Sunday, August 29, 2021

Backstrand Road, and a small mystery

As I think I've mentioned once or twice now, one of my coping strategies during the ongoing pandemic has been to get outside when I can, while encountering as few other people as possible, ideally nobody at all. It's not just about avoiding getting sick; I've had all my shots, and will get my booster when it's available, and I've seen all the (pre-Delta) studies that say the odds of catching Covid outdoors is very low, especially if you're just passing someone on a trail for a few seconds. But people still stress me out, even knowing all of that. I also figure that even if I'm overreacting -- and I probably am, even with the Delta variant on the loose -- it's still an excuse to spend way too much time staring at maps and looking for the most obscure, least visited places I can come up with, which is a big part of the fun.

So a while back I ran across the US Forest Service Interactive Visitor Map and started poking around the Columbia Gorge on it, as one does. The key thing here is that this map shows Forest Service roads as well as trails, and a lot of these roads are either gated and closed to motor vehicles, or get so little traffic that they effectively count as trails. The downside is that they often don't go anywhere interesting, and just end in the middle of the forest at the site of an old 1960s clear cut, or power lines, or a cell tower, that sort of thing.

While staring at that map I noticed a couple of short forest roads branching right off the old Columbia River Highway just east of Bridal Veil, smack dab in the middle of the main tourist corridor, and I'd never heard of either of them. So those obviously went on the big TODO list, and now you're reading a post about one of them.

So right around the pushpin on the map above, roughly halfway between the Angels Rest trailhead and Wahkeena Falls, there's a small turnout off the eastbound side of the old highway, with a closed and dented gate and no obvious signage visible from the street. If you're like most people, you probably won't notice it at all, and if you do you'll probably assume it's private property of some sort, since that's exactly what it looks like. It sure doesn't look like a trailhead, at any rate. But this gate belongs to you, the federal taxpayer, and behind it is an old road the Forest Service calls "Backstrand Road", aka road number 3000-303. Past the gate, the road heads steeply uphill for a bit -- a back-of-the-envelope calculation and some guesswork says it's a 10% grade, within a few orders of magnitude or so -- and it then turns right/west at a corner with some old decorative rockwork, then widens and levels out for a short stretch, before petering out into dense underbrush.

At the corner where the road levels out, you can clearly see where the road once continued east as well, and a current county assessor's map shows that bit of road heading back down to the highway at a more reasonable angle. But that road has also been thoroughly consumed by the forest and you can't make any progress on foot in that direction either. So that's about all there is to do here. I didn't see any obvious side trails or other attractions. Glimpses through the trees suggest there'd be a decent view from the top of the trail if it wasn't for all the trees, but there are zero breaks in the trees so that's kind of a moot point.

So given all of that it's not surprising that a 2003 Forest Service roads assesment and its 2015 update both labeled the road as "low value" and recommended it as a high priority for decommissioning. But the reports also noted that the road wasn't a significant risk to anything or anyone if it was just left the way it is now. Which is probably why they still haven't gotten around to ripping it up in 2021. But why was the road here in the first place?

To me the road really doesn't look like your ordinary Forest Service logging road, even in its now-overgrown state. It just seemed like someone spent more money on it than the USFS likes to spend on logging roads. So I did a little digging and apparently this was private property with a house on it just twenty years ago. I know this because of four data points:

  • The PortlandMaps entry for 49666 (!) E. Historic Columbia River Highway (the honest-to-goodness street address of the lot containing the road) has a last-sale date of 2001, and the assessor history shows that property taxes were being paid on the land before that sale, which tells us it was private property just 20 years ago. The entry also says the 27.36 acre lot is still technically zoned as residential.
  • The road appears in 1961 and 1995 county survey records, the latter looking much like the current road layout. A comment on the 1995 survey refers to the road as a "driveway".
  • The Multnomah County surveyor site also has a neat feature with aerial imagery taken periodically since 1998, which unfortunately I don't see a way to link to directly. The 1998 and 2002 image sets show a structure at the west end of the flat bit of road, while the 2004 edition shows fresh dirt where that structure was, and the latest edition shows nothing as the forest canopy has now grown in by a lot.
  • I also managed to find some info about the former building, thanks to whoever had the brain-genius idea to auto-generate a "real estate listing" page for every street address in every dataset they could lay hands on, including obsolete stuff. The resulting pages are just search result-clogging SEO spam upwards of 99% of the time, but the listing for this place tells us the long-gone house was 974 square feet, built in 1958, with one bedroom, one fireplace, and baseboard heat.
I unfortunately couldn't find any news stories about the sale here. I suppose there either wasn't a press release at the time, or there was but nobody deemed it newsworthy.

That's not a very interesting story by itself, but there's a bit more history around here, and for that we have to zoom out a little. The state LIDAR map shows what kind of looks like a faint trail or service road or something heading west from where the house used to be, heading toward Dalton Creek.

Now, Dalton Creek was the subject of several OregonHikers forum threads in the late 2000s and early 2010s, several of them trip reports from people trying to sort out the "which waterfall is Dalton Falls" controversy (see my old Dalton Falls posts for more on that) and looking for additional falls on a few creeks immediately east of Angels Rest:

There were a couple of mentions of bushwhacking along Dalton Creek up from the old highway and sometimes climing all the way to Angels Rest from there, so apparently nobody realized there was a simpler and less thorny way to do the initial approach, a way that also skips traipsing along right past someone's house.

Dalton Creek is also the property line betwen the Backstrand Road property and a pair of small lots with diagonal property lines that together form a rough diamond shape totaling about 10 acres. Those property records show the Forest Service has only owned them since May 2002, and whoever owned them before was exempt from paying taxes on the land, so either another government body or some nonprofit group. I'm not positive I've found any news about that sale either, but I did find an April 2002 article that briefly mentions a possible upcoming land deal somewhere in the Bridal Veil area. It says the sale would cover 77 acres & could enable an ADA-compatible trail to Bridal Veil Falls someday, so it may be about a completely different land deal, or it might have covered the lots here and others elsewhere. The timing seems right, but there just aren't enough details to be sure.

Which brings us to the small mystery from the title of this post. A 1962 zoning map and an earlier 1950s tax assessor's map both label the diamond-shaped area as "YMCA". That got my attention, and before long I thought I had it all figured out: An April 1919 Oregonian story explained that local farmer George Shepperd (famous as the donor behind Shepperds Dell State Park) had also donated a house and land somewhere in the Bridal Veil area for a new YMCA camp. A WyeastBlog post about the nearby Bridal Veil Cemetery gives some backstory on Shepperd, his YMCA donation, and a series of strange and melancholy events in the years after he donated the falls. The trouble was that I couldn't find any subsequent news stories about the camp -- no grand tour when it opened, no vintage photos of kids doing crafts, nothing -- and a 1927 Metsker map doesn't show a YMCA camp here, or even any property lines corresponding to the camp we saw on the 1950s & 60s maps. Instead, it shows that roughly the entire area beyond the old mill town was then owned by a "Columbia Highlands Co.", including the Backstrand Road property, the future YMCA diamond, and points east all the way to Wahkeena Falls.

(Incidentally the other (and the oldest) ownership map I ran across was from 1889, and shows the whole area owned by a W. Dalton, who we met but learned nothing about in one of my old Dalton Falls posts, or maybe the Dalton Point one. He or she also doesn't figure into the present story any further, other than being the namesake of the creek here.)

Anyway, the Columbia Highlands company was incorporated in July 1915, and a brief business item the day after the big announcement noted it was capitalized at $400k and would be "a general brokerage firm dealing in real estate". Another item the following month finally explained what the company had in mind:

The Columbia Highlands Company was given permission last week by the state corporation department to plat and sell approximately 1760 acres of land along the Columbia River Highway, about 30 miles from Portland, and to construct a scenic road, clubhouse, and hotels. The company is capitalized for about $400,000, and its officers are Portlanders.
A similar Oregon Journal item also explained that the company is a consolidation of the interests of the Gordon Falls company, Charles Coopey, and Minnie Franklin.

Those names got my attention, and let me try to explain why briefly. "Gordon Falls" is an old name for Wahkeena Falls, Coopey was one of that company's founders (and namesake of Coopey Falls along the Angels Rest trail), and Franklin was the future Mrs. Charles Coopey, and the full story of the company is a whole other half-finished draft blog post I need to finish, but the short version is that the company proposed to build a woolen mill somewhere near Wahkeena Falls, to by powered by damming the creek above the falls. The mill would of course have its own company town nearby, to be named "Gordon Falls City", whose water supply would come from diverting Dalton Creek right here. It turned out the plan was not to build a new mill from scratch; instead the new mill would be a relocation of the famous woolen mill at Pendleton (which still exists today), disassembled and shipped west piece by piece. The whole scheme sounds outlandish, and it came to nothing when locals in Pendleton passed the hat and outbid the Gordon Falls investors, and found someone in town who was willing to take over the recently-closed mill. Which may have been the real plan the entire time, and the Gordon Falls City scheme was just a ruse to scare Pendleton into paying up. In any event, the company's stock was instantly worthless, and Portland-area investors who lost everything were outraged, and the whole mess ended up in court for years and years afterward.

The company's only real asset was all the land it had accumulated between Bridal Veil and Wahkeena Falls. Under modern bankruptcy law that land would go to pay off Gordon Falls creditors, but back then it just sort of quietly rolled over into the new Columbia Highlands company, just in time to try to cash in on the brand-new Columbia River highway next door. A May 1916 story announced the new business plan was to subdivide the company's holdings for summer homes and general development. The company's land extended way up into the hills and canyons above Bridal Veil, and in some alternate timeline where this plan panned out there are endless historic preservation battles around a cluster of fabulous but decaying Gatsby-like Art Deco mansions atop Angels Rest, which have proved to be prohibitively expensive to own and maintain. In our timeline, a pair of Journal stories from July 1916 note that part of the company's now-1700 acres had been surveyed and platted as residential property, and they had already sold a pair of lots totalling 2.5 acres with a prime view of (newly renamed) Wahkeena Falls, with home construction to begin shortly. Typically an item like this would be the kickoff for a long stretch of weekly or even daily real estate ads touting the area and reminding the reader that the area will be sold out soon and this may be their last chance to own a piece of the Gorge. But I couldn't find any sign that they had ever advertised Columbia Highlands, unless maybe the ads neglected to use the key phrase "Columbia Highlands", or the words were in an overly ornate Deco font that the newspaper database's OCR system couldn't parse. And what's more the Multnomah County Surveyor's Office GIS map has no trace of any of this alleged subdividing and platting ever being filed with the county, so it's anyone's guess what was really going on here. In any event, the next mention I found of the scheme was an August 1918 news item suggesting the company had changed plans again:

Following the annual meeting of the Columbia Highlands Company, held yesterday, it is announced that the directors have decided to carry forward a plan of development of their property through which the Columbia River Highway runs for nearly three miles. Trails will be developed to various scenic points, including the hanging gardens on Dalton Creek and numerous grottoes of exceptional scenic beauty. Attention will be given to lands adjacent to the highway, and steps will be taken to protect the shrubs, trees, and forest from the vandalism of thoughtless visitors.

A similar Oregon Journal article explained that the company was now just going to develop land along the highway, with the balance reserved as a privately-run tourist attraction. Hiking trails would come first, followed eventually by longer trips up into the mountains by burro or pack mule, I suppose along the lines of what you can still do at the Grand Canyon. The new board of directors listed a local judge as president of the firm, the other seats filled by familiar names, including Coopey as secretary, and Coopey's wife as treasurer. I'm reading between the lines here, but I wonder whether Coopey's presence on the board and long bitter memories of the woolen mill scheme were a hindrance to the Columbia Highlands operation, and they brought in a respectable outsider to be the public face of the struggling project going forward.

There is almost no further news about the company after that. A1922 public notice from the Secretary of State's office listed it among a large number of companies that had not maintained a current business license, or paid any fees, or made any required filings with the state over the past two years and were hereby officially dissolved. After that, the very last we see or hear of the company is a 1933 business item simply listing it under "dissolutions", with no indication of what happened during the intervening eleven years, other than the company name being all over that 1927 map. Did the 1922 notice finally get the attention of the company's lazy lawyers, who went back through the company's unopened mail pile and found the relevant "final notice" letters and somehow got back in the state's good graces? Did the dissolution order get tied up in an endless court case for a decade and change, without making the newspapers at any point? Or did various authorities just neglect to follow up on the 1922 order for all that time? July 1933 would've been during the initial burst of New Deal legislation, as it was becoming abundantly clear that 1920s laissez-faire business was on its way to the dustbin of history; maybe the state or the county figured it was time to tidy up some zombie corporations and other loose ends, before the feds did it for them. I do wish the company had at least managed to build a few of those trails before cratering, since (per the OregonHikers threads above) there still isn't a reasonable way for ordinary hikers to visit the "hanging gardens" along Dalton Creek.

That 1933 item is followed by another eleven-year gap, as we jump forward to the next historical map I could find. The 1944 Metsker map of the area is essentially identical to the 1927 one, but with the former Columbia Highlands properties now owned by a Catherine B. Fairchild, about whom I can find almost no information. The 1927 map showed the name "Fairchild" on a small lot along the highway. And if you look closely at the 1944 map you can see where someone applied whiteout in a few spots, replacing "Columbia Highlands" with the name of the new owner, suggesting this was either a recent development, or the news was slow in reaching the Seattle offices of "Metsker the Map Man"

Other than names on maps, the only news item I could find with a matching name or initials was a 1926 traffic item noted that a Mrs. C.B. Fairchild, of Aberdeen, WA, had broken a few ribs when her car flipped on a gravel road along the Washington Coast. This was part of a long list of traffic accidents and injuries around the region, so if somehow you're ever sent back in time by a century or so you might want to make a note to avoid driving or riding in cars if you can, because it sounds quite dangerous. This item was just below a group photo of the new state Republican committee, which (quite unlike the present day) had 8 female members out of 18 total. You can still tell it's the GOP, though, because the photo is 100% white, and everyone in it is scowling at the camera. Below all the traffic gore and mayhem, another item concerned a lobbying campaign to have a Three Sisters National Monument declared, which still hasn't occurred nearly a century later. The area does get National Park-level visitorship, but still doesn't have a budget or protection level to match. Or at least not yet.

But back to our story, specifically a 1952 front page story. It seems the Fairchild estate had been foreclosed upon a few years earlier for unpaid back taxes, with the land going to Multnomah County. The controversial part was that the county had then sold off large tracts of the land to private buyers -- including 600 acres in the general area we're visiting right now -- without first asking the state parks department whether they wanted any portion of the land. The county seems to have been caught flat-footed by the controversy; the head of the county land office explained that notifying the state wasn't his job, and in general the county preferred to get land back into private hands and back on the tax rolls, and besides they might have mentioned the Gorge land in passing while talking to the state about something else, so it was really the state's fault for dropping the ball. That didn't go over very well, and he ended up promising to notify the state first if any more Gorge properties ended up in county hands. Meanwhile the new owners in the area -- a Mr. & Mrs. Calvin C. Helfrich, an elderly couple who had picked up the property back in 1949 -- had already logged much of their acreage, and were talking about building summer cabins in the area, and had applied for water rights on Dalton Creek, echoing a few parts of the earlier Highlands and woolen mill efforts.

Later in October 1952, the Helfriches -- possibly stung by the recent public outcry and bad press -- donated 30 acres of the property to the YMCA to be used as an Indian Guide camp to be known as "Camp Helfrich". They also gave an adjacent half-mile of highway frontage to one of their sons, but the article doesn't specify in which direction so I don't know whether that included the Backstrand Road property or not. The article notes that both properties were still timbered, unlike much of the surrounding area. So the earlier Shepperd donation turns out to have been a total red herring, and I have no idea what happened to the land from that donation or even where it was, exactly.

Now that I had an actual name for the camp, I figured I could just put "Camp Helfrich" into Google and the library's newspaper database and the rest would be easy, just with a start date of 1952 instead of 1919. And once again I was surprised by how few results came back. First off, we have a 1953 fundraising campaign for the new camp, with a cringey photo of beaming white kids in pretend-Indian garb. And not long afterward, a 1954 classified ad offering the remaining 550 acres for sale at $40/acre. Which sounds like a good deal until you realize the 1949 foreclosure sale had privatized the land at just $8/acre. The ad may have had the desired effect though; it only ran once, and the State Parks department bought most of the land in 1955. 403 acres changed hands this time, including Mist Falls and Angels Rest, but not the land right around the new summer camp. The article doesn't mention what the state ended up paying per acre.

In 1959, a different donor gave $10k to the local Indian Guide program. A YMCA spokesman said they might use some of the money for a new longhouse building. Which, however, would be located at Camp Collins, their much better-known youth camp next to Oxbow Park, and not their supposedly dedicated Indian Guide camp further east, which wasn't mentioned anywhere in the article.

Two small Oregon Journal news items in 1958 and 1963 alerted parents about upcoming summer day camps at Camp Helfrich, along with a whole galaxy of other summer camp options. The 1958 notice said swimming was on the agenda, though it beats the heck out of me where you could put a swimming pool or a pond, or really any part of a summer camp for that matter, in this kind of terrain. Maybe it just wasn't a very good site for a summer camp, I dunno. The 1963 mention is the last newspaper item I could find about the camp, and that's where the historical record (or that portion of it that I can find on the internet for free) just sort of ends. Inconveniently none of the news items about the camp included a map of it or even gave a street address, so I don't even know how people got there from the highway, whether Backstrand Road once doubled as the camp entrance, or if the entrance was somewhere else and it's just been erased so well that there's no trace of it on the LIDAR map anymore.

The really puzzling thing about all of this is the complete lack of Google search results about the camp. That honestly surprised me a lot more than the lack of news items. I figured there would at least be a handmade web page from 2001 about a the place, or an Angelfire or Tripod site, with Boomers waxing nostalgic and swapping memories of their summer camp days, maybe even with a few teen crushes finally hooking up half a century later. But no dice. Then I checked the Wayback Machine in case those pages had been on Geocities or some other long-deleted location; I even checked Facebook in case there's a private FB group out there for camp alumni or former counselors, or just somone posting a photo or mentioning the place in any way, and I don't even like Facebook and trying to do a useful search there is even harder than getting straight answers out of 2021 Google. If nobody's nostalgic about an old summer camp, did the place ever really exist? I'm only mostly joking here. If you just tell everyone that signups are already closed, and the waiting list's full, whenever anyone tries to register their kid or to volunteer, you could probably keep a phantom summer camp on the books for a fair number of years before anyone caught on, or you got bored of the charade. I'm not sure why somebody might do this, maybe as part of an elaborate tax dodge, or as a cover story for a secret CIA sasquatch lab, that sort of thing.

Another more disturbing possibility is that the camp was 100% real, but was home to history's most successful summer camp slasher, just like in the movies but worse, and it all got covered up, and even now the few survivors are still being threatened or bribed to stay quiet. Call me a former 80s teenager if you like, but when I see an abandoned summer camp and a mysterious house in the forest next door with "666" in the street address, I can't help but draw a cinema-based conclusion or two. I mean, it doesn't strike me as the most likely real-life explanation; the camp was probably just surplus to requirements after the postwar baby boom subsided. It's just that it's hard to explain how an entire summer camp has been completely forgotten, poof, when it ought to still be within living, non-suppressed, memory of at least a few people out there.

So that's your writing prompt, o Gentle Reader(s): If you once attended Camp Helfrich and have fond (or otherwise) memories of it, feel free to leave a note below. Or if you didn't, but heard tales of what happened to the kids who did, feel free to drop that into the comments too. Or if you've been on the run from the secret CIA sasquatch lab since 1962 and want to finally tell your strange but 100% true story, I'm all ears. And while I'm lobbing questions out there, if you have any idea why the road's called "Backstrand Road", I'd be really curious about that too, since I found absolutely no info on the subject, and the name appears nowhere in any of the maps or news stories I've seen about the area.

Thx,
  mgmt.

Monday, August 02, 2021

Untitled (1978)

Some of you might remember that I used to do a lot of public art posts here a few years ago. That's not really where I'm focused right now, but I still have a few sitting around in drafts, so don't be surprised if a few posts like this one show up among all the semi-rugged outdoor stuff every so often. This time around I've got a few photos (as in exactly three photos) of another Lee Kelly sculpture I stumbled across a while back. This one is fairly small and sits outside the west entrance to St. Vincent Hospital in Portland's West Hills. I was picking someone up at the time, and they were only interested in going home, and I can't exactly ask people to wait while I work out the best camera angles for maximal artsiness, and I'm not up for making special trips and visiting hospitals for the art during a pandemic.

Like a lot of things Kelly made in the 70s, this one simply goes by Untitled. One of the photos clearly shows a date of 1975 on it, and this post originally had 1975 in the title, but a walk/bike/drive tour brochure from the Portland Art Museum's 2010 Kelly exhibititon has a date of 1978 on it. Kelly was in the loop on this retrospective so presumably he would know the right year. Maybe that's the year it sold, versus the year it was made, I dunno. More importantly, there's already a much larger Untitled (1975) of his out there, albeit located in a park in Seattle. Which makes me want to go with 1978 just for the sake of disambiguation. And neither of these should be confused with another Untitled circa 1974, outside a bank branch at NE 72nd & Fremont, or the Untitled (1973) at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, or the Untitled Fountain that's picked up the name "Kelly Fountain" over time, on downtown Portland's transit mall. That's a lot of Untitleds, and I'm sure I'm just scratching the surface here. But in all fairness, if I was called upon to come up with names for them, I have no idea how I'd go about doing that. Maybe just randomly generate some names, or train a neural net on a bunch of modern art names, and invite people to people read whatever they like into the results, I dunno.

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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Donohue Creek Trail


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Next up we're checking out the obscure Donohue Creek Trail, in the Bridal Veil - Larch Mountain corner of the Columbia Gorge. It begins off Brower Road a bit north of Pepper Mountain, and if you don't recognize those names it's a clue as to why this is such an obscure trail. The trail heads east from there, eventually crossing its namesake creek and then joining an equally obscure north-south trail that I can't find the name of. Most of the trail is on Forest Service land, but the trail isn't an official USFS trail. Most of the trail looks exactly like a single lane gravel logging road, but you also won't find it on a list of official Forest Service roads, or official county roads, or any sort of road. Officially it doesn't exist at all, and yet here it is, so here we are.

The name originated with Our Mother The Mountain, a local cycling website, and at least three variants of a route they've dubbed "The Dark Larch". Lately someone's been adding these recently-coined names to OpenStreetMap where non-MTB people can stumble across them. Either on OSM itself or any site that uses it as a base map layer, which is how I bumped into it on AllTrails. A lot of these names are a bit... overwrought, and tend to elicit eyerolls when they show up in the OregonHikers forums -- like, the trail OregonHikers field guide calls the "Buck Creek Trail" (or the "Buck Creek on Larch Mountain Hike" due to the vast number of creeks named Buck Creek around the Northwest) is known as the "Dark Larch Wizard Trail" under this alternate naming scheme. My sense is that in the local hiking world, you don't call something a "wizard trail" unless it leads you to wizards, or at least a nice view of wizards in the distance, or maybe a place where there used to be wizards before the last clearcut. You and your hiking buddies can agree that the real wizards were the friends we made along the way, but no, that doesn't really count.

Going a bit further back, I gather someone named Donahue was once big in the timber business in this area. Besides the creek that this trail goes to, there was once a mill town named Donahue somewhere south of Larch Mt. Road, and a Donahue Road that heads south off Larch just east of Brower Road. This was a former county road built in 1889, and vacated in 1979, and is now a gated Weyerhaeuser access road popular with MTB riders. But that's an old road for a different day, or possibly never, since I'm not entirely sure that biking on Weyerhaeuser's roads is strictly legal. I'm not trying to scold anyone here; I'm just saying that if you're on a bike you can outrun corporate security goons if they're on foot, and outmaneuver them if they're in trucks, and do cool BMX tricks the whole time just to make the security dudes even angrier. That doesn't work so well if you're just hiking, unfortunately.

I'm not sure who built the "Donahue Creek Trail" here. I have found precisely zero useful information about the road and I don't know whether it was built by a previous private owner before the Forest Service, or whether the USFS built and then decommissioned it, long enough ago that you can't find any useful information about it online. But the road still exists other than a bit of superficial decommissioning right at the trailhead, just enough so it's basically invisible from Brower Rd. if you don't already know it's there, and it's effectively blocked for trucks and maybe for ATVs. But you can tell why it was built just by looking at it, going by the dimensions -- wide enough for a log truck, not wide enough for two-way traffic -- and by multiple areas along the road where all the trees are obviously the same age (and you can still see the decayed old stumps of much larger trees).

You can also tell by how road is laid out, with a main road and a couple of side branches off of it that look promising but just sort of dead-end after a while without really going anywhere. That's the problem with a lot of logging roads, and a big reason why you can't just turn them all into trails: The only interesting place they went was to a grove of valuable conifers, and they were all turned into 2x4s many decades ago, and there's no longer any reason for anyone to use the road. But roads don't just go away when they're obsolete. To be useful in the first place, a bunch of grading and steamrolling has to happen, followed by covering it in a layer of gravel to ensure nothing grows there. And that works remarkably well, and keeps old roads largely intact for decades on end with zero maintenace and no further traffic. Which is great right up until you realize you don't want all these roads after all and you'd like to be rid of them. That's when things get expensive. Here and there the USFS will do a more thorough decommissioning and "obliterate" the road -- that's their official term for it -- which means you break up and remove the old roadbed, pull up any culverts under it, and generally make the entire length of the road unusable by all vehicles. I've seen figures to the effect that this can cost up to $10k per mile, and Oregon alone has over 70,000 miles of Forest Service roads. Even we assume that maybe 20k miles of road are keepers, that's still around half a billion dollars to really get rid of the others, and Congress has never seen fit to allocate anything close to a down payment on that. And that's without taking any other states into consideration, and without doing anything about surplus roads on BLM, state/local, or private land. I've never seen even a ballpark figure for how many miles of those exist, quite possibly because nobody knows.

The trail has two trailheads on the west end: The one on the map above, if you can see it, and another south of there near where Brower Rd. crosses Young Creek. The north one might be easier to find from the road if you don't know where to look, and it's the only trailhead shown on OpenStreetMap, but the south one has space to park and not be in a ditch or halfway in the road, so I went with it. If I'm not mistaken, the first 800' or so from the north trailhead is a former county road / right of way. Seems that when the county closed off the old Road 458 -- the longer, original route of Brower Rd. -- they forgot to check whether everyone who lived along it also had legal access to the new road. At least one person wasn't, and after a few years of sort of trespassing on the land of an absent landowner nearby (a local cookie and candy tycoon) he filed a survey asking the county to build him a driveway across an uncooperative neighbor's land, in compensation for their earlier screwup. Though also proposing that the county butt out if he was able to cut a deal with said neighbor. I don't know how the dispute got resolved, but one way or another he got his driveway. And at the end of those 800 feet, you can still sort of tell where his cabin used to be, at the spot where the trail route abruptly turns 90 degrees and heads south instead of east.

The road meanders east from the trailhead and then sort of peters out as you near Donohue Creek, about two miles in (not counting wandering down side roads to see where they go) . I don't know if this was the east edge of the logging operation the road was built for, or maybe there used to a be a bridge here, I'm not really sure. At this point a real trail -- not an old road -- heads downhill to the creek and up the other side. I turned around at the creek, but the trail continues up the far bank and ends in a junction with a meandering, unnamed north-south track that connects to Larch Mt. Road on one end and ends somewhere near Bridal Veil Creek on the other. I wasn't feeling quite that ambitious when I visited. Plus that route puts you on private timberland outside the National Scenic Area boundary. Which is actually ok here -- the company honors the traditional social contract about public access, at least as of 2019, the most recent year I've found documentation for. On the other hand that area was logged within the last few years, so it's probably not a scenic gem right now.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Mauʻumae - Lanipō Trail

Ok, it's time to check out another O'ahu ridge trail. This time we're on Mauʻumae Ridge, the next ridge east of Waʻahila Ridge, which puts us straight uphill from the trendy Kaimuki neighborhood. The trail itself goes by a couple of names for some reason, "Mauʻumae Trail" and "Lanipō Trail"[1], and has a reputation as one of the harder ridge trails that's still doable by mere mortals of the sane persuasion. And yet you'll see other people online insisting it's no big deal, and they do it all the time. I think it's a psychological thing: The trail's famous for its near-constant ups and downs, but even knowing that, when you hike it for the first time, you keep scrambling up these steep rocky slopes and then realizing you now have to scramble at least as far back down, and you can see the next climb from where you're at, and it looks steeper and gnarlier than the one you just did, and you can sort of guess what's waiting for you on the other side, and you remember you need to do this all in reverse on the way back -- well, it starts to get discouraging before long. I suppose it probably gets easier if you've experienced it before and have more of a feel for what you're getting into, but I've only done the trail once so far and am describing it based solely on that. I can tell you that while I was doing this, I was passed by several elderly couples just out for a walk, a couple of families with small children, people walking their dogs -- including a couple of tiny unleashed dachshunds -- and even a teenage boy walking along strumming a ukulele for a couple of girls, and trying to be nonchalant about the climbing parts. Though, in my defense, I was stopping a lot for photos and not trying to speedrun the trail.

So the trail was pretty busy, and there were a lot of cars parked on neighborhood streets near the trailhead. Over time this tends to cause conflicts with local homeowners, so let me again put in a plug for riding the bus to the trailhead -- the closest bus stop is just a couple of blocks from the start of the trail, and you can catch Bus 14 on Kapahulu, right on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. You can even hop off a bit further up Kapahulu and pick up a box of malasadas (a local fried pastry, sort of like a round jelly donut) to eat on the trail if you want, as a convenient source of carbs or whatever, though you'll definitely get sticky hands out of it.

The AllTrails page for it rates it "Hard", with nearly all reviewers warning people to wear long pants due to all the scratchy overgrown 'uluhe ferns along the trail. People seemed to dislike that more than all the ups and downs. And here I have to say that I wore shorts and I thought it was fine; a few scratches here and there but it's not like you're hiking through blackberry vines, or devil's club, or poison oak, and there aren't ticks everywhere trying to latch on to you. Still, my experience may vary from yours -- maybe I was there outside of peak fern season, if that's a thing, or after someone had gone through with a machete and whacked the worst offenders, I dunno. So don't necessarily rely on my experience as a guide to how things will go for you.

If you're visiting from a more northerly climate, like I was, you might subconsciously assume that if it's a hot day, it's also a long day, and you'll still have some summer daylight to play with past 9pm. That is very much not true this close to the equator; at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the sun sets around a quarter after 7. Which, on this particular trail, means that if you're doing the return leg of the hike around 3-4 pm, you'll be scrambling up and down rocks with the sun in your eyes, and lengthening shadows on some of the handholds and footholds you need. Which is doable, but not really ideal.

So all of that said, the trail does have great views of the surrounding landscape, including views back toward the urban jungle of Waikiki and the inland side of Diamond Head, so it may sound like I'm down on the place, but I'm really not. I was sore the next day, but I thought it was worth doing. But don't just take it from me; here's a selection of other articles & blog posts about the hike, from across the interwebs.

Couple of other assorted items I ran across while looking for links about the hike:

  • A paper by Bishop Museum botanists regarding non-native orchid species taking up residence on O'ahu. Apparently if you're hiking the trail the right time of year, you might run across a patch of 50 or so Dendrobium orchids with yellow to yellow-brown or yellow-green flowers. It isn't known how they got there, but apparently this is a common variety used in the state's nursery and cut flower industries. The researchers found the orchids were being visited by ordinary European honeybees, though with a low rate of successful pollination; they even found a deceased bee that had become trapped by a flower's complex pollen-dispensing parts. So this sounds like it won't be the state's next catastrophic invasive species. The paper doesn't mention anything about removing this patch of flowers or recommending that others do so.
  • A bizarre police brutality incident in 2017. Two guys were hiking along the trail, minding their own business, when a police helicopter swooped down and ordered them back to the trailhead. At which point they were held at gunpoint and then beaten by at least eight cops, and shoved into separate squad cars to be taken downtown, and questioned on the way. Seems the local five-o was looking for an armed robbery suspect who looked nothing like either hiker, but a positive ID from somebody in a helicopter was enough for them to do all this. At some point along the way, they realized that mistakes had been made, and turned around and dropped the hikers off at their car with no explanation or apology. All of this was in the news only because the two victims had lawyered up and were making noise about the incident. A quick search didn't reveal any followup articles about this, so my guess would be that a generous and highly confidential sealed settlement was arranged, and all eight officers either got promoted or retired with full pensions, since that's how these things usually go down.
  • In the recent Kuliʻouʻou Ridge post I had a bit about people climbing the "Bear Claws" route to the summit from the windward side of the island. It turns out that something similar has been done here at least once. A page at -- oddly enough -- the Appalachian Trail Museum relates a 1996 chance meeting with a local hiking demigod, relaying a few of his anecdotes including a Christmas 1944 climb down the windward side of the Koʻolaus from the Mauʻumae Trail summit, managing to tear off all his fingernails in the process while scrambling for handholds. As far as anybody knows this is still the only time it's been done; a 2011 Extreme Hiking Hawaii post shared a rumor someone was about to try it, and a 2014 Kenji Saito post on a scouting trip checking out possible routes from above, but from what I can tell nobody has actually had a go at it. I think that -- coming from some of the more out-there corners of the O'ahu hiking interwebs -- is a useful data point. If extremely talented people keep checking it out and then noping out, this may be a job for a National Geographic mountaineering team. Or at least this would have been right up their alley in the pre-Rupert Murdoch era. I don't think I've looked at an issue since he took over. For all I know their staff has been retasked with finding Noah's ark, or the edge of the flat earth, or oohing and aaahing over the splendors of Mar-a-Lago and how they surpass anything from the Italian Renaissance. Rumor has it the flat earth expedition has actually been searching for a few years now but they just keep going around in circles.
  • To the east of Mauʻumae Ridge, on your right as you head up the trail, the narrow valley you're trying not to plummet into on that side is named Waiʻalae Nui Gulch, and the narrow ridge on the other side is Waiʻalae Nui Ridge. The valley starts with a bit of 'burb that peters out before long; I imagine the rest is too narrow to be worth developing. And the ridge is home to a subdivision even ritzier than the usual ritzy ridgeline subdivision, with someone's gigantic mansion at the top, and no trailheads anywhere, I suppose because rich people don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. One of the links in the list above details a different approach over there, hiking up Mauʻumae Ridge and then bushwhacking down Waiʻalae Nui Ridge until the trail bumps up against the impassable mansion barrier. From there, the route scrambled down the side of the ridge into Waiʻalae Nui Gulch, then up the other side of the gulch somehow, rejoining Mauʻumae Ridge a short distance from the trailhead, and living happily ever after. After that, someone took the idea and ran with it, inventing a route they dubbed the East Honolulu Rollercoaster Hike, which involves a lot of somehow climbing up the side of a ridge, somehow climbing down the other side, then the next ridge, and the next, etc., and please note how the name says "Hike" and not "Trail". Someone else ran with that idea and dreamed up an East Oʻahu Super Loop, which creates a loop by doing the ridge rollercoaster thing in one direction, and then following the Koʻolau Summit Trail for the return trip, or vice versa.

footnote(s)

I was really hoping there would be an interesting story about the two names, but I haven't found one. A sign at the trailhead says "Mauʻumae Trail" (named for the ridge the ridge the trail follows, per the USGS), while the state GIS map ( https://cchnl.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=31b9607333e94c64ba581461892f32e8 ) calls it "Lanipō Ridge Trail", and you sometimes see "Lanipō Trail" (after Puʻu Lanipō, the peak on the Koʻolaus where the trail ends up) or "Mauʻumae Ridge Trail" too. Normally I'd check the state trail system site and go with whatever name they use, but it's not there. For some reason the city-county government operates this trail, rather than the state, and the city doesn't appear to have a web page for the trail. I also don't have an interesting story around why this isn't a state trail; it would be cool if there was an arcane state law to point at, or a semi-juicy tale of bureaucratic infighting to summarize, but there doesn't seem to be one, and it seems like nobody's at all wound up over it. The trail itself is maintained to about the same standard as the various state trails are, so I suppose these little details don't really matter very much.

As for what the names mean, Hawaiian Place Names says it means "wilted grass", and notes the name is also used for a small cinder cone at the bottom of the ridge, a couple of blocks off Waiʻalae Ave., as well as what's left of a heiau (temple) somewhere in the area. There's also a city nature park nearby with the same name, which I, uh, have an unfinished draft post about. There's also a Mauʻumae Beach near Waikoloa on the Kona side of the Big Island. Meanwhile Pu'u Lanipō seems to be the only place with Lanipō in the name, the name meaning something akin to "The hill of dense plant growth". So if you do the trail and the ferns get you, I suppose you can't say you weren't warned.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Puʻu Pia Trail

Next up we have some photos from Oʻahu's Puʻu Pia Trail, a short and relatively easy trail up a small ridge at the back of Manoa Valley, sort of between Waʻahila Ridge and the Manoa Falls / Lyon Arboretum area. This post languished in Drafts for a while, and overall it wasn't the most memorable hike, and I didn't make detailed notes right afterward, but if you're looking for really meticulous detail you ought to go read the canonical book on O'ahu trails instead and not rely on little old me for that sort of thing. That said, here are a few random thoughts and memories about this one.

  • In the previous post, I said that Kuliʻouʻou Ridge was the trail to do if you're visiting and only have time or inclination for one hike. Let me amend that a little: That's true if you have some experience hiking back on the mainland, or wherever you're from. If not, or you're really out of shape after the pandemic, Puʻu Pia might be a better choice, just because it's easier. I did it a couple of years ago when I was dealing with some knee trouble, and I figured an easy hike was better than no hike at all. (Note: This is not professional medical advice, if you somehow got here by googling "knee trouble".)
  • This is only partly a ridge hike, and starts at the valley floor. So you may run into mud and mosquitoes at the start, and again at the end on your way back. Middle part was fine, though.
  • You can get to the trailhead easily on city bus #6. Though not necessarily quickly, as the stop comes a few stops after a designated driver break spot. So you might have to sit on the bus with no AC for 15-20 minutes while the driver has a musubi and a few cigs. Which is fine, of course; just try not to be on a really tight schedule if you do this one.
  • The much more difficult Kolowalu Trail starts at the same trailhead and then goes straight up the side of Waʻahila Ridge with only a couple of switchbacks, connecting with the main ridge trail near the official (and widely ignored) "End of Trail" sign. Or in theory you could do this, but the trail has been closed for several years now due to a major landslide. Either the state hasn't figured out how to fix it yet, or the fix would require money they don't currently have. So try not to take the wrong turn at the trail junction and then ignore all the Trail Closed signs, or your hike may get a lot more interesting than you had in mind.
  • On the other hand, if you take the bus to the trailhead and the bus driver looks at you and assumes you're doing the hard trail and marvels about it, and relays that their friend tried it once and said it was insane, you are not legally obligated to correct said assumption. Although it's possible you might get the same driver again on the way back, so in case that happens try to have a believable story ready for why you're done so soon. Like maybe you were halfway up when an angry wild boar came after you, and you called it quits at that point, I dunno.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Kuliʻouʻou Ridge Trail

Switching gears a little, here's another post from my (somewhat smaller) backlog of Oʻahu hiking trails. This time we're visiting the Kuliʻouʻou Ridge Trail, just west of the Hawaiʻi Kai area [1]. If you only have the time (or inclination) to do one ridge trail on Oʻahu, I think this is the one I would recommend, of all the ones I've tried so far (including Waʻahila Ridge, Manana Ridge, Nuʻuanu-Judd, and a few others I haven't posted yet). It's sort of a concentrated version of those others: You still get the full ridge trail experience, while expending a bit less time and less effort overall. Specifically, the trail gets you to the top of the Koʻolaus and back in around 4.3 miles, versus the usual 6-10 mile roundtrip you often see elsewhere, and the summit point where you turn around at is a bit over 2000 feet up versus the usual 2500-or-so, and you get to that altitude without doing a bunch of endless up-and-down stretches first. There's also more shade here than a lot of ridge trails, and not a lot of wind or exposure except right at the very top. But it's no cakewalk, either; it's still pretty steep and challenging in parts, and you still obviously need to bring food, water, and sunblock, and watch your step, and just generally not try anything stupid. Remember all of that and you'll probably do fine. Which is a very long-winded way of me saying that I made it to the top on this hike, and didn't on the others I mentioned, therefore I like this one better. Some additional blog posts and such about this hike can be found at Unreal Hawaii, Oahu Hikes and Trails, This Way to Paradise, and The Katie Show Blog, and many other locations around the interwebs.

The one area where this hike loses a few points is around getting here by bus, I guess due to being located way out in the 'burbs. The nearest bus stop is out on Kalanianaʻole Highway, and from there you have to hoof it through a sprawling subdivision just to get to the trailhead. This adds another 1.3 miles each direction to your total distance, and the additional distance is just not very interesting, and there isn't a lot of shade to be had, but at least that part is basically flat. If you're getting there by car, be aware that there's limited parking at the trailhead, and the trail's increasing popularity has been causing the usual tensions with local residents in recent years.

There is technically another official trail here: The Kuliʻouʻou Valley Trail starts at the same trailhead but continues up toward the back of the valley instead of switchbacking up onto the ridge. I tried this after doing the main trail just to see what it was like, in case it turned out to be a secret gem I needed to go on and on about. No such luck this time, though; I thought the trail was fairly pointless, but if you've got a hankering for an extra 1.4 miles of thrashing around in underbrush with no interesting views of anything along the way, maybe you'll enjoy it more than I did.

As usual there's a whole web of unofficial trails in the area too. None of which I have actually tried (so far), so please take this section with one or more grains of salt. Having said that, it may not look like it, but the summit point here doubles as a junction with the fabled/feared Koʻolau Summit Ridge Trail, which (as the name suggests) runs along the top of the mountains for the full length of the island, around 45 miles total. While it's possible to through-hike it end-to-end, a much more common thing is to go up one side ridge, do a stretch of KSRT, and then come down another ridge. And eventually cover the whole trail that way, by doing bits and pieces of it segment by segment. One popular route that starts and ends here is the so-called Kuli'ou'ou Ridge Loop Trail, where you continue left/north from the official summit over to (and over) Puʻu O Kona -- a high point along this stretch of trail at ~2200 feet -- and then descend via the next ridge over, ending up in the same valley where you began, so you don't need a second car parked somewhere else if you came by car. Somehow this loop is only .3 miles longer than the official out-n-back route; I gather that this is partly because the unofficial route on the west-side ridge doesn't have any switchbacks, and is steep and muddy and sketchy and hard to follow in parts. So another popular route just extends the out-and-back over to Puʻu O Kona and sticks to the nice maintained trail for the ascent & descent parts (examples with photos via The Hiking HI, Hik3beast, Kenji Saito, and Oahu Hikes and Trails.) The last link is part of a set of late-1990s hiking web pages that haven't really changed since then, which is kind of amazing. It mentions that the current ridge trail route is not really that old, or at least it wasn't old yet as of 1998, and the original trail used to start somewhere at the back of Kaʻalakei Valley (the next valley to the east) before the current trail was built. Before anyone goes hunting around for it, that old route is probably not accessible anymore since the whole area where it would've started is now part of a big senior assisted living complex.

An extra twist on the Puʻu O Kona out-n-back involves somehow setting up camp on that stretch of KSRT and spending the night up there, so that you're up there in time for sunrise photos. A few other miscellaneous trail variations I ran across include two routes to the Kuliʻouʻou summit that begin over in Haha'ione Valley, the next one to the east past Kaʻalakei. These both involve an obscure junction with the main trail that I don't recall noticing (which ought to spice up your return trip a bit), and sneaking across private property to get to and from that junction. Or if that's too mainstream , a route that goes up the aforementioned & unmaintained west ridge route and drops you off in Haha'ione Valley behind a gate that's signed "Government Property - No Trespassing". For a different change of pace, here's a page about only taking the ridge trail as far as the picnic area partway up, but doing so by mountain bike.

Or, for people who want to do something truly extreme, Pu'u O Kona is one of the few places along the Koʻolaus where it's (barely) possible to start over on the windward side and climb up and over the mountains. If you look at a terrain map of the area, you might notice that the windward side of Puʻu O Kona has a pair of, I hesitate to call them side ridges exactly, but sort of projecting fins so that that bit of windward side isn't just a 2000 foot vertical wall like it mostly is elsewhere. This spot has picked up the name "Bear Claw", and the two fins are simply called the left fork and the right fork, and people have climbed both of them; here's a video of an ascent of the right fork, for anyone who's curious what that looks like. The video description suggests popping a Dramamine before watching, if that gives you any idea. Personally the only kind of bear claw I have any interest in experiencing firsthand is of the pastry variety, and Yelp says Liliha Bakery makes the best ones on the island. I gather the ridge trail here is the standard way down after climbing either of the Bear Claw forks, so if you really want to impress people I suppose you could do the ridge trail and then claim to have done half a Bear Claw, and cross your fingers that nobody asks which half.

So I guess this is the point where I direct your attention to a Civil Beat guest column from a few years back about the state's ever-increasing number of hiking fatalities and expensive rescues, and what the state ought to do about it, but hasn't yet and probably won't. As part of a larger point about inadequate trail signage, the author mentions that his wife and child had recently taken an unsafe wrong turn at Kuliʻouʻou Ridge because it wasn't clear which way was the correct route. I recall that this was confusing in a few spots, so that's something to be aware of. I mean, overall this isn't the most dangerous trail but things do still happen now and then; just over a week ago a hiker had to be airlifted out after slipping and possibly breaking an ankle on the way down. He also makes a point about the state trail website being inadequate, lacking canonical difficulty ratings or any information at all about unofficial trails, not even explaining where a trail goes or how it changes beyond the official end of trail sign that everyone ignores, the resulting void being filled unevenly by social media. Present company included, I suppose. He points at a French mountaineering website as an example of what he'd really like to see here. And yes, it's a good site, very clean and logically organized. The obvious problem here is that French mountaineering websites aren't shaped by the vagaries of US personal injury law, which incentivizes you to limit your own liability above everything else, even if that outcome is less safe overall. There's an especially egregious example of that just before the very top of the Kuliʻouʻou Ridge. Right at the top of the trail, immediately before your very first glimpse over the summit to Windward Oʻahu, an official sign informs you that it marks the official End Of The Trail, and you need to turn around right there at that very spot and go home right this instant. Nobody ever does this. I am a fairly risk-averse person, and I rolled my eyes and walked right past this sign just like everyone else does. If you keep going, before long there's a point where you really do stand a good chance of plummeting off a two thousand foot cliff, but you have to use your own judgement on exactly where that point might be, because the state officially washed its hands of you back at the end-of-trail sign. Whereas if they put up some guardrails -- maybe even something nicer, like a steel or concrete viewing platform so visitors aren't standing on bare dirt (which turns to slippery mud when wet) -- then legally they'd be inviting people to go right up to those guardrails and they'd end up liable for any dumb life choices that visitors made after that. Someone stands on top of the guardrail and takes their very last selfie, you're at least going to end up in court over it, arguing whether the railing should have been flat on top for safety or rounded to discourage people, and even if you win the case and keep winning cases like it, it's going to be prohibitively expensive to keep this up in the long run.

So when you see me using phrases like "Legal says I have to tell you not to do this", that's the sort of landscape I'm trying to navigate here. And please understand I'm not implying that you, personally, were about to do the thing I told you not to do; that warning is for the second-after-next person to stumble across this page, who -- just between us -- is a complete blithering idiot, with no instinct for self-preservation and without a single atom of common sense, and who might just decide to go sprinting off the cliff here because I didn't explicitly say not to, or I didn't explain that there have been exactly zero miraculous rescues of falling people here in recorded history, whether by Superman, or Neo, or gigantic eagles, or Bruce Willis and his taxi, or Mr. Spock in antigravity boots, or whatever. Or maybe now that I've added those particular warnings, the problem would be that I didn't specify that I am not writing this on Opposite Day, and it also is not Opposite Day whenever the aforementioned idiot happens to read this. And so on. You can try to guess at all the absurd things someone might try, or what their bereaved next-of-kin and their hotshot lawyers might put in front of a jury, but you'll never think of all of it. And if it looks too much like you're trying to be serious and authoritative, you just might be taking on even more liability that way. So with that in mind, here are a few more important safety tips to consider, with a somewhat varying degree of usefulness and tongue-in-cheek-ness:

  • You will keep seeing warnings about how slippery the mud is here. I'm not a soil scientist and don't know why it's like this, but it is. If you're the sort of person who learns best by doing, maybe try a wet valley hike like Manoa Falls first before tackling something with any altitude to it. Which is a much lower-stakes way to get a sense of what the local mud is like; you can fall down all you want without plummeting off of anything. Just keep an eye out for flash floods, and dengue-carrying mosquitoes, and leptospirosis cooties and whatnot while you're doing this, and you'll be fine, probably.
  • I think I've mentioned before that you'll sometimes run across a bit of trail that's just wall-to-wall exposed tree roots, and that those roots offer essentially zero traction. There are a few spots like that here too, along with a somewhat more unusual hazard: A stretch of the lower part of the trail here passes through a large grove of some kind of nonnative pine tree, and the whole forest floor -- and the trail -- are covered in a thick blanket of pine needles. Which is weirdly soft and quiet and kind of nice to walk on just generally, but on a slope it's not exactly a reliable source of traction and sure footing. And sometimes it's pine needles on top of slippery wall-to-wall tree roots, which is just ridiculous and deeply unfair. So watch your step. How the pine needles stay in place on top of those roots without sliding away is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the jungle, I'm afraid. This whole situation does remind me a little of a certain dimwitted ex-president who insisted states needed to rake their forests to prevent forest fires. So although that might actually be a non-terrible idea here and there, I feel like we should hold off for now just so he can't take credit for it.
  • I have been encouraged, offline, to add a plug for tetanus booster shots to my list of safety tips. This was partly as a gentle reminder that I'm overdue for one myself. When you see references to tetanus shots, that's usually how it goes: Person was behind on their shots, and needed to get one just in case after being stitched up for some kind of dumb injury. And I have an occasional running joke here about various things being so rusty or dirty that you can get tetanus just by looking at them. So I feel like I ought to point out that the disease itself is seriously bad news. A child in Oregon caught it in 2019 after a forehead gash, was hospitalized for two months with the full range of nasty tetanus symptoms, and nearly died, all because his parents were (and still are) antivaxxers. Which brings me to a broader point, if at all possible never let an antivaxxer make health care (or other) decisions on your behalf. Given the way conspiracy thinking tends to infect a person's whole worldview, I wouldn't trust an antivax plumber to plumb my house correctly. They could turn out be a cholera denier who will hook your water up to the city sewer system and vice versa because it's "more natural" that way.
  • If you saw my bit about the second-to-next visitor who's going to head straight for the cliff and you immediately wondered about bringing a parachute, I already googled that for you and it's kind of a mixed bag. I didn't see any mentions of people just flat-out base jumping the drop, which I think is because you'd be jumping into the prevailing winds, which will try to blow you into the cliff, or up and back to where you jumped from, more or less. I am absolutely not joking about that part, by the way: Here's a 2011 news clip where a very experienced paraglider pilot was carried up over the Koʻolaus and ended up somewhere around the Pearl City / Manana Trail area. In a similar incident from 2009, the pilot ended up somewhere on the way to Wahiawa, believe it or not. Both pilots were fine, and the experience of being sort of catapulted up and over a mountain range is probably extremely awesome, let's be honest here. Though probably even more so when you -- and your friends down on the ground helplessly watching you -- understand what's about to happen. Please note, however, that the prevailing wind situation also makes this spot, or any other Koʻolau summit, an exceptionally poor place to scatter ashes -- think that one scene in The Big Lebowski -- unless you and your fellow mourners want to go home with a lungful of Uncle Morty.
  • If you're keen to avoid dangerous stuff, you'll want to look at this from a broader perspective: Back in 2016, the Civil Beat folks set conventional wisdom aside and ran the actual numbers and figured out that the single most dangerous tourist activity in Hawaiʻi is not hiking, or climbing, or surfing, or paragliding, or bungee jumping; it's actually snorkeling, particularly at Hanauma Bay, usually due to a combination of overexertion and underpreparedness. This is not really a hiking safety tip; it's more that if you're reading this post and paying attention to safety tips, I feel like I should mention the big underappreciated one people don't know about. So don't snorkel, it's not worth it. Or at least don't try it for the first time here, in the open ocean, under the hot sun, while trying to learn how by reading the packaging on your convenience store snorkel kit.
  • I hate to follow a statistical item with an anecdotal item, but there's a phenomenon I've noticed that I've never seen concrete numbers about. I can't keep track of how many accidental-demise news items I've seen that mention the victim had moved to Hawaiʻi just a few months to a year ago, and was out there living their best life every day when tragedy struck. Now, Superbad gags aside, a Hawaiʻi state ID is a powerful tool around these parts, unlocking steep discounts everywhere and sometimes letting you bypass long tourist lines and so forth altogether. I know of several Oʻahu hikes where the trailhead's located inside a gated subdivision, but the HOA will let you in to explore their trails if you can show a local driver's license at the gate. A state ID does not automatically make you good at local outdoor stuff, though, and it can't repel sharks or jellyfish, or anything like that. I mean, go ahead and live your best life obviously, don't let me talk you out of it. I mean, who knows; if you believe in fate or destiny or whatever, maybe it's been set in stone from day one that in this particular lifetime you get to wrap things up with 4-6 months of amazing tropical bliss and then some sort of blameless accident that won't hurt very much, and then you get to come back as a dolphin or a sea turtle next time around, just for a little variety. I'm not a professional theologian and am not 100% clear on how that stuff works, so again: Who knows. I suppose there would be vastly worse destinies to have, all things considered.
  • Remember that noping out is always an option. If you followed the "Hanauma Bay" link earlier, you'll see my brief tale about trying to learn snorkeling by doing the exact things I just told you not to do, and let me point out that this was long before the Civil Beat study, and I had no idea that it was a particularly dangerous thing to try. I soon concluded that breathing through the little tube and keeping it clear of seawater was actually kind of difficult and tedious, and I wasn't enjoying it, and wasn't likely to start enjoying it soon, and noped out. The Nu'uanu-Judd Trail post is another lively tale of noping out, that time after losing my remaining unopened water bottle. And there are others, and there will be others in the future. If you aren't mushing across the Alaskan tundra to get a vaccine to Nome, or skiing cross country across Norway to stop Nazis from getting the Bomb, you have the right to pull the plug at any time for any reason or no reason at all, and not apologize to anyone for it, even when that fin-and-mask kit cost over $20 and the store doesn't do refunds.
  • Maybe I'm just more clumsy or disorganized than the average hiker, but I can only think of a couple of times over mumble-mumble years of hiking where I've been close to taking a bad tumble, and it always involved being thrown off balance and yanked backwards or sideways when something of mine randomly got snagged on underbrush -- a loose cord from a jacket or hoodie, a long dangling strap on a backpack, that sort of thing. Safety tip writers never seem to lecture you about minimizing your snaggable surface area. Until now, I mean. Based on this, I have to conclude that either a.) This never happens to anybody besides me, or b.) This happens all the time, and somehow I am the only survivor. Either way, keep an eye on those dangly bits and don't snagged, ok?
  • One thing the usual safety tip lists do include is to tell someone where you're going. Now, I will admit this is something that doesn't always come naturally to those of us who were kids in the 1970s. It was more of a "get on your bike and go, try to be back in time for school tomorrow" thing back then, and I am only slightly exaggerating. If you resemble this description too, this is your gentle reminder that your joints aren't getting any younger, and if you think you feel old now, just wait til you blow out a knee slipping on a tree root, and you've fallen and you can't get up, and nobody knows where to look for you. Texting or tweeting or IG-ing a photo from the trailhead should do the trick. Or -- and it pains me to say this -- if you're somewhere that has cell service the whole way (and trails on Oʻahu generally do), I suppose you could just livestream the whole thing, and try to keep an entertaining running commentary going for the whole 4-5 hours while wheezing your way up the the hill, remembering to stop and plug your sponsors regularly and whatnot. That way, when you slip on a tree root and blow out a knee, and are lying there writhing in pain among the mud and pine needles, you also get to deal with trolls from across the globe mocking you and accusing you of faking it. But at least you aren't alone, I guess.
  • Did I mention the trail's haunted? No? Well, the trail's haunted. At least according to local rumor / legend / message board. The person relating this tale describes hiking up the ridge on a foggy day, and getting terribly lost and muddy in the process. Eventually the hapless party encountered a nice elderly Japanese lady, who just sort of appeared out of the fog, dressed up kind of like a worker on an old-time pineapple plantation. She gave them directions when asked, saving the day. The clincher detail proving she was a ghost was that there was no visible mud on her shoes, which normally would be impossible. I'm awarding partial credit here for trying to adapt Occam's Razor to local conditions, but my personal experience with Oʻahu mud is that it will happily stick to ghosts just like it sticks to everything else. (Never ask me how I know this.) Clearly the only way to pull this off would be find a dry place to stand, teleport in directly to that spot, provide the needed directions while remaining perfectly still, and immediately teleport back out without ever touching any mud. So yeah, I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens. So watch out for aliens.

footnote(s)

1. I had seen the word "Kuliʻouʻou" spelled a few different ways, both with and without ʻokina characters, so I figured I ought to double check on that, which led me to the official Hawaii Board on Geographic Names website. It turns out they have a whole big project devoted to putting the ʻokina and kahakō symbols back where they belong, and they have a guide covering the place names they've sorted out so far. A UH page on Hawaiian spelling includes an example of why you can't just drop the unfamiliar characters, as English speakers are always tempted to do: "pau" means "finished", while "pa‘u" is "soot", "pa‘ū" means "damp", and "pā‘ū" is "skirt". That page also points out that using an apostrophe character for the ʻokina is not really correct, and suggests several rather clunky ways of getting the correct Unicode character, including finding the word you need in an online dictionary and just copying and pasting from there. The Board on Geographic Names has a more recent page on the subject, with an explanation on how to add a Hawaiian keyboard layout to Windows 10, which is what I did. That layout swaps in the ʻokina in place of the regular apostrophe character, and just using the ʻokina everywhere instead of apostrophes is also wrong, so you need to toggle layouts back and forth if you want to write a blog post in English that contains a few Hawaiian place names. All of which is a long way of saying that I've looked this post over a few times and I think I've gotten the names right, but spell check doesn't flag this as an error and I may have still missed a spot or two. And before anyone starts shrieking about this being political correctness run amok or whatever, that's not it at all; the deal is that I was a spelling bee nerd back in grade school and I still hate getting words wrong, even when it's a simple typo, and getting somebody else's place names wrong because doing it right is kind of tedious just sort of doesn't sit right with me.