Backcountry with Surfer Chris

I met Surfer Chris, with Seth and Mike Yun, on our inaugural annual hike-in-recording/art-surf trip. After trekking back a shapeshifting 11 mile trek along- side a pair of whales, about 200 spinner dolphins, and many big horn sheep, and then crawling around an infamous rock jutting out over a 400 foot cliff overlooking the ocean on a trail crumbling below your feet, you arrive at a remote and sacred Hawaiian beach only accessible by foot or kayak.

Chris had been set up back there on and off for the past 11 years, living out of a beach cave, fishing all his own food, surfing, kayaking and paddling around the island. We shared dinner for many hours with Chris, listening to his stories, and talking with him just about how his life was. As a naturalist and Tom Brown grad, I was inspired by Chris as one of those unique and special folks out there living rugged and rogue in their humanity.

- Ali Beletic 


Lightning: You grew up in SF right? Surfing under the golden gate bridge?

Chris Kaplanis: Yeah, the first time I paddled out there, I was 12 yrs old. It was super radical, I remember I was super scared. The waves were kind of big and that place is just super radical especially for a little kid in the current. Surfing out at the Golden Gate bridge is way radical and then that ended up being one of my favorite spots, I mean, whenever it broke, I was out there. I used to spend hours out there.

Seen a girl jump off the bridge once, commit suicide, when I was about 15. And right then this 6 foot wave came through, and I took off back door and I was holding the tube, kicked out on the upper lips, and cut back, and kicked out, wahoo. I was like cswahoo, woah that person just died and I just had the killierest freaking wave right there. Life and Death right there. I realized when I was about 15, how important life was.

L: How long did you surf that spot until?

C: ‘Til, I moved to Kauai (laughs). That was 1974, I surfed there ‘til I moved to Kauai in 1985.

L: Did you have a lot of surfer friends back in SF?

C: Yeah, I was born and raised there. Back then, there was hardly anybody who surfed in San Francisco. So the surfing community was pretty tight woven. 

L: Oh that’s cool, do you still keep in touch with any of those folks?

C: Yeah, my buddy is head life guard over at Ocean Beach. We talk in the winter, you know, ‘oh how are the waves there?’ And he’s always inquiring about my crazy life over here.

L: What was the best surf prank you guys ever pulled back then?

C: At Fort Point Golden Gate bridge - because there used to be a giant sea wall and there was one spot you could hand your board down - only one spot to climb down - now it’s all boulders and you can just put your leash in the parking lot - But it wasn’t like that before, you had to hand your board down. So you’d climb down - and one of us local boys, you know SF locals, ‘oh yeah sure, yeah yeah’ and as soon as the guy would climb down the wall, you’d pull a bar of soap out of your back pocket - and soap the wax, real fast - you know, with just a couple swipes of soap - (laughs) and then you’d hand the board back, you know, ‘here you go buddy’ - and then as soon as he hit the water he’d be like “what the fuck?” That’s what we used to do. (Laughing) It was a good one too. I’ve been wanting do that to my friend over here, just haven’t had the opportunity yet.

L: Did you paddle around Kauai on a 9.0?

C: The first 10 times I paddled out to Kalalau - from Ke’e to Kalalau and then Kalalau to Polihale. The only reason I started doing that is because the waves go so flat here in the summer and you don’t surf and so your arms 

get out of shape. My first summer here I was tripping out - there’s no waves - cause in SF you can surf 365 days a year. And here, it’s all flat. My surf buddies here are all like ‘you better get ready, because it stays like this - for the next, like 3 months.’ And I’m like ‘what?’

So, my first summer I was here, I didn’t really stay in shape. And then winter came and I was kind of out of shape and I was like woah woah woah. So my second summer here, I wanted to stay in shape, so I started to paddle the coast. And then, I found Kalalau.

L: How far is that?

C: From Ke’e to Kalalau, it’s 6 miles. From Kalalau to Polihale, it’s about 9 miles.

L: How long did that take?

C: The long trip from Kalalau to Polihale, that takes almost 3 hours. The first part I can do in about 1 hour / 1 hour and a half - especially surfing the white caps - just kind of white cap surf all the way to Kalalau.

L: What’s your daily life out in Kalalau?

C: It’s different than most people - most people want to go up in the valley. My whole thing is about bait and fishing. There are days, I go up in the valley.  I don’t even chase girls. I chase fish.

L: What are you catching out there?

C: Papio, Moi, and hopefully an Ulua - I’ve got prob- ably caught four Ulua - 100 pounder, 55 pounder, maybe a 30 and 40. Maybe some 10’s - but a couple huge ones.

L: And you are fishing from shore, right?
C: Oh, it’s from shore.

L: That’s awesome - how often are you back there?

C: In the 80’s and 90’s, I was there probably 7 months out of the year. Now I’m older and I rent a place and I got to work more. I’m usually only there for 3 months of the year, if that.

But, I had my hey day in the 80’s and 90’s. I was there every year, for 15 years, for at least half of the year. Because the winter would come - and then the waves would get really all big and knotty back there and you can’t really go in the water. Out here in town, though, on the reef the waves are just perfect. So, every win- ter, you know, I would surf ‘til the fall and then when the big giant ones started coming and just closing out, and then it’s just ‘Oh my god, I got to get out of here and just get to where the reefs are, where the waves just, you know, peel down the reef.’ Kalalau’s beach break are big closeouts. It’s gnarly, you go out and die. (Laughs)

L: What were the early Kalalau days like?

C: You know it was way more - we had an aloha kitchen, where everyone kind of came and ate, you know. Everything is really spread out now. There’s cooks all over the place. I liked it better. We had one kitchen where everyone would gather in the after- noon and everyone would kind of chip in their food a little bit more - it was not as many people - it was way more tight knit. You know, now everyone has their own camps here and there, and nobody really comes together anymore - Maybe small groups of people. Before it was like everyone - we had giant pots of food.

L: So it was mostly the same people year after year?

C: Well, there was about 6 of us that were there solid - all the time. You know, me, Ron, Rick, and Mike and one other guy Steve. Just like it is now - always have new faces coming in - you know people coming back - you know like ‘Oh, I lived in Kalalau’ kind of a thing.

L: Is it busier now? More people know about it?

C: Oh, it is definitely more busy now, but there are more people on the planet. It’s like that everywhere, it’s like, inevitable. With all the new people, I don’t know, that’s probably why it’s not as aloha kitchen style. You know, I think a lot of people from the mainland, they just, you know, they just don’t understand aloha spirit quite yet. But before, seeing it was more island-folk that would hang out. But that’s like everywhere, I’m mean I’m in Hanalei, where I used
to know every single person. And now I look around and I’m like ‘I know one person in my sights’. It didn’t used to be like this on this Island. This island was so small before. Way different. 

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