The lost valley

John “Keoni” Keawe Lake III was a surfer and a man who loved Kaua‘i. He came to the island in the early ‘70s in search of perfect uncrowded waves. Like many Kaua‘i surfers, he found jobs that allowed him to surf: he started as a Grayline tour bus driver, he managed a convenience store, he worked as a carpenter, he was a boat captain, he drove a cab, and he was a farmer (legal and illegal crops). He told me once, “I’ve done all kinds of jobs and there was something wrong with every one of them.”

However, there was nothing wrong with his surfing, he charged big waves, ducked into tubes, and executed perfect bottom turns and fierce cutbacks. His energy was like that of the ocean; turbulent, full of currents beneath the surface that tossed him about, and at times, calm, vibrant and mysterious.

He expressed himself in music and was a fantastic musician and songwriter. He won the Kaua‘i Mokihana Festival’s award for best Hawaiian song. I loved hearing him sing about Kaua‘i, he was aware of the God that created such a beautiful place and in his way I believe he sought out and praised his maker through his songs of this Garden Island.

He studied martial arts and kept his body fit and agile all the way to the end. I hated being his sparring partner (punching bag), but he taught me a lot, not only what hurts, but to have confidence and intensity. His heroes, as he told me were, “Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix and Jesus Christ.”

Keoni was a complex person with active contradictions. He was dramatic and dynamic, and his incredible charm was matched only by his ability to burn bridges.

I always looked up to him as an older brother and was amazed by his talents. I spoke about him as if he were an action hero, but often I wished that I were his older brother to comfort him through his rough times.

Keoni showed me many things about Kaua‘i and about life, and he colored my view of Kaua‘i with his passion. He would stop to point out how stunning and majestic Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale was on certain mornings when it stood uncovered by clouds. He would stand meditative as he gazed at the ocean, its power and vibrant color reflected in his eyes. He was thrilled to see a wave peel over a reef and the offshore wind spraying its face back. He took joy from a banana tree full of ripe fruit. He liked to bulls—, but his stories could bring to life the lives of the old Hawaiians who lived along the Napali. He taught me how to make papaya smoothies for breakfast and to pick lemon grass for tea. He loved to see taro patches.

I remember him jumping up and down waving a shaka sign and screaming Wu-tah as an owl took a rat from a field. I remember his love for music that kept him in his car long after it was parked in the garage to finish the tape playing in the dash. He loved stupid jokes that he sold as clever, and to his credit as a creative individual, he made up his own anecdotes and quotes. He was bi-lingual; he spoke pidgin and English. He lived a passionate and energetic life.

For me, Kaua‘i will never be the same without Keoni; it is as if it has lost a valley.

• Doug Lake is John Keoni Lake’s brother and a writer in Hollywood.

  1. Heather April 16, 2021 9:21 am Reply

    Doug Lake,
    Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to Keoni. I had the pleasure of knowing him for a short time while I lived on Kauai. He was a good friend, a beautiful soul, and a fun sea captain.
    I see now that it has been 14 years since his passing, but I have just learned of it today, 4-16-2021. I was searching for him online, yet again, just to try to reconnect with old, fond memories. My searches have turned up empty before, but today I found his obituary, which led me here to your beautiful writing.
    Doug, I would love to see pictures of his big wave surf days and hear his winning song from Kaua’i Mokihana Festival. If this would be possible, you could email me at
    Thank you very much and God Bless You and Your Family!

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