Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kuku'i Trail, Waimea, Kauai, HI

This was my back-up plan. My first choice run was closed - Nu'alolo/Awa-'awapuhi grand loop - due to some trail detrioration on the clifftop section, and as I would be running that section by torchlight I decided to go elsewhere. If I needed a further excuse to go for the back-up, it was also lashing horizontal rain at 4,500' and I would be soaked (and cold) immediately.
First light of dawn as I met the river at the bottom of the descent
The Kuku'i trail is a very steep descent. 2.6 miles and about 2,200' of altitude loss. Starting very close to milemarker 9 on the canyon road it starts fairly gently. It was still dark as I began the descent and there was no rain or appreciable cloud cover at this altitude. It was an eerie descent in so many ways. First, I knew there were some significant drop-offs when the trail traversed steep slopes, but I couldn't see them in the dark. Occasionally I would squirt my torch beam into nothingness and briefly pondered how steep the void really was (I would find out on the ascent!!!). Also, there was the constant screeching of ferrel chickens and much rustling in the adjacent undergrowth. I had read about wild boars and aggressive pigs and didn't fancy meeting one in the dark on a perilous perch. I needn't have worried.

After a half mile the trail began a series of steep, sweeping switchbacks and I could feel the quick loss of altitude. This section is through a wooded hillside and it took a lot of concentration to avoid the rooted surface. I didn't fancy twisting an ankle - or worse - on such a poorly frequented trail, so I was a little tentative where I would normally have been gung-ho. It felt like a slow descent.

At around 1.2 miles the switchbacks relent and after a contour across a steep slope on a very narrow section of trail it headed down in a straight line following a steep hard mud hillside. Had it been raining this would have been treacherous, but in the dry I found I could make reasonable pace and my torch was able to pick the most obviously trodden line. This direct descent continued for about .75 miles and by the time I re-entered the woods at the bottom of the slope my quads were burning.
Just need to get round that hillside to see the huge waterfall

I am a decent navigator and it made sense to me to push this descent of the mud slope right to the very bottom, but I could also see trails cutting off to the right (facing out) and could imagine a few folk getting enticed by an illusory "easier path". My advice would be to ignore those more promising routes and keep to the tough, direct line.

Things took a different course when I re-entered the woods. With another mile and about 800' of descending ahead, the overgrown trail became damp - indeed very wet - in places. Throughout this whole final section I was slipping and sliding all over the darn place, keeping my balance when I really didn't deserve to. The rocks were lichenous and the trail surface pure mud. It was disgusting. And then just when I wished it would end there was a quarter mile section through head-high grass - grass that was dripping with morning dew. I got absolutely soaked as I ran through it. It was a shower I didn't need and although the air temperature down in the depths of the gorge was warmer, my wet shorts and teeshirt felt really cold. I squelched along the final descent to the river as quickly as I could and reached a primitive picnic area at the bottom. That teeshirt just had to come off!!!
What? No bridge?

I wasn't really sure where to go from here. One option was to head down the gorge and then try to pick up a lower trail that would take me up the far side. Instead I headed up river with the aim of reaching the huge waterfall towards the top of the valley. I made the wrong choice.

Sunrise touching the valley rim
There are two places I have been on earth where an encounter with a live dinosaur wouldn't have been a huge stretch of the imagination. One is the Gorge du Verdon near Castellane in southern France. The other is here. (There is a 3rd - a Republican convention, but here you have to realize that these are pretend dinosaurs...they aren't really real!!!). The floor of the gorge feels otherwordly. This surprised me because the evidence of human impact was all around...after all, I was running on a trail...and I could also see evidence of logging. But the dark, dripping foliage and undergrowth, so obviously lush and untouched, could have harbored almost anything. It was only slightly disappointing that the only wildlife I encountered were wild chickens and frogs...really big frogs...the kind of frogs that wouldn't get off the trail when you encountered them...really intimidating frogs with an attitude!!! Bastards. They were everywhere.

As I tracked northwest by the river I crossed a few streams and after about a mile met an impossible obstacle. It had just turned daylight and as I rounded a corner I was met with a full flowing river about 150' across. And it was fast flowing. I also estimated it to be about chest deep in the shallowest section. I pretended to consider the decision to cross very truth I knew the second I saw it that I wasn't going to cross. It would have been even more foolhardy than is usual for me to attempt a crossing. I pretended to feel disappointed and back tracked to the picnic area.

I had wasted too much time on this fruitless excursion so decided to ascend back up the trail and hopefully get into some sunshine. I determined right at the bottom that I would run the whole way up, no matter what. I do stupid things like this - set myself impossible tasks just to beat myself up when I fail to achieve them!!! But this was one I accomplished. Despite the horrible trail conditions in the lower third, and the excessively steep middle section up the hardened mud slope, and the steep switchbacks and steep traverses towards the top, I kept running the whole way.
Did I really skip across this slope in the dark on the way down?

There was but one problem - a large frog encounter. As I re-entered the dense woods towards the top of the ascent there was a very large frog on the trail. As I approached it did not move. I went to the right - it jumped to the right. I went to the left - it jumped to the left. This was a mean, no nonsense frog. I eventually found myself in a straddle position with the frog between my legs when it leaped ahead again. Slightly off balance I spun around on one leg, lost sight of the darn thing, and then put my right leg out to stop myself falling down the hillside. My footing felt soft - way too soft. I looked down at a squashed frog. It's innards oozed across the trail and a sticky and extremely smelly goo stuck to the sole of my shoes. This was one dead frog. Although I felt bad about ending its life, I rationalized that it was a "him or me" situation. After all, it could have killed me!!! "Frog kills runner" would have been all over the news. Imagine the humiliation.

I topped out in 47 minutes - the second fastest recorded ascent. Again, not too shabby for a frog affected ascent.

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