Kayaking sacred river an awe-inspiring trek
A lovely strand of liquid jade, the Wailua River flows 20 miles from lush Mount Waialeale to its mouth near Lydgate State Park on Kauai's east coast. The three miles of the river that are navigable border one of the most sacred areas in Hawaii.
Secret Falls Paddling and Hiking Adventure
Where: Meet at Kayak Kauai's shop at the southern end of Coconut Marketplace, Kapaa, Kauai (a half-mile north of Wailua River)
When: Twice daily, at 7:45 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., except Sundays
Cost: $85 per person and $60 for children under 12, including lunch (deli or veggie sandwiches, cookies, pineapple, taro chips, bottled water and juice). Free for infants or toddlers (parents should bring backpack child carriers for youngsters who aren't able to walk). "Repeat offenders" -- those who have booked tours or kayak rentals directly with Kayak Kauai before -- receive a 10 percent discount.
Call: 826-9844 on Kauai or toll-free 800-437-3507. Reservations should be made at least a day in advance.
Web site: www.kayakkauai.com
Notes: Wear sunscreen and cool, comfortable clothing such as a T-shirt, shorts and footwear appropriate (e.g., tabis, aqua socks or tennis shoes) on a trail that can get muddy. Bring a bathing suit, towel, change of clothes and waterproof camera. No kayaking experience is necessary.
Wailua means "spirit, ghost." Legend says the spirits of those who recently died would travel up the river and make their way to the cliffs of Haeleele, which stand guard over Polihale Beach on the island's west side. There, at a portal between the mortal and spirit worlds, they would leap into the next life.
The remnants of seven heiau (ancient temples) can be found between the mouth of the river and the summit of 5,080-foot Waialeale. Dating back to the 14th century, Holoholoku is the oldest heiau extant on Kauai.
Near Holoholoku, at the sacred stones called Pohakuhoohanau, royal women from throughout the islands came to give birth.
Further up Kuamoo Road (Route 580), which hugs the northern banks of the Wailua River, are the remains of Poliahu Heiau, which supposedly was built in one night by the industrious menehune. It is said Kauai's last king, Kaumualii, presided over rituals here relating to war.
From Poliahu a short path leads to the famed Bell Stone, which was struck with a large rock to announce the birth of every new chief. So loud and distinctive was the sound, it could be heard by villagers living miles away.
These are among the treasures of what is now 1,093-acre Wailua River State Park, the magnificent backdrop for Kayak Kauai's Secret Falls Paddling and Hiking Adventure.
This five-hour family-friendly excursion was launched a few years after Micco Godinez and his brother, Chino, founded Kayak Kauai in 1984. Initially, the company focused on open-ocean kayaking trips along the Na Pali Coast.
"I like to say Na Pali and its offshore waters inspired the business, but it is the more gentle rivers of Kauai that keep our heads above water," Godinez says. "We soon realized that Na Pali was a seasonal endeavor that appealed to a small segment of the travel market. We needed an alternative that could be offered year-round and that was well within the capabilities of most people, including kids."
Godinez notes participants on the Secret Falls Paddling and Hiking Adventure have the "carrot" of a waterfall to look forward to.
"That makes it the perfect 'soft adventure' for the average family," he says. "No one gets really tired."
COURTESY OF KAYAK KAUAI
Kayak Kauai's Secret Falls Paddling and Hiking Adventure is a family-friendly tour that flows at a leisurely pace and leads to a waterfall reward.
THE TOUR STARTS with 45 minutes (2.5 miles) of paddling from Smith's Boat Marina on the southern side of the Wailua River.
Never kayaked before? Not a problem. Kayak Kauai's double kayaks are equipped with foot-controlled rudders that facilitate steering.
"If people can walk and chew gum at the same time, they can operate the foot pedals," Godinez asserts. "They are connected to a rudder at the stern. When kayakers step on the right foot pedal, the vessel turns to the right; when they press the left foot pedal, it turns left. That allows folks to concentrate on producing even, consistent strokes. When you break the rhythm of your strokes because you're having trouble steering, that can quickly tire you out."
The Wailua River, Hawaii's largest navigable river, is rated Class I: "Fast-moving water with riffles and small waves; few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy."
Unlike most rivers, however, it is easier to paddle upstream than it is to go downstream. "That's because the tradewinds generally blow inland, toward Waialeale," Godinez explains. "The trades push kayakers up against the gentle current."
He asserts age is not an issue with kayaking.
"We've had grandparents who've done better or just as well as the young ones, and they often prove to be 'poetry in motion,'" he says.
When the river forks, you'll cruise right (north) for about five minutes beneath a canopy of trees until you reach a landing that marks the trail head to Uluwehi or Secret Falls. The 45-minute hike to the waterfall takes you through a natural greenhouse that's full of ti, ginger, mango, Java plum, kukui, hau and "some of the biggest albizia trees I've seen on Kauai," says Godinez. Known as "herbal Prozac," the bark and flowers of the albizia are used in concoctions that purportedly alleviate anxiety, stress and depression.
Rock walls and terraces partially hidden in the dense foliage serve as reminders that you're walking in the footsteps of the ancients. The unhurried pace of the 1-mile trek allows you to savor the peace and beauty of the site, your playground for the next hour.
BEFORE OR AFTER lunch, immerse yourself in the cool stream fed by 120-foot Secret Falls. Godinez doesn't recommend swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall, which is surrounded by rocks and debris.
"I have been there when rocks are falling, and it can be scary," he says. "The sound echoes from everywhere, and unless you actually see the rocks falling, you don't know where they're coming from or whether you'll wind up being the bull's-eye."
After the break, you'll hike back to the landing for the return trip on the river. This time, you'll be kayaking downstream, into the tradewinds, so you'll get a bit more of a workout.
Although Godinez has done the Secret Falls tour "countless" times, it never fails to rejuvenate him.
"There's always a lot of kayakers on the Wailua River, but it's big enough for everyone," he says. "I love the quietness of the river."
And Godinez has found soul-searching is best done in a kayak.
"It's a great place to meditate," he says. "You may not solve all the problems in the world, but if you're looking to find yourself, a kayak will take you there."
COURTESY OF KAYAK KAUAI
Rock walls and terraces hidden by foliage remind visitors of the ancient civilization that existed close to nature.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.