A Delightful Detour to a Waterfall in Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i

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Remembering to take travel setbacks in stride.

It was a simple plan. Grab last-minute plane tickets, pack the tent in the backpack, and dip over to Kaua‘i for theweekend. Miraculously, despite it being a busy holiday weekend, I was able to get a rental car and a permit to camp at Lonomea, the most remote of the numerous campsites along the Koaie Trail in Waimea Canyon. It all fell into place nicely, and so early on Saturday we flew from Honolulu to Līhu‘e, picked up some groceries and a can of propane, and set off south towards Waimea.

With the errands and all, we got a late start. The afternoon clouds came in and out to provide cover from the hot sun, and we descended more than 2,000 feet down to the canyon floor, first over exposed red clay and then turning into thick, shaded forests. After you come to the first camp, Wiliwili, you have to cross the river several times. Things got a little hairy at that point. The water level was higher than usual, and crossing was difficult with a 30lb pack.

Our pace slowed to a crawl. It was getting dark fast in the canyon, the sun blocked by the tall walls. With the river the way it was, I wondered if continuing on was the safest thing to do. On a break, I saw a side canyon nearby. I took a short scout around the corner and saw that it was a rather big canyon and that a waterfall . I was at first disappointed we weren’t going to make it to Lonomea that night, our plan and destination.

I once read a memoir by a poet who expressed the joy his writing routine brought him. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m., light the wood-burning stove, and write. He loved to romanticize the idea that he was the only person in the world doing it, the only one up at that hour, writing poetry by the fire. Deep dude, for sure. But that image always sticks with me when I go into the wilderness, because that’s the place I go to do things that no one else is doing, to have it all to myself. In the quiet of nature, I feel fortunate in a way that no public place has ever duplicated.

This setback brought us that solitude. There are 70,000 people on Kaua‘i. A handful of them were at Lonomea that weekend. But that night and next morning, that waterfall was just for us. I’m happy to be reminded that, in the face of detours in travel and life, whether things go right or wrong is always a matter of perspective.

The next day the river was calm, and we ended up seeing other, bigger waterfalls and campsites as planned. But, for the most part, that little no-name waterfall is the one we end up telling everyone about.

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The Worst Kind of Tourist Trap

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When I first arrived in Hawai‘i, I stayed with a search and rescue pilot for the Coast Guard. Over the course of living together, I watched him get called out for a variety of rescue operations. Two people swept off the sea cliffs by a wave. Someone dragged out to sea by the current. A person who fell to their death on a ridge hike. Most of these incidents were not reported on the news, but because I lived with him, I was privy to just how often things go wrong here in paradise, and just how unaware most people are of the problem.

The arrangement was a blessing in disguise, because I too had a very naive and overconfident view of Hawai‘i. I had come from the Rocky Mountains, navigating the elements of high-alpine terrain. Hawai‘i, by comparison, with its pretty beaches and small “mountains,” seemed like a piece of cake. Little did I know that these islands are a Venus flytrap, a place so beautiful that it draws people into its wrath unknowingly.

For these islands, whose notoriously rough surf results in a high rate of drownings, the task of keeping visitors safe has been a battle that too often runs under the radar.

Residents and local organizations are always trying to figure out how to keep Hawai‘i safe from the impacts of tourism, launching preventative efforts that span a wide range, including signs requesting proper behavior at heiaus across the State, statutes limiting the number of cars at the Haleakalā summit, and environmental educational efforts at places like Hanauma Bay, Volcanoes National Park, and others.

But are we forgetting the other side of the coin? According to the data, we also need to figure out a way to keep visitors safe from Hawai‘i.

Back to Back to Back

On a whole, the State has drawn criticism in recent years for not doing more to provide consistent messaging to visitors. Most memorably, a 2016 editorial from the Honolulu Civil Beat called out Hawai‘i lawmakers for their seeming indifference towards public safety.

A prime example was when the State’s House failed to support legislation in 2013 that would have encouraged airlines to show ocean safety videos to visitors. Rep. Tom Brower infamously expressed his concerns by suggesting that “the proposed video might unnecessarily raise fears or hurt the state’s idyllic reputation among tourists.”

The tendency for lawmakers to avoid the topic is one that continues to be denounced by local media, mostly because visitor deaths continue to occur at alarming rates. In another Civil Beat report called Dying For Vacation, which analyzed the frequency, cause, and reaction to visitor deaths in Hawai‘i, it was revealed that nearly one visitor a week died from July 2012-2015 while many others suffered severe spinal injuries that left them partially paralyzed.

More recently, in a span of nine days in January 2017, three visitors to Kaua‘i were tragically killed by nature. Two were cases of drowning, one at Po‘ipū Beach and the other at Moloa‘a. The third died when she fell from the steep cliffs of the Kalalau Trail. These are heartbreaking stories of people who came to Hawai‘i for a good time, who came here on vacation, whose families had an empty seat next to them on the plane ride back home.

Playing the Blame Game

Given these statistics, it is easy to point the finger and say that the government should be doing more. But there are other factors at work that contribute to the problem and turn the attention back on personal responsibility, not just of the persons directly involved for things like jumping barriers, but on some of the very same national media that is quick to criticize the State. For example, consider this gushing description of Queen’s Bath on Kaua‘i from a travel publication:

Emerging from the tropical foliage onto the rocky shoals of the lava surf, the glistening pools hang over the ocean like a queenly throne… Slipping triumphantly into the brisk waters of the caldera, you could be a crony of Kamehameha himself, observing all around you the pinnacle of natural spectacle: the shimmering cliffs of Nā Pali, the endless horizon of Pacific blue… As far as wading pools go, this one makes the oasis at the Flamingo Hilton look like the drainage ditch behind Toby’s Crab Shack.

From this romanticized depiction, you would never know that nearly 30 people have died at Queen’s Bath, or that it’s one of the most dangerous places to swim in the Hawaiian Islands.

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Sign posted at Queen’s Bath warning of danger and death.

For Sue Kanoho, Executive Director of the Kaua‘i Tourism Board, this kind of irresponsible reporting is something that’s grown to be overly prevalent and increasingly detrimental to public safety.

Every week, thousands of visitors rely on print and electronic guide books for information and suggestions on Kaua‘i, and many times they list or recommend places that are known to be dangerous, like Queen’s Bath today or, going back a few years, Kipu Falls. Some guide books promoted the latter as a “glorious hidden little place” before it later became known, tragically, as “the pool of death.”

“I spend a lot of time calling people and saying, ‘You’re hurting the destination by pretending this place or that place is a good place to go,'” said Kanoho. “If you put it in [the guide book] and you’re sending people to places that are known to be dangerous, then you should be held accountable.”

This aspect of responsibility was so heavily debated on Kaua‘i a few years ago that it went on to be tested in the legislature. In 2011, a bill was introduced that would hold authors of guide books accountable if injuries or deaths resulted from their recommendations. The bill was supported by the visitor industry, but ultimately, concerns about first amendment free speech caused it to be rejected.

We continue to see varying levels of hypocrisy today throughout the travel media. Some of the very same outlets who publish articles to put pressure on Hawai‘i lawmakers have also written sensationalized travel articles that encourage trespassing and/or dangerous behavior within the State. A prime example is the Huffington Post, who published a critical article entitled “Way Too Many Tourists Are Dying In Hawai‘i” in May 2016, and then followed it up in August with another entitled “There’s An Incredible And Super Illegal Waterslide Hidden In Hawai‘i” that glorified a dangerous and illegal activity and provided extensive links, directions, and videos about how to get there.

Solutions Going Forward?

Kanoho has tried tirelessly throughout her tenure to make the public more aware of potential danger, implore the government to pass regulations, and to call out the media when they talk out of both sides of their mouth.

She’s petitioned airlines to show ocean safety videos, and tried to get television networks to run profiles of people who have gotten into trouble and survived, hoping that people might learn from the experiences of others. Neither idea has yet to fully materialize.

In the case of the former, only Hawaiian Airlines has ever run such a safety video. All the national airlines declined to air it.

One month ago on February 8, 2018, Civil Beat reported that 10 people – 8 of them visitors – had drowned on Maui in the previous three weeks. The string of deaths has prompted the State Legislature to come up with solutions, though Civil Beat questions the likelihood of improved measures given the State’s poor track record, which includes letting a liability policy expire last year that protected lifeguards from lawsuits.

Some solutions that have been thrown around are putting ocean safety warning sheets in hotel rooms, and/or requiring companies to attach them to rental snorkel gear. Another is to use stronger language in already existing warning videos and signs. But Civil Beat notes in the article that “the Legislature has been reluctant to do anything that could potentially hurt the tourism industry that drives the state economy.” One of the biggest concerns stated by the Legislature is that strong warnings might cause visitors to view Hawai‘i as an unsafe destination.

It begs the question: At what point does that last part become true? You can keep up with all the latest in Hawai‘i safety news here.

Hidden in Plain Sight at Po‘ipū

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Photo of the restoration efforts at Kāneiolouma in 2008.

We finished eating our plate lunches on one of the picnic tables at Po‘ipū Beach and returned to the car. As we turned back onto Po‘ipū Road, I noticed piles of sharp, volcanic rock in a field to my right. I made a comment to my friend that it looked like an old lava flow, and we continued north towards Līhu‘e.

I spent the next few days adventuring. I surfed a bit, and I hiked near Kalalau Overlook in Waimea Canyon. I also did a bit of relaxing. I spent one morning sitting at Java Kai in Kapa‘a, reading the news. Scrolling through, a story caught my eye, one in, of all places, a Native American publication. It told the story of an ancient Hawaiian village being unearthed on Kaua‘i. A place called Kāneiolouma.

It was this way, by complete accident, that I discovered the piles of rocks at Po‘ipū were much more than piles of rocks.

That afternoon, I drove back to Po‘ipū, to the place I passed by a few days earlier without much of a second thought. I wondered how many other times in my life I had driven by something of such importance without even knowing.

I parked in the Po‘ipū Beach parking lot. I could see many people on the beach and others at Brennecke’s. I walked mauka from the lot to the intersection of Hoowili and Po‘ipū roads. There, at the corner, I found a series of signs on a viewing platform. In front of me was an expansive complex. I could see the outline of what looked like old rock walls.

Ke Kahua O Kāneiolouma, or the Kāneiolouma Complex, has been under restoration for more than a decade. Officially, though, it all started in 2009 with the creation of the Hui Mālama O Kāneiolouma, an independent non-profit organization. Then, phase one of a four-phase master plan began.

So far, researchers have uncovered a 13-acre complex that contains habitation, cultivation, sporting, assembly, and religious structures. Remnants of house sites, fishponds, taro fields, irrigation channels, shrines, and altars have been found. Near its center, there is what may be the only intact Makahiki (ancient Hawaiian new year festival) sporting arena in the state. The complex is believed to date back to the mid-1400s and is referred to as a wahi pana, or a storied place.

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Photo of the progress and restoration efforts at Kāneiolouma in 2015.

Currently, the project is fundraising for phase three of the project, which seeks to reconstruct the internal rock walls, rebuild the traditional houses, and restore the fish ponds and taro farms. Eventually, the fourth phase of the project will connect Kāneiolouma with Po‘ipū Beach Park and begin to integrate the public. As of now, public viewing is limited to the platform at which I stand.

This project is perfectly in line with other cultural efforts taking place on the island. Despite the relatively unknown status of Kāneiolouma, one of the things I have to give Kaua‘i credit for is its movement towards educating and labeling heiaus, as might happen in, say, Asia at a Buddhist temple. For example, one of the days in Kapa‘a, I stumbled upon a heiau that used to be a navigation point for sailors. At its entrance was a sign that read, “This is not a scenic point. It is a scared site.” It had a short list of inappropriate behaviors, i.e. sunbathing.

That is exactly what most people were doing at nearby Po‘ipū Beach. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, or make myself seem superior when I only discovered it by accident, so I didn’t go around asking anyone on the beach if they knew what lay just behind them. I sat on the platform and watched the cars go by, turning into and out of the intersection at Hoowili and Po‘ipū. Further down the road I remembered passing surf shops and resorts.

“If we sit idle too much and watch these ruins become ruins and don’t look at its importance as perpetuating these places, then all it’s going to be is a forgotten tale,” said Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, High Chief of Maui.

Hopefully now, unlike me, you can discover it on purpose.