Hanapepe, Kauai, HI – This time the Koa finds me

We had been on Kauai for about a week in the sun, warm rain showers, and glow of island humidity.  We hiked up sleeping giant, snorkeled in the south pacific and spent many pleasant hours on the beach playing ukulele or just soaking up the sun while enjoying a Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde Pale Ale.  My score of koa sat propped against the dresser in the bedroom where I could catch a glimpse of it every now and then and dream about the possibilities for when I got back home.

After hopping in the car after a hike, my wife, McKenzie, tuned the radio to the local station for traditional Hawaiian music and we basked in the sweet sounds of ukulele.  After a few songs, an informational tidbit came on about Historic Hanapepe.  We had heard about Hanapepe before the trip reading that the setting of one of our favorite Disney Movies, Lilo and Stitch, was based on the town so it was already on our list of places to visit.  What we didn’t know was that every Friday night in Hanapepe was a celebration of the arts with vendors, live music, and food trucks.  Lucky for us it was Friday!

We made plans to visit Hanapepe that evening with McKenzie’s family and were greeted with a vibrant mainstreet filled with tourists and locals enjoying great food, art, and an awesome historic town.  Behind the tents of vendors and food carts lining the road, we found galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.  All of that faded away when I spotted a sign that said “Curly Koa.”

My mother-in-law, Judy, had almost gotten the car into park when I took off down the road to go look at the wood.  When I made it to the table, the wood was spectacular.  Heavily figured koa with curl that almost looked 3 dimensional, like you could reach your hand into the grain.  The kind of wood that I had only seen pictures of.  I saw some numbers lightly scrawled on the wood, but nothing that looked like a price, so I lightly touched a particularly beautiful board and asked about a price.  “$1,000” replied the man behind the table, somewhat disinterested.  “Oh, how about this one then?” “$600.”  The numbers that I had seen scrawled on the boards were indeed the prices.  I sheepishly thanked the man for sharing his amazing wood and wandered away to find the rest of the family.  I consoled myself with the fact that I had already found some great koa – and shipping more wood back to the mainland would be expensive anyway so I didn’t really need anymore wood.

We had a great dinner at a Hawaiian barbeque restaurant and enjoyed the local flavor of the food, the live ukulele music, and the culture.  Especially the sign letting us know there was “No public restroom….Even you buy Some’ting.” With our bellies full (overfull) we set out on the task of checking out all of the art.  I was introduced to the Tahitian ukulele, a ukulele that was more like a banjo with fishing line for strings.  We saw some amazing quilts and marbled textiles, heard several bands, and generally enjoyed the merriment. After a few laps up and down the main drag, my nephew, Conner, was starting to get tired so we started to head back to the car.  On the way I noticed a small table that I had missed before with a sign that said “Koa Rings.”  Much to the chagrin of my wife, I had forgotten my ring on my bedside table in Oregon.  At least I wouldn’t lose it in the ocean like my two previous wedding bands that are now at the bottoms of the McKenzie and Deschutes Rivers so I walked over to check it out.

None of the rings fit but there was a slab of highly figured burl koa attached to the base of a tv table.  The search was back on!  I introduced myself and met Jay, an artist and craftsman from Pennsylvania, who was on the island restoring a historic home.  I showed him a few pictures of my uke and told him about how excited I was to have found some Koa to take home and how much I admired his tabletop.  To my surprise he offered to sell it to me.  I didn’t have cash with me that night, and the koa was part of Jay’s display so I gave Him a business card and headed back to the house, excited, but concerned about blowing the wood buying budget I had set for myself.  In the back of my head the words that I had read before making the trip to Hawaii kept repeating themselves.  “When you find good koa, you don’t negotiate.  You pay their price and say thank you.”  I resolved that I had found an incredible piece of koa, better than good, so if Jay got in touch I would happily pay his price and thank him.

I got a text the next morning from Jay.  We chatted via text for a while.  I found that he had been involved in a makerspace in Pennsylvania and I told him about the Co-Working Art studio that McKenzie and I run back home.  Jay also told me a little bit more about the piece of koat I was considering.  It was a species of koa that grows in the Alakai Swamp, where it is illegal to harvest trees without a permit.  It took his roommate 6 months to get the permit and by the time they had one in hand a large part of the tree had been poached.  This was a special board indeed.  It took us a few attempts to meet up, but we eventually made the trek back to Hanapepe where we crossed the swinging bridge and met up with Jay.  I brought one of my ukes to show him what I had planned for the koa and we chatted for a little while before he opened the back of his truck to retrieve the wood.  It was just as beautiful as I had remembered – the most figured board that they had milled from the tree so far, Jay told me.  I stuck to my plan, paying Jay for the board and thanking him, excited to have found such an incredible treasure to bring home and build koa ukuleles with!

Not only was I able to find a great piece of wood, but I had found a like-minded friend on the island to stay in touch with.  Jay is hoping to start a makerspace on the island and to keep restoring historic properties.  I hope next time I make it to Kauai I can visit some of his work sites and check out the makerspace and perhaps a bit more of the wood Jay mills on Kauai will make it into some new Riverbend Ukuleles.

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