Story by Curt Sanburn
Photos by Monte Costa
Look at a map of O‘ahu.
Compare the island’s northwestern point at Ka‘ena with its southeastern headlands at Ka ‘Iwi. These spiny points reaching out into the blue seem to stretch the island between them. Happily, both places remain undeveloped wilderness parklands. But where Ka ‘Iwi is suburban and well tended, Ka‘ena is raw, haunted, wild in every sense.
As an adolescent I experienced something unforgettable (and, I suspect, supernatural) at Ka‘ena involving a mysterious rainbow; since then I’ve often returned to this remote and magnificent dragon’s tail of land. I bring along only the most eager and receptive of visiting friends when I want to show them more than, say, the easy tropical bliss of Kahana’s bay or Lanikai’s beach. Ka‘ena is primordial, a place where if they’re open they feel the living island and actually get Hawai‘i’s gigantic nature. We usually hike the two miles to the point from the Waialua side, enduring the heat (ka‘ena means “fiery heat”), the parched and treeless plain, and the unrelieved intimidation of the land because the payoff is so intense.
Recently I returned to Ka‘ena after having been away for two years. Little had changed except for Walter “Keale” Mix, the new ranger for the 1,463-acre Ka‘ena Point State Park. Keale wears no ranger hat, no khaki shirt, no badge. Just a baseball cap, a green T-shirt sporting the logo of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, camo shorts, boots and one serious knife in a shoulder holster. He carries a beautiful walking stick that he carved from an alahe‘e limb. Walter and I holoholo (wander) around Ka‘ena and climb the highest dune at the point, where a thirty-foot steel pole holds up a beacon to passing sailors. (The original 1920 concrete lighthouse lies toppled in the sand beside it.) Beyond the dunes, the point tapers into a series of tide pools, then black rocks stretching maybe two hundred yards due west into the sea. Whales spout and breach in the rough water not far offshore. We estimate that, shore to shore, we’re seeing a 270-degree ocean horizon. Looking back toward the land, a stunning double panorama unfolds: southeast to the headlands and valleys of north Wai‘anae—Kakahe‘e, Keawa‘ula, Makua, ‘Ohikilolo and Kepuhi; and east along Ka‘ena’s misty coastal plain and its awesome pali, or cliff wall, rising 900 feet. Farther east across the waters of Waialua, the Ko‘olau ridge stretches to the shores of Kawailoa, Waimea, Paumalu and Kawela.
I suggest to Keale that this epicenter must be a sacred place, and I tell him the story of my rainbow, how it appeared and disappeared suddenly on a cloudless day all those years ago. Keale replies that, yes, Ka‘ena is the island’s second most sacred place after Kukaniloko, the boulder-laced birthing place of chiefs at Wahiawa. Then he leads me to Ka‘ena’s most famous landmark: Leina a ka ‘Uhane, or the Soul’s Leap, a beige coralline monolith crouching on the edge of the jagged shore a few hundred yards east of the point. I’ve known about the rock since forever but never really studied it. As a kid growing up in Honolulu, I’d heard it said that whenever people died on O‘ahu, their souls left their bodies and traveled to Ka‘ena, where they stood on this rock and leapt into heaven. Maui had a soul’s leap, too. Every island had one. I’ve learned since that it’s more complicated than that. For instance, there might be more than one leina per island; it might be a sacred, powerful area, a district where a soul might — or might not — be helped along by personal gods, or ‘aumakua. And there’s no guarantee of heavenly ascent; there are various nether worlds to which a spirit might go, depending. A spirit might even be sent back to live again. The nineteenth-century historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that much is known about this because of people who came back from the dead and described what happened. I stand by the leina, touch its crumbly surface, study its wind-sculpted lines, the delicate runners of hinahina festooning its crevasses and ponder its age-old, gate-keeping power.