaii, I continued the year with various portraits, events and commercial jobs. I continued to interview people, and published a few more stories.

In the fall, we returned to Canada, joined our friends canyoneering for a feature with the Weather Channel, and then explored some of the amazing climbing Squamish had to offer. In some sort of an inceptionistic photograph, here is an aerial photo Andrew shot of Gaby shooting me climbing a crack on The Chief.

I also did some inter-island travel as a producer for Andrew's video production company, Shibby Stylee. Here's a shot from one such adventure on Kauai, when he was filming for a show on the Travel Channel. 

After living on the islands for five years, I finally witnessed lava meeting ocean, both by air and by land.

I continued to explore the mountains that have inspired me on Oahu. Losing a parent was unlike anything I've ever dealt with. As you grow older, you see parts of them in you, both the good, and some of the things that drove you nuts. It felt like losing a piece of myself. In all this, I found a special solace in the mountains, and spent many treks in solitude exploring the ups and downs of the ridges.

I also found great consolation in stories of people who have felt the same emotions, or dealt with similar circumstances. 

Stories of fear, stories of puzzlement, stories of sorrow, stories of dreams.

 Stories of the shared experience of being human.

In 2017, I'm looking forward to sharing more photos and stories of these people and places that have inspired me.

Dog Sledding in Whistler

 When are animal rides cruel?

Last month, I had the opportunity to go dog sledding in Whistler, Canada, with my boyfriend Andrew. I was excited, but tentative. There's a certain childish appeal to animal rides, and I love dogs. But I’d heard mixed reviews on the subject. Some people said it was cruel to the dogs. How do you know?

In some cases, it's a no-brainer.

I remember my first sheep ride like it was 18 years ago.

Like most young girls, I was afflicted with the curse of horse-lust. I was born in the thick of the 80’s My Little Pony craze. As a young girl, I joined the throngs of wide-eyed gremlins clutching rainbow-colored rubber horses with heart freckled rumps. All I wanted was my own little real pony

When my family moved to a farm, my siblings and I barraged my parents with the ineluctable question.

"Can we get a horse? Pleeeeeeeeassee???"

“Horses don’t bring in money,” my parents said, “Goats give us milk. Sheep give meat and wool. Horses don’t provide income.”

My brother Dan and I were not to be dissuaded from our burning need to ride something. We were all about improvising. Pearl was a strong, stocky Suffolk sheep. If you squinted your eyes halfway, her inky black face almost resembled the majestic Black Beauty. A Black Beauty with an oversized, white, wooly saddle. The perfect solution to our horse-lust woes.

Dan and I approached our newly appointed trusty steed, armed with a handful of her favorite treats. I clenched and unclenched my free hand behind my back while she slurped up the grain from my outstretched left hand.

In one swift move, I wrapped my scrawny legs and arms around her woolly back like an octopus attacking a cottonball.

3, 2, 1...

My brother started to say something, but his words were drowned by the pounding of hooves against the ground. Pearl launched us into the air at rocket speed.

... BLASTOFF!

“Hah gahhhhhhh teem!” called my brother after me.

In my nine-year-old memory, it was an eternity of rushing air and thudding hooves. The lanolin coated my already sweaty palms and I struggled to keep myself from slipping under her thudding hooves.

In reality, it was actually probably only about 6.2 seconds before Pearl put things to an end. She pulled a fast tight turn into the fence, slammed her side against the panels and sent me flying into the alfalfa.

“No thanks!” I thought I heard her mutter under her breath as she trotted away indignantly.

For Pearl, it was obvious she didn't enjoy our little rodeo. She gave me dirty looks for two weeks straight.

But for dog sledding, it wasn't quite as straightforward.

 

Whistler dog sledding got a bad rap after a mass killing of 56 sled dogs went public. Many claimed this cruel act exemplified the horrors of dog sledding. Conditions of the working animals were brought into question. And a slew of articles advocated banning dog sledding altogether.

But other sled dog owners spoke out against the occurrence, upset to be grouped with the event. Did the actions of one cruel man justify placing all dog sledding companies into the same group?

Dog sledding has a rich history in Northern America transportation. The story of Balto tells the tale of the heroic sled dog that saved a village by delivering medicine to a village when other transportation methods failed. In today's modern society, however, dog sledding is primarily recreational. Using a dog sled to save a village of people seems a little more justified. The topic begs the question: "When is it ethical to use animals for rides?"

In this case, it may be something that can only be decided on a case by case basis. In this case, my tour was set up through Canadian Wilderness Adventures. They contract through Trappers Run, a kennel run by Jamie Hargreaves. Jamie is an advocate for ethical dog sledding. I can't speak for other dog sledding groups. But a few things stood out to me about this particular group of dogs and mushers.

The biggest thing I noticed was a respectful relationship between the handlers and the dogs. Around these parts, Jamie is known as the “dog whisperer.” Rumor has it she can silence sixty barking dogs with one word. But the effect doesn’t appear to stem from fear. Jamie’s dogs wag their tails and perk their ears forward when they see her approaching. When she lets a couple dogs out, they rush to cover her in kisses.

I don’t speak dog-ese, but the dogs seem to hold Jamie in high regard. And the respect is mutual. Jamie can't say enough good things about her dogs.

“People say I’m so incredible with dogs, but to be honest it’s the dogs that teach the dogs. I just facilitate the process.” Jamie says.

It’s a process that she calls Can-ology, much like sociology.

“We work on dog’s personal confidence. We want them to be a part of something, and they all come together for a common goal.”

Her mushers share these sentiments. To start our tour, we met up with Addison, our musher for the day. Addison's team of dogs for the day approach him with a full on body hugs and soft nuzzles. Like Jamie, he knows every single dog's name. The best part, he says, is when the dogs learn your voice and start to respond. It's a group effort, and there's something special about that feeling of belonging to the team.

At this kennel, quality of life seemed high. The mushers knew each little nuance about each dog -- who needed what, and when. Some of the dogs had blankets to keep them warm while they waited outside. Another wore booties because her paws were more sensitive.

When they aren't working, the dogs are kept in kennels.  During the summer, Jamie says they’re allowed to run free on the expansive property.

The kennel grounds were a frenzy of barking as we approached. The dogs who were set to pull waited on tethers near the sled. They jumped up and down, barking eagerly. Addison introduced us to each of the dogs, and then let us help him hook them up. Some of the dogs practically dragged us to line to be hooked up.

Once they were hooked to the sled, the real racket began. The dogs leapt forward in their harnesses. You could almost hear them yelling eagerly:

“Aww yeah! Let’s go!”

Addison gave the command, and the dogs tore down the trail like a pack of kids that had just spotted a blowup bouncy house on the distant horizon.

As we went up the hills, Addison stepped off to help push the sled up. On the way down, he applied a break to keep the sled from gaining too much momentum and careening into the dogs.

Every fifteen minutes we took a break. Addison explained that running makes them have to poop. After they relieved themselves, the dogs dove headfirst into the snow, rolling and shaking.

Once the pack had cooled down, they began leaping in their harness, eager to run again.

“Let’s get this show on the road!”

We pulled back into home base a couple hours later. The dogs lapped at a high-calorie soup while we passed out treats to reward them for a job well done.

The change in behavior was remarkable. Dogs that were rioting just a few hours ago now lied down, content and calm. Can they invent some form of dog sledding for hyper energetic children bouncing off the walls?

For some of the more energetic dogs, Addison said they would get to run one more time later that day. For other dogs, once was enough.

For these dogs, they seem to be enjoying their lives. They’re happy, they’re having fun, and they enjoy being part of a team.

But what happens afterwards? Will their careers as a sled dog ruin their chances at a happy life after they can no longer pull?

At Jamie’s kennel, her dogs aren’t all just the traditional Huskies. Her team is a diverse assortment from a variety of backgrounds. The majority of these dogs came to her as rescue dogs. And Jamie has no intent on sending them back to the lives they escaped.

It’s why she adopts her dogs out early. While most are happy to work up to 13 years, she works with an adoption agency to find them homes long before then. That way the dogs have more time to bond and enjoy quality time with their adoptees after their sledding years.

As happy as they seemed to me, I wondered- how do you really know if a dog enjoys pulling sleds? “No dog is here if they don’t want to be here.” said Jamie. “If they’re not enjoying their days and it doesn’t seem to work for them we adjust and we find new homes for them.”

For Jamie, reading dogs is like reading humans.

“You have to know your animals and know what they’re feeling." she said.  "Certain dogs are more sensitive and need more attention; other dogs need a lot of positive reinforcement. Every dog, like humans, has different needs. And if you know that animal, you know if it’s going to be happy or not. You just know.”

Jamie smiles and nods in the direction of her tail-wagging clan.

“It’s the connection with them.”

Personally, I'd never try to ride a sheep again. But dog sledding? If the kennel is anything like Jamie's, I would definitely give it another go.

5 things I learned as a photographer

2015 was my first official year in the business of photography. I'd been taking photos for awhile, but it's a whole new world when you make a business of it. In true Liz fashion, I learned all of my lessons the hard way. I laughed a lot. I cried a lot. Sometimes I locked myself in my room for days. My first year was all about "The School of Hard Shots." Here's my top 5 photos from the year, and what they taught me about myself as a photographer: 

It's ok to try everything

In this day and age as an artist, there's a lot of pressure to "find your niche." In the beginning of the year, I just knew I liked taking photos and meeting people. Early in the year I did a lot of yoga projects, and some of my photos were a hit (this one made it into some different yoga catalogues and advertisements). I started getting a lot of inquiries for yoga photos. I even got to do a shoot for Lululemon.

But then I froze up. I started worrying if I put myself out there as one "type" of photographer, I would be branded for life. What if I wanted to shoot more than just yoga? For a period, I stopped posting any of my work online. I was scared of being branded as one thing or another. For fear of going in the "wrong" direction, I didn't go anywhere.

In the end, I learned more about myself and photography by just going out there and shooting everything. In addition to my own shoots, I assisted on a lot of different types of shoots for free, just for the experience. Working for free meant also picking up extra side jobs to help pay the bills, and consequently turning down a lot of social invitations due to lack of time. It was fun. Sometimes it was lonely. But overall, it was really rewarding for me. I learned what I like, and what I don't like. I'm eternally grateful to the photographers that took me under their wing, mentored me, and showed me their crafts. On a side note, I gained a whole new level of respect for jewelry product photographers.

When you find things you like, don't give up on them

As someone who is constantly fighting feelings of inadequacy, I find it really empowering to tell stories about strong, inspirational women who pursue their passions. Especially if it involves things I also love, like being active and outside.

But my ideas don't always come together the way I want them to. This particular shot was from my fifth attempt to shoot a girl climbing with blue water at this location. It's over an hour drive from my house. That equals over 10 hours of driving, plus about 6 hours of shooting time. The timing, water quality, and other factors just hadn't worked out the way I envisioned it, so I kept trying over the course of several months. On this particular day, it was overcast and pouring rain.

It was one of those "NOT AGAIN!!!" moments of frustration.

But then we remembered why we were out there in the first place - to do the things we love, and have fun. We decided to go climb in the rain anyways, just for fun. As we played, the clouds parted. We ended up getting some blue water climbing shots with a bonus rainbow.

I'm currently working on a personal project that I have attempted eight times so far. When I get frustrated, I like to look at pictures like this one. It reminds me to relax, have fun, and just keep working at it.

Always make time for personal projects

It was really tricky for me, finding a balance in mixing my artistic expression with my source of income. At times, I started becoming more of a "button pusher" and less of an "artist." Some of my photos felt downright flat and lifeless.

About halfway through the year, I realized I didn't want to be hired just because I have a nice camera and can push buttons. I wanted to have the creative freedom to work with people who trusted and valued my artistic vision. At this point, I realized I had tried a lot of different things, and I was ready to start making moves towards defining myself as an artist. I've always have been a storyteller. And I have a lot of fun, but quirky ideas.

So I started adapting a more photojournalistic, story-telling style in my photos. And I started working on more personal outdoor creative projects.

For me, personal projects were the best way of attracting my ideal clients who liked my style and trusted my ideas. My "Mother in the Moon" project arose from working with a client who trusted my vision to create something special for her. And that was a really good feeling.

A picture is only as powerful as the story it tells

This was by far, the biggest revelation to me this year. I got to take a lot of beautiful photos this past year. But the photos that meant the most to me were the ones that captured not just a place, but also a story.

This picture of Helene Dumais had a large reach this year. It was from my largest personal project of the year, documenting the first female to complete the Ko'olau Summit Ridge in one through-hike. It won the Grand Prize for a contest I didn't even enter (due to a misunderstanding). It was featured on the homepage of National Geographic as the photo of the day. But what made this photo so powerful to me was not so much the timing, framing, lighting, or any technical details. What made it powerful to me was the feelings and story behind it.

It's not actually a triumphant photo of reaching a summit or end-point. It's a photo of defeat mixed with determination and dreaming. It was right after a failed attempt to complete the trek. We were scouting a section of the "saddles," three treacherous climbing sections that had forced us to quit. Our limbs were covered in bruises and rashes, and our knees were swollen. We were completely depleted. But Helene's body language still conveys a sense of strength, adventure, and hope.

I like this photo because it has a meaningful story behind it. It reminds me to keep your sense of adventure in times of adversity, and never, ever, EVER give up on your dreams.

Helene's determination paid off, and in June she became the first documented female to through hike the entire ridgeline in one self-sufficient through-hike. Ironically, on the last attempt of the trail, I actually left my camera behind. Finishing the trail required significant weight cuts. It forced us to choose between high quality photos, or being truly ultralight and actually having a chance at finishing. It was appearance vs. experience. I left the camera gear behind, and only brought a mini point and shoot to document. As a photographer, it was a game changing decision for me. I realized that I was first and foremost, a storyteller.

Photos have an incredible power to move a viewer emotionally, and incite action

Emotions captivate me. Happiness. Loneliness. Curiosity. Sorrow. Love. Fear. I spent a lot of this year learning how to help people relax and capture them in their most natural states. That was one thing I discovered about my "style"- I like capturing genuine emotions. Most were in happy moments, like weddings. But I captured other emotions as well.

I took this shot during an emotional search for Moke, a missing teenage hiker. In this moment the father & David (a volunteer searcher) embraced in a tearful and emotional hug after they returned from a flight scanning over the mountains for his son. Moved, I quietly took a few photos of the love & sadness I saw between the people there.

I wasn't sure if it had been insensitive to take photos in those moments. I asked the family before I shared any photos. Surprisingly, they agreed, and actually thanked me for the photos. I shared a short post of a few photos telling the story of the search & a link to the fundraiser for the family's search. I was blown away by the response. In one week, the photo reached over 23,000 people on facebook.

It really brought home the capacity of photos to move people on a deep, emotional level. And when people are moved, they act, and create change.

As Moke's story spread, volunteers and donations poured in. While many different forms of media helped their cause, it was rewarding to be a small part of that. It was the first time I experienced the power of photos to not only tell a story, but to generate action. And that was pretty inspiring. It made me want to tell more stories that inspire change. Stories that move people to create a better world.

---

There are so many other things I learned through the school of hard shots this past year, but those were my big ones. What advice would you have for somebody in their first year?

Don't trust a man who's never had to bury his own shit

"Can you just poop over the cliff?!!”

When mother nature calls, you can only hit the decline button so many times before she takes over and answers her own call. My friend Jessica and I were scouting out a hazardous section of climbing along the Ko’olau Mountains. The trail had narrowed to a generous 16 inches and didn’t show signs of widening any time soon. We’d been crawling over and around a series of crumbling razor-thin edges for hours when the urge hit Jessica.

Considering we’d been fighting to hold together the eroding remnants of ground below our feet, trying to dig a hole directly on the path wasn’t exactly an option. The only space on either side of the path was air space - a direct drop-off into a plunging ravine of green below. And from the looks of the next climb, wrestling up a loose dirt overhang over a 1700 foot drop-off guaranteed to scare the shit out of both of us if we didn’t take care of it on our own.

And that is how my dear friend found herself jutting her butt over the side of the 1700 foot cliff. With one hand gripped around a small scrubby brush and the other hand digging deep into a mound of loose dirt for stability. So it goes on the Ko’olau Summit Trail.

No worries, she's just climbing here folks.

Ko’olau Summit Trail: Take 2

04/18/2015 Pupukea to Poamoaho: “Awwwwwww shit!!”

Long, ropey strands of wet toilet paper, stuck to a fern branch and twirling in the wind. And now stuck to my backpack. Whoever had left it probably hadn’t realized their doo wiper would be fluttering in the wind across the trail. We hadn’t really thought about preparing for it either, until after our first attempt at through backpacking. It went on the gear revision list, right next to dark chocolate:

‘bring an extra Ziploc bag for carrying out used toilet paper’

Had we completed the trail on our first try, we might not even have been forced to think about it. But it was our second time attempting the trail. We were now retracing our steps, and the steps of others, and there was definitely some er, shit, that they had left behind.

I hadn’t even planned on attempting this trail more than once, but the first attempt had been like pulling back a curtain to reveal a peek at a prize, and I was hooked. We went up again only four days after our first failed attempt. My knees weren’t quite ready. We’d cut our packs from 45 pounds to 35, but I was still struggling. In an effort to distract my mind from the excruciating pain that was shooting through my knees, I diverted my mind to a separate stream of consciousness – running chatter.

In all fairness, they probably didn’t realize their shit wouldn’t disappear quickly. In modern daily life, you flush and never have to think about it again. Out of sight, out of mind. You don’t really start thinking about your shit until you start spending more time in places where it doesn’t easily disappear. I guess that could go for a lot of things in life besides shit. If we had to pile our trash in our own yards and face our own mini landfills every day, we’d probably be more mindful about waste. Everybody should have to bury their shit at least once in life. It just adds a whole new level of – cognizance. Responsibility. Don’t trust a man who’s never had to bury his own shit.

I remembered reading an article that estimated there were about 300,000 dumps taken along the PCT last year.

Just imagine what the trail would look like if those hadn’t been buried away from the trail, and all the hikers left all their toilet paper. What if park rangers scolded hikers for leaving trash the way people scold their dogs for pooping on the carpet?

I imagined a park ranger gripping the collar of a hiker on the PCT and shoving his nose into the pile of dirty toilet paper and trash he had left behind while saying “No! Bad dog!” The thought made me giggle. It distracted from the shooting pain running between my knees and hips.

“Helene, on a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling?”

“Oh, about an eight!” was the cheery reply.

Fuck. I’m a solid three.

We’d decided to combine our two days from our first attempt since we’d had extra time both days, but I was feeling it. It was noon and we were at the first cabin. We’d conquered the bushes, but now we had the mud to fight through.

I sat down on a rock and put my head in my hands.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I just can’t. I literally don’t know how I’m going to move my feet.

“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” Helene coached. She pointed out I couldn’t exactly bail at that point anyways. I had no choice but to find a way to keep going. If I could at least make it to the next cabin, there was a bailout I could take from there the next morning.

I felt like I was balancing the weight of the world on two little toothpick legs made of fine china. I focused my mind by breaking the trail into little checkpoints and hitting them. Get to this point by 1pm. Check. Get here by 2. Check. Get to the boot by 3. Check.

At the cabin, I chugged water and washed the blisters on my feet. I spent the rest of the night with my legs propped up, rubbing my calves to alleviate the throbbing pain.  I took a few breaks to rub my lower back and arms. Both Helene and I had extremely itchy rashes from being in the wet mountains for days without giving our skin a proper chance to recover.

04/19/2015 Poamoho to Waimano: Haunted by the mistakes of our past

No Man’s Land is that it is just that. It’s on the Leeward side of the mountains, between Poamoho and Kipapa. The wind is blocked, and it’s completely quiet. It’s a dark, formidable forest of fog and brush, and especially overgrown. Nobody seems to walk through these parts -- it’s a god-forsaken land. It’s also near impossible to tell the trail at times. About every 15 minutes, we’d find ourselves in the middle of a clearing where the trail seemed to end, and realize we had to retrace our steps back to the last spot until we found our clue- usually a small fragment of ribbon peeking out from behind a few branches.

The sad thing is that we still made every. single. mistake. that we had made the first time we hiked through here. No man’s land was still just as confusing. But since we’d made them before, we were a lot quicker to recognize it.

“Oh yeah, we did this last time. Welp, time to turn around again.”

I wondered to myself if that was how life was sometimes. Just because you made a mistake in life and fixed it, doesn’t mean you will never make the same mistake again. But maybe you’ll recognize it faster, and correct your steps quicker the second time around.

The quicker corrections made for quicker times, and this time we made it all the way to our intended campsite at Waimano. We threw together our yellow starfish and collapsed. Surprisingly, my legs had held up.

04/20/2015 Waimano to N. Haiku: Moke

I was in serious trouble. I’d been ignoring my legs successfully so far, but now they were starting to cramp up like crazy.  I chugged water and took salt pills in a desperate attempt to make the cramps go away so I could move my legs faster. That was one thing Helene had taught me- when you’re sweating a lot, you lose a lot of salt. Drinking water isn’t enough. Low sodium in the blood means trouble and cramping, especially for prolonged periods of time. Helene had brought along salt pills to replenish, and when I took them, they actually helped with the cramps.

As we progressed through the morning, we realized the climbing wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. The clouds cleared to reveal four prominent peaks in front of us.

“It’s like Goldilocks and the three little bears!”

I was lost in an animated world where everything was cute and fluffy. I panted as I pulled myself to the top of the first notch. Cartoons played in the back of my head. Goldilocks was chasing after us up each mountain peak, her cartoon hair bouncing with each step.

“First she tried Papa’s porridge, but it was too hot.”

I turned my feet sideways to try and catch some grip as I descended down the backside of the first peak. I pulled myself up the second mound, knees pressed to the hills. Small gnats buzzed around my red sweaty face as I pressed it close to the earth and grasped for any clumps of grass I could find to help leverage my pack up the incline. With one heavy gasp, I sucked a poor innocent gnat down my windpipe.

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.

I collapsed at the top of the second peak, choking and wheezing.

“This porridge is too cold!”

Helene popped up behind me. “Or this mountain is too big!”

“Or that.”

As it turned out, Goldilocks and the three bears were joined by all their wicked cousins AND stepsisters. The peaks continued, one after the other. But by lunchtime, we were close to the first saddle – the treacherous climbing sections. FINALLY!

And it was pouring rain, which made it impossible to hike on the saddles. Of course.

Even though it was only the middle of the day, we had no choice but to take shelter in a nearby bunker. The bunker is one of many old abandoned bunkers left in the mountains from WWII.  It’s a small covered concrete square building, about 12’ x 12’, with an open door.

Almost all my water was gone. I’d sucked through 3 liters like it was nothing, trying to fight off the massive cramps. And our next planned water source was down in the middle of the saddle, two hours hike and one rainstorm too far away. As the sun set, the rain let up. I rocked back and forth on our small tarp, trying to conserve energy and pretend like I wasn’t thirsty. All I could think about was water. Nothing mattered except water.

Helene went outside to watch the sun. She started shouting.

“The SADDLE! I can see the saddle!”

She dragged me outside to share her first peek at the saddle with her. It dipped low from one mountain peak to another, a loss of about 1500 feet in elevation before climbing back up to the next peak in one smooth, graceful arc.

“It’s like the big grin of a Chesire cat. I can’t stop smiling back at it!” Helene was jumping up and down.

It was cold, so we brought out our emergency blankets and fell asleep huddled together on the tarp. Dreaming of water. Sweet, cold water.

We were awoken at 11pm by the sound of voices and two faint lights in the distance.

We were at least a good 5-6 hours hiking distance from any place in civilization. We weren’t exactly in a popular spot for hiking, either. Who was up here? And at 11 at night?

Night marchers? Ghosts?

“Ho shit, there’s people in there!” cried a man’s voice.

Crazy rapists living in the mountains? Helene and I were frozen.

Their faces filled the doorway. The light from their headlamps cut triangles of shadows underneath their eyebrows and noses. It was enough to recognize them. I sighed with relief. It was Kama and Mike, two men I’d met a couple months ago when I was helping search for a missing kid in the mountains. The very kid who had disappeared hiking the saddle that lay before us.

But what were they doing up here? As it turns out, it was Kama’s 50th day of searching for his little brother.

“Oh shit, you are the brother of that boy!” exclaimed Helene. I’d told her all about his disappearance when explaining why we had to take extra care on the saddles, but this really brought it home.

“Yeah, he’s in highschool. He’s supposed to graduate this spring,” said Kama.

Helene and I glanced at each other. Instant chills. Fifty days later, he was still looking. That’s family.

Kama went on to explain that they had hiked up with supplies to start exploring new areas of the mountains. This bunker was near a new area they wanted to check out, and they’d come up planning to spend the night so they had the following day for searching.

Mike pulled a water bottle out of his backpack. “We brought extras of these if you need any.”

I pounced. Self-sustained or not, I was parched. Helene didn’t want any. She still had enough, and she was dead set on only using what she brought up with her. 100% purist.

“Careful on the next section,” Mike warned, “There’s a piece on the saddle where the rope is gone, and it’s pretty sketchy to climb without. We climbed it with just our light daypacks, and there were rocks falling everywhere.”

This time around, I’d left the big camera behind. It’d been part of our weight cuts. In it’s place, I had a small gopro. I took a shaky photo of the four of us in the shack before we relegated to our separate corners for the night and fell back asleep.

04/21/2015 “What’s wrong?”In the past two weeks of hiking, it was the first time I’d ever seen Helene low. While I’d bumbled along whining, she’d prodded me along, cheerful and persistent. And now, for the first time ever, on our first saddle, she was hesitating. Her eyes were tearing up.“I’m crying because I’m scared,” wavered Helene. I was floored. It was the first time I’d seen any weakness in her. I’d almost begun to fear she was some insane athletic robot, and not actually a real human after all. I tried to put on a brave face, and we both started working away at the saddle, but the climb Mike had warned us about was everything he’d said and more. Rocks fell to either side as we ducked and struggled to find a way to get our heavy packs to the top of the vertical wall that crumbled before us. The weight addition of six liters of water to our packs at the stream in the middle was bringing back the old cramps and knee pains I’d been fighting since the day before. My knee was shaking uncontrollably. And now, of all things, it was starting to rain. The forecast had turned, again, to rain. For the next three days. The saddles just weren’t happening. After two hours of fighting the same spot, we decided we had to come down. There was no way around it.

What had happened to us? Hearing Kama talk about Moke had messed with both of our heads. It was one of those things that made you realize how serious things could get. It made us stop and wonder why.

Why are we doing this? Why do we take risks? Why do we set goals? When is a goal worth pursuing, and why is it worth it? How far would you go to reach that goal?

Our pant legs were catching on everything. They were shredding at the bottoms from catching on bushes. We tucked the torn remains into our long wool socks and pulled our pants high.

“We look like two fashionable old ladies on our way to bingo!” snorted Helene.

I giggled and held out my hand. “Come on then, old lady.”

We hobbled off the mountains and began the eight miles down the nearest trail option for bailing. Helene was flying back to Canada in just a few days. We were both spent, and there was no time, money, or energy left to try again. Altogether, she’d been here for three weeks working on the trail with me, and we’d done a lot. It’d been a good run. I drowned out the crunching below my feet with a steady chatter of inner thought.

If you wanted it enough to pursue it in the first place, it’s worth pursuing. You pick a direction, and goals that align with that direction, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe we challenge ourselves because we want to be better versions of the person we were yesterday.  Maybe it isn’t just about reaching the end goal. Maybe it isn’t just about the beautiful moments in the mountains, either. Maybe it’s the person you become in the process of reaching for the goal. About being humbled, and learning. About how your respond and grow from the struggles. Failing, but getting stronger from each time you fail, and never giving up. And about the moments you shared together in the journey. We had a good run.

I smiled as I looked at my fellow little old lady, hobbling down the trail with me. Helene silenced my inner chatter with three short words:

“I’m coming back.”

Chasing Giants

 Hiking the entire Ko'olau Summit Trail in one through-hike was a dream I had always thought was wildly raw, beautiful, savage, and impossible. But one thing the mountains taught me this year is that the first step to reaching your goals is to actually believe in them.

This was the first of three attempts hiking the Ko'olau Summit Trail.

4/11/2015 Day 1: 

Dark chocolate is amazing

The day started at 7am in Pupukea - two hefty backpacks with a couple of woman strapped to their backside. Helene and I hugged Jessica goodbye, the third lady of our group and our woman on the ground.“Make sure your tracking device is working!” she chirped in her mother-bird voice.This was it! After months of preparation, we were finally hiking the Ko’olau Summit Trail.

The Ko’olau Mountain range is the crumbling remains of a shield volcano on the island of Oahu. It’s the breathtaking backdrop to a place many call home, but to a very small group of people, it’s a unique trek. There are many hikes up the sides of the mountain range, but not many people hike along the summit line. The first part, the Ko'olau Summit Trail, is the remainder of an old contour trail. After the official trail ends, the summit line climbs along the spine. Altogether, it's a 52 mile stretch that runs from the North end of the island to the Southeast. While the highest point is only 3100 feet, the length involves climbing a total of 26,000 feet of elevation gain following the rise and fall of mountain peaks formed by fire, wind, and weather. It’s an obscure trek that few people care or even know about.

But for us, it was completely captivating.

We spent hours staring at these ridge lines on Google Earth

We spent hours staring at these ridge lines on Google Earth

It took all of about 20 minutes for the excitement to wear off and the pain to set in. My knees wobbled under 45 pounds of camera gear, camping supplies, a week of food, and dark chocolate.

"Dark chocolate is amazing"

This was the very first note we wrote at the top of our gear revision list. The thoughtful list was compiled after a two day series of misadventures that we called “gear testing.” It started with a beautiful sunset under our ultralight tarp tent.

It ended with a 3am chase after the blown away tarp and a sleepless struggle to stay warm and dry in the rain. The only thing that kept our spirits up was two squares of dark chocolate wrapped in a piece of crinkled foil. No doubt about it, chocolate was essential.

But altogether everything was HEAVY! The straps of my pack chomped into my shoulders.  There was a little goblin stabbing a five inch dagger under my shoulder blade.

I HATE the world. Absolutely hate it. My knees were already creaking for a rocking chair. It was impossible to think about anything but the pain. Pain and torture.

“Why are you doing this to yourself, you idiot! You can’t do this and you know it.”

WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY

We only knew of two people who had ever done the trek in one shot. After the first man documented hiking the entire length in 2012 in one self-sufficient trek (meaning no supply or water drops along the way), numerous athletes and backpackers were inspired to fly to Hawaii to attempt the trek in this way and failed. It’s not the typical mountain climb or trail run. It's dangerous. It can be deadly. It requires not just physical strength, but also an understanding of the unique terrain, weather, and navigational factors of Hawaii. It’s climbing loose crumbly terrain with a heavy pack, navigating a confusing network of trails in dense fog and jungle, hunting down unreliable water sources, and a constant fight against shifting weather patterns.

Helene blithely ambled behind me singing random bits of songs. She stopped to admire the different trees, feel the textures of the colored patches of bark, and inhale the sweet eucalyptus. “Look at those little roots hanging down, it’s like they want to be trees!” Helene pointed to a Banyan tree.

She wasn't even breaking a sweat.

I knew I wasn't strong enough for the trek, but Helene Dumais was.

 I'd first met her in the summer of 2014, which is when I told her about the trek. She was equally intrigued. I might not be capable, but if she did the trek, I could document it as an inspirational story about women adventurers. Originally, it was supposed to be her and one other ultra runner, but in the end, the other woman couldn't make it. Hiking alone in Hawaii is extremely dangerous. Shortly before Helene arrived, a solo hiker disappeared on one of the climbing sections of the trails, and still hadn't been found. So Helene got a SPOT satellite tracker. I agreed to go with her as far as I could, and then hike up at different sections to check on her and document.

At this point, I wasn't sure I'd make it past the first day. It wasn't long into the trail before we met the bushes.

THE HORRIBLE BUSH MONSTER.

The bushes didn’t just cross the path, they consumed it. When I tried to push through, they scratched and clawed at me, leaving red marks streaked across my neck. I took a step forward, only to be pulled back by bushes  viciously grabbing onto various parts of me. I sucked sticky spider webs down my pipes with each gasp as I struggled to push my way through.

I set my pack down to catch my breath. The top section of my pack has been partially detached by the powerful grip of the brown thorny masses.

THAT’S IT! I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS! I AM GOING TO DESTROY YOU BUSHES!

Cue music: final countdown.  An epic battle was going down. I purposefully grabbed a handful of crunchy brown spindly branches between my US diver gloves and snapped them in half, just to make a point.

Take THAT, you bushes.

I sweated and struggled to fashion reattach the top of my pack with 550 paracord. Helene came up from behind, giggling. “Oh, these bushes are so lovely!”

The woman’s in her own world.

“What the heck is lovely about these bushes?” (everything is Alexanderandtheterriblehorriblenogoodverybadday right now)“They just love me so much!”“Oh, loving!”“Hehe, yes, loving! They don’t want to let me go!”You can’t go wrong with a French Canadian backpacking companion. The vivacious delivery of Frenglish phrases alone was enough to shake any bad mood. And she did have a way of looking at things.

"Liz, your own worst enemy is yourself."

My friend had laughingly told me this three years ago when I was flipping out on a hike. Now, the phrase was playing on repeat in my head.

Current mood: Aggravated with a hint of amused

We fixed my backpack together, and soon reached a summit with a clearing and views.

The green hills stacked against each other to block out any view of the city that we were in just a few hours ago. After hours of fighting through dense bushes, I was just happy to have clear space around my head.

“Oh yeah!” admired Helene, “Now you’re calling!”

“Talking?”

“Maybe?”

Slowly, a rhythm emerged. Whatever it was, this was the feeling I had been looking for. I was pretty sure the little goblin still had his dagger in my shoulder, but I wasn’t sure. My mind wouldn’t even give the pains the time of day; it had run off to frolic in the vast greenery. Everything started to move faster, one foot in front of the other.

 After a bumble in a confusing bog, we found ourselves at the cabin.

Helene perused our maps and munched on our rations of cold water and nutrient-infused mashed potatoes.

 I flipped through the stories in the logbook. One theme was consistent in the scribbles: “Look out for the rats.” “Rats live in the rafters now.” “Rats ate my special chocolate.““Do you hear that scrabbling sound above us?” We strained our ears, eyeing the rafters suspiciously. Suddenly, the light filtering through the dusty windows changed to a distinct golden glow. 

Somebody had graciously left a large oversized pair of rubber boots by the door. Helene slipped her petite feet into the fourty-sizes-too-big shoes, and together we clomped up the hill to get a better view of the sunset.

he thick layers of dense clouds acted like a dark filter, and made it possible to follow the distinct outline of the sun all the way down in its descent. It was eerily quiet as we watched the small round disk slide behind the dark peaks. A soft breeze of clouds and air swirled around us as we tripped our way back down the hill to our beds.

One solid chunk of dark chocolate down and my aches and pains were a distant memory. I drifted off into a content sleep- warm, dry, and hopeful.

Dark chocolate is truly amazing.

4/12/2015 Day 2: The Giant in the mountains

rats.

2:28am

I was awoken from the fog of a rodent dream by the distinct feeling of something in my sleeping bag.

SOMETHING IS IN MY SLEEPING BAG.

Half asleep, I shook my legs in the bag, and felt a soft fist-sized lump bump up against my leg.

Rats.

RATS

RATS!!!

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” I screamed. I hopped around like a maniac until I managed to wriggle out of the bag, still screaming, and fumbled for my headlamp. By this time, Helene was fully awake.

“What is it?”

“RATTTSS!!! AHHHHHHH!!” I switched my headlamp on to its fullest beam and frantically shook my sleeping bag upside down to eradicate the intruder. A dark lump fell out. My pair of extra socks rolled menacingly to the floor. You just never know when a pair of socks will get a mind of their own and turn against you.

We look at each other and shook until the entire hill was pealing with laughter. It didn’t matter. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from anybody else, just two girls in the mountain.

I knew for a fact the rats were up there in the roof, peering down from the rafter beams and cackling at us behind their tiny clawed hands.

We woke up again a few hours later. The early morning mountain range was one thick blanket of foggy white.“Ave Maria….” Neither of us knew all the words.

Like it mattered.

Helene added a latin rendition while I swept the cabin and she scrubbed our pot from our granola breakfast. There’s something decidedly both eerie and calming about singing in the clouds.

Putting on cold muddy socks and pants was like wrapping a cold slimy snail around our skin. We had optimistically hung our clothes up to dry. Silly, silly girls. Nothing EVER dries when you are up in the Ko’olaus.

My backpack was now one dinner and lunch lighter, and the pain in my shoulder felt more like a familiar friend than arch enemy.

We stepped out onto the trail and straight into knee high mud, setting the theme for the day.

Squelch, suck, squeak.

It was a bit of a struggle to stay balanced in all the mud, plus I had my new backpack. I remembered reading about the special new technology.

“This pack uses a custom 3D pivoting hipbelt for dynamic load transfer. Because the shoulder straps and hipbelt move with you, friction and hot spots are eliminated.”

It had sounded promising. Eliminating hot spots was good, right?

Maybe on a normal trail. The Ko’olou Summit Ridge is not a normal trail. Every time I slipped, my pack swung on my hip to compensate. But my pack was already really heavy, and as I slipped, my pack would swivel even further, hurling me into the ground with 45 pounds of force. Eventually my backpack and I shook hands and agreed that we were going to be going separate ways for the rest of the day.

Squelch. Suck. Thud! Helene and I pulled ourselves up from the mud, wiping hair out of our faces with our muddy paws. Helene burst out laughing as she looked at my face, and I laughed as I saw her disheveled hair and muddy streaks on her cheek. “Do I have mud on my face too?”

We weren't alone. Other pigs had left trails that criss crossed with ours, and we found ourselves wandering around in a boggy forest. The trees were covered in thick clumps of dangling moss.

We were lost.

We turned around and retraced our steps until we found the trail. We repeated this about five more times.

Around lunchtime, human figures appeared in the distance at the top of the approaching peaks. After two days of isolation, we were bummed to see people, but it marked our arrival at the Poamoho summit, which was incredibly clear and sunny.

 I had a feeling we might be paying for that clear summit later. 

We arrived at the next cabin around with the entire afternoon free to clean and plan. A look at the weather confirmed our worst fears. The weather had shifted, and a rainy streak was coming in fast. The three worst climbing sections were still ahead of us -- the “saddles.” There was no crossing the saddles unless the weather was clear and dry. 

We’d have to race to make the most of the last few days of clear skies before the rain swept in, so we might as well leave any excess food behind, and travel as quickly as we could.

“It’s in the box!” grinned Helene triumphantly.

“What box?” I glanced around.

“You know, it’s in the box. We’ve got this!”

“I think you mean it’s in the bag. And yeah it is!”

When I said it, I believed it. Helene’s persistently perky optimism was rubbing off on me.

Current Mood: Quiet calm, when your heart beats in rhythm with the rise and fall of the mountain ridge, and all else is silenced.

Somewhere in our muddy struggle, I had let go of my own internal struggle. Not only were we lightening our packs by eating through our food, but the giant load on my mind had been lightened as well. We were feeling silly and giddy, light and happy. We were having fun. For the first time, I had a bold thought. Maybe I actually could do this whole trail!

Helene clomped in from washing our dish outside, wearing an oversized pair of slippers she had found to spare her feet from our wet shoes. “I think there is a giant living in these mountains,” she said, “and he goes stomping around leaving his massive boots and slippers in different places. Wherever he is at, I think we’re getting closer.”

4/13/15 Day 3: It’s in the box

The small ping of Helene’s watch was enough to wake me up, but it was still dark outside. Helene slept right through her alarm. Everything was so warm and cozy. It sounded so cold and wet outside. I could sleep all day.

The lullaby of comfort was drowned out by the voice of the little inner photographer shouting in my face. “GOOOOOOOOD MORNINGGG RISE AND SHINE! Sunrises are always worth the struggle, you know this!”

I sighed, and swung my feet onto the floor in resignation.“Helene, wake up, your alarm went off.”

We did the cold-wet-clothes-dressing dance, and shuffled out onto the trail. The trail from here was easy and clear to see. We were finally on a nice section of the contour that cut through the mountain.About time.The contour led us around the corner and out to the windward side where we could see the….OH.MY.GOD.

It was a sunrise sundae. The same view from the summit yesterday, but this time the cones were topped with cotton candy clouds and dripping in brilliant golden hues. The clouds slowly lifted and permitted rays of carmel to flow into the valleys. Rays so vibrant we could taste them - sweet, syrupy, melt in your mouth delight. The flowers and seed tops of the plants waved gently, and the dew drops on a spider web caught the light like a million diamonds.

I inhaled deeply - everything was so fresh and clean and pure.

The world is amazing. I love the world. Absolutely love it. 

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god!” Helene moaned.

The woman has a point. Drunk on the mountain morning, we stumbled through the next five hours of no man’s land to the beginning of the true ridgeline hiking. No more contours -- just straight climbing up and down from here on out. 

e made a short climb off to the side to filter some water out of a puddle. Small little dead bugs floated on the surface in serenity. They seemed to have enjoyed their last sips.

"I'll have what she's having."

We tossed in purification pills, crossed our fingers, and started hiking again.

We were climbing out of the gap, our first major dip in the ridgeline, when a sheet of rain slammed into us sideways with the pricks of 10,000 microscopic soldiers with spears.

Or maybe those squatting little green army men with the bayonets raised over their heads. I hate stepping on those, they're the WORST.

he rain had caught on to our plan to speed past it, and matched our pace.

The bastard.

I huddled on the edge of a one foot crumbling edge and pushed myself against a bush while I hurriedly packed my camera into a drybag. Too late. The buttons were already malfunctioning.

I silently cursed.

We got to flat campable spot with ten minutes of remaining light, one ultra light tarp, one trekking pole, and a few small stakes and strings. The only spot with enough shelter and space for both of us was under a low hanging mossy bush-tree.

After a brief struggle we assembled something that bore a resemblance to an oversized and mis-shapen yellow starfish. The strings pulling the sides of the tarp out at random angles and attaching to various pieces of tree and ground.

But we were finally out of the pouring rain. The shelter of the little starfish felt like a five star hotel. And I was starting to acquire a taste for that cold capt'n crunch potato mix.

Our sleeping bags weren’t warm enough, so we lined them with our emergency blankets. I fell asleep shivering and hugging my camera to my chest.

Pitter-patter. Drip-drip. Scuttle-scuttle. Slimey slimeeee…...

It was 1am. Something was definitely on my face. Yep. It was moving. Centipedes?

Come on Liz, camping in Hawaii under a tree in a wet area with an open tarp, and you didn’t expect that?

I slowly reached one hand and flicked a long creepy crawly off my face. Somehow, after surviving the attack of the great rat the night before, a centipede didn’t seem so bad. If we could survive that, we could survive anything.

“It’s in the box.”

Day 4. 4/14/2015 “Live to try another day.”

I shivered miserably and hugged my muddy pants to my chest. It was time to face the facts. We were enveloped in a cloud of thick grey. The rain was here to stay for the next four days. Trying to hike the saddles in the rain would be like playing Russian Roulette in reverse- five bullets and one empty chamber.

I texted Jessica:

"If we come down, I'm not going to have the strength to do the first part again." "Maybe just Helene can go back once the weather clears. She can hike it really fast from the beginning, and you can just go up farther down and meet up with her with your camera a few days later."

It sounded great to my knees and shoulders. My body was done. It was our original plan. So why was that idea bothering me so much now?

We dejectedly packed up our little starfish and bailed down Manana, a side trail.

It was the point where I’d planned to end my trek.  But my plan had backfired. It might have been some of the mountain magic. It might have been some of Helene’s annoyingly persistent optimism.

As soon as the rain cleared, I knew she was going back and starting the trail all over again from the very beginning so she could do it the entire thing in one shot. And I was going back to the beginning of the trail with her.

I wasn’t sure how, but that didn’t matter. For once, I was starting to believe in my goals. For myself. Where there's a will, there's a way.

I'd figure it out. Right now, the only thing that mattered was that every single step I took was closing the gap between me and a hot steamy mocha.

Note:  Huge thanks to the hiking community in Hawaii for everything they do to make it possible for people to keep on enjoying the mountains. While this is a hiking story, this is not intended to be an informational guide. It is merely a story for entertainment purposes. Do not rely on anything written here for actual hiking information. Many trails are closed to the public and not safe. Consult the Na Ala Website for information on hiking trails and permitting. The writer is not responsible for any accidents, injuries, rescues, inconvenience, or loss of life by anyone attempting hikes mentioned. It is the responsibility of the reader to know their limits and abilities before attempting any outdoor activity, and use common sense and good judgement.

Ngakuta Bay: Of People and Places

Sometimes people ask me why I got into photography. It wasn’t planned. Actually, I’d say my journey to becoming a photographer began with a series of plans going really wrong.

I was terrified when I quit my job. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I just knew that I wanted to travel and see mountains. I used some of the money I had saved to buy an introductory level DSLR camera that I had absolutely no idea how to use. I set off to spend the summer in New Zealand. Well, actually June is winter in New Zealand.

So winter. I set off to spend the winter in New Zealand.

Living in a van, by myself. What could possibly go wrong?

 It was during this winter (summer?), that I realized I loved capturing stories about people.

At the time, I was enraptured with Henry David Thoreau’s poetic reflections on solitude and nature, and planned to spend most of my trip in New Zealand solo backpacking in the mountains of the South Island. It was, as my friends would call it, “Hippie Liz Phase.” Ok, I was kind of digging the whole hippie vibe. I even had a multi-colored hand-knit beanie and I thought I understood yoga. My head was full of Saltwater Buddha, Siddhartha, and my latest book- Walden. Theme of the year: self-discovery in nature.  I was on the verge of illumination. I could feel it.

“I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still… I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

After a week in Wanaka with old and new friends, I was restless to begin my spiritual journey. My friend Jamie tucked a little slip of paper from her fortune cookie into the dash of my van and hugged me goodbye. I raced towards the hills for my enlightenment like a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

My idyllic visions of soul searching in the mountains were quickly trampled.  A torrential downpour, overflowing rivers, rockfalls, and landslides blocked the passage to natural nirvana. A crippling case of contaminated water was the final blow. Only three days later, I limped my way along the coast towards Picton, crushed and defeated.

I called the parents of a kind kiwi I had met in Wanaka, and asked to spend a night and recover. The directions were simple. Follow a winding road until I saw a beautiful bay filled with sailboats. Turn near the bridge.

I wound through the roads along the Marlborough sounds and found myself tucked away in the heart of Ngakuta bay.

"Welcome!” boomed a deep voice. I was face to face with a man with sharp blue eyes and a mustache that would have made Einstein jealous. He embraced me in a big hug. The rough wool fibers of his sweater were spattered with flecks of fiberglass.

“I’m a bit of a mess, I’ve just been sanding my kayak. Lent it to a boy that’s off to be the first person to walk around the entire coastline of New Zealand. He had to navigate the coastline of the sounds by water. Took a little beating, but what a story, eh!”

His name was Pip. His wife, Anne welcomed me a warm smile, and gently led me to the house. Her hair was soft waves of gingerbread and honey and everything sweet.

“Are you hungry?” Pip was right on her heels.

“Of course you are, you’ve been driving all day. Lets go get some fish for dinner then, eh? Anne, we’ll be back shortly with dinner!”

Within 20 minutes we were rowing out to his fishing boat anchored in the bay.

“Look at us, rolling on the river just like Fogerty and Tina Turner!” he cried. His white hair flittered in his face as he lustily belted out the lyrics.

Left a big job in the city

Big wheel keep on turning

Proud Mary keep on burning

Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river!

Marlborough sounds is a lake within an ocean. It’s an area of sunken valleys, consumed by the sea. An expansive network of peaks of land rises, and welcomes the tumultuous ocean into their calm arms. They rock the swell to sleep in their channels, and by the time the ocean reaches Ngakuta bay, the water lies as still as a milk drunk newborn.

There was no wind to speak of, so Pip started the engine and we slowly putted our way through the sounds. The water rippled softly away from the boat like folds of iridescent silk smoothing under a hot iron.

“Now then, a visit to Ngakuta Bay wouldn’t be complete without a glass of the homemade spirits.” Pip poured a glass from a bottle filled with deep amber.

I eyeballed the glass tentatively.

“It just wraps itself around your tonsils and screams ‘I’m here, ho!’” He assured me, and raised his glass to the sky.

A colorful printed label on the bottle explained the warmth filling my belly:

“RICOCHET” Ngakuta Gold RUM

This finest quality B.B.O.P.* is guaranteed to increase ones libido and general sense of being whilst at the same time titivating the taste buds and liberating the inhibitions.

Aprox 40% alc. (Give or take 10%)

*Bloody beautiful old plonk

While we waited for a nibble, Pip filled me in with the triumphs and struggles of bay life; thrilling summer boat races and fishing with dolphins; polluted waters and damages from increased logging.

Between stories and sips, the sun sank away. e returned to shore at dusk with hands as empty as our bellies.

The table was prepared. The kitchen smelled of gravy and mushrooms and meats and buttered sweet corn. Somehow, Anne just knew.

My stomach was finally calm, and I took a large bite. Heaven.

“This is the same as one of the first meals Anne cooked for me!” beamed Pip. He looked over at Anne proudly. “You know, it’s a miracle I even got her to agree to a second date!”

Anne smiled sideways and shook her head.

“I was the principal of the school, and so I knew most of the parents. When I took her out to dinner for our first date, the waitress said ‘You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?’ It’s a small town, you know, so I replied ‘I don’t know, maybe you’re the mother of one of my children.’”

Pip shook with mirth. “I didn’t realize how bad it sounded until I had already said it!”

“Swept me off my feet,” laughed Anne. After dinner we sank into warm brown corduroy armchairs. The black wood stove crackled as Pip strummed on one of his handmade ukuleles.

Anne approached my chair with a book. “This is the book I wrote,” She handed me the book as Pip played in the background. “It’s my autobiography.” She settled into her chair, as I flipped through the pages of Anne's carefully constructed memoirs. Pip had spontaneously switched to a flute, and was now piping along with the singer performing on the TV behind him.

My one night stay melted into four days. Pip introduced me to the best bakery. Anne took me along to school where she taught multiple grades learning together, creatively, and effectively. She introduced me to a small eight grade, 44-student school where tree climbing is still allowed. Back at the house, Pip sang songs and acted out history lessons.

“Do you know Ernest Rutherford went to the school we taught at? The father of nuclear physics, from our little school!” Pip beamed.

“And New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote.” Anne added.

 As I drove towards the ferry in Picton, I realized that my experience in the beautiful South Island would not have been as rich without the people.

Don't worry, I did eventually get some peace and quiet solitude in nature. I also began to realize I wanted to capture stories of people, not just nature. Just as places shape the people who live there, the people shape the places where they live.

My journals and photos became my way of capturing the essence that I felt in the places. And when I ran out of money for traveling, meeting new people with different perspectives became my form of traveling.

By the way, I didn't find a way to make money capturing people's stories until much later, after I learned how to use my camera, lost the rainbow beanie and started taking showers again. Before I left South Island, I propped up Jamie's fortune cookie slip on the dash of my van and left it up for the rest of the trip:

Poli Poli: Maui's Mystical Forest

I’ve found the cure for island fever, and it’s a passage through a mystical land of death and life.

It all started sitting in the parking lot for Haleakala National Park with Andrew, my partner in crime. T minus eight hours until our flight left Maui to fly home to Oahu. We had finished all our photo shoots, and we had time to kill. It began as a simple question, and quickly escalated into a debate of mature complexity.

“What do you want to do?

“I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?”

“I asked you first.”

“I asked you second. I’m down for anything.”

“Me too. What do you feel like?”

I fidgeted, and the folds of the car seat sucked my frame into their sweaty leather grip. After so many years, all of Hawaii's beaches and volcanic rock features can start to look the same. In the absence of a grand jury, I summoned an arbitrator with my fingertips. Google had a few suggestions - one stood out. Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area. The name was fun and jolly. It was downright roly-poly dandy.

Polipoli State Recreational Park is located halfway up the backside of Haleakala crater, 6,200 feet above sea-level. A thick girdle of fog wraps around the midline of the swelling crater. Cool air floats through fresh green foliage and mixes with the fragrance of rich red dirt. It lends an autumn-like ambience to the place, which befits the towering redwoods, cypress, sugi, and ash trees.

The gavel descended on the dashboard with resolve. Polipoli, we find you --- WORTHY OF ADVENTURE. We began the drive with the alacrity of two kids clutching a treasure map.

The trailhead for the redwood forest is about an hour drive from the entrance to Haleakala park. Within the first five minutes, Andrew was passed out, snoring softly from the passenger seat.

Textbook case of a chocolate-chip-cookie overdose.

I woke him up when the pavement melted into puddles of sticky mud. The sign was clear: four wheel drive required.  The trailhead was still miles away. We analyzed our arsenal against the texture of our opponent ahead. Smooth is a subjective term when pitting a two wheel drive rental against a backcountry road.

Fight? Flight? Fight? Flight?

hile we deliberated, an archaic Lexus passed and charged ahead.

Fight.

I was all too happy to let Andrew drive. On a scale of zero to slamming-on-imaginary-passenger-side-brakes-and-swearing, it was a manageable six. We made it to the trailhead with only a few insignificant hairs on my arms standing at attention.

The hairs still at rest quickly joined in a standing ovation as I stepped outside the car.

Cold wisps of fog slithered between the stark spines of lifeless trees. The spindly remains of those that had fallen were strewn across the forest floor in a Paul Bunyan sized game of pick-up-sticks. I had an unsettling feeling that I had pranced into a morgue.

We learned the forest had been massacred in 2007 by a fire of epic proportions. The flames raged through 2,300 acres for days on end. Restoration has been ongoing for the past eight years, but complete restoration on that level takes decades. The remains serve as a poignant memorial to the 100-foot fallen giants.

We later met a man at the airport who claimed his cousin had started the fire in a camping accident. "Drinking too many beers and lit one campfire. Hah!" He chuckled, happy to contribute his piece to the puzzle. However it began, there's no question how things ended.

A couple exiting the trail wagged their heads. “Not much to see there, it’s all dead.”

We were drawn into the murky depths by a combination of wistful hope and macabre allure. Inside the trail, the ashen branches of trees extended like spiny white skeletal rib cages. Rotting carcasses lined the side of the trail. The only signs of life were the trails of hoofprints that crisscrossed with the path; marks of the famed bounty of feral pigs and goats that attracts hunters from across the state.

But there were survivors. Further down the trail, glimmers of hope emerged from the remains. Green branches waved from atop scarred trunks, and little sprigs of life sprouted from their sides. Sunlight filtered through the new life and warmed a fuzzy carpet of viridescent moss.

We stopped to take in the feels. It was something different. Refreshing. You might say even more refreshing than a diet pepsi.

As the wind shifted, a blanket of fog crept in and caressed us with its cool and slippery touch.

The light was fading, so we turned and headed back toward the car.

As we drove back, we pulled off to the side of the road to savor the last moments of sunset and watched the clouds roll in over the city.

We climbed back in the car, and Andrew began winding down the narrow road towards the airport at a moderate speed of three-and-a-half.

“We still two hours before our plane leaves. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care, what do you want to do?”

"Cookie?"

Secrets of the Supermoon

Warning: objects in rearview mirror may appear larger than they are. 

Especially when said object is a supermoon, and you replace "rearview mirror" with the screen of my iPhone. If you've ever tried to snap a picture of the moon and wondered "It sure looked bigger in the sky", you know what I'm talking about.

I recently undertook a project to photograph the moon with pregnant ladies. I knew two lovely ladies that were going to be first time mothers, and I wanted to create a special concept for them. Full moon, full bellies.. it just made sense. I had no idea just how much I would have to learn to make it happen. That hits the spot... Finding the right location was tricky. I thank God everyday for amazing apps, like The Photographer's Ephemeris (although she insists, please, just call her TPE) & Sky Guide. For basic planning purposes, TPE helped me scan the island and see where the sun and moon will be rising and setting, when it will be full, and where I can angle the moon behind my subject and still have enough space between us in order to use a telephoto lens. TPE helped me find the best spot, and then I hiked out there and scouted during the day to make sure I could elevate my subject and be able to see them unobstructed from far away. Using Sky Guide, I could hold my phone up to the sky, fast forward to the time and date I would be shooting, and see exactly where the moon would be in relation to where I was standing and where I wanted my subject to stand. So far so good.

Bigger isn't always better...

I knew in order to make the moon appear larger in the picture, I needed a telephoto lens, but I didn't know how large I needed it to be. 400mm? 1600? After looking at a few images on other blogs, I decided 800mm would give me the size I wanted. Only one problem- it's $350 to rent the 800mm lens for 3 days.

  After consulting with the helpful staff at Hawaii Camera, I opted for the poor man's version- a 100-400mm lens paired with a 2x converter to create an equivalent 800mm, and a sturdy tripod. I was ready for my first victims.

I brought my beautiful friend Stacy and her husband out to the spot, and then ran back to my location 500 feet away to set up the lens. They set up their phone on speakerphone, while I juggled mine in one hand while adjusting the camera and tripod. As the moon started to rise, I realized we weren't in quite the right spot! I yelled directions into the phone. Quick- move! Over there! Two steps, no back! We soon found out that at 800mm zoom, the moon moves across your camera screen so quickly, you only have about 15 seconds to capture it before it's too high. 7 days of planning and anticipation is a lot of hype for a mere 15 seconds. thatswhatshesaid

Stacy and Rom were committed to getting the shot, so I had them move to a higher rock and re-positioned my camera. I double checked the alinement of the moon against my subjects and my camera lens angle using Sky Guide, and we waited again.... the excitement....the anticipation....

Watching the glow of the moon silently rise up behind them and illuminate her full belly was magical, but we had to work fast. When I was exposed and focused on Stacey and Rom, the moon was a white blur. In order to have both subjects properly exposed and focused, I took two photos- one adjusted for the moon, and one adjusted for my subjects, and created a composite with both my subjects and the moon in focus.

The result was beautiful. For my next attempt, I wanted to create an image where the moon was still large, but the belly was larger against the moon. To understand how to create this effect, I had to learn a little more about the science behind it all. Back when I was in highschool and my little brother was in middleschool, he helped explain my math homework to me. He likened himself to Jason,  child mathwhiz of the comic Foxtrot.

10 years later, nothing has changed. He's now getting his PhD in physics, and he helped break the science of solar photography down a little better. My first question- is there a size difference between the moon at different times in the night?

The moon is not bigger on the horizon A picture of the moon at 800mm zoom taken high in the sky, and a picture of the moon gracing the horizon with the same settings are, in fact, virtually the same size on the screen of my camera. It turns out it's all one big solar optical illusion, and for all photographic planning purposes, it's not actually as large as it appears. thatswhatshesaid

Distance is the greatest determining factor

I thought I could control the relation of the size of my subject against the moon using the zoom on the lens, but it turns out of all the factors involved, the distance between the camera and the subject is the one that makes the greatest difference for my purposes. My mathwhiz brother broke this down to me even further in a spreadsheet involving the lensmaker equation and other fun things, but that's a whole new level of nerding out that I'll save for another day.  For the second shoot, I decided to be only 300 feet away from my subject. I brought out another lovely mother, Coco, and her husband Ryan, who helped hold the phone for her on speakerphone. I stuffed my own phone down my shirt so I could holler at them while using both hands to adjust the camera and focus (another reason to pick a spot farther away from civilization). With the knowledge gained from my attempt the night before, we were nearly perfectly aligned as the moon rose, and in that special moment, Coco bowed her head gently towards her growing belly.

Mission accomplished, we hiked home under the light of the full moon, having created a special memory of the anticipation, awe, and fullness of heart embodied in these beautiful first time mothers.

Thank you to everyone who helped bring this vision to life. :)

808 Cleanups

 Meet Michael Loftin, co-founder of 808 Cleanups.

Michael loves trail running, stand up paddleboarding, and a variety of other outdoor activities. Being active in nature has not only helped Michael cultivate a healthy lifestyle, but also stirred up a recognition of the symbiotic relationship humans have with their environment. With this awareness has come a sense of stewardship, which led Michael to co-found 808 Cleanups with Wayde Fishman. It's their way of taking care of their playground.

808 cleanups has three main problem areas they target: cleaning graffiti off natural surfaces, ocean debris, and trash collection.

Volunteers track and report new graffiti as it arises on natural landscape features, and people volunteer to form cleanup groups to tackle the problem areas. This is Michael in front of the newly cleaned "pride rock" along the Lanikai pillbox hike. Using the brushes shown above, along with a kit of cleaners and other supplies, volunteers removed all the graffiti from this area and restored the rock to it's original state.

 808 cleanups literally plays janitor of the ocean, arranging ocean cleanups in coordination with divers, ocean lovers, and other concerned individuals. These cleanups target retrieving trash left in the deep blue, not only to keep the ocean beautiful, but also to remove hazards for the ocean wildlife.

Some of the largest areas of participation in 808 Cleanups come from collecting bags of trash on trails, beaches, and other areas. Many residents have begun to adopt local trails and beaches in their neighborhoods, setting regular times to patrol and maintain these areas. Michael promotes these cleanups by sharing their reports from their cleanups on social media and growing the hype with the hashtag #808cleanups.

In addition to encouraging people to adopt areas, the group hosts many cleanup events that bring together the community in person. During their last cleanup on tantalus, numerous groups and individuals came together to join the cause, including members of Travel 2 Change, Diamondhead Hui, Hawaii Adventure Tours, and numerous other groups. Together, the group cleaned up over 2,000 lbs of trash together. That's some serious stinking business!

If you're interested in adopting one of the areas near you, or pitching in on a cleanup, you can check out the group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/808cleanups/

 

Moke: A Community of Aloha

This past week as an entire community has rallied together to help a family find the hiker who went missing February 27th. Hawaii Fire Department had called off the search after 3 days, but late into the 4th day, 5 nurses heard him clearly calling for help, and the search resumed with a frenzy. Even the Navy came out and help for a day, weaving between cloud enshrouded ridges with infa-red cameras.

Since then, I have been awed to witness the outpouring of love and talents that have pulled together from near and far to support this family and find Moke Pua. When the clues pointed to areas that were inaccessible, my friends from 808canyons stepped in to aid in the search. If you know me, I enjoy rappelling down canyons and waterfalls with my friends for a hobby, and something we sometimes get a bad rap for (pun intended). In this case, however, the island was lucky to have my crazy daredevil friends who knew how to safely rappel down to the area in question. We got together this past Saturday to check out an area in question, but I ended up being assigned to join the helicopter to drop the ropes at the top of the trail, scout out the leads from the air and document them with my camera, and use this intel to determine the best route for them to descend. Meanwhile Kitt, Chris, and others headed up the trail at a brisk pace carrying heavy packs of gear. These are just a few of the amazing moments that I watched unfold throughout the day.

At the airport, I was introduced to Kris, the helicopter pilot. He owns the helicopter we used, and donated over 20 hours of his time and fuel to fly in and out of the canyons, incessantly searching and assisting every way he can. He's got a huge heart, and you could tell that this weighs heavy on his mind. He's also an extremely skilled pilot, as he  wove in and out of the canyons and hovered over the narrow Moanalua saddle allowing me to drop four 600 ft ropes onto the narrow patch of ground.

This is David, a writer of one of the popular hiking blogs on the island. He's been spearheading the search, and has been investing countless hours and days on end to the cause. He's become a figure for the family to look to for assurance that their boy will come home, as he posts daily, even hourly updates on the search, and rallies for more volunteers and resources.

This is Brett. She joined me in the helicopter for a round of searching, and aided with a lot of coordination on the ground. Having solid coordination on the ground is extremely vital to the success of large crews like this. Multiple teams were hiking, rappelling, and searching from every angle, and her quick thinking and concise actions helped to organize information and connect teams quickly, safely, and efficiently.

From the air, the mountains extend on into endless valleys and ridges.

After hours of treacherous searching from the air, we landed at a makeshift base camp the school in Haiku valley has set up for us.

The principal of Kamakau Charter School lent her weekend to unlock the gates and clear a landing pad in the school parking lot, as well as organize a base camp. Volunteers and family members filled the parking lot, scanning the hillside with binoculars and bringing food and supplies for the volunteers. After 6 hours of scanning the mountains in freezing, windy conditions, shaking from fear as we swept in and out of valleys so closely I could see each blade grass, I was extremely grateful for warm food and hot coffee.

On the ground, teams regrouped to analyze each piece of data, communicate with the teams in the mountains, and determine the next steps.

Base camps at both the school in Haiku, as well as Moanalua Valley Park have been providing a place for support for crews on both sides, and the family members all stand by, anxiously awaiting news.

In Haiku, we gathered in a circle and the principal led the group in a prayer in Hawaiian to the mountains to bring Moke back to his family. Goosebumps covered my arms as they all started singing in Hawaiian, and even the children chimed in, their tiny voices blending together with the strong voices of the elders. As the sang, they were choking up, sobbing through the words, but insistently chanting on. Tears were streaming down my face by the end. One of the strong Hawaiian ladies put her hand on my shoulder and looked straight into my eyes. "We're not giving up," she said, her eyes glinting with determination, "you know that, right? We're bringing him home!"

After days of endless waiting on the ground, Moke's father was finally able to go up in the air and be in the mountains near his son. Watching that flight take off was a truly powerful moment. Once again, the Hawaiian prayers began, and all eyes were turned to the mountains as the women called to them, begging them, pleading with them to return their boy.

The chanting grew, their tatooed hands shaking, praying, as the helicopter roared louder and louder, sending Moke's father flying off over the mountains to find his boy.

I can only imagine the dynamics of what went on during that flight. Somewhere below them the mountains held Moke. I am told his father was whistling loudly over the roar of the helicopter, calling out to his son. When they returned to base camp, David and the father embraced, overwhelmed with emotion.

We returned to Moanalua Valley Park to regroup as the amazing teams of hikers and rappel crew slowly trickled in, returning from their long hard hours in the mountains.

This is Marc. An avid hiker himself, he's spent days in the mountains and on the ground coordinating the search efforts.

It's amazing and inspiring to see how a community has pulled together. Climb Aloha donated ropes to ensure safety of the rescue groups. Hawaii Camera donated telephoto lenses to help zoom in on areas of interest and document the mountain sections in question. Tom and Bruce, two photographers from the BI, flew over to join the crew, and Cameron also joined the photo crew for a day.  Crews from 808 Cavemen, Hawaii Trail and Mountain Club, and more,  joined the search. Many many others that I don't even know have all come together to donate, hike, and join the cause. Although we may not know Moke, we know the heart of a brother, a sister, a father, a mother. And the island has shown a dedication to bringing this boy home to his family.

The family is going in to their 13th day of not working and spending their personal resources to find their boy. If you want to contribute, please donate to the family fund here: http://www.gofundme.com/ns2oj4 Hawaii has proved once again, it's not just a place. It's a community, it's family, it's love, it's aloha.