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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wailau (Molokai) by Mark Short

Thursday morning I squeezed into the tiny plane (Paragon Air) that would take me to Molokai. I was reminded how great it is to fly small and low. Even on  an overcast & rainy day I could see so much more and the convenience was  great, no lines, just get on the plane & go.Met Thomas Yoza & Gene Robinson at the airport, dropped off our signed waiver at the big  white house on the hill.  We thanked Mrs. Petra for giving permission and she  wished us luck. 
Tom Yoza -- Photo by Nathan Yuen
Back at the trail head Thomas took pictures of the sign "Warning, Hazardous Trail, 12 Hours Minimum. At Your Own Risk." etc. After hiking the trail I wanted to go back and add I sign that pointed to this sign saying "It's  True!" In my experience most trails are not as difficult as people say. This  trail lives up to its reputation. Like the ocean, it must be respected & feared. Do not turn your back on this trail. Do not underestimate its power.  O.K. enough of that:)The trail starts from the Iliiliopae Heeiau, which was impressive. The story  is all the rocks came via human chain over the pali from the North shore. As  we started up Thomas & Gene compared amounts of water they carried (5 & 7  liters). I thought to myself, "Was my decision to only carry a little over 3  liters a mistake?" I sure was enjoying my stroll up the mountain since my pack  only weighed 23 lbs. besides I had a water filter & treatment tablets and  there was sure to be water along the way. I hiked slow and paused often  waiting for the others, really enjoying the views of Lanai & Maui and the  South shore of Molokai with it's many fishponds (see pic below). 
Photo by Metod Lebar
After a confusing section  through some ironwoods I stopped to wait, took off my pack and went up to do  some clearing. Gene came along clearing a slightly different path and I remarked we were probably clearing three different paths. I asked about Thomas  and Gene said he was a ways back having stopped for a power bar. Soon we  heard "HUI" from ahead of us. We looked but could see nothing. Was it Thomas?  It sounded like he was ahead, but how could that be? We listened and heard  more whooping, but could see nothing. This was strange. Then I was startled  by a loud whistle and saw Thomas ahead with his bright yellow shirt waiving  his arms. We caught up and he said there was a real nice contour on the right  side of the hump we had come over. I continued up the hill entering a bog on a very clearly defined trail with  lots of ribbons. Then the trail stopped. I looked ahead, no more ribbons, I  looked behind, no more ribbons. Time to back track, and there we go, I had  missed a hard left turn (apparently many go straight here, thus the clearly defined dead end). I cleared the area of the turn with my loppers and piled  the brush on the dead end trail as signal for the others to not go that way.  Later Gene mentioned the same confusing area and I asked if he saw my signal,  he said he must have just plowed through it thinking I was just clearing trail. I passed small streams to my left & right, yup there is water if I  needed it. On reaching the summit I enjoyed my lunch of cold pizza and had a  little nap. I was woken up by the sound of Gene coming up the trail. The  summit was clear and I pointed out the great view of the valley below (see pic below). What a  great feeling to see the wild land below us. Thomas showed up a short time  later, said he saw one lobelia and took some pictures. 
Photo by Metod Lebar
I was getting antsy from sitting so long so I headed down before the other  had finished lunch. I said I would stop if I encountered a major road block  or confusing section. Soon I could hear descending behind me which turn out  to be Gene. I slowed down to wait, however he was coming down much faster  than he went up. At one point the trail was looking a little vague so I  yelled up to Gene to see if he saw any ribbons leading off to the left or  right. He couldn't, so I figured we must still be on the trail (the map shows  the trail as going straight down the cliff). Soon we were stopped by impenetrable clidemia. Gene climbed back up and found a missed turned. He  yelled to see if I was close enough to contour over to the trail, but the  thick vegetation eliminated that idea immediately. We cleared the area of  confusion and put up barriers to the dead-end false trail. we went through  several very cool uluhe tunnels and continued down the pali. Gene would yell  "Mark, are you on the trail?" I would yell back "Yup, lots of ribbons" Or   "Yup. I'm on the trail" Finally my response was "No, no more ribbons, I haven't seen one in a while." So back track and there is a ribbon to the left. But that's it. No more ribbons. We crawled around in circles, no ribbons or trail. We went back on my previous path using loppers to make a little more progress, not a clue. We consulted the map & compared what the trail was supposed to do with where we were compared to abend in the stream below. The trail should continue on the top of the broad ridge we were on however there was absolutely no evidence of a trail (see pic below).
Photo by Metod Lebar
So two choices, we could start clearing where we thought the trail was supposed to be (this would be very slow and hard and maybe wrong), or, we could head for the stream below, take a refreshing dip, get clean, stand up straight, breath fresh air free of clidemia dust, get water to drink (I had just run out), and follow a known path that would lead to the trail. So we did the later and thoroughly enjoyed the stream. After our well deserved break we continued down stream wading & rock hopping. Looks like a waterfall ahead, oh good it's a small one no problem to climb down. Now we get to a large pool with vertical sides. I  think to myself no problem I have plastic bag I can swim and float my back across. Gene though has a big pack that would not fit in my plastic bag. "How deep do you think it is?" asks Gene. I peer into the pool "At least neck deep" I answer. So Gene slips off his boots and slides into the unknown darkness of the pool. Just up to his neck. He heads down stream and the poolgets gradually shallower, piece of cake. I hand him his boots which he puts back on his feet, I hand him his pack which he balances on his head. He makes it across, pack is high & dry. I follow with pack inside plastic. As I come out of the water we both have big smiles on our faces, what an adventure! As we continue down I would talk and Gene would say "What? ribbons? Did you say ribbons?" I would say "No I didn't say ribbons" Soon I am startled when Gene yells "RIBBONS!, WHOOO HOO! RIBBONS!". Yes, we have found the trail. Up to our left is the Kekumu campsite, to the right the trail continues.
It will be dark soon so we set up camp have dinner and quickly go to sleep. We do talk about Thomas we had hoped to find him at the camp site but really knew this was unlikely, there was another campsite we had bypassed perhaps he was there. Most likely he was setting up camp somewhere on the non-trail. We were confident everything was fine, he is very experienced, has plenty of food & water, a very detailed map, and a big pack to make him slow. Friday Morning. The plan is for Gene to start clearing up the trail while I cleared my way down trail to meet up with Patrick & crew who had radios (when we had separated from Thomas, Gene went though his pack to get the two radios he had brought, unfortunately they had been left behind in the van with his change of clothes). When I reached Patrick he would be able to communicate with Thomas and Gene up the Valley to make sure everything was O.K. The process of clearing the trail really seems an impossible task. Soon my motto was "Clear instead of Crawl." This proved to be very slow so it turned out to be "clear because I want to stand up." Clidemia entered my eyes, ears and nose, warning me to be careful. It was 4pm and well down the valley that I met up with Patrick. He agreed to just push forward so as to make it to the camp and try to contact Thomas by radio. He invited me to enjoyed the wide open trail down to the beach. The trail was wide open, in way too few places. 
It was still a battle to push through most of the way. The lower valley did open up for a pleasant walk along the stream under some huge mango trees. About hear I heard a loud roar. A helicopter was landing across the stream. Wow, maybe Thomas was hurt, how did fire rescue get here so fast? I strained to look through the trees to see if there was a basket with Thomas inside. As I debated crossing the stream here and trying to make my way of trail toward the helicopter it took off and zoomed away up the valley. I continued on the now ribbonless trail of most use and made it to the coast. Unexpectedly there was no one here, all the structures were deserted. So I headed down the rocky coast to a place were I could set up my hammock and have a little privacy if the residents did return. As I was preparing my dinner Gene unexpectedly walks by about 50 feet away. "DID YOU FIND THOMAS" I yell as I quickly walk over to him. "NO, NO SIGN OF HIM" says Gene with worry on his face and in his voice. "RADIO CONTACT?" "NO, IS THAT FIRE RESCUE?" Funny, I didn't notice the helicopter had just landed. Gene continued to toward the helicopter. I covered my food and blew out my stove and headed over myself. Gene was getting a lecture from Chris the long time resident on how you should never split up in the jungle. "DON'T PANIC, DON'T PANIC" says Chris emphatically. Gene explains that now one is panicking, he is willing to pay for the helicopter to just fly up the valley and look to see if Thomas can be easily spotted on the trail, or get a signal from Patrick that everything is O.K. If there is clear indication of trouble fire rescue can be notified immediately. This conversation/argument lasts until it is too dark to fly. The pilot will think about it in the morning.Saturday morning Gene tells me he has flares, he will hike up to Patrick, jogging in the open places he hopes to reach the Kekumu camp by 9am. He will ask the helicopter to fly by on there way out, if Thomas is hurt or there has been no contact he will fire a flare, they will call fire/rescue. I will stay behind to direct fire/rescue, if they come. I eat breakfast and position myself to watch the North coast of Molokai (not a bad pass time) and to keep an eye on the helicopter. About 8am the helicopter group shows up I go over and introduce myself and ask if Gene had stopped by to explain their plan. The pilot is still vague about his willingness to go back into the valley, explaining that is not his helicopter. He doesn't say no, but he doesn't say yes either. He says they will head out at about 10am after they go for a swim. I go in the same direction to the gorgeous black sand beach, check out the cave and waterfall at the far end, explore along the and around the wide peninsula to view a stunning waterfall. On my way back the helicopter comes to me turns around over the ocean then buzzes straight at me pulling up over the plateau just in time. They turn around and pop out right above the pilot leaning out gives me a big grin & wave. I wave back. They head off toward Maui. Had they already been up the valley? Did that wave mean everything is O.K.? I had no idea. What if they did not go up the valley? Now there were the regular tour helicopters going into the valley. Gene could signal them with flare. Or, if there was a problem someone would hike out and we could send word by boat(two had already come in with groups of people).At Chris's house I learn that his dog, his companion & provider of food to half of Molokai for the past 10 years, had died yesterday. Dean the helicopter pilot had flown him back to his old house in the valley to bury him. Chris was also very upset at the National Natural Landmark and possible National Park that might means an end to his lifestyle and his dreams of having Native Hawaiians reinhabiting and putting back into productive use his beloved Wailau Valley. I spent the day at his place and met some of the hunters and fishermen who reside there. The consensus was billionaires were depopulating the island so the could have their own private playground. "It's not a conspiracy, just a group of like minded people." Danny offered us the use of his shelter which included four bunk beds and a kitchen complete with propane stove. I learned a lot about the valley, heard some incredible stories, and saw some great pictures of attractions that are hidden in the valley. Yesterday Chris had not realized that Thomas had already spent one  night alone and now it was possibly two nights and three days without contact. As they day past we grew more worried, and they stories changes from those who came out after being lost in the jungle for 3-5 days to stories of one man who was having trouble flagged down a state helicopter, he had blistered feet which was not considered life threatening, so was refused a ride. They did take his backpack though. He never did come out and it was months later that someone remembers the backpack at the state base yard that had never been claimed. Or stories of falling 80 some feet breaking everything and barely surviving, getting hacked up by a crazy man with a machete & hiking out, etc., etc. These guys really should write a book. Danny who was supposed head out at 2pm had the last boat and stayed to 4pm. Should he call fire/rescue? Another boat was coming first thing next morning we would wait until then since I was sure someone would hike out by night fall to let know what was going on. Maybe they had gone out over the top for help? Just as darkness was approaching Gene showed up and gave us the good news that everything was O.K. Thomas had found a real nice campsite and that radio contact had been made the night before. They were all up taking their revenge on that unbelievable cross over section and it was now six feet wide. Sunday I had no desire to hike up into the valley instead now with great relief I could enjoy body surfing, basking in the sun, lying in the stream, watching the fishermen, eating ono opihi and just cruising. This is the life! By mid afternoon the tired, dirty, smelly, grumpy trail clearers started to roll in. Staggering about and mumbling. I felt a twinge of guilt. But then I knew that everyone had an experience of a lifetime. The boat ride back to Wailau was incredibly beautiful, wet & wild, spirits definitely picked up as four grown men gripped the boat, hanging on for there lives, whooping and hollering with joy, as we rushed up & down the swells. A large rock would suddenly roar up near the boat and I was very glad we had an experienced captain. I studied the shoreline as we passed waterfalls spilling into the sea and hidden valley's. Could I walk to this places from Halawa? Yes, mostly, if the ocean was calm. Extremely unlikely. Many on this list have probably read Audrey Sutherland's -Paddling My Own Canoe- For me it is time for a reread. Another book that was recommended and set in Wailau is Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior.Walking past the campers at Halawa I met some of the hunter/fishermen I had met in Wailau the day before. They asked about the lost hiker and said word of him had already spread to the West End. I explained there was no lost hiker just a slow hiker. We were all glad to be able to joke about this. This was a great experience on the friendly isle.To future Wailau Hikers: Even though the trail is partially cleared. Expect to get tired, dirty, scratched & lost. Even if you are young, strong, experienced & wise. Be prepared for the 8 mile hike to take 3 days and be very glad if you make it in one. Be very careful & be safe.


  1. Aloha from Molokai,
    I was just wondering how long ago this hike was taken. I haven't done this hike in many years, but was thinking about doing it this summer.

    Aloha, Ted.

  2. My son Jeff Zoltowski hiked the same trail March 1993 and never heard from him again.......He could have fallen to his death, murdered in the dope fields or decided to start a new life. Google his name and read the story.

  3. My son Jeff Zoltowski hiked the same trail March 1993 and never heard from him again.......He could have fallen to his death, murdered in the dope fields or decided to start a new life. Google his name and read the story.