Running The Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast

Checking One Off the Bucket List
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In 2013 Trail Runner Magazine declared it one of 10 Trails That Should Be on Every Bucket List. National Geographic has listed is as one of the world’s Best Classic Trails,” and Outside Magazine has called it one of the world’s 20 Most Dangerous Hikes.
It may be all that. But the Kalalau Trail is most certainly a 22 mile out-and-back epic with about 10,000 feet of vertical, on gnarly mud, roots and rocks, in unpredictable but usually hot and humid weather, offering a very real risk of flash floods on one or more of the half dozen stream crossings along the way.
Until trail running became “a thing,” the Kalalau Trail was revered as a hiking trail, bringing hippies and kindred souls to the secluded camp site and beach at the far end of the Nā Pali Coast of Kauai in Hawaii. It’s remote (next stop due west is Japan) and breathtakingly beautiful, with 4,000 foot intensely verdant peaks towering above the sandy beaches and the Pacific Ocean. When I found myself headed to Kauai on vacation, I decided I had to take this challenge on and started doing some research and planning.
The park recommends 6-10 hours for the hike out, and many break up the trip with an overnight stop. From my adventures in the White Mountains I’ve found that comfortable running times are about half the fastest hiking estimate, but I’m no Ryan Welts or Ben Nephew, and this was in no way an FKT attempt.
Lots of people have run and hiked this thing with GoPros – perhaps supremely douchy and narcissistic, but very helpful for a virtual preview from a few thousand miles away. The trail also has a dedicated discussion group on facebook, and dozens of Strava activities offer detailed elevation breakdowns and pace data.
In fact, two runners on Strava whose stats closely matched my own had run the trail recently, and their times confirmed that 3:15 for the turnaround was a realistic goal. I omitted a goal for the full 22 miles to let myself chill at the turnaround, enjoy the trail, and complete the return at a pace that felt good.
I was excited to take this on, but apprehensive. Until early April I lived on the Fist of the First Men – for 40 days or so during January and February the temps in Vermont never made it above freezing. Now, I was planning to go push myself hard in the tropics – 80 degrees and 100 percent humidity. There might be a breeze off the ocean, but my sludgy New England blood would still be hard pressed to cool me off. Moreover, the brutal winter had kept my running and cross training to short stuff — my longest run this season was just shy of three hours, hardly adequate preparation for a >6 hour epic.
I’d be starting at sea level, turning around at sea level and ending back at sea level, so I wouldn’t be running at altitude and the vertical would be fairly evenly distributed across the 22 miles. But 18,000 feet of vert is a lot of up – and down – no matter where it begins and ends.
At least a fairly dry winter by Hawaiian standards had left the trail reasonably free of deep, pervasive mud, but the perpetual short, intense tropical downpours could easily turn a marginal trail into a muddy mess in minutes.
Hot weather unsupported distance running requires bringing plenty of water or coming prepared to collect it along the way. Bouncing email with a fellow runner on Strava convinced me to ditch my favorite minimalist Osprey pack in favor of a trusted Nalgene pack from my MTB days that holds a bigger (3 liter) bladder. I also brought along a handheld water bottle as part comfort object, part hydration backup.
Drinking a liter an hour I was counting on my water supply to last until just shy of the turnaround at my goal pace. There’s plenty of water en route: the trail crosses several streams carrying runoff from the ridges to the Pacific Ocean; the biggest at mile 2 (Hanakapi’ai), mile 6.5 (Hanakoa), and again at 9.5 miles (Kalalau Valley). There would also be water at the turnaround. Unfortunately, all the fresh water may carry leptospirosis, giardia and other fun tropical bugs, so I brought along a Renovo filter that screws onto a Platypus bottle (I brought along a 1 liter) and can be force fed to process a liter in 2-3 minutes. Refilling my 3 liter Camelbak ought not take more than 10 minutes. (The Renovo will work with gravity alone, but that’s slower going).
No aid stations or stores for resupply meant bringing a few thousand calories to keep the engine running. My go-to long run nosh is Pro Bars – 380 calories each, and I can usually keep them down well into a long run when my body starts rejecting other stuff. I also packed some Gu, Shot Blocks, and granola bars to keep things interesting, and threw in a handful of salt tabs since all the heat and water was likely to screw up my electrolytes.
After a long winter running in Inov-8 Roclite 282s with microspikes I was looking forward to something less substantial on my feet – specifically my trusted Inov-8 TrailRoc 245s. They work well in the White Mountains and on my local trails in the Upper Valley, but after hiking the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail with my family the week before my run I realized that I had brought the wrong tool for the job. The Kalalau Trail is extremely rocky, hard, and unforgiving (it’s set on the edge of an old volcano, after all) – but it’s also covered in a layer of organic slime, so what’s really needed is padding and coarse traction, something like a Mudclaw or Oroc. Alas, I don’t own those (yet). As it turned out, the 245s performed surprisingly well, only slipping occasionally and providing enough padding to spare my feet and legs the brunt of the damage.
Poles were an option, but I can’t make the damn things work for me. I also don’t do sunglasses, but did bring along my trusted Western NH Trail Series buff as sweat rag, nose wipe, tourniquet and reminder of running adventures with good friends. I also threw in an extra pair of socks to reward myself with the luxury of dry feet at the halfway point.
On the day of my run I caught the great North Shore Shuttle bus service from a Princeville resort at the crack of dawn, avoiding the hassle of being dropped off and picked up at Ke’e Beach. The shuttle is only a pilot project, but hopefully Kauai will decide to keep it.
There are decent bathrooms at the trailhead, and after a quick pit stop I hit the trail at 7AM sharp.  It’s a rough start with almost 600 feet of vertical in less than a mile. I passed a couple of early bird hikers along the way, but otherwise had the trail to myself. Soon the rain started, and since this is the busiest part of the trail, the surface is fairly slick with use and becomes extremely slippery when wet. That made the descent to Hanakapi’ai Beach at mile 2 treacherous, but I reached the stream crossing in good time and good shape, clocking in well under 15 minute miles. That should have told me to dial it back, but the pace that provided the best flow across the sketchy terrain was fast, so I went with it.
Leaving Hanakapi’ai you take on another mile of climbing, this time almost 800 feet, and with endless dips and short, steep pitches. It’s a slog, never really very runnable, lots of roots, rotting foliage, and mud puddles – and the rain was coming down in steady stream by now, sending rivulets of water on the trail and giving me soggy shoes and nagging concerns about the water level on the crossings at Hanakoa (mile 6) and Kalalau (mile 10).
As you cross into the Hono Onapali Wildlife Area (you literally hop over a low fence crossing the trail) there’s a brief couple of switchbacks before the start a long, irregular descent towards Hanakoa. These are the dreary middle-of-the-run miles that require some focused effort to get out of the way.
The stream crossing at Hanakoa was no biggie — running strong, but with no threat of flash flooding in spite of the rain. And in fact, almost immediately after mile 6, the rain let up and the trail was dry and surprisingly runnable for a bit. Apparently the prevailing winds this time of year (maybe always?) keep the last third of the trail largely dry.
Just shy of mile 7 a stretch of sketchy loose gravel in a barren canyon leads to the dreaded Crawlers Ledge. Lots of discussions can be found online, where people worry that they won’t make it past that point. The videos and images online make it seem like a death trap, but there’s really not much to it, provided you don’t have a prevailing fear of heights, can convince yourself to focus on your footing and don’t allow the trail to mess with your head. You’ll be fine, and the few hundred yards of ledge will be behind you before you know it.
The last couple of miles before reaching the Kalalau Beach involves a final 700 foot climb over a couple of miles, then a long, steep descent all the way to sea level at the bottom of Kalalau Valley. Initially the descent is on rough dirt, but further down it’s along a very narrow path through tall, dense vegetation that’ll scratch you up good as you pass. Beware the confusing sign at the last stream crossing before the camp site: you can go straight through the camp site itself, or hang a right making your way along the beach path. Either way, you’ll eventually come to the water’s edge where a final quarter mile of running on the soft sand will get you as far as you can go: 11 miles from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach.
I was thrilled to have finished the run out in under 2 1/2 hours – but also realized that (as usual) I had done a lousy job keeping my pace under control and keeping something in the tank for the return. This wasn’t a race, so I had the luxury of chilling a bit at the end to recharge and find get psyched up for the return.
I had almost finished off the three liters of water in my Nalgene as I’d hoped, so drawing on my backup handheld, I made it back to the last stream crossing and refilled my bladder, took a little detour to explore the trail the leads up the Kalalau Valley itself before facing the music and the return to Ke’e Beach. It wasn’t pretty — I started sucking wind on the 700 foot climb back out of Kalalau Valley, took it down a notch at the top to regroup, but realized I was well cooked and would need to dig fairly deep to get things working for me.
Where my run out to Kalalau had been measured in hours, I now kept glancing down at my Garmin to track each individual mile as it crept by all too slowly. I allowed myself the occasional minute’s rest on moss-covered rocks in the shade to refocus and found myself channeling my friend Chad, conjuring up a smile at the sheer wonderful insanity of voluntarily pushing myself so hard for no other reason than the challenge and the sense of adventure. I was in a beautiful place doing something awesome that I would remember forever, and the by now overwhelming fatigue was just part of the experience.
I was still ahead of my overall time estimate, but the going was getting increasingly tough, and the stretch back from Crawler’s Ledge to Hanakapiai across endless false passes took its toll. On cue the rain started up again, making the descents on tired and cramping legs even trickier and more exhausting. With just two miles to go, I stopped briefly at the stream at Hanakapi’ai to top off my water supply just in case I crashed completely on the final climb and had to walk out in the now oppressive midday heat. As I headed up the steep slippery crud for towards the final peak and the last mile, the mind game became one of guessing quarter miles as they passed. Thankfully, a second wind allowed me to finish strong, wrapping up the return in around 3.5 hours. The total run looks something like this.
And apart from some seriously cramping legs and my usual inability to eat, drink and rest properly, I felt surprisingly good considering the amount of time and suffering I put into this. It’s a tough trail, unforgiving and technical, but it’s definitely not an insurmountable challenge for an ultra-runner in half-decent shape. And if you find yourself anywhere near Kauai I’d strongly encourage you to consider the trail – it definitely is a top 10 sort of thing.
Do remember that a permit is required for the trail past the Hankapi’ai Beach at mile 2 in order to limit the wear and tear on the fragile environment. Permits costs $20 or so, and can be purchased online, but they sell out up to six months in advance, so plan ahead. (Day hikers or runners used to be able to get away with a free pass, but that was eliminated in March 2015.) While you’re unlikely to encounter a park ranger who would check your permit, I recommend getting one to play by the rules; the trail fee helps pay for much needed maintenance and upkeep of an incredible trail in a spectacular but fragile setting.

Dear Ballard Trail Terrorist… We Really Need to Talk

IMG_0026Not much can surprise in our increasingly dysfunctional community nowadays. This, after all, is where police cars are set on fire, determined attempts are made to ban dogs from public property, and anonymous complaints are raised over the Halloween decorations at the post office. Apparently some of us have nothing better to do than complain and throw tantrums.

Still, such pervasive kvetching does require a fresh outlet from time to time, so I was only mildly surprised to discover on a run earlier today that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to block the Ballard Trail about half way between the Norwich Pool and Schoolhouse Road. What at first glance appeared to be blowdown was instead a remarkably diligent effort at making the trail impassable by piling branches across it. With the help of a fellow runner I managed to clear most the debris, but as I finished my run on that wonderful public trail of ours I came to realize that this might well be the first awkward blow in yet another cringeworthy battle with some anonymous neighbor over yet another aspect of life in Norwich that I’ve foolishly been taking for granted.

But, dear misguided vigilante, save yourself further exertion in your futile attempt at undermining the public good. Instead, please consider this: if you’re unhappy with trails on public land in Norwich, their usage policies or their route, then bring the matter before the Norwich Trails Committee. That’s what it’s there for. If, on the other hand, the cause of your unhappiness is more existential, if it’s the healthy, considerate lifestyle of the majority of your fellow Norwitches that has gotten on your nerves (what with our quest for fitness and our continued commitment to communal space and shared resources), then perhaps you should consider moving. There are plenty of rigorously regulated gated communities to be found across the country; many of them would no doubt welcome a cantankerous malcontent with open arms.

It’s a trail. It’s public. Most of us like it that way. So get over it. Or go. Because given the choice between having someone with your attitude towards sharing and caring around, or keeping the Ballard Trail open to the community, I think most of us would be more than happy to help you pack. Heck, I’ll even drive you to the airport myself.

Sincerely,

 

Election season always gets me depressed.

IMG_0058The hateful ignorance of the Republicans, their callous narcissism and greed masquerading as piety and mock compassion: “Well, I’ve got mine, so fuck you. It’s just manifest destiny that my rich friends have second homes while your kid’s surgery sent you into bankruptcy. Jesus clearly wanted it that way. Nyah nyah…”

The abject failure of the Democrats to actually stand for something, anything – even the most basic common sense and decency. Seriously, between Obama’s inability to actually deliver after eight years and the party’s inability to articulate a compelling platform with appeal to anybody outside the community of professional fundraisers it’s no wonder they can’t make headway on the matters they supposedly care about.

The eagerness with which a lethargic and indifferent electorate allows itself to be deceived by simplistic soundbites and irrelevant wedge issues; the willingness of the media to serve up the most irrelevant bullshit under the guise of “election coverage.” The outright lies. The obvious deceit. The false promises. The grandstanding. The backpedaling. The utter waste of FOUR BILLION DOLLARS on a torrent of obnoxious “Well, my opponent is a poopyhead, so vote for me!” radio and TV ads.

Thankfully, my Green Card status limits me to paying taxes to finance the follies of this collection of moral midgets and inept asshats; my ineligibility to vote is a blessing in disguise: I can loathe them all with impunity, blissfully spared the impossible challenge of picking one over the other on Tuesday.

But to those of you who feel compelled to take part in the dismal mockery of democracy that is American politics: my condolences, and good luck with all that.

Invasion of the Soul Snatchers

Faith

They prefer to describe it as “a quiet revival,” but the army of evangelical Christian missionaries descending on New England more resemble a crusade. Self-styled Warriors for Christ, these spiritual carpetbaggers come North to plant churches and convert the “unchurched” and “gospel-parched” to fundamentalist Christianity. Wielding big smiles and inerrant Bibles, they claim to be willing to die while they “harvest souls” and “open the dead hearts of sinners.”

Like the knights in the Holy Land their mission is doomed to fail, but not without a valiant struggle.

Lyandon Warren came from North Carolina to pastor in rural Vermont. “To be a foot-soldier on that battleground is a joy and privilege,” he told the Baptist Press a few years ago. Bible-believing Christians like him are implored by scripture to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” but Warren and his colleagues picked New England, a region they otherwise decry as liberal, pagan, dead, and dry, because of all the “nones” who present a tempting target for hostile spiritual takeover.

“Where gospel fires once burned now looks burnt over,” declares the Gospel Coalition’s Jared Wilson in his sales pitch to potential church planters. Gallup and Pew surveys concur: religion is in decline nationwide, and New Englanders have the lowest religious adherence of all. The Pilgrims may have landed here seeking religious freedom, and this may be where 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards sparked the First Great Awakening, but in spite of the ubiquitous white church steeples religious apathy now afflicts us. The Catholic Church alone – still the largest denomination – has lost somewhere between a quarter and a third of its members since the turn of the millennium.

Sensing opportunity, The North American Mission Board, the church planting arm of the Southern Baptists, has spent over $5 million in the past decade to plant more than 130 churches in New England, using the model for overseas missionary outreach. Other evangelical umbrella organizations have followed suit, “equipping” idealistic young men (always men) with training and strategy manuals on outreach and fundraising.

Church planting is a well-oiled and well-funded franchise operation, seeking rapid expansion and establishment of ever more churches. It comes complete with branding and the proselytizer’s equivalent of sales quotas. Churches of God speak of “multiplication” while other denominations pray for “exponential” growth. And although they all like to talk about “grassroots,” “organic,” and “local” it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, church planting is the antithesis of the traditional New England congregational churches that grew from a community’s desire for fellowship.

Growth is so imperative that community outreach becomes duplicitous. “While it’s always good to love our neighbors and build relationships with them for a number of reasons, we love them best by sharing the good news with them,” says Jeff Cavanaugh of the 9Marks movement. But while setting up a soup kitchen because your faith compels you demonstrates empathy, doing it to help bring new customers to your faith smacks more of calculated compassion and ulterior motives intended to meet your own needs.

Once a pastor obtains seed funding and a calling, he can show up in town – uninvited – and establish his Bible shop. Some have taken over abandoned village churches, others meet in private homes.

Riverbank Church meets in Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vermont, and makes excellent use of the venue’s professional stage lighting and large flat screen TVs to create what is called an “experience” rather than a mere service. Ushers in matching t-shirts hand out hugs and fliers, surveys are taken, and newcomers are welcomed profusely.

Riverbank is a typical non-affiliated church, led since its founding in 2010 by Chris Goeppner, an energetic young Floridian. His bald head and casual denim outfit gives Goeppner a charismatic and engaging stage presence. On a Sunday in March his sermon is, not surprisingly, about the mandate to evangelize – share the good news of Jesus with everybody all the time.

“It’s All about Jesus”

Goeppner makes it quite clear: “We are all about Jesus. He is the reason we do everything that we do. You will hear us talk about Jesus, teach about Jesus, and sing songs about Jesus because it really is all about Jesus.” The theme is reinforced to the congregation of roughly eighty through song and preaching all morning. It’s simple and uncomplicated. Black and white, dos and don’ts. Fundamental, if you like. Or fundamentalist, perhaps, if you rather don’t.

Because once you peel away the compelling veneer of hip pop culture references, colloquialisms, cool graphics and the intimate, welcoming atmosphere, Goeppner’s is at heart an old-school Christian message of fear and faith, sin and salvation, obedience and redemption. His sermon relies entirely on reading scripture “as is,” and comes complete with a “fill-in-the-blanks” handout to remind the faithful of their explicit obligations to the church and to Jesus. It leaves little on which to genuinely reflect, and renders the experience quite unlike, say, a Congregational or Unitarian service.

Evangelical fundamentalists hold four cardinal beliefs that set them apart from mainline churches, says John Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars. First, the Bible is inerrant, without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. Secondly, they believe that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. Third is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. The fourth and cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

So, no matter the appealing bells and whistles, it really comes down to this: read the Bible as literal truth, find Jesus, be born again, then go tell the rest of the world. With the Bible as an infallible, timeless go-to document with answers to every question and doubt, scripture need never be reinterpreted or reconsidered, even as society evolves and values change. With faith the be-all and end-all, secular life is relegated to a supporting role; whatever you do, you do to further God’s Kingdom.

Some fundamentalist preachers go even further, praying for the day when society will again be ruled by Bible-based morals. The Christian equivalent of Sharia law would necessarily repeal civil rights and put an end to tolerance and compassion that we now take for granted. The same reactionary conservatism can be seen in right wing social policies, which helps explain the incestuous relationship between evangelical churches and congressional Republicans, and was perhaps also why evangelical Christians spearheaded the “Take Back Vermont” campaign to prevent legalized civil unions a decade ago. For fundamentalist Christians the end justifies the means. There is no separation of church and state, and it is perfectly reasonable to engage in politics “for Jesus.”

Bertrand Russell once noted, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Such unwavering and uncompromising notions of moral superiority lead to delusions of grandeur and arrogance.

That becomes apparent when fundamentalist Christians refuse to take part in ecumenical work with other congregations. They they see those who don’t share their exact beliefs as false believers, as flawed Christians. As far as they’re concerned, the Congregationalists, Episcopalians and the rest of the mainline denominations have all gone astray and to hell with their inclusiveness and focus on good works over pure faith. As one Unitarian Universalist pastor said, “The Evangelicals bemoan our embrace of all people.”

They see not only other faiths but modern secular society itself as morally corrupt, sinful and fallen. Frank Schaeffer, former evangelical Christian and author of “Crazy for God,” says that in the fundamentalist movement we have, “within our culture a sub-culture, which is literally a fifth column of insanity, a group of people who are resentful because they know they’ve been left behind by modernity, by science, by education, by art, by literature.”

His is hardly a ringing endorsement, as could be expected from someone who has left behind the fundamentalist movement. But in a marketplace of ideas people should be free to consider alternatives to mainline churches and a life without religion.

So, What’s There to Like?

One former evangelical pastor points out that firm moral guidelines and a promise of salvation may appeal to people whose lives are in turmoil and who are surrounded by rapid change in society and uneasy with significant shifts in core values and morals.

For example, the current heroin epidemic across Vermont is symptomatic of some serious social dysfunction, and recognition of gay marriage still doesn’t sit well with many in the otherwise liberal Northeast. The weak, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised have historically been susceptible to the easy fixes and simple solutions offered by silver tongued spiritual con artists and snake oil salesmen.

But while the assurance and certainty of traditional values and rigid rules may be what appeals to the at most three percent of New Englanders who regularly attend evangelical churches, it’s highly doubtful if it can attract more. And so, by its own measure of success – perpetual growth – the evangelical crusade appears doomed to fail.

Riverbank Church has reached an impressive 200 members after four years, and Pastor Goeppner audaciously talks about reaching all of Vermont for Jesus in less than 13 years. Yet, even the state’s most well-established Evangelical church plant, Christ Memorial Church in Burlington, remains a 200 member congregation after more than 20 years of trying, and that’s with significant outside funding.

Many new church plants fail and fold when the initial seed funding dries up, and even in the once fertile bible belt evangelists are seeing a drop in attendance. Presumably they’ve run out of people to pester with their preposterous platitudes, hence the feeding frenzy in a new, untapped market.

But fundamentalist Christians have drunk so deeply of their own Kool-Aid that they seem genuinely surprised to find precious few takers. Faced with disappointing results from his missionary work in Massachusetts, Joe Souza of the Southern Baptists declared, “It’s like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it.”

Except, of course, theirs is no cure, and we don’t have cancer. In an open letter addressed to “Christians Who Want to Convert Us,” Emily Heath, a Congregational pastor from Vermont, put it simply: “We’re good, thanks.”

But while they may be good, and certainly more inclusive, the mainline churches do have cause for concern: fundamentalist church plants primarily grow a congregation by “stealing sheep” from others, not by converting the “nones.” Liberal Christian pastors acknowledge the need to attract and keep members, but none think fundamentalism is the answer. And they strongly object to being dismissed and belittled by outsiders claiming to know what’s best for the communities they have been serving for generations.

Rather than lecturing their parishioners about their obligations as undeserving sinners, mainline pastors try to remain relevant by engaging their congregation in an ongoing quest for spiritual growth. One pastor said that he actively encourages members of his flock to question their faith, respects their doubts, and welcomes their critical questions, even if he doesn’t have an immediate answer from scripture.

Barnaby Feder, a Unitarian Universalist Reverend from Middlebury, Vermont, puts it this way: “The questions with which religion has always wrestled persist. And religion that doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door will remain vital.”

The fundamentalist Christians will doubtlessly continue to evangelize, even as their efforts fail to deliver the results for which they pray. It’s an integral part of their creed, after all. But the chance of a religious revival in New England is about as likely as the second coming of Jesus.

© Lars Blackmore