story by Susanne Gnagy
photo by Monte Costa
It’s a breezy morning on the slopes of Mauna Kahalawai, an ancient shield volcano that time has scored into the West Maui Mountains. In the distance, tradewinds salt the blue Pacific with snowy whitecaps—but here on Kahalawai, I’m seeing 100 shades of green. Past a dewy meadow ringed by Norfolk pines, along a pig trail through softly knocking bamboo and into a tropical rain forest: green everywhere. It is in the rain forest, beneath a canopy of pale kukui and spidery guava branches, that our small party faces its first challenge: a 50-foot rappel down a vertical cliff of loose soil.
Not to worry, though—we are with an expert, Kahi Yap, a man with a deep knowledge of the mountains of his native Maui. Yap is here to help us navigate the obstacles and landmarks of Kahalawai’s Makamaka‘ole Valley; he is a guide with Maui Canyon Adventures, the first company in Hawai‘i that offers a chance to try the globally popular sport of canyoning. Canyoning? “You start at the top and then you hike, jump, climb, scramble, swim, rappel—whatever you need to do to get to the bottom,” explains company founder Ken Schmitt with a smile.
A day in the wilderness with Yap offers not just a physical challenge; it’s also a crash course in Hawai‘i geology, biology and natural history. That flower that looks like a waxy pinecone? ‘Awapuhi, or shampoo ginger. This tree? Brazilian pepper; crush the leaves and you have a natural mosquito repellant. That plant with the little purple flowers? Oi; it tastes just like a mushroom. And so on, past ‘ohi‘a ‘ai trees and liliko‘i vines and delicate honeysuckle-scented blooms whose edible root is the same ginger you might savor with your next plate of sashimi.
With a brilliant smile, an easy laugh and deft prowess, Yap helps us rappel over a valley floor to see lobster heliconia and pāpala shrubs and climb down banyan tree roots to reach a waterfall pool alive with ‘opae and hihiwai (edible shrimp and freshwater snails). Yap loves this world, and taking people through it is, he adds, his way of teaching them that everything in it has a purpose. “I want,” he says, “to keep this ecosystem going.” HH
Maui Canyoning Adventures