Foraging in Kalalau

Mitch emailed me to ask:

I have a quick question i was hoping you could answer. My girl and I are visiting kalalau for 5 nights in mid sept. (After the crowds). And I was wondering if there was still alot of taro left in the valley that time of the year. And if its abundant by the streams. I was hoping to find fruits and make poi rather than carry in a ton o’ food. whattaya reckon?

As I like to do, I’m sharing my reply with everyone:

Sorry to dissapoint you, but for all intents and purposes, there is no taro in Kalalau. Taro requires maintenance of the lo’i (irrigated paddies), and though you can find rock walls that held the terraces where taro once grew, the forest overtook them long ago. I once saw a restored lo’i, but even if it still exists, you shouldn’t pick someone else’s crop. The only place I saw what might be wild taro (I’m no foraging expert) is in the last stream before reaching Kalalau valley. There are a few plants growing in the mud nearby that may be taro or a relative plant. I advise against picking them because:

  • They are pretty plants and this is a state park after all.
  • They are probably very woody, not fleshy like cultivated taro.
  • Even real taro must be boiled for half an hour to remove oxalic acid that can irritate the mouth (or worse).

Additionally, there is almost no foraging of any kind in Kalalau. You can find a mango here or there during mango season (late spring into early summer), maybe a lilikoi (passion fruit) and sometimes you’ll find what looks like an orange and turns out to be a lemon. The only edible plants I’ve seen in the Kalalau stream are ginger and watercress, but you won’t get much of a meal out of those. Even if you did catch peak mango season, you have to get them before the fruit flies do. If you go off trail, you can find some papayas, bananas, other trees cultivated by the resident hippies. When the state enforcement officers raid the valley, they chop down any productive trees they find, so they are quite rare in the first place. The ones I did see were not producing fruit abundantly, so again, why take from someone else.

Here’s a true story: I was once exploring one of the side-streams in Kalalau valley with a friend. We climbed out of the stream-bed to examine a low rock wall, and beyond it was a grassy area with fruit trees. There was an orange tree, some unripe egg fruit and some rather scrawny papayas. We saw a ripe orange and picked it with a stick–it was a real orange and not a sour lemon. Not long thereafter, a hippy walked in and when asked, he said it was OK to pick the orange, the fruit was for everyone. He told us it was an old orchard that was planted in the heydays of the 60’s and 70’s. He said he came down to pick a lime that afternoon, and even though he was never threatening in any way, I wonder if he hadn’t heard us and came by to inspect and/or protect the spot. After a few minutes, a lime fell off the tree and hit the ground with a rustle of leaves, and he sauntered off to get it saying “that must be the lime I was waiting for.”

So even if you tried, I don’t think you’ll ever find enough food in Kalalau valley (or fishing from the beach) to live comfortably for 5 days. Nor can I even recommend you try, because if all hikers did the same, the valley and fish stock would be depleted quickly. Maybe if you befriended some of the hippies, you could eat with them, but then again, they either have to pick from their limited resources or carry it in, so it’s unlikely.

Having done several week-long backpacking trips, both in Kalalau and on the mainland, I recommend taking calorie-dense foods that require little or no cooking (to save fuel or avoid carrying it altogether–no wood gathering in the valley either, burn only driftwood from the beach, but it is usually gone by the fall). I’ve mentioned these before:

  • powdered humus mix
  • powdered refried beans
  • dried taboulĂ© mix
  • tortillas
  • powdered soup
  • ramen noodles
  • peanut butter
  • oil (in a small sealable bottle)
  • chocolate
  • powdered milk (soy or cow’s)
  • powdered coconut milk
  • energy bars/protein bars

You can always eat the freeze-dried meal packages, but I find those to be expensive and too salty (good for hiking days, though). The other advantage of these alternate foods is they can all be found on Kauai (except for the powdered soy and coconut milk), mostly at Papaya’s Natural Foods in Kapaa (their Hanalei store might also carry the mixes, but I haven’t looked for them).

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