We cleared the historic Wailau Trail that starts near Pūkoʻo on the southeast side of Molokai, climbs to the Kamakou summit ridge, and drops down into Wailau Valley on the remote northern coast of the island.
I was so anxious to start clearing the Wailau Trail — THE purpose for our trip — that I was wide awake well before sunrise. So I got to the lookout point early and saw mesmerizing pre-dawn colors over Kahinapohaku Fishpond and Hoʻoniki Island.
Late last year Cyrus Siu asked me if we could help the people of Molokai reopen the 8-mile Wailau Trail — an ancient Hawaiian trail that leads up and over the Kamakou Mountains into Wailau Valley. Wailau is the largest of the 4 windward valleys on the remote northern coast of Molokai. He told me that the Sierra Club used to clear the southern part of the trail to the Kamakou Summit, but that no trail clearing had taken place for many years and the trail was nearly impassable in spots. I knew Cyrus as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy when he lived on Oahu prior to his moving to Molokai, and was very much interested and receptive to his request.
Patrick Rorie wrote about several of his grueling backpacking adventures in Wailau Valley from 1999 to 2007 which was one of his favorite destinations. Patrick said that the most overgrown part of the trail is not at the 2,800 foot summit but in Wailau Valley itself. The 2-3 miles from the base of the mountains to the beach on the northern coast is the worst part. Half-inch thick clidemia stalks grow close to each other and sap your energy pushing through especially when carrying a bulky backpack. In 2007, it took Patrick 3-days of trail clearing to complete the 8-mile trek to the beach on the northern coast where he made arrangements to be picked up by boat — the last time he backpacked to Wailau.
Given how overgrown the trail is and how difficult the valley is to access, we realized the effort would take multiple years and many man-hours of labor. Cyrus and I agreed that the goal of the first trip would be to just clear the trail to the summit. Cyrus helped me contact the landowners at the trail head so I could get their permission to cross their land. They were pleased we would be reopening the culturally significant trail and gave us a liability release form to sign.
Once I got a date for the Waialua Pavilion recruitment efforts began in earnest. I was pleased when eighteen hikers from the trail maintenance crew of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club (HTMC) rose to the challenge to reopen the Wailau Trail. Crouched over from left to right: Kay, Kris, Karen, Ellyn, Jeanne, and Connie. Standing from left to right: Larry, Wayne, Helene, John, Mike, Thea, Gordon, Grant, Cyrus, Nate, Miyo, and August.
The Wailau Trail is legendary in the stories of Molokai. ʻIliʻili-ʻōpae heiau sits at the foot of the ridge where the Wailau Trail begins. ʻIliʻili-ʻōpae is the largest heiau on Molokai — an impressive 286 feet long by 87 feet wide. ʻIliʻili-ʻōpae was were some of the most powerful kahuna practiced their craft and was a luakini heiau where humans were sacrificed.
Tradition says rocks were brought stone by stone over the Wailau Trail in a long human chain over the 2,800 foot mountain that spanned nearly coast to coast. Tens of thousands of smooth beach rocks from the north coast were carried from one person to the next. Workers were given shrimps — ʻōpae — for their labor, hence the name of the heiau.
Molokai kahuna were among the most powerful and feared in Hawaiʻi nei. One of the oldest schools of sorcery is from the Molokai Lo family of kahuna chiefs whose practice included kuni (divination by burning), hoʻounauna (sending sickness or trouble), and ʻanaʻana (praying to death).
Since no one in our group had hiked the Wailau Trail before, Cyrus showed us to the foot of the ridge where multiple paths made their way up through haole koa, formosan koa, java plum, and other invasive plants. Pat Rooney, who backpacked to Wailau in 2007 with Patrick Rorie, was with us but he slipped on a rock and hit his head the day before and developed an alarming fever. Pat wisely chose to rest at our campsite at the pavilion and did not come with us. So we were on our own to navigate the Wailau Trail.
After passing through groves of ironwood trees and gaining several hundred feet of elevation, we had a commanding view of Pūkoʻo Harbor on the southern coast of Molokai with the neighboring island of Maui across the channel in the background.
After gaining additional elevation, we came across large groves of strawberry guava. There were literally tens of thousands of strawberry guava trees, saplings, and seedlings which we cut with loppers, hand-saws, and machetes as we made our way up the trail.
Eucalyptus trees dominated the forest further up. Some of the tall trees had broken limbs whose trunks and branches littered the ground. Mike Algiers sawed through 8 inch thick eucalyptus branches to clear the obstruction from the trail.
Christmas berry thrive on the ridge top where their branches form impenetrable tangles. John sawed many branches to push back the tangle of christmas berry branches which were blocking the trail.
The trail was sometimes difficult to navigate. Sometimes we found ourselves at dead-ends or where the way forward petered out. In 1997 a first-time Wailau backpacker got lost in the maze of interconnected trails for two days but luckily stumbled on the main trail and was rescued. In 1993 a first timer set off an emergency beacon and was found by State Rangers but since blistered feet were not a serious enough injury he could not be rescued. The Rangers could, however, take his 60 pound backpack if he wanted them to, which he did. He was never seen again.
When the trail “disappeared”, we retraced our steps to where we knew the trail was and fanned out to look for old ribbons and an alternate way forward. Once we picked up the trail again we widened the swath and ribboned the way we went.
Introduced trees and plants dominate the ridge but a I saw a number of native plants such as these miniature ‘ala‘alawainui (Peperomia spp.) growing with mosses on the bark of trees.
We also saw many kupukupu ferns and bryophyte mosses in the understory of the mostly alien forest.
Loppers proved effective against strawberry guava, christmas berry, clidemia, and other trees with woody trunks.
The rain clouds and ʻuluhe ferns became increasingly thick the higher we got on the ridge.
Right about noon, we reached a nice meadow where we could sit and relax in the grass. So we seized the opportunity and took a well deserved lunch break.
After lunch we came to the first of many sections of the trail clogged with ʻuluhe ferns. We gouged a trail through the ferns and broke through one blockage after the next as we made our way towards the summit.
Rain drops fell from the sky as we climbed through ʻōhiʻa trees overgrown with ʻuluhe and clidemia. The trail was so overgrown that we could only proceed at a pace of about a quarter mile per hour. Pushing through the thick clidemia and hacking at their branches is exhausting work.
With the vegetation drenched from the rain, we crawled on all fours to squeeze past and cut half-inch thick clidemia trunks at their base. When our turn-around time of 3:30 PM rolled around, our gps reading told us we were three-tenths of a mile and 200 feet in elevation short of the 2,800 foot summit. I had mixed feelings — disappointed that we didn’t reach the summit but happy that we could stop working — I was exhausted.
After marking where we had stopped, we turned around and made our way back down the trail. We spontaneously divided into smaller groups as we descended the trail. One of the dangers of splitting up is getting separated. One group took a different fork in the trail and veered-off onto a neighboring side ridge. Fortunately we could see the errant group were able to guide them back to the main group. We learned first-hand many times that alternate paths crisscross the ridge — some of them pig trails — and it’s easy to lose ones way.
When we neared the foot of the ridge, the 286 feet x 87 feet stone platform — the second largest in Hawaii nei — loomed larger in our field of vision with every step. We admired the heiau and how the trail down the ridge line to the structure had been re-routed. Since a hot dinner and shower waited for us back at camp, we did not linger at the heiau and drove back to the Waialua Pavilion to end our day.
Several of us hit the showers while others prepared dinner. Kris and Larry made fresh salsa and guacamole from scratch for their awesome chicken tacos. After wolfing down the hearty meal, we enjoyed each others company for quite some time before we started to retire to our tents for the night. The 5 nights went by quickly and we were sad that that we were leaving the next day. This would be our last night camping under the stars.
Before drifting off to sleep, I reflected on our hard work during the today and devised a plan for the future. Now that the south side of the trail has been reclaimed to within .3 miles of the summit, we’ll be able to come back next year, hit the summit, and drop down into Wailau Valley to clear as far down as we can go. The year after we’ll go in by boat along the northern coast, camp on Wailau Beach, and clear to the back of the valley. Can’t wait to execute the plan!
Iliiliopae, Place Names of Hawaii, Pukui/Elbert
Iliiliopae Heiau, Websites Hawaii
Kahuna Practices, Fornander, Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore, Vol 6
Native Hawaiian Plants, University of Hawaii, Department of Botany
Wailau Archaeology Report, T.S. Dye & Colleagues, Archaeologists, Inc.
Wailau Valley, Photos by Metod Lebar, May 2003
Wailau Backpack, Pat Rorie, 1999, Oahu Hiking Enthusiasts
Wailau (Molokai) Backpack – by Pat Rorie, 2007, Extreme Hiking Hawaii