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Gabriel Travelin' Assorted real-life first-person wild and crazy adventure travelin' stories spanning the globe which I myself wrote with my own two bare stinkin' hands...

Confessions of a Kalalau Outlaw

USA | Monday, 24 December 2007 | Views [19270] | Comments [7]


I started up Kauai, Hawaii’s 11-mile Na Pali Coast trail at the crack of noon. The plan had been to get an early start—I’d spent the previous night at Haena Campground, a mile from the trailhead on Kauai’s north shore, to make that goal easily attainable. But it had stormed all night, keeping me awake in my slightly leaky tent, and I’d reasoned that getting a few extra hours of shut-eye was more important than sticking to the principle of an early start. I’d hiked the trail a half-dozen times before, and so knew that I had some flexibility in terms of camping for the night, if it appeared I wasn’t going to make it to the Kalalau Campground, at the end of the trail, as intended.

The Na Pali Coast or Kalalau trail is neither a walk in the park, nor a stroll on the beach. In fact, the only beach you see along the way is small but picturesque Hanakapeii Beach, nestled in a valley two miles in. The rest is rocky coastline. The only reason there is a trail here at all is because the pali (cliffs in native Hawaiian) were too unyielding to build a connecting road along this 15-mile section of coastline. And even the trail itself comes to a screeching halt at a series of sheer, dramatic, multi-colored ridges that jut out into the Pacific, forming a virtually impenetrable barrier to us two-legged types (the goats get around just fine).

Situated at trail’s end is a waterfall, a beautiful, wide beach, a campground sandwiched between the beach and cliffs, and a small, gurgling river. And the Kalalau Valley itself, which the river flows down through, rises gently two miles inland, until abruptly yet more imposing, red dirt walls soar upwards, effectively cutting off this mystical paradise from the mass tourism just a few miles away in popular Waimea Canyon. Without the relentless pali on all sides, there would surely be a short trail or worse a road dropping directly down into the Kalalau Valley, rendering it an entirely different place.

As it is, the only way to get to Kalalau is by helicopter, which tourists can’t utilize except as a sightseeing tour; by an illegitimate boat ride, since tourist boats also aren’t allowed to land there; or else by strapping on a pack and grunting along, one persistent step at a time.

The first two miles to Hanakapeii Beach is the only part of the trail you can hike without a permit. As such it is the only section where you’ll pass multitudes of other hikers. The irony, however, is that Hanakapeii Beach is basically unswimmable due to treacherous rip currents—a wooden sign nearby keeps a running tally of the number of drownings there. When I pass by, it adds up to 78. It doesn’t specify the timeframe. But with that number in mind, it hardly matters.

Aside from that, the two miles to Hanakapeii is also the worst section of the trail. It’s littered with rocks and boulders, and cursed with horrendous mud pits. Add to that all the tourists slipping around in their nice white sneakers, not quite realizing what they’re getting into, throw a heavy pack onto your back, and you have the perfect recipe for backpacker’s frustration.

In my case, it was compounded by the fact that my pack sucked. After five weeks in Hawaii I was journeying onwards to Asia, and I’d bought a smaller one for that purpose, not for carrying around camping equipment and a week’s worth of food. And, it was a woman’s pack, and I’m a 6’1” dude. Basically, it had too much stuff jammed into it, and this weight immediately nestled itself comfortably onto my shoulders. And Backpacking 101 tells you this is precisely where you don’t want the weight to be.

I survived the first two miles of tourist-strewn mud pits (worsened by the previous night’s storm) and stopped for a rest and thirst-quenching at Hanakapeii Creek. Then I hefted my pack onto my already tender shoulders, and started up the quieter and much sturdier trail that continued down the coast.

Although my mind was immediately cleared of mental residue as I left everyone else behind, my body did not register that things had gotten any easier, because they hadn’t. The trail simply traded the obstacle course of mud, rocks and people for elevation gain. From Hanakapeii to the highest point of the trail was a steady two miles of uphill, rising to a spectacular view at a massive boulder, known as Space Rock, perched precariously on a point hovering 800 feet above the water below. I put my head down, focusing on the task at hand. I’d soak up the impressive view when I got to the top.

At Space Rock, my body oozing soreness pretty much everywhere, I took out lunch, relaxed back and marveled at the unparalleled view stretching out in all directions. Far below, the Hawaiian waves crashed hypnotically against dark rocks and daunting precipices. Behind me the red, orange, brown and green hued ridges undulated gracefully ever upwards, ribbons of land that were pleasing to the eye, yet demanded deep respect. To the north and south, I could see the entire stretch of the Kalalau Trail, or at least sporadic pieces of it, from Ke’e Beach near the trailhead, to Kalalau Beach seven miles further along. And of course to the west stretched the expansive blue of the Pacific, much farther than the eye could see. Other than a few more tiny, scattered, unpopulated islands that were part of the Hawaiian chain, the next stop was Asia.

Back to the mission at hand. Factoring in my breaks, I’d made it four miles in three hours. Not spectacular time. And I wasn’t liable to be speeding up. The trail got easier as it headed downwards from Space Rock—but not for long. In eleven miles, the Kalalau Trail passes through five different valleys. And the only way to get from one to the next is to go up and over.

This brings to mind the palpable danger of hiking such a trail alone. When I’d stopped by the government office in Lihue where permits are issued, I wrote in my address of residence—Portland, Oregon.

“Portland, eh?” piped the Hawaiian man working the desk. “You sure you want to hike the trail all by yourself? The last guy from Portland who went out there alone never came back.”

He then produced a newspaper clipping from Lihue’s The Garden Isle newspaper regarding a young man who had hiked the trail the previous winter. He’d failed to show up at a wedding where he was due, shortly after going camping. An extensive search effort was conducted; but no trace of him had turned up.

I informed the man at the counter that I’d hiked the trail before, so I knew what I was getting into.

“Okay,” he said. “Good luck—and watch your step.”

Hiking along the trail as it skirted cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet into the ocean below, I couldn’t help keeping in mind the young man’s fate; as well as imagine how, and precisely where, he may have met his untimely end.

I straggled into the Hanakoa Valley campground at the six-mile mark, at around five in the evening. Mentally I was in pretty good shape. But physically I was a wreck. My hips and shoulders ached badly and my back was tied up in knots from constantly shifting the weight around, trying in vain to find a comfortable position for the pack. I was of course sweaty and smelly and my legs were worn out. But worst of all, I was limping on my right leg, due to a minor injury while snowshoeing the previous winter, that only acted up on serious hikes.

At Hanakoa Valley I had to make a decision. There was no official camping spot until five miles later at the end of the trail. And due to the extreme geology, there was really nowhere else to pitch a tent along the way—except for an easily overlooked spot at the 8-mile mark.

In practical terms, the choice might have seemed obvious—my body hurt, it was getting late, I was at a campground already and, at the pace I was going there was no way in hell I was going to finish the trail in daylight. Plus, I had the image of a fallen fellow hiker suspended in the foreground of my mind, disappeared under likely similar circumstances as my own. Logic said, don’t push it.

On the other hand, Hanakoa Valley—like my backpack—sucked. It was dark, dank, mosquito-infested, and there were bags of garbage piled up against the outhouse that reeked of, and may have contained, rotting goat carcasses. At five in the evening, this meant that I had another five or six hours to hang out before sleeping, which would mostly be spent trapped in my tent to avoid the mozzies. And there was no way to avoid that rank smell.

I took a break by the creek, downed half a bottle of water and then took a quick dip to wash off the day’s dirt, sweat and grime. Afterwards, feeling clean, refreshed and energized, I decided to continue on. Even at a snail’s pace, I should have no problem making it two miles further to the hidden camping spot at the 8-mile mark before dark.

And a snail’s pace it was. My limp came back immediately and got steadily worse. This was the most exposed part of the trail, where rather than heading up and down lush valleys, much of it was traversing barren, rocky slopes, where even the goats were watching their steps. But still, I didn’t feel like I was that far out on a limb. After my swim my mind was clear and my muscles were reinvigorated. Other than my hurt leg, I was feeling pretty damn good. I just took it one slow, careful step at a time, took a few short breaks along the way to marvel at the stunning scenery and the sun sinking slowly towards the deep blue line of the horizon, and enjoyed the challenging hike.

I loped up to the camping spot at 8-mile to find what I hadn’t seen much of since Hanakapeii—company. A man and two women were sitting around a campfire, enjoying the awesome view from there, near a sheer vertical cliff dropping into the ocean.

“Howdy!” said the man. “You look beat. Good timing, we’ve got some water about boiling here, if you’d like to join us for dinner.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Thanks a lot, I’m famished.”

I got out from under my pack and set it on the ground against a nearby tree, with a massive and audibly exultant sigh of relief. Then I pulled up a rock and took a seat at the fire to socialize, watch the sunset and contemplate the dinner options buried away in my pack—dehydrated potatoes, beans or soup.

Now, this is where the story actually gets interesting. The three at the campfire weren’t all together. The two young women were on a three-day backpacking trip, and were hiking back to the trailhead the next day. The guy at the fire, Bill, was fortyish, tanned, with short brown hair and a slightly scruffy beard, a good-natured face and missing a tooth. He had been camped at that same spot for about four months. No, not days, not weeks, but months.

His story, in a nutshell, was as follows: He’d quit his job and come to Hawaii with somewhat ambiguous plans, which he’d assumed would involve finding some work there, likely construction. First though, he’d hiked out to the Kalalau Valley, and on the way there he couldn’t help noticing that the trail was badly in need of repair. On his way back, he’d come across the 8-mile spot, tucked away in some trees off the trail, and decided to stop there for the night. He got to thinking about the trail maintenance that was needed; and figured since he’d come to Hawaii looking for construction work, he’d found it. Every two weeks he hiked out to civilization with an empty pack, filled it with dried food, chocolate, TP, batteries, work tools and other essentials, and then hiked back in. True, it didn’t pay very well—but the sunsets were spectacular.

Speaking of extended camping, I must elaborate on my own dark, sordid past, as well as hopefully justify yet another story titled with the entirely unoriginal “Confessions of…” The Kalalau Trail and much of the Na Pali Coast reside within the Na Pali Coast State Park. As such, permits are required for day hiking past Hanakapeii Beach and for overnight camping, up to a maximum of five nights. Camping is only allowed within the designated campsites at Hanakoa Valley and Kalalau Beach. The 8-mile camping spot isn’t recognized as even existing on any official maps or trail descriptions. And, Bill had been there a tad longer than the maximum allowed stay.

And so, despite his do-good intentions, this man was an illegal camper, a vagrant, an outlaw. I was not only consorting with him by joining his campfire, but I was on the way to joining his ranks by the simple act of setting up my tent there, and then crawling in for a snooze.

But the truth is that I’d long since crossed over that line to the side of backpacking malcontent. As mentioned, I’d hiked the trail a half dozen times before. In total, I’d spent ten weeks out there. But until this time around, I’d never gotten a camping permit, and even if I had I would have been way over my allotted time. So I was pretty much a hardened criminal myself at that point.

The reality, however, is that I’ve got plenty of company in this regard. Part of the modern-day history, and character, of the Kalalau Valley is based around the semi-permanent “residents” (aka hippies) who hide themselves from the rangers in secluded pockets of the valley. When I first visited Kauai in 1989 and day hiked the first two miles of the trail, I heard even then about the presence of people living in the valley; and I vowed that someday I’d hike out there and check out what was going on for myself. Eight years later, I became one of them.

Most of the year, being discovered by the park rangers isn’t much of an issue—because of the simple fact that they hardly ever go out there. The only way permits are checked is when the rangers helicopter in, several times a year at most. But this is usually a rather dramatic and confrontational affair. They stick around for a couple of days, and go to extreme measures to root out, and kick out, those who have camped outside the bounds and overstayed their welcome by weeks, months or even years. If they find you, they’ll issue a ticket and order you out of the valley, with further consequences if you don’t pay the fine or get caught again. If they find your camp and your stuff somewhere it isn’t supposed to be, they’ll confiscate whatever they don’t deem garbage. Basically, you can kiss it all goodbye.

I realize this will be a controversial topic with some, and I won’t waste too much time defending my own actions or dismissing those who would criticize camping on public lands without a proper permit. That’s a valid argument. Generally I would agree that it’s best to follow the rules, get the appropriate permits and not be in a position of dodging rangers in a cat-and-mouse game.

On the other hand, part of me says simply that the land is meant to be lived on, and if some people want to live in the wilderness, then so be it. The harm that might come from extended camping isn’t nearly the same as mining, logging, cattle grazing or other invasions of industry onto public lands. Humans will always impact the land on which they live to some degree, and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Due to Bill’s location at the 8-mile mark, he had nothing to worry about since the rangers never actually hiked the trail. And although it had seemed at first like an odd choice of spots to stop and stay a while (considering the much more impressive valley and beach just down the trail), after hanging out for the evening and chatting with the three of them by firelight, I could see his reasoning. There was a creek just around the corner for drinking water and bathing or just cooling off on a hot day; the view was better entertainment than several hundred channels of satellite TV; he had a regular flow of visitors to keep him company; and he had a meaningful job to occupy his time during the day, that was making the trail safer for hikers. Other than when he was busting his butt in the hot sun, he pretty much had it made in the shade.

When I crawled out of my tent the next morning, the two women had already headed down the trail in the other direction. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with fellow outlaw Bill, and then packed up and headed out myself, saying I’d most likely see him again on the way back. The final 3-mile stretch from there was in fact the easiest part of the trail. There were a few good hills, but nothing major or treacherous, and the trail was in good shape (no doubt improved by Bill’s grunt work).

It didn’t take long to reach the first awe-inspiring view of the Kalalau Valley. I came up the final hill, hugging a cliff that suddenly opened up into a saddle, and then there it was—a massive valley carved out of the stark, barren cliffs. But as the reddish-brown dirt dropped precipitously downwards and then eased its slopes into the gentleness of the valley, the brown turned to the abundant green of a thick, thriving rainforest. The Kalalau River weaved its way through the trees and merged with the ocean. And from that vantage point you could also see the waterfall, campground and wide swath of white sand beach, as well as the immense wall of ridges beyond.

There was just one final challenge, which was the Red Dirt Hill. It was a steep, barren, rutted slope that led down from the viewpoint into the valley. Once you’d clambered safely down it, you entered the trees, crossed the creek (reveling in the cool water rushing over your feet), passed a fork where a separate trail headed up into the valley, and then the main trail finally met up again with the ocean for the first time in nine miles. From there it followed the base of a bluff that ran along the beach, and the last half-mile was an easy stroll, finally, to the end of the road, as it were.

The first thing I did upon arrival was trudge out onto the beach, heave my clinging pack onto the sand, strip down to my dirty shorts and then merge my body, mind and soul with the glorious water. I’d been looking forward to just this experience, immersing myself in this water with the view looking back at everything that made up this unreal place, for the past six months. It was damn good to be there. Afterwards, however, as I lay on the beach (getting sandblasted by a persistent afternoon wind) I couldn’t help but recollect that this right here was the scene of the crime.

Nine years previously, I’d been lounging at roughly the same spot on a similarly warm and sunny day (but without the flying sand) when I looked up to see a long, single-file line of not-your-usual-blissed-out-campers marching determinedly down the beach towards me. As they came into sharper focus, I realized with a sinking feeling that these were the infamous commando forest rangers I’d heard so much about, but who had remained only a menacing myth during all my previous visits there.

They had come in by sneak attack apparently. There were two heliport pads where helicopters could land right in the campground area—but also within sight and sound of everyone else. They must have landed instead on the bluff at the base of the Red Dirt Hill a mile away, where their arrival would be more covert. Thus to better pin down their elusive prey, the outlaws of the Kalalau Valley.

I, however, was not so elusive, in more ways than one. I was now trapped on the beach, unable to exit the scene without looking like I was avoiding capture. And my camp was not hidden away in the tangled recesses of the valley. Instead, I was right in one of the official campsites by the beach. I’d become complacent, unguarded, assuming that the horror stories of the ruthless permit enforcers would remain just that—stories, told by someone else.

The line of rangers broke up and spread out as it converged on the beach and the campground, their first order of business before they sought out the hidden camps. One of them headed directly for me. I sat up as my mind began racing and, despite my unmistakable hippie attire of long hair, beard and a fiery red sarong wrapped around my waist, tried to project the presence of a regular guy. The ranger crunched through the sand towards me in his combat boots and crisp, imposing uniform and then uttered those dreaded words as he approached:

“I need to see a permit, buddy.”

He said it as if he knew I’d been out there longer than I deserved. I was too relaxed, too in tune with the sand. Perhaps so. But still, I wasn’t so out of touch that I couldn’t muster up a good getaway plan.

“Sorry, but I actually don’t have one,” I replied—non-confrontational, but not sounding too guilty about it either.

“Well in that case, I’m going to need to see some ID, so I can write you up a ticket. Then you’re gonna have to pack up and hike the heck out of here.”

“The thing is, sir,” I said, “I don’t have any ID on me. I’m actually camped back at Hanakoa Valley. I just hiked down here for the afternoon to hang out on the beach, and this is all I have.” I gestured to a book, sandals and water bottle lying in the sand beside me. It was a bit of a stretch, but plausible. And one thing was certain—they wouldn’t be hiking five miles to Hanakoa to confirm my story.

“Hmmm,” he said to that, clearly flustered. “Alright, then give me your name and social security number.”

To avoid getting a ticket, I tweaked my name a little, and then read off my SSN with just one of the numbers changed. That way, if he asked me to read it back to him I’d be able to remember it. Then he pulled a camera out of one of his many pockets and snapped a photo of me. Not exactly your usual mugshot backdrop.

“Okay, you’d better get out of here immediately. If I catch ya again you might find yourself getting a free helicopter ride back to town.” Then he marched off hurriedly through the sand, before the other vagrant campers got too buried away in their hideouts.

From there, I pretended I was walking over to the bathrooms at the center of the campground. Then I rushed over to my campsite, packed everything hurriedly into my backpack and hiked out of the campground and up the trail without further incident.

Just before getting to the creek less than a mile later, I stopped, looked up and down the trail to make sure I wasn’t being watched, and then scurried up a narrow goat trail that led into some bushes, and to a series of hidden campsites on the bluff—where I should have been all along. The rangers scoured the whole area back and forth, up and down over the next two days, but never found me. Once they’d helicoptered away, I relished the peace and quiet of Kalalau that much more; before hiking back out a week or so later.

This time, it wasn’t the authorities that chased me off the sand, but the sand itself. Tanning had never been so exasperating. But even paradise has its flaws. I strapped on my pack for the final push, and hiked over to the campground to grab a spot. This time, I was legitimate, at least mostly. If the food lasted, I planned to stay a little longer than the permit allowed. Five days just wasn’t a long enough break from the madness of the world. But at least this time, if the past repeated itself, I’d have the required piece of paper to wave around. And besides, considering my malfunctioning pack and aching back and limbs, that free helicopter ride didn’t sound all that bad.

Tags: Adventures

 

Comments

1

The DLNR just got their asses handed to them by the state of Hawaii when the Governor issued $1.2 million to rebuild the 1st 2 miles of the trail. Rather than give it to the bureaucratic and corrupt DLNR they are hiring a private company to do the work. Most likely meaning anybody who wants to volunteer to live/work on the Na Pali trail/coast will have the ability to through that company in the very near future. I imagine there are some paid positions as well. I LOVE THIS! I will be moving back to Kauai when this goes down, so I can live Pono with the Aina. I always wanted to give something back to that place and the people of Kauai, but the DLNR ALWAYS refused to accept volunteer trail workers. I guess they would rather just let people keep disappearing on the trail that they have done a terrible job of maintaining. Mahalo tax payers of Hawaii!

  Menehune Kanaka Brada Jul 11, 2008 6:24 AM

2

Hi Gabriel, Great write up! I've been planning a move to Kalalau since last August when a friend told me about his experience there. I'll be heading in to live low impact there for about a year if I can swing it. I was hoping you might contact me and give me a few pointers, as a fellow outlaw. My email is mullikencc at yahoo dot com. Keep up the great writing, it's always great to hear of a kindred spirit out there actually living!

Ryan

  Ryan Oct 26, 2008 4:33 PM

3

Dude, why publicize this amazing, sacred place?? If you truly enjoy it, and want to continue to enjoy it take this blog down along with this comment... mahalo Author's response: hey Bear, I've certainly thought about this myself. First thing to mention, is that this blog of mine gets virtually zero visitors, at most a handful. That's not exactly broadcasting it to the world. I've probably told more people about the Kalalau in person than have come across this piece. Second, it's not exactly a secret anyway. People have been going out there for decades, and no doubt coming back and telling all their friends about it afterwards. And yet it hasn't gotten overrun. And I doubt if it ever will, because it's such a major pain in the ass to get there, which is of course a very good thing. So I'm not too worried about over-publicizing it, although I totally understand your concern. And thirdly, there are the rangers, who even though they are a pain in the ass for those who like to go there without a permit (i.e., me) they do manage to clear the place out every 6 months or so and make it clear that staying there will require some real perseverance and dedication, plus wits and a certain amount of risk. And then those who do choose to follow the rules and get the permits will be limited by the number of permits issued. So adding it all up, I think the Na Pali Coast and the Kalalau Valley is pretty well protected by its own natural rugged design, and my little story ain't gonna change that. But I'll still keep in mind not to spread the word too much..Gabriel

  Bear Nov 11, 2008 5:57 PM

4

Wow! What a story!
As a future outlaw, I have a few questions and I think your answers would be extremely valuable:
What did you eat during the time where you lives in the valley?
What did you drink during the time where you lives in the valley?
Were there any fish?
In what/ or where did you sleep?
Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D
-Cal

  Calvin Drews May 24, 2010 9:16 AM

5

Hanakapi'ai is the correct spelling....................glad you can enjoy the majestic beauty of it...but it really is a sacred place and should be respected as so...

  Kila Apr 19, 2011 6:21 PM

6

Wonderful story, have things changed? or is this still possible in 2013?

  Dean Murdoch Jan 5, 2013 10:20 AM

7

I have never been but was laying in bed tonight and I started dreaming about the trip I had been wanting to do to Peru then all of a sudden something said I need to go to kalalua trail and I woke up and googled it.... on top of that apparently there is a waterfall there called Davis falls which is my mum's surname! I'm excited to visit this magical place!!

  kai-lani Feb 4, 2016 11:03 PM

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