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Aloha, pardner: Riding the range in Hawaii

| Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, 9:27 a.m.
Ranches on Hawaii's Big Island and Maui offer horseback riding adventures between the rocky beaches and ancient lava flows.
Ranches on Hawaii's Big Island and Maui offer horseback riding adventures between the rocky beaches and ancient lava flows.

The term “Wild West” usually conjures up images of places with names such as Deadwood and Cheyenne, not Hilo or Waimea.

But decades before cowboys roamed the American heartland, paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — were herding cattle through the forests and across the beaches of Hawaii.

In 1793, explorer George Vancouver arrived at Kawaihae, Hawaii, with a gift for King Kamehameha I: six longhorn cows and a bull. Horses followed soon after.

Thanks to a royal decree that made killing them punishable by death, wild cattle proliferated wildly throughout the islands, tearing up taro patches and goring civilians.

In the 1830s, King Kamehamea III brought over a handful of cowboys from Spanish Mexico to teach locals how to herd on horseback. The result was the paniolo. (The word is a Hawaiianized version of “español.”)

Uniquely Hawaiian

Paniolos adapted Mexican techniques and gear to their island home. Rawhide lassos, for example, don't rot in the damp climate as do the manila ropes used on the mainland.

They roped 1,000-pound wild bulls in dense forests, often leaving the animals tied to trees until they exhausted themselves. At night, they stayed in remote line camps and bathed in furos, the small, fire-heated hot tubs adapted from Japanese baths.

The final step was uniquely Hawaiian: herding cattle into the surf and onto waiting ships. Sharks claimed the occasional unlucky animal.

Royals and well-connected foreigners earned huge profits selling pipikaula (salted and dried beef) to whaling ships, and hide and tallow to tanneries abroad. Eventually, production shifted to beef for local markets.

By 1900, ranches covered nearly a third of Hawaii, especially on the Big Island and Maui.

At one point, the Big Island boasted the largest ranch under individual ownership in the United States: the 225,000-acre Parker Ranch, started with a two-acre land grant from King Kamehameha I in 1816.

Indelible mark

Although Hawaii's cattle heyday is past, paniolos still work on a handful of ranches, and their lifestyle left an indelible mark on the islands' landscape and culture — especially in the preservation of the Hawaiian language, which they spoke almost exclusively.

The Big Island still claims the most cows and grazing land in Hawaii, with about 75,000 animals on 700,000 acres.

At the Dahana Ranch , the Nakoa family and some two dozen horses keep watch over a herd of about 150 crossbred Brahman cattle. Ku'uipo Nakoa, 26, is of the fourth generation of her family to work here.

After two tours in Afghanistan she returned to the ranch, much to the delight of her father, Harry. “He was like, ‘It's in your blood,'” she said.

Being home is helping her recover from a back injury sustained when an improvised explosive device went off.

“When I first got back, I couldn't even stand up straight,” she said. “But within two weeks, I was feeling totally better.”

She is working, slowly, toward being able to ride again.

Rippling green hills

Concho wants to gallop. I can tell. He's a horse, after all, a headstrong one, and rippling green hills spread in every direction. Every so often, a break in the clouds reveals the barren summit of Mauna Kea to the south. But galloping is still a little ways outside my skill set, so with a twinge of guilt I pull the reins to keep my mount at a slow trot.

He makes his disappointment clear with a snort and a toss of his head. The pace does make it easier to soak in the landscape of the 300-acre Dahana Ranch in the upcountry of Hawaii's Big Island. Rocky outcroppings add a touch of Scottish cragginess to vivid, green slopes.

The air is cool at 3,000 feet, and the sporadic kiss of rain makes the flashes of sun seem all the brighter. Longhorn cows linger near the ranch buildings where our four-person group saddled up an hour ago.

Herschel Shermis and Ann Potter were childhood sweethearts who reconnected 40 years later and picked up right where they left off. He wanted to show her his favorite spots on her first visit to the Big Island. They were traveling for a week — “the shortest week of our lives,” she says — and riding at Dahana Ranch was on his must-do list. You could almost see the hearts in their eyes.

Toward the volcano

Our guide, wrangler Jackie Henning, is young and enthusiastic, revealing her Chicago roots by peppering her instructions with “y'know.” After making sure each of us can operate the equine equivalent of brakes, gas and steering wheel, she leads us south toward the volcano.

Every time we pass from one pasture into another, Henning says, we need to make our horses face the gate as she opens and closes it without dismounting. “We want to teach them patience,” she says. This “advanced ride” isn't a yawn-inducing, single-file trail plod. We are free to pick our own route, staying in sight, and if we want, to push our horses to a canter or gallop — terrain and talent permitting.

Potter is clearly the most comfortable at high speeds. “Getting back together with Hersh makes me feel young again,” she says. “Riding over gorgeous terrain, with the wind in my hair, only enhances that.”

“I love the open range,” Henning says. “The horses are so happy here.”

Would-be paniolos

After an hour, we're at the far end of a wide, winding loop around the ranch property. It's time to turn from mauka (heading inland) to makai (toward the coast).

The sun and clouds have settled into a stalemate: five minutes each, alternating. For minutes at a time, the only sounds are the breeze and the squeak of leather saddles.

Soon, we're looking over the edge of a steep slope lined with volcanic boulders.

At Henning's instruction, we let our horses pick their own way down. As a maybe-once-a-year rider, this is near the edge of my comfort level.

Other ranches offer a range of rides for would-be paniolos of all levels. For novices, Paniolo Adventures has an hour-long “city slicker” ride on the 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch, at the foot of the Kohala Mountains at the north end of the Big Island.

Experienced riders can get their gallop on during a four-hour Wrangler Open Range Ride. Those of us who fall somewhere in between can choose between morning or afternoon excursions, or even catch sunset from 3,000 feet.

‘Talk story'

On the southwest side of Maui, the Triple L Ranch takes visitors on ranch tours to check the cattle for anywhere from 90 minutes to more than six hours. Routes range from rocky beaches to ancient lava flows on Haleakala Crater, with guides pointing out archaeological sites along the way.

For a more typically romantic Maui experience, Lahaina Stables does a sunset ride into the foothills of Launiupoko Valley, complete with champagne and chocolate-dipped fruit. Come at the right time and you can catch an island-style rodeo, where cowboys wear leis and old paniolos gather to “talk story,” or share tales of days past.

There's the Pana'ewa Stampede in Hilo in mid-February, with bull riding and barrel racing.

Western Week in Honokaa, in late May, features line dancing, a paniolo parade and a Portuguese bean soup and sweetbread contest, among many other events.

The Parker Ranch, still the ninth-largest cow-calf operation in the United States, hosts a rodeo and horse races over the Fourth of July weekend. Come for the Cowboys Got Talent show, stay for Hula Mama's Funnel Cakes and Aunty Peaches Onolicious Poi Balls.

No rush

Even when the ranch buildings come back in sight, there's no rush to finish. “Let's not head straight back,” Henning says. “Don't want to make the horses barn-sour,” or overeager to get back.

We pass a fenced pasture with a half-dozen retired horses. They're swaybacked and potbellied but clearly content. Bubba the pig lounges in a pen near the barn, all hair and tusks. Henning's horse is skittish around the 400-pound hog. “C'mon, he's friendly,” she admonishes him as he tiptoes nervously.

At the barn, we're greeted by a pair of fat, fuzzy Australian shepherd puppies and three or four Jack Russells; they move so fast, it's hard to tell how many.

Shermis and Potter are both glowing. His plan clearly worked. I'm thinking, next time, I'll have to bring someone myself.

Julian Smith is a Washington Post contributing writer.

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