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Parker Ranch

About 4,000 miles west of mainland United States you'll find the legendary paniolo - the cowboys of Hawaii. What began with a gift of a few cows and a bull to the King in the 1700s has grown into a ranch community that's passed down their hunting, cowboying, and fishing styles for generations. YETI Ambassador Chris Malloy visits the Big Island to learn from the legends.
Ranch & Rodeo
Photographer: Kanoa Zimmerman
Writer: Chris Malloy
When we were kids, my dad told my brothers and me a legend about a great ranch out in the middle of the South Pacific. It spanned the flanks of a snow-covered volcano, and the people who worked its cattle were called the paniolo. He said we wouldn't recognize their ways of roping, hunting, or fishing, and that they often did all three in the same day.

None of this seemed possible to us brothers growing up on a small ranch in California. But Dad skirted our skepticism and just said that if we ever got invited to a hukilau with the paniolo, we’d eat food and hear music we’d never forget.

Parker Ranch
Parker Ranch

Gathering colts on the Big Island.

I first traveled to Hawaii in 1987 to surf in the U.S. championships and found myself daydreaming about that ranch. In 1990, I moved to Oahu to chase tall-sounding tales of even taller waves. I explored the islands and eventually found myself just outside the fence of the legendary Parker Ranch.

Twenty-five years later, I got the invite to spend a week with the paniolo as they roped, rode, hunted, and fished. My dad’s mythology was about to run up against reality.

That first morning, a crew of paniolo set out to mark 400 calves, saying they’d have them all gathered, sorted, branded, and back with their moms by lunch. I scratched my head, counting but one branding pen with six ropers, two fires, and maybe 12 guys on the ground. They were dreaming. Or so I thought.

The ropers rode cleverly, swinging backhand loops and holding their ropes by the honda, no spoke. This was the Ke’hele style my dad told us about. Each roper would follow a calf into the corner, pass the loop over its head, and let it walk through until he could pull tight on the calf’s heels. With two wraps around his saddle horn, he’d spur his horse and drag the calf hind feet first to the fire with its glowing iron.

By 1 p.m., 400 worked calves were back suckling, and the paniolo were eating lunch. I was stunned.

That afternoon, true to my dad’s word, they fished. We went to a place where pasture meets the volcanic coastline. The swells rose 6 to 8 feet and roared against razor-sharp rocks and barnacles, and though they ought to have been exhausted from wrestling calves, these guys hopped around in the violent surf, throwing homemade nets to bring home fish for their families. In all my years of stalking waves, I’ve never spent that kind of time in water like that. But they didn’t seem to think anything of it.

Parker Ranch
Parker Ranch

A roper working cattle in the Ke'hele style.

The next day at dawn, the paniolo were prepared to hunt hogs with quads, dogs, ropes, and knives. The dogs bayed their first boar early, and one guy threw a head loop while another grabbed the hind legs. They had it mugged in seconds. That day, they caught a total of five boars, releasing three and taking home the two largest.

I’ve skinned plenty of hogs over the years, but back at the barn, I got schooled. These guys made hundreds of tiny cuts, and in minutes, the whole hide came off inside out and looking like fish scales, completely clean of meat and fat.

The legend of the paniolo was coming to life, just as my dad had told it, and I wondered: How had this people and their ways come to be? How had the Old West jumped land and gone westward still?

Near the end of my trip, I asked Sonny Keakealani, a fifth-generation paniolo. He looked up at the snow-capped volcano and said that around 1788, the British naval captain George Vancouver brought four cows and a bull to the Big Island, presenting them as a gift to King Kamehameha I. The king turned them out on his lush land, and in a couple of decades his herd numbered in the tens of thousands.

When he sent warriors to hunt the wild cattle, several of them were gored and killed. The king requested help from the mainland, and a crew of Spanish vaqueros from California sailed with their horses to teach the native Hawaiians their ways. The natives called them “Espaniolos,” or Spaniards, but with no “s” sound in the Hawaiian language, it came out “paniolo.” Hawaiian cowboys have been known by that name ever since.

The legend of the paniolo was coming to life...and I wondered: How had the Old West jumped land and gone westward still?

- Chris Malloy, Surfer / YETI Ambassador

Sonny also told of a 19-year-old sailor from Massachusetts named John Palmer Parker, who traveled to the islands in 1809. He brought a musket and won permission to harvest cattle, which he turned into a booming salt beef business.

Salt beef quickly became Hawaii’s biggest export, and in 1816, Parker married the granddaughter of King Kamehameha I. They were granted a small parcel in the rolling hills of Mauna Kea, where they raised three children and started what would become, at its peak, the 500,000-acre Parker Ranch.

As my time with the paniolo ran short, it seemed one of dad’s stories would still have to go unconfirmed. But then, on the last evening, I got an invitation. In an old barn, I shared a meal with my new friends. They sang traditional paniolo songs, and we ate the wild boar and fish they’d caught. I admired their families — all the tradition, hard work, and self-reliance gathered under that old, moss-covered roof.

The Parker Ranch and its people were unembellishable. And Dad was right all along. I will never forget that hukilau.