I’ve been meaning to post this image from the headwall of the Wailua gorge, also known as the Blue Hole. This photo is not a montage or faked in any way, just taken with a 15mm fisheye lens.
As you can see, it’s not usually blue, and only if you carry a fisheye lens does it look like a hole. Did I mention that I don’t like the name “Blue Hole?” It just seems so corny and obviously contrived. But I recently heard that it was so huge, you couldn’t capture it in one image, so I wanted to put that myth to rest.
Source: Paul J. Neiman
On this topic, I just received a very interesting comment on my post about the Wailua Headwaters hike. Essentially, the comment says that increased exposure of this route in the Ultimate Guide and on this blog specifically has led to more hikers, caused side trails to be worn in the wrong directions, and allegedly prompted unhappy local hikers to remove the flagging that did exist.
This marks a turning point of sorts for this blog, one I knew would happen sooner or later, and one that I’ve been dreading somewhat. It’s the point at which it seems like the information I share has a negative impact on the Kaua’i I love.
It’s all fine and dandy to post pictures of rainbows and waterfalls for people to enjoy from afar, but then people see a beautiful place on this blog and want to go there—it’s called tourism and it’s Kaua’i’s largest industry. And it’s not just visitors, there are a fair number of residents who want to go exploring too—mainland transplants like myself who might be considered long term visitors. So they start asking around, then they start tromping around, and before you know it, it isn’t the way it was before. Except here it’s not the Hanalei full of illegal vacation rentals, or the Kapa’a strip malls full of mainland chain stores, it’s the wilderness areas I care about full of people and their tracks.
As to what effect can be directly attributed to this blog, I’m probably exaggerating. Especially when the Ultimate Guide is also involved, and it has a bad reputation for transforming places it mentions. After all, that’s where everyone learns about the Blue Hole, even myself way back when. But the commenter says the hikers mentioned to this blog, and so I can’t say I didn’t contribute.
I have many conflicting thoughts on this matter:
- Foremost in many people’s minds is the hypocrisy of hikers such as myself. We want to go to the remote places, we want to boast about it a bit, and then we don’t want others to go because it won’t be wild or remote anymore. I do admit that I wanted to blog about those places for the novelty factor. After all, any tourist can go on the established trails and flickr is full of trail photos from all over Kaua’i. But I would genuinely love for people to discover the beautiful places I’ve seen, if they have the ability to go.
- But I suppose I’m also blind to the sheer numbers. I might go twice in a year to the same wilderness area, and even if I do some route-finding and trample a little bit, it’ll hardly be noticed. But even if 5% of Kaua’i’s one million annual visitors go hiking, and 1% of those try to go to the Wailua headwaters, that’s 500 people more than before. More significantly, with a group of hikers almost every day, the vegetation probably can’t recover and erosion will begin.
- I have no real way of guessing who puts up the trail blazers in the first place. Hunters or local hikers could be marking their routes, or visitors wishing not to get lost could be doing it too. Personally, I’ve never put up or taken down a trail blazer. So, why did someone take down the flagging? To keep people from going? It seems too late for that, but I suppose if more people fail, and word gets out that it’s extremely difficult again, that might happen. Of course, it just takes one person to decide they don’t want the flagging, at least until someone decides to put it back.
- With trailblazers marking the most direct route away from dangers, I think the damage to the vegetation would be minimized and hikers would be the most safe. Then again, more people on the same track will cause more serious erosion in one place. I do know that some places would turn into mud-bogs, which is annoying for the hikers but also becomes a permanant scar on the land.
- And what do the locals really think? Significantly, I believe all the guidebooks and blogs are written by people who weren’t raised on Kaua’i. How would my perception of backcountry information be different if I had been raised on Kaua’i as opposed to having moved there as an adult? Exploring the backcountry is not an outsider thing, local hunters and explorers have certainly been all over. But it seems to be a mainland thing to want to share it all with the world. I’m not profiting from sharing this information, except perhaps with some fleeting internet recognition, but the Ultimate Guidebook writers certainly are. Would a local try to profit from it?
- I like to think I have been careful with access information on this blog. In anticipation of this turning point, I have tried to give hints but not directions. People who read about an adventure here have to take the initiative into the unknown themselves. I like to think that this provides the information that experienced hikers need to go, and not enough for others to get started. But perhaps it just leads the foolish astray. In the end, it’s just a matter of degree.
- In my defense, I always include a warning about the dangers in red at the beginning of my adventure posts. And in the case of the Wailua headwaters post, I explicitly mention at the end that the information I give will not help you find the actual route. Half-jokingly, I called it the “fine print,” but now I realize I should make that information just as visible—the post has now been updated. Will this stop people? I suppose not all who should be stopped, but I hope those that do go will be better prepared.
- I certainly dread the next turning point where a hiker on this route is injured or needs to be rescued, or both. I suppose it will happen whether I write about the route or not, but I sure hope it can be avoided.
- Ultimately, I think it would be good for Kaua’i if some more of the backcountry were opened up. Certain visitors want this experience, as do residents that are like me. If Kaua’i can provide it and benefit from the tourism, isn’t that good for everyone? Would it ruffle the feathers of the local hunters? Probably. Would it really impact them? I’m not so sure.
- The problem is how to open it up safely for people and the environment. As I’ve mentioned, areas like this are fragile, and even a well-established trail leads to erosion. Can the erosion be controlled, can the trail be improved with logs, will it then become less of an adventure? I think the answer is yes to all three, but having more trails spreads out the impact.
- But won’t there will be a little less wilderness then, and still there will be people who want to hike to the remaining untrampled places in search of “true” wilderness. The backcountry of Kaua’i is certainly finite, and so I have trouble balancing out this resource against those who enjoy it and hopefully care for it. It can be seen as self-serving, but I like to think that hiking and, by extension, eco-tourism are worthwhile persuits.
- But what I’m becoming aware of is that I, as a hiker, wish there were more and better maintained trails. Yes, there is the need for adventure, but getting away from civilization even on a good trail can feel like an adventure too. This is exactly the case of the Kalalau trail. Places like Waimea Canyon could provide great backcountry adventures, and the trails are there already, but they’re overgrown. I now see that I need to write about places like that and send the adventurers on the overgrown trails. Hopefully, the result of that impact will be some worn tracks on renewed trails.
Certainly a huge topic in the end. Readers, do you have any perspectives to add, any insight to share?
Update, one day later: I was thinking about this post all day, maybe I’m being too hard on myself; maybe I’m overestimating my readership. But this evening I just heard about another blog reader who read about a remote place here and decided to go. My friend on Kaua’i who had paddled with me to Kipu Kai just went back again yesterday. While there, he met a visitor from Minnesota who had seen the original blog post and decided to go himself!