Ice was once so dear in Hawaii it was shipped thousands of miles across the sea from Alaska, where Tlingit people chopped up their frozen landscape and stacked the bergy bits into piles for shipment.

Last week, I attended a conference about the Arctic in Hawaii. It might seem out of place and perhaps even completely out of touch to hold discussions about a faraway, frozen region on a tropical island. But there are some surprising linkages between the Hawaiian islands and the Arctic, and they start with ice. The clear, cold solid forms the basis for one of the most famous desserts in the Pacific, “shave ice,” and it also once formed one of the North’s most lucrative exports to southern markets like Hawaii.

During the week of my conference, after swimming in the warm and prismatic waters off Lanikai Beach on Oahu’s windward shore, I craved nothing more than an ice cold drink. This wouldn’t be hard to find. Oahu is an island where every town has shops selling smoothies, ice cream, soda, and shave ice. This last dessert is the precursor to the snow cone’s, dessert of choice of every kid at every state fair on the mainland. When President Obama would come home to Hawaii during his vacations, he would indulge in shave ice at his favorite shop, not too far from Lanikai.

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President Obama enjoying shave ice with his daughters in Kailua, Hawaii. Photo: Pete Souza, 2010/U.S. Government Work

Although frozen desserts and beverages are now ubiquitous in Hawaii, their prevalence on this remote chain of jungle-covered volcanoes in the Pacific is nearly just as bizarre as an Arctic conference taking place there. Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, who researches Indigenous Peoples and food studies at Northwestern University, has written about the history of ice as a commodity in Hawaii. In a paper in Food, Culture & Society, she explains that American and European settlers’ taste for chilled drinks encouraged the creation of an “infrastructure of coldness” in Hawaii. Features like air conditioning and refrigeration contrast with the “infrastructure of warmth” that can be found in Arctic communities, from over-ground heating pipes in permafrost-laden Russia to geothermally heated sidewalks in Iceland, which melt the snow on top of them.

Shave ice in Hawaii topped with ice cream, azuki beans, mochi, and syrup. Photo: Author.

Chilling in the colonies

In nineteenth-century Hawaii, colonial energies were directed at keeping things cold. Starting in the 1850s, various companies began exporting ice to the booming port city of Honolulu. Newspaper advertisements, as Hobart describes, extolled the virtues of “a quantity of that greatest of luxuries in a tropical climate — ice.” In 1854, anticipating the start of a regular ice trade, local ship dealers Swan & Clifford built an ice house. The first delivery of ice to Hawaii, comprising some 500 tons, hailed from Sitka, Alaska.

At the time, Sitka was the hub of the Russian-American Company. In 1799, Russian Tsar Paul I chartered the state-sponsored joint-stock company to carry out colonization efforts in Alaska, which was then Russian America, by means of exporting natural resources like furs, fish, and ice, and establishing settlements. The most important of those settlements was Sitka, which was established in 1799 by a Russian trader named Alexander Andreyevich Baranov. He named it Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), after his hometown, an important port city in the Russian Arctic on the White Sea.

Sitka was set up on land that the Tlingit people had inhabited for thousands of years. In the colonial era, the Tlingit were employed to stack ice for shipment to faraway places like California and Hawaii. It’s quite possible, then, that the first ice which arrived in Hawaii – frozen water from an Alaskan town named after a Russian Arctic city – was stacked and put into the ship by Alaska Natives.

After his successes in Alaska, Baranov, the Russian trader, sought to expand Russian America to Hawaii. In 1815, he sent a representative to what were then known as the Sandwich Islands to establish a way station for Russian ships sailing from Alaska to China laden with lucrative furs. Neither the Russian government nor navy, however, supported Baranov’s aspirations. His delegate was forced to leave Hawaii, and Russia’s trading posts there were abandoned.

The 1850s saw a boom in trade between Alaska and Hawaii. Besides ice, Alaskan timber, fish, and some Russian manufactured goods were exported south in exchange for Hawaiian sugar, molasses, and salt, according to anthropologist Lydia Black. Many Alaskan goods were traded to San Francisco, too. The burgeoning gold rush city had a hefty appetite for ice. With the commodity selling for $75 a ton, ice became the most profitable trade along the Pacific Northwest sailing link.

While ice kept relatively well in the year-round cool and foggy climate of San Francisco, it did not hold up in the hothouse of Hawaii. Despite early excitement around promises of regular ice imports, consistent deliveries from Alaska never took off. It was hard to profit from a commodity that melted rapidly in the balmy trade winds. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, ice machines would come to take the place of empty ice houses.

Captain Cook’s doomed voyage from the Arctic to Hawaii

The failure of ice imports in Hawaii mirrors another disaster on the islands with Arctic origins: Captain Cook’s third voyage, which took place from 1776-1780. The British explorer’s fateful sailing to the Hawaiian archipelago set off from the Alaskan Arctic. At the northernmost point of their three-year voyage – a little over 70 degrees north, just west of present-day Wainwright, Alaska – on August 18, 1778, HMS Resolution encountered the edge of the Arctic sea ice. Captain Cook wrote in his journal, “We were, at this time, close to the edge of the ice, which was as compact as a wall; and seemed to be ten or twelve feet high at least. But, farther North, it appeared much higher. Its surface was extremely rugged; and here and there, we saw upon it, pools of water.”

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HMS Resolution reaches the Ice Islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of the Bering Strait.

Unable to penetrate any farther north and failing to have found a passage between Europe and Asia, Cook and his crew turned south. Here in the Arctic, even in summer, ice was hardly the “greatest of luxuries” as it was in Hawaii. Seeking warmth and relief from horrible seas, Cook headed towards the Pacific via the Bering Strait. The ship stopped in the Aleutian Islands along the way, where Cook infamously forced his crew to eat walrus meat, which the crew thought was disgusting and tasted like “train oil” (whale oil, a corruption of the Dutch “traan oil,” or tear drop oil).

Alaska did not let the voyagers leave easily. “Mountainous seas,” in the words of British historian Frank McLynn, tormented the sailors, and it would be another 31 days before they would sight the lush island of Maui. Of course, any vision of relief from the ice would be a mirage. On these ice-free islands, Cook would meet his ignominious fate, morbidly bonding Hawaii and the Arctic.

Shave ice arrives from Japan

Whereas it was the fear of ice that pushed Cook away from the Arctic and to his death in Hawaii, today, consuming shave ice drowning in sickly sweet neon syrup, velvety ice cream, and treacly azuki beans is high on many tourists’ checklists. So how did shave ice come to be one of Hawaii’s most popular desserts?

Even after ice machines were introduced to Hawaii, it took some time for the flaky indulgence to be introduced to the islands. While the dessert has many independent origins around the world, the Hawaiian version traces its roots to Japan, where it was first created over a thousand years ago during the Heian period (794-1195) with ice brought down from the mountains. Shave ice exploded in popularity among the Japanese after bursting onto the scene in the port city of Yokohama in 1869.

In the following century, Japanese immigrants to Hawaii allegedly used family heirloom swords to slice blocks of ice into the snowy, soft dessert that is today synonymous with island refreshment. The shop Obama frequents is called “Island Snow Hawaii” – bringing the tropics and the weather of the Arctic together under one banner. I suppose the main difference now between ice in Hawaii and ice in the Arctic is that shave ice is rainbow-colored, while Arctic ice is clear, white, blue, or green.

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A snowy scene in Japan. Maybe ice came from mountains like these. Image: Kanbara, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)

Today, if you have the chance to relish a shave ice in Hawaii, remember how precious ice used to be before the invention of ice machines. Ice was once so dear in Hawaii it was shipped thousands of miles across the sea from Alaska, where Indigenous Peoples chopped up their frozen landscape and stacked the bergy bits into piles awaiting shipment. The irony now is that while their labor was once for naught given that so many ice exports sublimated in tropical storehouses, up north, the ice is now melting, too. 

An aside: Ice-handling in Japan still has its steampunk moments, as seen in this video of an ice crushing machine I took a few years ago at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. The ice is used for packing fish for shipment.

Categories: Travel & Photo

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Follow the ice: From Alaska to Hawaii

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