Monday, November 23, 2009

Blog: Hawaii Lava Sledding

My wife Devany and I recently visited the Hulihe`e Palace on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. It had been the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty and was just reopened following extensive renovation work to fix damage caused by an earthquake in October 2006.

On display was an unusual looking apparatus looking something like a luge but only much narrower. The sign near it said it was used in ancient times for mountain surfing (?). This immediately grabbed our attention because it seemed so improbable -- and dangerous -- the sled was only about six inches wide.

I learned later that it was indeed a sled (papahölua) made of wood lashed together with cords from braiding the fibers of coconut husks.

Checking led me to understand that in fact Hawaiian lava sledding (Hawaiian: he‘e holua, "mountain surfing") is a traditional sport of Native Hawaiians. It involves the use of a narrow twelve foot long, six inch wide wooden sled made from native wood like Kau‘ila or Ohia. The sled can be used standing up, lying down, or kneeling, to ride down man-made courses of lava rock, often reaching speeds of 50 mph or greater! And in the past, Hawaiian lava sledding was considered both a sport and a religious ritual for honoring the gods.

Lava sledding was often done on a course made of rocks and built into a depression on a hillside. It was covered in packed-in dirt and an outer layer of grass, ti leaves and/or flower tassels. Courses were wide enough just for a single sled.

Any research on the subject inevitably leads back to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story in July 2005 by Alexandre Da Silva of the Associated Press about Tom “Pohaku” Stone.

From Da Silva’s interview with Tom Stone, you can find out that it takes Tom about two weeks, or 24 hours of nonstop work, to finish a sled. (People interested in commissioning a piece should get in touch with the Hawaiian Boarding Company.) Further, in Di Silva’s piece done some four years ago:

Stone said his solid wood sleds "last forever," unlike today's snowboards and surfboards built on more high-tech, yet less durable materials like fiberglass and foam. For example, the Bishop Museum, the state's largest museum, has an 800-year-old sled on display, he said.

A retired lifeguard and champion surfer, Stone has discovered some 57 rock slides of various lengths across the state, and spent three days with a crew of seven to make a 200-foot repair on a 700-foot course. The only remaining course on Oahu is at Kaena Point, he said, and only two courses are in rideable conditions, both on the Big Island.

Tom Stone

by Dana Edmunds

"You can't even imagine what it's like to be head first, four inches off the ground, doing 30, 40, 50 miles an hour on rock," Stone said. "It looks like you are riding just fluid lava. It's death-defying ... but it's a lot of fun."

OK, so be sure and add this to your Big Island “must do” list on your next visit J. And I need to find out where do I sign up.........(right -- well maybe in my dreams).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog: Snake Break

Brahminy Blind Snake
I assumed after my last blog on the mongoose that its presence here explained the absence of snakes on Hawaii. But no, Hawaii has never had snakes (full disclosure: Hawai'i actually has had one native snake since about 1980, a Brahminy Blind Snake, which looks more like a worm than a snake, lives underground and is generally mistaken for an earthworm). It turns out unsurprisingly that being surrounded by water is a pretty good condition for not having snakes, e.g., there are also none in Ireland or New Zealand. Plus Hawaii works very hard to keep them out.
Then I wondered about Ireland because unlike Hawaii which is 2,400 miles from the nearest continental land mass, Ireland use to be connected to the UK by a land bridge and England has snakes. I then remembered that St Patrick had stood on a hill and charmed all the snakes on the island to go down to the seashore, slither into the water, and drown. Ur….hang on, isn’t that a fable? Well, it is – instead, when Ireland was covered by the last glacier which ended some 15,000 years ago all the snakes died as they did in England. But snakes were able to cross the English Channel to the UK from continental Europe by rafting across it on logs and such. However, the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from England, is even wider and wilder than the Channel and posed a greater challenge to the snakes. The prevailing currents simply do not run in the right direction.

Back to Hawaii. Instead of turning out to be a light-hearted subject I learned that the islands are under considerable threat from the brown tree snake in Guam. Those interested should read the treatise done by Messrs. Kraus and Cravalho (Pacific Science, October 2001). It turns out the brown snake would be as bad as the mongoose to the Islands’ ecology! And the mongooses would not control the snake population because of access to easier prey.
Here is why the brown tree snake of Guam is so dangerous – again thanks to Fred Kraus, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife (
“The brown tree snake is a nocturnal and arboreal snake that ranges from eastern Indonesia to the Solomon Islands and northern Australia. After World War II it was accidentally introduced to Guam, apparently as a hitchhiker on military cargo returning from use in the war in New Guinea. In the next three decades the snake spread throughout Guam and eventually resulted in the extinction of nine of the island's twelve forest birds, half of its lizards, and perhaps some of its bats. It remains the leading cause of endangerment for the few remaining native vertebrates on Guam.
This snake has affected humans on Guam in a variety of ways too. Since 1980, Guam has suffered an average of one power outage every three days because the snakes cross power lines and short out the circuits. The island's previously thriving poultry industry has been devastated because the snake crawls into coops and eats the eggs and chicks. Many pet dogs and cats have been lost in a similar fashion.
Because of its secretive habits, the brown tree snake is adept at hiding itself in small spaces during the day and, consequently, is easily transported between islands in cargo shipments. Brown tree snakes have left Guam in this fashion several times, turning up in a variety of locations around the globe, such as Saipan, Wake, Tinian, Rota, Okinawa, Diego Garcia, Australia, and Texas. Between 1981 and 1994, seven brown tree snakes were accidentally transported to O`ahu in this manner and captured upon arrival. Most were found dead or dying near airport runways. As far as is known, brown tree snakes have not formed a self-sustaining population in Hawai`i. But constant vigilance is required to avert this disaster.
Because it has a similar climate and fauna, Hawai`i could expect to suffer many of the same negative ecological and economic consequences that Guam has if the brown tree snake were to become established here. Most of our remaining native forest birds would go extinct, power outages would probably be fairly frequent, and the tourist industry would possibly suffer from the negative publicity. To avoid this possibility, several state and federal government agencies have been working together for the past several years to ensure that the snake does not reach Hawai`i.
The first line of defense in keeping the brown tree snake out of Hawai`i involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture's program on Guam to keep the snakes out of the transportation network. This involves trapping and nigh night searches to remove snakes from port facilities, inspection of outbound cargo and vehicles with snake-detection dogs, and research into new ways to lower snake population levels on Guam. Searches of inbound planes and cargo are conducted by Hawai`i Department of Agriculture as an additional guarantee against snakes arriving into the islands. This is the second line of defense. As a final measure, DLNR has trained staff and groups of volunteers from other agencies in appropriate methods of finding brown tree snakes in the field. In the event of a likely brown tree snake report, these teams are called into action to search for the snake in an effort to ensure that any brown tree snakes that do arrive here do not have a chance to establish a self-sustaining population. Teams occur on each of the main Hawaiian islands.

You can help protect Hawai`i from brown tree snakes too. No snake species are native to Hawai`i (although the small, harmless blind snake has become established here this century), and all have the potential to become problems should they establish here. So if you see a snake anywhere in Hawai`i, immediately report it to the proper authorities, such as the Department of Agriculture (586-PEST) or the police. If it is safe to do so, it is best to kill the snake (e.g., drive over it, beat it with any blunt object, cut it in half with a machete) before calling. If not, keep the snake in visual contact until authorities arrive. A prompt response is essential to ensuring that the snake does not escape and can be captured by the proper authorities.”
For more information on brown tree snakes see
I wish this blog had turned out more upbeat, but this difficult, finicky, beautiful, wondrous planet has troubles everywhere, even in these incomparable islands which are certainly close to, if not, paradise. "Would that it were otherwise"

Friday, November 6, 2009

“Hang Loose, Mongoose”

“A generation ago Hawaiian cowboys, riding by a certain burial site in the northern grasslands of the Big Island, were in the habit of reining in, dismounting, and urinating on the grave. Buried here was "Mongoose" Forbes. In the 1870s Forbes sold mongooses to the managers of Hawaii's sugar plantations, on the grounds that this import from Asia would eat rats. (Norway rats had jumped ship in Hawaii and were raising Cain in the cane.) The disrespectful posthumous salute by the Hawaiian cowboys would have mystified Forbes. Like most of those men who have introduced alien animals to islands, Mongoose Forbes thought he was doing good (The Atlantic Monthly, August 1985).”
Actually everyone in Hawaii knows very well the misadventure of mankind introducing the mongoose into the Islands, but when I was told that the animal was active during the day (diurnal) and knowing that rats are nocturnal, it seemed unlikely anyone could have been that dim-witted. Well I was wrong.
Apparently, in 1872 someone by the name of W. B. Espeut introduced Indian Mongoose from Calcutta to the island of Jamaica to control its rising rat population. A subsequent paper published by Espeut, that praised the results, intrigued local Hawaiian plantation owners who, in 1883, brought 72 mongooses from Jamaica to the Hamakua Coast (maybe sold by “Mongoose” Forbes) here on the Big Island. These were raised and their offspring were shipped to plantations on Maui, Molokai and Oahu (Instant Hawaii).
(Legend has it when Kauai's shipment arrived one of the critters bit the dock hand that was unloading them. He bumped the shipping container they had arrived in knocking it into the ocean, therefore, the mongoose were never dispatched to perform their intended duties.)
Not everyone was convinced that importing mongooses was a good idea. In an 1883 issue of Planters Monthly, someone wrote, "Whether it would be wise to introduce the animal to these Islands may be a question. It would be important to first learn more of the nature of the creature, for they may prove an evil." ( Smart man, but unfortunately, this anonymous writer's advice was not taken.
The Mongooses did eat rats, it turns out, and did help slightly in the sugar cane fields, but came nowhere near controlling the rat population. And worse, Hawaii does not have any natural predators of the mongoose.

As in Kipling's Jungle Book character Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the devil-eyed cunning critter is famous for taking on venomous snakes like king cobras. But that is not why the ferret-like mongooses are sometimes referred to as the most dangerous animal in the world. That title was earned when it became clear that the mongoose is unparalleled when it comes to destroying native species. A fact learned the hard way in Hawaii. (Naturally Speaking)
Nowadays, mongooses rule every Hawaiian island except Lana'i and Kaua'i, and even there it may only be a matter of time. Recently, mongooses have been sighted on Kaua’i. Almost all the mongooses on the Hawaiian Islands today are descended from the original ones brought over by W.B. Espeut from Calcutta to Jamaica (Naturally Speaking).
Mongooses love eggs and they will throw eggs against rocks to break them open and to eat them. They also prey on fledgling and adult native Hawaiian birds, not to mention endangered sea turtle eggs and hatchlings (Naturally Speaking).

What has been truly sad is that the mongoose has diminished the number of the Hawaiian State Bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian Goose) to almost extinction.
About the only good thing that can be said about them in these Isles is that I learned that mongooses are monogamous, and that when the mate of a mongoose dies the survivor will never mate again.
And it case you were wondering -- yes, mongooses is the preferred plural form although mongeese is acceptable. Just be glad you are not a non-native English speaker trying to learn this confusing language, and if you are, well….my thoughts are with you.