Na Pali Coast Backpack, Day 2
The Kalalau Trail (Return)
Tuesday, February 21
Up and early once again, we prepared for the long walk back to the Kalalau Trailhead. It is, as it turns out, a little bit less of a long walk than the trail descriptions and guidebooks would have you believe. After having digested and cleaned up my GPS tracklog of the Kalalau Trail, and even accounting for the extra distance resulting from all of the ups and downs, the total hiking distance from Ke'e Beach to Kalalau Beach (specifically, where the campsites are) is more like 10 miles, and not the stated 11 miles. Still, it's a fairly stiff hike, given that there's a fair bit of elevation gain and loss (over 3,000 feet in total).
Apart from the fact that Brian has disturbed the light sleep of a fellow camper with his pre-dawn headlamping, we packed up and got away cleanly by 6:30 a.m. So as to avoid any further disruptions to other campers, we made our breakfast out by the beach, away from the other tents.
By 7:00am, we were out east on the trail, heading away from beautiful Kalalau Beach.
It is still pre-dawn twilight as we ascended the 500 feet up Red Hill. Looking back, we got a last glimpse of the paradise that is Kalalau Beach before continuing east on the trail.
For the next hour, we walked along the easy and spectacular open trail segments that comprise the western reaches of the Kalalau Trail. Again I noticed the amazing trailwork that someone has done through this area. Little do I know that soon I am about to meet that 'someone'.
I was walking along a particularly nice section of graded trail, still in the shade below the morning sun. Up ahead, the trail rounded a small point, and was then in direct sunlight. Lit by that sunlight was a tall figure, at work on the trail. He seemed to have several implements with him, including a full-sized long-handled metal shovel, among other things. That's a heavy implement to bring all the way out here, I thought. He was carefully grading the trail with his shovel, and I assumed that he was part of a larger trail maintenance crew at work on the park's trails, bright and early.
As I approached the toiling figure, I greeted him with a thank-you for doing such good trailwork. He straightened up and stopped his work with a smile, and I noticed that he was alone, and bore no insignias of any organization.
We struck up a friendly conversation, and it soon became apparent that he was no state park employee. He was just a guy out here doing work. Our conversation widened to include not only the trailwork, but the state of the Na Pali coast in general, how non-indigenous fauna had denuded much of the terrain of native plants, and how recent efforts to control said fauna (we're talking primarily goats and pigs here) had already showed benefits on the slopes around us. It all sounded like just the right thing to do, conservationally-speaking, but in a simultaneously understated but unapproving tone, he communicated that he'd had some negative run-ins with the park authorities.
I thought that was too bad, because he really seemed to have a very appropriate attitude towards how the wilderness should be managed. He was clearly the most important and interesting person we had met on the trail during our two-day backpack.
Back when I was on the trail, I felt like taking his picture, but for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to ask him. I guess I felt that taking a picture and posting it online would generate visibility that he might not be interested in. I did not know at the time that Bill is already known online (as you'll read below).
Fortunately, I came across a good picture of our trail-fixing individual, taken by Jonathen Ley on a backpack he did some years ago on the Kalalau. Jonathan graciously permitted me to link to his image, which you'll see below. Thanks again, Jonathan! (BTW, Jonathan has some very nice photography on his site, including some excellent time-lapse videos. His website is here
, if you are interested.)
Now, as I sit here writing this report, I'm doing some research on the Kalalau Trail and its current state. And, lo and behold, I'm coming across references to a lone individual who has, in heroic fashion, rehabilitated sections of the Kalalau Trail, especially the tricky and treacherous spots. I'm finding pictures, and yes, this is the same guy! It seems to be that the individual we met was none other than one Bill Summers. And, Bill Summers is quite an individual; Read on:
Bill is a former marine who is a stonemason by trade. As the story goes, he first became acquainted with the Kalalau Trail in the summer of 2007, and noticed overly-treacherous trail conditions around Chivalry Point (the exposed section just west of Hanakoa Valley). Apparently, he resolved to quit his stonemasonry job and move out to Kaua'i full time to work on the trail. He has been here ever since
, and he has apparently fixed up miles of trail, including the most exposed and dangerous sections. I am writing this report in February of 2012; that means he has been here for almost FIVE years, working on the trails and apparently also helping in other ways, such as reducing the non-native fauna that is so decimating to the native plants. And, he is doing all of this with his own life savings. Pretty incredible.
I've now come to understand that the reason why some sections of the trail are not as bad as described in some guidebooks is probably due to Bill. He has simply fixed them up so that they are much easier and safer now.
I've read that the response from the DLNR (the state park authority) has been to ticket Bill. In fact, one of the tickets was issued to Bill by helicopter, using a helicopter pad that Bill had just re-cleared and stabilized. That is a rather ironic and seemingly unjust thing to do.
I had originally ended my treatise with some statement's on Bill's conflict with the park authorities. However, during the course of writing my trip report, I received a letter from the DLNR. The letter was in response to a somewhat heated bit of feedback I left via their website. I was pleasantly surprised when it was clear that someone quite knowledgeable about this matter had read my comment and took the time to write a very substantial response.
The response letter showed that within the DLNR, there is recognition of the value of Bill's work. However, they claim that the continuous presence of Bill on park land is causing a negative impact on the park itself, in terms of waste buildup and in terms of attracting unsanctioned visitors. Again, the reasoning given in the letter was well-worded and overall pretty reasonable.
The writer of the letter was careful not to come to any absolute conclusions or edicts, and that's a positive thing. However, I'm not sure I can completely agree with the implications of what was written - and it seemed to me that there were certain inferences made.
The main inference was that the overall impact of Bill's continuous stay in the park is more harmful to it than helpful. Whether or not this is true involves a fuzzy measuring of his negative impacts (human waste buildup, habitat disturbance, unsanctioned visitor attraction) against his positive impacts (trail maintenance, non-indigenous animal control, and erosion control). Of course I can't personally claim to know the negative impacts - we were only in the park for two days and had no way to see or measure such things - but I now know about the Kalalau Trail's problems with trail conditions, habitat destruction, and native vegetation loss. And it seems clear to me that Bill is making a very clear - and I would also say very valuable - contribution towards those goals. In my opinion, providing such a service is definitely "worth" some of the negative impacts. The real question is - how much of the negative impact is it worth. I don't know.
Apparently the park service has tried to engage Bill with the offer of a permit that allows him to do some of his work. Bill turned down the offer. I don't know the details - or why it was rejected - but the fact that the permit was offered does show that there is some willingness to try and accommodate this special situation, and this is also a good thing.
Perhaps there is still some way to pseudo-employ Bill in such a way that his "salary" - instead of being paid out in dollars and cents - is a certain amount of negative impact (and perhaps some au-gratis 'waste evacuation' services). Let's not forget - an official park crew working on the trail and in the park is also going to have some of the same type of negative impacts. And as far as the unsanctioned visitors go.... well, unless they offer the same benefits that Bill does, they should be treated the same way that any other unsanctioned, un-permit-ed park visitor is treated.
In any case, I appreciate the way the DLNR responded to my complaint, and I hope that what I've written here is a suitable response to that. If anyone has any comments or views, please feel free to send a feedback message or post on the forum associated with this page, reachable via links at the bottom of this page (or on the left-hand sidebar).
A final note: through my research online, I understand that some hikers have taken to donating money to him at a post office box at the Wainiha general store (yes, the very same store that we stored our bags at). I think I might do the same.
c/o Wainiha General Store
PO Box 164
Hanalei, Kauai, HI
And finally, a very informative article about Bill appeared in the news section of thegardenisland.com
. You can read that article here