- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

HONOLULU (AP) — As a boy growing up in a poor family on Hawaii’s Big Island, Tom “Pohaku” Stone found entertainment barreling down grassy slopes aboard ti leaves and banana stumps.

What began as childhood fun on a natural roller coaster has evolved into an academic and cultural journey aimed at reviving the 2,000-year-old Hawaiian tradition of he’e holua, or lava sledding.

Mr. Stone has the scars to show for it.

Wearing a tank top and shorts and reaching speeds of up to 70 mph on a sled standing 4 inches above the ground, Mr. Stone once ran into a steel post sticking up from the grass during a demonstration on a slope on Maui, tearing an 18-inch gash in his left thigh.

In another crash, Mr. Stone broke his neck. The injuries have not stopped him.

“You can’t even imagine what it’s like to be headfirst, 4 inches off the ground, doing 30, 40, 50 miles an hour on rock,” Mr. Stone said. “It looks like you are riding just fluid lava. It’s death-defying … but it’s a lot of fun.”

It wasn’t quite as dangerous when Mr. Stone was a boy.

“You would break off a bunch of ti leaves, sit down on it and skid down the mountain all covered in mud,” said Mr. Stone, a 54-year-old community college professor who teaches the ancient Hawaiian sport and gives classes on sled building and riding. “That just became my cultural passion because of the similarities with surfing, but it also became my academic passion.”

Traditionally, he’e holua served both as a sport and as a vehicle for Hawaiians to honor their gods, especially Pele, the goddess of fire.

After reaching the top of a slope, Hawaiians would stand up, lie down or kneel atop hardwood sleds — often carved from kauila or ohia trees and measuring 12 feet long by 6 inches wide — and speed down the man-made courses of hardened lava rocks sprinkled with grass.

But missionaries who brought Christianity to Hawaii saw the sport as “a frivolous waste of time,” Mr. Stone said, and its practice ended in 1825. He first heard about the practice through stories told by his grandfather.

A retired lifeguard and champion surfer, Mr. Stone has discovered 57 rock slides of various lengths across the state, and spent three days with a crew of seven to make a 200-foot repair on a 700-foot course.

By the end of this year, Mr. Stone wants to complete a mile-long rock slide on the Big Island and hold the first he’e holua event there in more than 100 years.

He said the biggest challenge is to find a sponsor willing to back the dangerous event, whose judging criteria will include “style, length of ride and survival ability.”

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