An Island River
by T. Dietz
Kauai is one of the ten wettest places on Earth. The high volume of rainfall on the island allows for the 20 mile-long Wailua River to flow year-round. Consisting of two main forks, the south fork takes you inland toward Fern Grotto, a fern-covered cave, while the north fork brings you to a foot trail leading to Secret Falls or Ulu Whei. Kauai’s Secret Falls is not very secret and knowing this, my son Colin and I got an early start on a clear 70’s F day before even the roosters started their morning calls. Considering its popularity, we wanted to be sure to leave our comfortable beds in our Waimea batten-slatted cottage in time to be the first kayak on the water.
We’d arrived several days before for our first visit to this unique island in the Hawaiian chain. Unlike many of the Hawaiian islands, Kauai is considerably under developed even though it’s the oldest of the main islands. In addition to our Secret Falls adventure, we spent time hiking in Waimea canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, scuba diving off the Southern portion of the island, beach time, visiting the Na Pali coast (famous for amongst other things the opening scenes from Jurasic Park), and exploring some of the local history.
In 1778, Captain James Cook reached the Hawaiian island chain and landed at Waimea Bay. He is noted as the first European to reach the Hawaiian islands, however, there is documentation showing the Spanish landing there first in the 1600’s and Cook having acquired a copy of a Spanish navigation map later. In the town of Waimea there’s a replica statue commemorating Cook. We hiked the short distance from town to the recorded landing sight of Cook and his men aboard the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery. Less than 40 years after Cook’s landing the Russians would also land on Kauai, build a fort and then be pushed back out, all in less than 3 years.
Having secured our rented tandem kayak we set it on a carrier dolly and proceeded on the path to the river. A nice boat ramp allowed easy access to the water. Despite our efforts, we were the 2nd kayaking group on the river. Colin took the bow seat in our tandem sit-on-top and me the stern with a small dry bag packed with energy snacks, water, and our phones, set between my legs.
We had a stellar day with only a few clouds patches dotting the sky and a slight headwind. Paddling efficiently and fast, we made significant progress and easily passed the first boat. We needn’t have exerted so much energy as the other group was headed up the south fork of the river to visit Fern Grotto. The riverside jungle was lush and we were barely aware of homes along the first part of the river’s banks. With no one now ahead of us, except the imposing Nounou Mountain (the Sleeping Giant), we had that illusion of isolation and exploration. Although not needed,
I had the river’s main forks and tributaries sketched out in my field notes and we easily navigated the obvious north fork turn. As we entered this part of the river, it quickly and considerably narrowed and the trees grew over the water enough to create a tunnel like effect. About 100 yards into
the north fork we saw a smaller turn off to the south and decided to take a look. The trees closed in quickly as the river narrowed even more and shallowed greatly, all within about 50 yards. Our off the beaten track rapidly waylaid, we turned around and navigated back up the north fork where a few minutes later an obvious beach landing on the north side of the river made for easy beaching of the kayak. Beyond this pooling area and beach (mud bank) felled trees blocked further access up the fork. All in we were about 40 minutes paddling.
The beaching area was muddy and that mud only increased in quantity and slickness as we proceeded into the jungle. At the landing area was a pile of walking sticks and taking the hint, we grabbed a few to stabilize ourselves on the trail. Although the landing area lacked any clear direction from which to head off from, the path presented itself after just a short walk around. Being the first on the trail for the day, we were breaking in the mud. I had on my Keens which were a perfect compromise of stability and mud filtering. Colin decided on his Keds that were destroyed well before we finished this adventure and tossed at the end of the day. The lush jungle-setting and narrow muddy trail made for great adventure and a lot of slipping, sliding, and fancy footwork to avoid spills. The walking sticks were much appreciated.
Along the winding and low incline trail, that was easily navigated in some spots but questionable in others, there were 3 river crossings. The major crossing had a rope strung across it to aid in stabilizing one’s footing. After heavy rains the river flow increases to where the rope line is essential for the crossing unlike our situation. We were told by the kayak rental facility and read online that lives had been lost in the past at this crossing during heavy river flows. Despite the depth only being about a foot at its deepest, the strength of the river was apparent. One can easily imagine the danger when heavy rainfalls increase the river’s height and intensity.
After the final river crossing and prior to reaching the Falls, our final obstacle was a wonderful muddy root laddered hill. My picture was after the descent on the way back but I had Colin reclimb the path so I could get a picture. He of course was thrilled. As we approached the final stretch of the hike we could hear the Falls about 5 minutes before seeing them. As we rounded the final bend Secret Falls came into full view and at about 100 feet high was impressive and worth the effort. The Falls plummeted into a pool approximately 150 feet across. that drained into a boulder strewn creek on its way down to the main river. Our trek after beaching the kayak was about 45 minutes.
We stayed in the creek, standing at some large boulders just below the Fall’s pool to break into the snacks and enjoy the fantastic views of the Falls and surrounding jungle. I was pleasantly surprised that we had no company for almost 45 minutes and only ran into the first trekkers as we were heading back to the root ladder.
While enjoying the Falls, I looked down and saw a beautiful peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris, Bloch & Schneider, 1801). I couldn’t resist and challenged Colin that I could find a fish and catch it with my hands. Needless to say, he was surprised and impressed but then tried to figure out the scam. I gently put the bass back in the water after a photo and we wrapped up our stay at the Falls.
Past the root ladder, the number of trekkers increased to a steady stream all heading up to the Falls. Many folks were ill prepared for the muddy terrain wearing terrible foot wear (like flip flops) and slipping and falling there way along the trail. Both Colin and I handed off our walking sticks to those we deemed in greatest need. Many folks asked us if we’d found the Falls, if they were flowing well and how much further they needed to go. We answered all with encouragement.
Our kayak was now not alone and surrounded by over a dozen more. The beach was crowded with kayaks and red in particular. It was not so easy to figure out which kayak was ours without our paperwork and kayak number. Back on the river, we paddled easily with the slow current. After returning our kayak we headed to the beach to bask in the sun while we awaited pick up. A great way to end our Kauai trip.