or Kelly Corbett, safety is the top priority when it comes to exploring the Wailua River.
“We want everyone to have fun, but we want everyone to be safe. So I always remember what I was taught a long time ago, which was safety first, then have a lot of fun while being safe. Then make lots of money,” he said. “So I pass that along to everyone here.”
Corbett is a tour guide for Kayak Kauai.
In addition to taking people on tours along the Wailua River and to Uluwehi Falls, also known as Secret Falls, Corbett teaches his fellow guides how to read the weather conditions and know when it’s no longer safe to go on the tour.
“I could talk on and on about safety,” he said.
When it comes to teaching guides about the nuances of weather and how it affects the river and mountains, Corbett said it’s about giving them the chance to experience it firsthand.
“I had a new guide come in on a day when I knew his tour was going to get canceled. I walked him out and showed him what the river looks like. If it’s already brown, that’s a clear indication you shouldn’t be going up the river,” he said. “Once you get up there, and you start seeing the stream turning brown and see a lot of sticks and debris coming down, that’s a good indication to get out of there.”
Even on his days off, Corbett, who also manages the equipment and vehicles for Kayak Kauai, said he always checks the radar and rain gauges and sends the information to the guides.
“Half the time, if it floods up there, there’s no flood advisory because it isn’t a flood to where the community would worry about it,” he said. “The only people up there are the people who are trying to hike to the waterfall.”
How long have you been with Kayak Kauai?
I’ve been here, with these guys, for six and a half years. July 5 will be seven years.
Have you been a tour guide before that?
Yeah — off and on. I worked with Holo Holo Charters and Blue Dolphin. I’ve been in and out of the tourism industry since I was 18.
What do you like about being a tour guide?
I’m horrible with people’s names, but I can remember where they’re from. If I see them again, I would put their face with where they’re from.
I’ve met people from as far as Russia to Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve met people from Iceland and Greenland.
I don’t get to travel the world, but I get to meet people from around the world.
How do you train guides to be aware of weather?
I have to remind our guides to remember ground saturation. Once it rains so much, it’s not going to take much rain to cause the stream to swell up and make it dangerous to cross. If it’s been dry for a month or so, it’ll take a lot more rain for it to rise, so you have a little more leeway.
I always tell them to pay attention to the stream. If you hear thunder, if it looks like it’s black and gray over Waialeale, or you hear rumblings in the mountains, turn around. Everyone knows that here.
Phones are another big thing — the guides check their phones every so often on the trip to check weather conditions. I’ve gotten to the habit where I don’t wear a watch anymore, that way I’m forced to check my phone on tour. That way, if my brother is checking the gauge for me and sees that it’s going up, he’ll text me and I’ll get it.
What other measures do guides take when it comes to safety?
Our guides have a say in who can and cannot go on the tour for safety reasons.
We evaluate our people. If the trail is real muddy and we have someone who isn’t physically capable — we can tell they have a bad knee or a bad hip — we tell them in a nice way we can reschedule them on a drier day.
Have you ever had to tell someone they couldn’t go on the tour?
I’ve had to tell someone who wasn’t forthcoming with me in the beginning — we’ll ask at the start of the tour if anyone has medical conditions — who didn’t say anything.
We were halfway up and the trails were really muddy and the person told me they just had their knee replaced two months ago.
What happens when you find out about a medical condition during the trip?
They stay behind. I took the rest of the group to the waterfall and ran back down to the person to check on them. When I do that, I let another guide know and help them get back to their kayak so I don’t have to worry about them wandering off.
That’s the only time I’ve had to do that.
How do you handle people who may be having a tough time learning how to kayak?
The biggest thing is less is more. Our guides do a really good job at the basics — how to hold a paddle, how to paddle and how to steer.
I just go over the basics and put them in the kayak so it’s fresh in their mind, and they can practice and paddle around in the water.
Whoever is struggling at first, I’ll go up and work alongside them to pinpoint what they’re doing wrong.
The biggest thing we tell them is to have fun with it and don’t get frustrated. Usually couples get frustrated with one another, so that’s one of the things I let my group know — have fun, even if you’re not doing as well as you thought you would do.
You’re kayaking in paradise, and the last thing you want to do is get upset because you’re not going as straight as you’d like.
I try to say it so it’s funny and gets everyone laughing, to get them more in their comfort zone instead of stepping out if it. Even for a lot of people, they are stepping out of it, so you want to make it fun.
We let everyone go at their own pace, so there’s no pressure on the ones who are having a hard time. If I see there’s a group of people who are doing really good, I tell them to stay within my eyesight, and I stay with those who are behind.
The most common thought with people in the back is “We’re doing horrible and we need to catch up” and I tell them those guys are either just fast learners or really good.
I stay in the back of the group because usually the people who are going to get in trouble are in the back of the group. And with the wind blowing toward the mountain most of the time, I can get to the front of the group faster than I would if I had to get to the back of the group.
All of our guides know that.
On the way back, the people who were behind on the way up do a lot better, so I position myself in the middle of the group, so that way, if anything happens, I’m equal distance between them.
What is it about this area that keeps bringing you back to it?
I grew up going up this river with my dad with his Zodiac. I was 5 when I first went up. We used to play up there a lot.
So as a tour guide, it’s a way for me to re-connect with my childhood and see this place for the first time, every day, through our visitors’ eyes. You see the happiness and how excited they are.
They’re seeing this for the first time. For me, I don’t even know what number to put there.
So that’s one of the things that allows our guides to continue to do the same thing. That’s one of the things I look for when I’m hiring someone — even if he’s from the Mainland, you see that spark where you know they’re going to enjoy something like this.
Because we’re definitely not getting rich doing this.
It’s fun — it’s one of those things where you get up and you want to go to work.
What stories do you tell on tour?
When I first start, I let everyone know about what’s in the water — what can hurt them, what can’t. It’s more of a joke because there isn’t anything.
Then we let them know about the different fish that call the Wailua River home — the barracuda, the turtles, seals. The honu or turtles don’t come often, but I have seen them on the river. It doesn’t happen every day, but I tell people to keep their eyes peeled.
As we go up, talk about the birthing stone, the different heiau all the way up to Waialeale. We also give them a visual aspect of what life was like for Hawaiians back in the day.
What’s the most rewarding part about being a tour guide?
Seeing people light up when they see these different things for the first time. You almost feel their emotion or excitement. I get goose bumps just talking about it.
And knowing they’re doing it safely and aren’t going on their own. You read about these people who come here and die and it’s a bummer. It’s definitely something that could have been avoided.
We’ll try to educate people, too, as far as other places on the island. After I introduce myself, I always let people know if they have any other questions about places to see or want to know more about surfing, diving, beaches, don’t hesitate to ask.
There’s always someone who asks about Queen’s Bath, Kalalau Trail and Hanakapiai Beach. We try to educate them the best we can here so the education extends from the Wailua Valley.