“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Paragliding in Italy

OK, if you were shooting a video here’s what you’d see:

Behind me are the Dolomites, the rugged crenellated mountains that saw through the northern reaches of Italy. Facing me, maybe thirty kilometers on the horizon, the Gulf of Venice gleams in the summer sun and just to the right, barely discernible, Venice looks like a smudge on the sea (although describing Venice as a smudge seems sacrilegious). Above me my paragliding wing is a thin neon green strip of fabric outlined against the blue sky and 500 meters straight down the church steeple in the tiny Italian village of Dardago is peeking up at me between my boots. It's so far below me it looks like a child's toy village. 

A funny sight that; it catches me off guard. I imagine I am Gulliver, my huge feet stomping through the village.
But this whole paragliding thing is catching me off guard. I was pumped for an adrenalin filled adventure, something akin to skydiving or bungee jumping. But this is different. Sure, it’s exciting but it doesn’t have that falling-to-your death feel of jumping out of an airplane or plunging off a bridge.

I knew from the get go that this was a different kind of adventure. I hooked into my harness, took a half dozen running steps down a gentle alpine meadow above Dardago and—almost belatedly—I realized I was no longer standing on Mother Earth.

It’s smooth, thrilling and—get this—comforting. It’s a feeling I’ve never encountered before. I thought: Wow, so this is what flying really is all about. No engine, gauges, propellers, cockpit, fuel, tires, wings, rudders, pedals, sticks, throttles. Just a brightly colored canopy stretching languidly overhead. One minute you’re running, then your feet are treading air and you realize you’re airborne. Simplicity.

This was my son Michael’s idea. He is an accomplished paraglider and he and a buddy took me out for a flight. My pilot Neville, an impish Aussie who spends his summers fooling with paragliding novices like me and his winters teaching skiing, seems pleased that I am loving this flight.
And he delights in giving me the full flight experience.  We have hardly cleared the grassy slope when we catch an updraft and climb rapidly, maybe 500 meters above our takeoff point. Neville banks left and we swoop parallel to crest of the mountain ridge. It is gorgeous. I swivel my head from side to side, jagged mountains fronting a blue Italian sky on my left, the sparkling Adriatic on my right. Updrafts thrust us up another 300 meters and we are looking down at the mountain crest.  I love the feel of riding the updrafts and downdrafts, like an invisible roller coaster.

We scud along the mountain ridge before gently arcing right, over the valley below. I look down and see a falcon soaring beneath us. How cool is that? I’m flying above a falcon.

I spy Michael and friend flying in formation near the valley floor a thousand or so feet below us. They are skimming along, seemingly able to touch their boots on treetops, although they later said they were much higher. It’s a beautiful sight, two brightly colored paragliders in a gentle ballet over the picturesque Italian countryside.

We bank left, floating above a sinuous road that tracks back and forth down the mountain towards Dardago. We circle over the village and I lean forward in my harness and gawk at the red terracotta roofs in the Lilliputian village below.

I suppose it sounds like a cliche to say I feel like a bird--in fact, I know it does because I say those very words a few minutes after landing and my son and his friend give me such a raft of crap I instantly regret it. (But just between us, it's true.)

Tacking east, we head toward the landing field and begin our approach, gradually losing altitude as we line up for landing. Everything is relaxed; the earth rises up slowly and things on the ground become increasingly larger. We skim over a line of trees bordering the field and glide down toward a large white "X" on the grass. I put my feet down, promptly lose my footing and scoot across the field, just a few feet before sliding to a stop. Nice and easy.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I loved paragliding. It’s a dichotomy, both exciting and relaxing. Paragliding is as close as a human can come to flying like a bird. I didn’t use any verbs like plummet, lunge or dive because this isn’t that kind of sport. Like any extreme sport, it can be dangerous but it doesn’t seem that way; when you’re lazily soaring over a gorgeous countryside, danger is the last thing on your mind.

Details: Pay your money and take a tandem flight, it’s that easy. But be forewarned, the sport is almost immediately addicting. If you get the bug you’ll want to get your (required) paragliding license. In the states, check out the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, http://www.ushpa.aero/ for info on schools, requirements and tandem and solo flights.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Floating the Hiwassee River

Whew! I knew the water was going to be cold, but this was ridiculous. As I pushed my canoe into the cold clear rapids of the Hiwassee State Scenic River near the Tennessee-North Carolina border an involuntary gasp and shiver shook my body. It was early March and the waters of the Hiwassee, which originate in the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia, were still frigid from the winter snow melt. The morning was cool but the air temperature was much warmer than the water, resulting in a light wispy fog arising from the tumbling waters of the river. I quickly shoved off from the rocky bar and settled into the relative warmth of my canoe seat.

I had heard about the Hiwassee for many years but had never made the trek to Benton, Tennessee to experience its offerings. My mistake. As I was about to find out, the Hiwassee is a sparkling little river that makes for an easy one day or overnight trip. The river offers a little bit for almost every interest--call it a multi-purpose river. Along the river’s stretches you can experience exceptional whitewater rafting and canoeing, some of the best trout fishing in eastern Tennessee, and camping and hiking on nearby trails.

While the Hiwassee does not have the exhilarating rapids of nearby and better known rafting and kayaking rivers like the Chattooga and the Ocoee, the waters of the Hiwassee are nonetheless exciting for all but the most jaded whitewater enthusiasts. The most scenic stretch flows through a scenic five and one-half-mile stretch of the Cherokee National Forest. There are a outfitters who provide rafting and floating services on the Hiwassee and on a warm summer weekend the river can be way too crowded with watercraft, which is why I found myself pushing into the Hiwassee's current on a such a cold day.

The stretch of river I am running is somewhat longer and on this particular day I see no one else canoeing or fishing on the river. Admittedly, it is too early in the season for all but the most dedicated (or idiotic) canoeists and the trout don’t come into their own until later in the spring. So today offers me a good opportunity to take in the offerings of the Hiwassee without distraction. What is immediately apparent is the crystal clear water of the river. The Hiwassee flows directly from Georgia where it drains mainly forested lands of the Chattahoochee, Nanatahala, and Cherokee National Forests. There is not much chance of silt or pollution from towns and farms to degrade the water quality and it shows. I can see clearly to the bottom through all but the deepest pools.

Little more than a tiny mountain brook near its source, as it rushes across Georgia and North Carolina, it slows down and picks up volume before being temporarily harnessed behind the Appalachia Dam on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. For the next twenty-three miles below the dam--the section of river I am canoeing--the Hiwassee is a splendid river of fast rapids and deep pools, conducive to interesting paddling as well as excellent fishing in the deep cool eddies. For the length of this run, which has been designated a Tennessee State Scenic River, the Hiwassee is the perfect river for a combination fishing and canoeing trip, hard to beat for serious fly fishing.

By noon the sun has warmed me considerably and I paddle over to an inviting gravel bar where I eat lunch and kick myself for not bringing my rod and reel. I am in the middle of one of the finest fly fishing streams in the area and no way to take advantage of it. There are five access sites along this section, and a two mile stretch of the river from Big Bend to Childers Creek has been designated by the state as a Trophy Section, where trout fishing is at its best. This section yields impressive brown and rainbow trout in the 15-inch to 20-inch range. Trout up to nine pounds are taken from the Trophy Section, with five pound and up catches not uncommon. The water here varies from shallow ripples to swirling eddies behind large boulders, perfect hiding places for the brownies and rainbows.

After lunch, I quickly discover that paddling a canoe leisurely down the Hiwassee provides the perfect platform from which to spy likely trout spots. The best strategy is to reconnoiter a likely spot, disembark just upstream, and work the area to pick off fish. If your angling preferences lean toward spinning tackle, the river also supports largemouth bass, catfish, and yellow perch, all of which I spot as I scan likely fishing holes. I make mental notes of likely haunts for a return trip--with fishing gear. The river picks up below Childers Creek, a good time to stow your gear and concentrate more on canoeing and less on fishing. There are some interesting rapids in this section, but don't worry about dumping your expensive fishing gear: the Hiwassee is primarily Class I and II water which means easy rapids with small waves requiring minimal expertise.

Although you can run the Hiwassee in a day, a two-day journey makes for a more relaxing trip and there is a campsite available along the river to accommodate overnighters; the Gee Creek campsite near Highway 411 has 43 primitive sites, and backcountry camping is permitted along the John Muir Trail which runs near the river. This twelve mile long hiking trail begins near the town of Reliance and meanders along the river's edge for a good distance before veering back into the hills surrounding the river. Take extra time to hike and enjoy the hills and views offered by this trail.

For fishing and canoeing the best river run is from the access point at the Tennessee Valley Authority powerhouse to the take out at Highway 411 near Benton. You can take two days to float and fish this section. A mid October weekend is the best time to float the river, when the Tennessee hills are bursting with brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows as the leaves turn. The weather is still warm but has just enough evening coolness to stir the trout.

Details: The Hiwassee is about fifty miles northeast of Chattanooga, TN. Take the Cleveland exit off of Interstate 75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Follow Highway 64 east to U.S. 411 and turn north to Highway 30. The river is floatable year round, with the best fishing from early spring to late fall. The fishing slows up a little in the winter months. Hiwassee Outfitters provides rafting and inflatable kayak services (800-338-8133). Campsites at Gee Creek are available on a first come, first served basis (no reservations) and there is a fee for their use. There are restrooms and picnic grounds at some access points. State fishing regulations apply and are vigorously enforced, particularly in the Trophy Section. For maps and brochures, write Ranger Naturalist, Hiwassee State Scenic River, Box 255, Delano, TN 37325, or call 615-338-4133. A flyfishing outfitter, Dry Flyer Outfitters, Rt. 1, Box 227 J, Calhoun, TN 37309, 615-336-1585, offers guided one- and two-day fly fishing trips with an overnight stay at their base camp on the banks of the Hiwassee.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Zealand Jet Boating

I had this great idea:  front seat in a jet boat, shooting dramatic videos of my adventure as I blasted up the Kawarau and Shotover Rivers in New Zealand.  It was a great idea.  Unfortunately reality intervened. 

It all started out just the way I envisioned. We strapped into the gaudy banana yellow boats of Kawarau Jet, one of a number of companies that offer high speed river trips out of Queenstown and I prepared to start filming a grand video adventure.  We idled away from the main pier in downtown Queenstown and once we cleared the pier area our boat driver slammed the throttles full forward and roared across the smooth expanse of  Lake Wakatipu.  So far so good, I was capturing some great moments as our driver threw our brawny boat into a series of 180s and pirouetted the boat like a child's toy. 

Then we hit the Kawarau River.  Our overpowered banana bellowed through the shallow braided currents of the Kawarau.  My last bit of video records a dizzying blur of sky, spray and rubber boat flooring.  I clung to the boat's handholds to keep from being thrown around like a pinball.  But what a ride!  The trip turned into a blur of G forces, blinding spray, and overpowering speed.  I thought; this is very cool.

But the Kawarau was just a warm up.  We raced from the Kawarau to the Shotover River.  Where the Kawarau was broad and lined with low willow-lined banks, the Shotover was narrow and crowded by high rock cliffs that perched on river edge, waiting to reach out and smack our boat.  So imagine caroming through a twisting narrow river with huge overhanging boulders suddenly jumping into your path, waiting to decapitate you.  That's the Shotover.

Anyway, my death grip on the grab handles precluded any video shooting so here's one from the web:


Like I said, lots of companies offer jet boating out of Queenstown.  Here's the one we used:


Little River Canyon

Courtesy Huntsville Times
 It's not often that additions are made to the national park system, so when an area is considered significant enough to be protected by the National Park Service, it is worth seeing first hand. That's how I found myself standing at the bottom of a deep canyon in Alabama, taking in the beauty of the Little River Canyon National Preserve.

I never expected to encounter anything so rugged or so mountainous in the deep south and I immediately understood why the government wanted to protect this area. The Alabama I was used to consisted of long flat fields of cotton, dusty red dirt roads, and beautiful Gulf Coast beaches. The trees were supposed to be southern live oak festooned with Spanish moss or tall southern pines. But this area of extreme northeastern Alabama fit none of those descriptions. Above the early morning mist rising from the rushing water I could barely discern the rim of  the Little River Canyon, 600 feet above me. The huge boulders looming through the mist were a glistening black where they were touched by the clear cool water of the Little River, the gray canyon walls on each riverbank climbing to the cloudless blue sky above.

Courtesy NPS
This was without a doubt the wildest and most inaccessible area I had ever visited in Alabama. The sparkling mountain river thundering over the boulders beneath my feet and the steep forested canyon walls reaching for the sky seemed out of place. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn I was deep in the mountains of West Virginia.

But the 14,000 acre Little River Canyon National Preserve sits an hour south of Chattanooga on the Alabama Georgia border. This natural jewel was established as a National Preserve in 1992 and, with the acquisition of surrounding land by the federal government, recently became one of the newest additions to the National Park System as the LIttle River Canyon National Preserve, a continuous stretch of protected land from the canyon mouth extending 20 miles through the heart of the canyon.

What the government added to our National Park System is the deepest canyon land east of the Mississippi River. The hills and mountains surrounding the canyon sit on the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, a giant sandstone table extending through Tennessee into northern Alabama. The Little River carved its way through the soft sandstone over eons, leaving a deep natural gash through the heart of the area, at some points the river flowing 700 feet below the canyon rim. If you hike along the parkway which follows the north rim of the canyon, you can still spot sandstone slabs etched with waves and ripples from the ancient river when it still flowed at that elevation. Look over the edge of the rim and far below you can see the river still carving its way through the canyon rock.

The preserve's spectacularly rugged canyons and clear sparkling rivers and creeks are largely untouched by any type of development, including trails. The only exception is the Lookout Mountain Trail that runs from Gadsden Alabama, 30 miles south of the canyon, to Point Park near Chattanooga. The trail is 123 miles in length and for about fifteen miles runs through the heart of the canyon.

This trail is not well marked or maintained but it provides the only viable access to the length of the canyon. Be forewarned that this is extremely rugged terrain and that the hike through the canyon is very strenuous. The trail follows the river and is well below the canyon rim. But the elevation varies and at times you may be 200 feet above the canyon floor, with little if any margin for error between the trail and the escarpment edge. At one point I looked down 200 feet with my toes hanging over the edge of the trail and nothing under the rock overhang beneath my feet. A half mile later, the trail had descended sharply to the canyon floor and I was wading through an eddy of the Little River. You do not want to hike this trail in times of limited visibility or in rainy weather the trails can be dangerously slick. At the present time, backcountry camping is not permitted in the canyon, so plan on dayhikes only.

Courtesy Birmingham News
Courtesy Birmingham News
There is a campsite located at the south end of the canyon, near where the Lookout Mountain Trail enters the canyon. Canoeists and kayakers use the trail for river access at this point, but access is difficult, requiring a steep descent with a boat down a quarter mile of mountain. But what awaits at the bottom makes the trip down worthwhile. Little River is a whitewater enthusiast's dream and boaters from Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia can be found working through the boulder strewn river when the water levels are right, playing in the Class III and IV water within the canyon. The river is susceptible to variable water flows, so it pays to check with local officials before attempting to run this section. Too much water can be extremely dangerous, compounded by the difficulty of getting out of the steep canyon for help; too little water can make for a lot of pulling and carrying over boulders and very little paddling.

All of this may sound forbidding, but a trip to the canyon can be very rewarding. Unlike the canyonlands of the west, Little River Canyon is awash with trees and wildflowers and after a rainfall the canyon walls literally shower you with mini waterfalls spouting from crevices in the rock faces. In Summer, the canyon walls are almost totally hidden by the thick green vegetation. The riotous yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves dazzle the eyes in Fall. In Winter, the deciduous trees have all dropped their leaves, revealing the stark, vertical canyon cliffs and walls, the dull slate gray rock reaching almost straight up from the riverbed, the rim barely visible from the canyon floor. Winter is perhaps my favorite time to visit the canyon, the bare canyon walls having a more commanding presence than at other times of the year.

Getting There: From Chattanooga, take Interstate 59south to the Alabama Highway 35 exit. Highway 35 crosses the canyon at Little River Falls. Turn onto Highway 89 to get to Desoto State Park.

Details: Information can be obtained from the Little River Canyon National Preserve office, (205) 997 9239.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Okefenokee Swamp, Land of the Trembling Earth

Courtesy USF&WS
Our first night of camping deep in the bowels of the Okefenokee Swamp is a chaotic opera of splashing, grunting, croaking and shrieking. We are amazed at the boisterous racket that grows ever louder as the sunlight ebbs and the coal-black sky closes in. The sounds of alligators, birds, frogs, and who knows what other creatures living and dying all around us describe an endless tale of animals eating and being eaten. We hear the startled croaks of frogs being gobbled up, gators bellowing from the surrounding grass, and owls hooting from the shadows of the tall cypress overhead. This ain’t Disneyland. We are sitting atop a 20-by-25-foot wooden camping platform perched twelve inches above the water’s surface—just high enough to ensure that none of the hungry alligators patrolling the surrounding swamp can climb in our sleeping bags with us. Still, the frantic splashing and the cries and squawks of critters in the enveloping blackness of the swamp make for an eerie night.

Courtesy USF&WS

But then the Okefenokee is an eerie place. Encompassing more than 400,000 acres of tea-colored water, towering cypress trees, open wetlands, peat bogs, and wild swampland in the southeastern corner of Georgia, the Okefenokee is a land of water and marsh that has been only minimally touched by the hand of man. From the moment you enter the refuge, either from the east entrance at the historic Suwanee Canal off of Georgia Highway 121/23, or from the west entrance at the Stephen C. Foster State Park via Georgia Highway 177, you will feel that you have entered another world. An extended canoe trip through the swamp’s interior transports you from the hectic pace of modern day life to an isolated world that is unlike anywhere else, a place where even the earth under your feet is different from the rest of the world.

“Okefenokee” comes from an Indian word which loosely translates to “land of the trembling earth”, an apt way to describe the quaking peat bogs and spongy ground here. Foot travel through the swamp is impossible. The best way to experience this watery terrain is by canoe. There are more than 40 miles of canoe trails winding through the interior of the swamp, with raised wooden camping platforms strategically placed at intervals to allow for overnight stays. The narrow canoe trails are designated with trail markers and meander through the refuge’s maze of cypress groves, islands, and shallow lakes.

Courtesy USF&WS
Swamps invoke some rather stereotyped images, but the Okefenokee is actually a land of contrasts. Some areas typify what you expect to see in a swamp; crowded forests of thick-trunked cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss, wisps of mist threading through the thick air, and skillet-sized lilypads carpeting the black water. Paddling silently through these areas, with the deep guttural grunts of alligators echoing from the hidden depths of the swamp, you feel as if you have been magically transported back to the Jurassic Period. A Stegosaurus suddenly appearing out of the gloom would almost seem expected. Other areas--called prairies--are open sunlit expanses of low grass, wild orchids, water lilies, and wildflowers that cover hundred of acres.

These areas still exist thanks to the foresight of the federal government which protected most of the swamp as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in 1937. Before the refuge was established, the swamp provided hardwood for a busy lumber industry. Billy’s Island, named for Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole Indian chief who once lived on the island, was the center of a logging operation in the early part of this century. The island still contains remnants of an old lumber town that once existed here—rusting machinery, crumbling building foundations, and toppled chimneys—and for that reason it is a popular stop for canoeists. It is disconcerting to stumble over evidence of human habitation in a place so wild.

Courtesy USF&WS
Within this wild place deer, black bear, snakes, turtles, frogs, and 235 species of birds thrive. Ospreys, bald eagle, wood storks, sandhill cranes, egrets, herons, and numerous other wading birds are often seen. But the premier resident, the one everyone wants to see, is the American alligator. As we launched our canoe into the still water of the swamp, my primary concern was that I would spend a week in this huge refuge and not spy any of these impressive reptiles. I needn’t have worried. Within a half mile of our launch point, I saw the first gator of the trip, a six-footer sunning on an open bank along the edge of the canoe trail. As we paddled closer, he slid slowly below the smooth surface of the swamp and disappeared into the seemingly bottomless water. By the end of the week, gator sightings had become so common that we barely acknowledged their presence. The Okefenokee is home to perhaps 12,000 alligators and we joked that we had seen every one. Their presence is constantly on your mind. The canoe trails, although generally clear and passable, are sometimes blocked by “peat blow ups” which occur when gasses from decaying plants build up under a mat of submerged peat and cause a mass of vegetation to rise to the surface—kind of like a balloon. There it sits, a quivering island of mushy earth, too light to walk on but too thick to paddle through. If these blowups are very dense and large, practically the only way to get through is to get out of your canoe and push, pull, or coax it along. Stepping over the side of a canoe into waist deep, black water can be intimidating. Especially when you have to keep one eye on a nearby seven-foot alligator who is watching you with more than passing interest.

Courtesy USF&WS
But despite the large population of alligators, there has never been anyone bitten by one in the refuge. Generally they either sit impassively sunning themselves as you paddle by or else slip quietly into the water. Still, keeping a respectful distance and following common sense rules—such as not feeding them—are advisable.

A few other rules apply. A reservation is required for overnight trips. These reservations ensure that you will have a place to camp at night, usually one of the raised wooden platforms, although some campsites are located on islands. A favorite campsite is on Floyd’s Island where an old hunting cabin built in the 1920’s provides overnight shelter. Reservations can be hard to get—especially in the spring and fall. They are issued up to 60 days prior to the trip date—and they go fast. Requests for permits are accepted by telephone only at (912) 496-3331 beginning at 7:00 A.M. Monday through Friday. If you don’t get a reservation on the morning of the day 60 days prior to your departure, chances are you won’t get in on that date. The key is to be persistent and flexible. A visitor center at the Suwanee Canal entrance and a museum at Stephen C. Foster State Park offer exhibits and interpretive programs. Both locations have short boardwalks that give a feel for the swamp environment. Guided boat tours, canoe rentals, cabin rentals and campsites are available at the State Park. State Park information is available by dialing (912) 637-5274.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Hawaii's Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park

Most times if you want to see swarming schools of tropical fish, and exotic marine life you’d better be prepared to burn up a couple of tanks of air and endure a long boat ride to an offshore reef or wreck. Or you can save yourself the cost of the boat ride and the SCUBA gear and simply walk down the beach at Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay. Crystal clear water, abundant marine life and a living coral reef mean Hanauma Bay is one of the premiere snorkeling destinations in the islands. A gently sloping beach fronts directly on the horseshoe shaped bay, formed in the remains of Koko Head Crater, an ancient cinder-cone volcano, now breached and filled with sea water. Within this half-mile-wide bay are one of the prettiest reefs and the most abundant fish life in Hawaii.

Courtesy USF&WS
Your first look at the bay will be on your trek down the crater’s rim from the parking lot. The reef and coral formations are strikingly visible in the turquoise waters. The walls of the bay rise sharply up from the calm water and the shores are rimmed with wide sandy beaches and glistening black lava rock formations. Attractions include the Toilet Bowl (prettier than it sounds), a natural pool in the inhospitable lava rock, and the Witches Brew, a rocky point on the bay’s edge where incoming ocean waves crash with spectacular foaming sprays over the break. It’s easy to see why Hanauma Bay was once considered the almost exclusive domain of Oahu’s elite.

Be forewarned, this is not an isolated and undiscovered secret known only to the hard-core snorkeling crowd. One of the primary attractions of Hanauma Bay is its accessibility. The park is an easy 30 minute drive from downtown Honolulu, which means that on a hot summer weekend, the water can be crowded with snorkelers. Hanauma is probably the most popular snorkeling spot on Oahu. But don’t despair, this is not all bad. The popularity of Hanauma Bay means that the bay’s vast and diverse marine animal population has become accustomed to humans. And because the bay is legally designated as a State Underwater Park and Conservation District, the marine life is protected, so fishing and spearing are prohibited.

The result? No sooner have you wet your toes in the warm Pacific waters than you are greeted by cruising schools of Blacktail Wrasse. Pull on your mask and snorkel and your underwater window is filled with Spectacled Parrotfish, Yellow Tangs, Hawaiian Sergeants, Moorish Idols, Pufferfish, Butterflyfish, and Bandit Angelfish. And in copious quantities. Take an underwater camera and your frame is filled with milling schools of tropical fish. Unlike many snorkeling destinations where the fish are skittish from infrequent human contact or spearfishing, Hanauma’s aquatic denizens are expert schmoozers. If you're used to catching only fleeting glimpses of scales and fins as startled critters beat a hasty retreat upon your arrival, you’ll be amazed at the welcome that awaits you here. You can get up close and personal with these guys. Fish, large and small, will swim right up to your mask and interact with you for an experience that is hard to match anywhere else on the islands. If you’re lucky--as we were the day we visited--you may see moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and the local favorite, green sea turtles. Many of the fish at Hanauma Bay are unique to the islands, so if you’re keeping score, this is the place to one-up your friends.

The bay is protected from the offshore winds and waves, so the sandy bottom is undisturbed, resulting in 40-plus-foot visibility. The bay floor is a combination of sand, living coral, and lava stone. The coral reef extends about 300 meters offshore and prevents any ocean surge from reaching the beach. A keyhole opening in the reef provides snorkelers access to the more open bay beyond the break. The keyhole is practically the only way through the reef for both humans and fish so it’s a great place to just hover in the water and watch the passing parade. Beyond the keyhole the waters are less protected from the ocean surge. The surge is generally light but is also variable and can catch the unaware and inexperienced snorkeler off guard. Being raked over sharp lava rock and coral is not a fun experience so use caution.

Which brings us to another point. Since this is a nature preserve, the emphasis is on protecting the environment and the marine animals. Feeding of the fish is discouraged--there are volunteers at the entrance areas who provide information on the detrimental effects of fish feeding. (But in one of the park’s incongruities, you can buy fish food at the beach concession stand.) Some of the larger fish have become quite aggressive and are expert at tearing fish food from divers’ hands. Care should also be taken in not walking on or touching the coral reef that covers much of the bay. Living coral is very fragile and careless touching can kill the reef.

Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park Park is open every day except Tuesdays from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. There is an entrance fee for non-residents; free if you have valid local identification. Masks, snorkels, and fins can be rented at a beachside concession stand. For information, including notices of occasional weather closures call (808) 396-4229. Use caution when walking on the rocky ledges where waves are breaking, particularly at the Witches Brew.

(This article originally appeared on Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com))