THIRD OF THREE PARTS
HAENA, Kauai >> Lifelong north shore Kauai resident Steven Ng has hiked the Kalalau Trail many times, but it was only after the community’s roads closed to outside traffic following last year’s historic April flooding that he fully appreciated its unobstructed glory.
Ng still remembers the magic of standing on an empty Hanakapiai Beach with his 11-year-old daughter, Helena. The beach, on the Napali Coast, is about 2 miles from the start of the popular hiking trail at Kee Beach in Haena State Park.
“Usually there are hundreds of people there, but there weren’t any people besides us. It was amazing. I knew it and she knew it, too,” Ng said.
“These days before the road reopens are precious times. Everyone is trying to get their fill of once-in-a-lifetime moments. It’s never going to be like this again.”
The state Department of Transportation closed a portion of Kuhio Highway from Waikoko to Haena to outside traffic after rain drenched the island April 14 and 15, 2018, damaging some 32 sites along the road, including the three bridges at Waioli, Waipa and Waikoko streams. DOT plans to reopen the road May 1 and will use flagmen at the bridges, where construction is expected to extend into June or later.
In the meantime, residents and others with county permission may travel through the damaged portion in a convoy that moves through checkpoints at regulated times. The 830 or so motorists who join the convoys daily have to plan their schedules accordingly, sometimes breezing through and other times finding distractions to fill long waits.
One benefit to the Kuhio Highway closure is that the isolated communities — whose combined population was only 749 in the 2010 census — have returned to a simpler time with fewer cars and where two horses in the road are a traffic jam. Where everybody knows everybody, and children and animals run free.
Where neighbors are growing closer in shared hardship.
But there also are many things that make life more difficult for the region’s “convoy convicts” — a tongue-in-cheek name Wainiha resident Laura Richards uses to describe their plight.
“I’m a Rotarian, and I can’t go to meetings much. With the convoy schedule, it might take me eight hours just to attend a one-hour meeting,” said Richards, Hanalei Colony Resort general manager. “I got teary-eyed at Rotary one day because I was wondering, Do they have any idea what we need to do down there? We are really cut off now, and the world is normal outside our community. It can be very emotional.”
Yarrow Beydoun, Richards’ daughter, said she was forced to leave her home in the community because the convoy schedule didn’t coincide with her work hours at a liquor distributor.
“I live in Kilauea now,” Beydoun said. “The convoy schedule makes it hard for the family to see each other and hold family gatherings.”
Ivan Slack, co-owner of Na Pali Kayak in Hanalei, said the limited convoy schedule has created problems for employees who can’t get out of the community early enough for morning tours.
“They’ve been sleeping in our company closet or spending the night in the parking lot,” Slack said. “It’s been a hardship for us and them. Our business was built around tours to the Napali Coast. After they closed the road to visitors, we lost about 65% of our business.”
Haena resident Robyn Stevenson said she had to stay on Oahu for breast cancer treatment after surgery because she couldn’t count on the road schedule accommodating her medical needs.
“We had to leave my daughter and grandson alone to deal with the flood,” Stevenson said. “It’s been a scary time but what’s coming is even scarier. We don’t know what will happen when they reopen the road. There’ll be a flood of tourists for sure.”
While reopening the road would return the region to modern times, it requires giving up some of the benefits that money can’t buy.
Elsa Flores Almaraz wonders whether the road’s reopening will prevent residents from enjoying rediscovered surroundings. Flores Almaraz said locals have only just returned to Kee Beach, a spot many had begun to avoid because parking was sparse before the road closure.
“We had over-tourism, and visitors would park in any space they could find. Residents don’t want to walk 2 miles to get there,” she said.
Suzanne “Bobo” Bollin, 70, an icon among Kauai’s north shore waterwomen, said over-tourism has been hurting the marine ecosystem. Bollin’s 11-mile swims just off the rocky shore from Kee Beach to Kalalau Beach were featured in John Wehrheim’s 2010 documentary “Taylor Camp,” about a hippie enclave that existed from 1969 to 1977 on land that was later folded into Haena State Park’s expansion.
“Since the road closed we’ve worked hard keeping trash off the beach. When I go snorkeling, I’ve seen evidence that the reef is starting to grow back from all the toxic reef-killing sunscreen,” said Bollin, who works at Hanalei Surf Co. “The seals and the turtles are coming up and laying on the beach again; they weren’t doing that before.”
Last year nearly 1.38 million tourists visited Kauai — that’s up about 8% from 2017. The number of tourists visiting Haena State Park, an estimated 730,000 or more annually, inspired the passage of the Haena State Park Master Plan, which will be implemented with the park’s reopening currently slated for June.
It’s hoped the master plan, which reduces park visitation to 900 a day, will improve the quality of life for endangered marine species such as humpback whales and monk seals — and for local people, who are vastly outnumbered by tourists.
In recent years tourism growth also had diluted the community’s neighborhoods with vacation rentals, said Wainiha resident Cyndy Johnson. Kauai County shows 86 vacation rentals registered in Wainiha; however, officials have said they don’t have an accurate count since others are operating illegally.
“People came and went. You didn’t know who people were, whether they belonged here are not,” Johnson said. “I’m terrible with names, but there’s rarely a face up here that I don’t know now.”
Gray Hayton, a food pantry volunteer, said the road’s reopening threatens the community’s newfound sense of togetherness, which ensured the tragedy that took hundreds of homes failed to take a single life.
“For a little while, for this little bit of time, this last year that we’ve been out here, this community’s come together — grown,” Hayton said. “They know who their neighbors are, good and bad. And that’s just going to get trampled on.”
‘CONVOY CONVICTS’ LEAD SCHEDULED LIVES
The state Department of Transportation regularly changes schedules for the convoy to get into and out of Kauai’s farthest north shore region. Here’s a look at operational plans through Friday.
DRIVING OUT OF THE COMMUNITY:
5:50 a.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
6:50 a.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
7:50 a.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
12:45 p.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
1:45 p.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
5 p.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
6 p.m. Wainiha to Hanalei
7 p.m. Wainiha to Hanalei*
10:30 p.m. Wainiha to Waipa Bridge Park and Ride/pedestrian bridge
DRIVING INTO THE COMMUNITY:
6:20 a.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
7:20 a.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
8:20 a.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
1:15 p.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
2:15 p.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
5:30 p.m. Hanalei to Wainiha
6:30 p.m. Hanalei to Wainiha**
11 p.m. Hanalei to Waipa Bridge Park and Ride/pedestrian bridge
*This is the last convoy from Wainiha to Hanalei until the next morning at 5:50 a.m. Residents going to Hanalei must leave their cars at Waipa Bridge Park and Ride and then cross the pedestrian bridge to catch a shuttle to Waipa Park.
**This is the last convoy from Hanalei to Wainiha until the next morning at 6:20 a.m. After this convoy, residents will need to park at Waipa Park and catch a shuttle to the Waipa Bridge pedestrian bridge overpass.