Island Life Inside


Posted on: Sunday, July 15, 2001

Hudson River ho'okupu for paddler Kahakui

Donna Kahakui paddled to the base of the Statue of Liberty with a lei and dropped the flowers in the water. She was accompanied on the water at all times by an escort boat to ensure her safety.

Mary Ann Changg Photo/Hawaii


By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Her 24-pound boat bobbing in the wake of passing ferries, paddler and environmental activist Donna "Kahi" Kahakui drapes a lei across the canoe paddle and holds it up, mirroring Lady Liberty dispersing hope and light with a thrust of the torch more than 300 feet into the sky. From the escort boat, Keali'i Gora, Kahakui's cultural advisor, begins to chant. Kahakui joins him in the vocal tribute: An ancient testimony to freedom and possibilities for future generations. Then she scatters the flowers in the water at Liberty's feet.

On ferries motoring by, hundreds of passengers lean against the railing and cheer. They do not know Kahakui or her mission. But they understand that they are witnessing something special.

"It was a very spiritual experience," said Gora. "There was a sense of pride."

Donna Kahakui did not go to New York last month as a typical visitor. She went as the founder of Kai Makana, a four-year-old nonprofit environmental group whose name means "Gifts from the Sea," and as a participant in the International Year of the Volunteer. She went as an ambassador of aloha, offering coffee, candy, macadamia nuts and flowers to a stunned crew at CNN's studio when she was invited there for an interview. She traveled among three states and slept little to spend as much time as possible sharing her message about cleaning up rivers and oceans.

And with video of the "Aloha for Liberty" excursion airing on Hawai'i news programs, nationally on "Good Morning America" and worldwide on CNN, she believes the mission was accomplished.

"Our main goal was to bring ocean awareness wherever we could," said Kahakui, a 37-year-old law enforcement officer. "It was also to connect with kids ... also to share aloha."

But nothing about the trip was easy.

"It was a faith trip," said Cindy Grover Nartatez, a Kaua'i resident and former New Yorker who helped Kai Makana with arrangements on the East Coast. "It was about believing in what we were doing and not succumbing to red ink."

Donna Kahakui, a 37-year-old law enforcement officer, went to New York state to publicize the water preservation mission of a HawaiÎi group she founded, called Kai Makana.

Mary Ann Changg Photo/Hawaii

The Hudson seemed an appropriate destination for several reasons. Native Americans once traveled in birch bark canoes on the 315-mile-long river, and lately, new life has blossomed along its banks and in its waters.

"There has been a renaissance," said Nartatez. "When I grew up in the city, the river was toxic." Though Kahakui did find trash to pick up, the condition of the Hudson has improved through environmental efforts in recent years. Kahakui hopes to do the same on her local training ground, the Ala Wai Canal.

"I grew up in Waikiki," said Kahakui. "I remember jumping in the Ala Wai off the McCully bridge. Now? Forget it! You couldn't pay me enough to jump in. But I would love for kids to use it again as a true waterway. We just have to pay attention like ... (people on the Hudson) did."

But people's attention must first be captured. And often that involves extreme undertakings.

"There was a 2-to-4-knot current and a 30 miles per hour headwind against me," recalled Kahakui of her Hudson paddle. She struggled the first day, taking an unprecedented six hours to complete 22 miles, a distance she'd normally cover in about three hours. "It was astronomically one of the hardest things I've ever done. I just wasn't prepared."

Mentally, that is. Kahakui has completed three long-distance solo paddles, from 78 to 140 miles. She has traversed the Ka'iwi channel in various canoes at least 20 times, and had trained to compete on an elite six-person outrigger canoe team the following week in New York's Liberty Challenge event. Conditioning was never the issue. Mental turmoil was.

Despite setbacks along the way, she realized afterward that "there were so many ways we could have been blocked, but we were given so many gifts. This was supposed to be done. Because if it weren't, it wouldn't have happened."

Nartatez agreed: "I didn't doubt for a minute that we could fulfill" our goals. "We had a feeling of being provided for; if a door was closed, a window was opened."

One example was the last-minute call from the CNN crew, who wanted Kahakui to come to their studio in the city at 7 a.m. The problem? All arrangements had been made for a 7:30 a.m. launch at West Point, a 3 1/2-hour drive away. But the opportunity to convey her message worldwide made turning every other detail upside down worth the effort. "This is all about flexibility," she told herself after retiring at midnight and awakening at 4:30 a.m. "We're going to adapt here."

Numerous cab, train and rental car rides later, they were back at West Point by early afternoon. But Kahakui had only tasted the beginning of the flexibility that would be required of her that day.

"Because of the time change, the water had changed," Kahakui said, referring to the tidal nature of the Hudson. "The current was ripping in the other direction."

After a ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy-West Point, where Gora chanted and presented a large koa paddle in honor of Kala Kukea, a West Point alumnus and waterman from Hawai'i who died of an apparent heart attack while training on the Ala Wai in 1996, Kahakui started paddling downwind, with the current, as her advisors had instructed. But it was in the wrong direction. "By the time they caught me," she said, "I had gone four miles."

Of the journey that followed, Kahakui said, "I don't recall a whole lot other than the pain. I kept trying to go to the (escort) boat to rest, but they couldn't hold onto me. It was so rough that the canoe was just getting nailed."

Not that Kahakui can't handle rough water. But this setting was different. "Paddling in a river is like paddling in molasses," she said. "We are so fortunate to have the rhythm of the ocean." She likened the river's unpredictable currents and wind chop to a "2-year-old having a tantrum."

Authorities told Kahakui that she could not safely paddle at night, which is why she made the 50-plus mile journey over two days. Even so, a fast-moving barge nearly ran over her — in daylight.

The second day, Kahakui said, she was so nervous about the wind that she wanted to leave at 3 a.m. But she waited until daybreak and set off through sleet, thunder and lightning. She refused to let poor weather disappoint everyone who had helped make the experience possible.

From the boat drivers to the pier masters to the hula halau who performed at the cultural ceremonies before and after her excursion, Kahakui said, "a lot of good people stepped up to the plate and understood it."

So much aloha from New York also has made her larger goal seem more accessible: taking 12 students from Wai'anae and Neighbor Islands to Tahiti in October for cultural exchange and to share techniques for stream restoration and water-quality testing.

Kahakui also will attempt her longest paddle yet: 200 miles from Papeete to Bora Bora.

Raising awareness and inspiring action among children is Kahakui's mission. On last month's trip, she hand-delivered letters from students at Wai'anae High School and on the Neighbor Islands to New York pupils, a gesture she hopes will begin a lasting correspondence about life on the water.

Wherever they visit, Kai Makana also shares aloha through cultural protocol. The purpose of chants and gifts, said Kahakui, is to show that "we come in peace and want to take care of the land, and we hope when you come to our land, you'll show respect."

Added Gora: "It's expressing gratitude, but it also calls upon that person to be committed to the task at hand, to malama the river."

Kahakui may raise a paddle instead of a torch. But like the Statue of Liberty, which was dismantled into 350 pieces and shipped to the United States from France in 214 crates for reassembly, the paddler is building her organization into a symbol of awareness and education through action, piece by piece.