NA PALI — Hidden among the Na Pali Coast’s promise of pristine panoramas are dangers that could turn the trails treacherous without warning.
One of those insidious agents is rapid stream rise, particularly in the Hanakapiai Stream.
The trail’s management agencies are considering a bridge over the stream to curb strandings and to help prevent further tragedies from occurring in Hanakapiai.
Curt Cottrell, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources State Parks administrator, said the bridge idea provides one option for safe crossing at that part of the stream.
“DLNR is committed to complete this project, as funding has been allotted for its construction and design,” Cottrell said.
After repeated requests to both DLNR and State Parks, TGI was not provided details on design, cost, or timeline for construction of the bridge.
In a 2014 TGI article, Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for DLNR, said the time frame for planning and construction would most likely be two t0 three years.
“Due to the remote location and lack of roads, any materials or prefabricated structures would need to be airlifted in, which is costly,” she told TGI in 2014.
Mark Hubbard, who is part of the group that cleans the first two miles of the trail twice a month, said DLNR has held informational meetings on the subject, but he hasn’t heard details on cost or design of the bridge either.
“Everyone in the meetings I went to were all in favor of it, but it was recognized that the bridge only solves the problem of people going to Hanakapiai Beach,” Hubbard said. “It doesn’t solve safety issues going up to Hanakapiai Falls. They have to cross the stream several times up above to get to the falls.”
In a recent TGI online poll, to which 688 people responded, the majority of those voting didn’t want a bridge over the stream.
Survey results follow, with those participating choosing one out of three answers to the question: Should a bridge be built over the Hanakapiai Stream so hikers won’t get stuck when heavy rains come?
w 393 people voted: “No. It is a difficult hike in a beautiful wilderness area. A bridge would ruin the environment. What’s next, paving the path?”
w 238 people voted: “Yes. A small, narrow, wooden bridge people could pass over would be relatively inexpensive and prevent all these rescues we keep hearing about.”
w 57 people voted: “Maybe. But what if the bridge collapses because too many people are on it? Who has the liability?”
The creek that runs from mauka to makai can turn into a raging brown torrent within minutes when there’s enough rainfall in the mountains, and hikers often have little warning.
Hubbard said he thinks inexperience can have a lot to do with people getting swept off their feet when they’re crossing the stream.
“I can say people do strange things on the trail and they may not use the best judgment when walking in the stream because they don’t know how deep it is,” he said. “If I’ve never been swept off my feet in a river and the water is suddenly a foot higher, I can understand why people think it’s not too bad and they get swept off their feet and they’re gone.”
He said the width of Hanakapiai Stream makes it deceiving as well, because it’s not immediately apparent when the water rises.
“It’s a wide enough stream that if the water goes up a foot, it doesn’t look a whole lot higher,” Hubbard said. “Yet a foot higher probably means a really strong current.”
In April 2014, according to DLNR, 121 people were flown from Hanakapiai when the stream became too dangerous to cross. County helicopter Air 1 spent more than seven hours retrieving hikers from the valley over a two-day effort.
This year in February, high surf stranded two kayakers at Nualolo and rescued with the county helicopter. In May, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued two people, one with an ankle injury, from Kalalau Beach.
Operating the Kauai County helicopter comes with a $450 per hour price tag, plus fuel and crew costs, according to Kauai Fire Chief Robert Westerman.
That means the taxpayer ticket for the 2014 stranding incident was more than $3,000.
In addition to cutting down on the cost for retrieving wayward wanderers from the banks of the stream, Cottrell says adding a bridge at the popular crossing point would protect the safety of rescuers.
DLNR estimates three-quarters of a million people annually visit Na Pali Coast State Park. Many visitors cross Hanakapiai Stream, then head up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls. That involves two more miles of hiking and four or five more stream crossings. Those who continue on down the Kalalau Trail from the falls are required to have a permit from DLNR, and that journey offers dangers of its own that have stranded many an adventurer on the Na Pali Coast.
Hubbard said the first two miles are probably the busiest part of the trail. He estimates around 500 people walk pieces of those two miles of the trail daily — and the number of people visiting is growing every year.
“You can’t count on the public walking in a certain fashion on that trail, either,” Hubbard said. “There’s a lot of diversity in hiking styles of the people that visit the trail and you have to be cognizant of that.”
For example, he said, about 60 percent of the people he’s seen cross the stream at the first crossing in Hanakapiai wade straight through the water instead of hopping across on the rocks, but some people attempt to bounce from rock to rock while crossing.
“We’ll go out there and put a rock or a log step in the trail for people, and then we come back and you can see they’ll be walking around the step,” Hubbard said. “They do so many things differently in so many ways.”