[Appeared in the Aug. 20, 2010 issue of the Hawaii Catholic Herald]
By Catherine Cluett
A poignant history is contained on a tiny peninsula off Molokai, guarded by the world’s highest sea cliffs – a history of pain and exile, saintliness and triumph. Access to Kalaupapa, the remote home of Saint Damien, has always been difficult. Since April, however, it has been nearly impossible.
The settlement’s lifeline, the pali trail, was closed after a landslide washed away one of the trail’s bridges. The closure has left some local businesses on the brink of survival, and many tourists and pilgrims without access to the famed peninsula.
Gloria Marks, Kalaupapa resident, patient and owner of Damien Tours, said there has been a significant decrease in visitors since the trail closure. She said her business, which offers guided bus tours of the peninsula, usually has 500 to 600 customers per month. Last month, there were only about 200. Access to Kalaupapa is now available only by plane.“The trail is significant in the sense that you are spiritually walking the journey that Father Damien walked and even more significantly in the steps of Christ,” said Father Clyde Guerreiro of the Saint Damien Parish on Molokai. “You need to do it once or twice in your life,” he added.
The National Park Service (NPS), which maintains the trail, constructed a temporary wooden bridge to allow employees to hike to work. But the trail is closed to all other hikers, visitors and the famous Molokai Mule Rides. NPS is working to install a permanent 65-foot prefabricated aluminum bridge to span the gap. It likely will not be complete until late September or early October. NPS first estimated the completion date to be just weeks after the washout.
“It’s sad; I wish they would hurry up,” said Marks. “First they tell us in July, then August, now October. I just keep hanging on.”
Damien Tours is not the only business feeling the harsh effects of fewer customers from the closed trail.
“We’re slowly dying,” Molokai Mule Ride owner Roy Horner said of his business. “It’s going to take creativity, some good fortune, and a little magic to make it until fall.”
Molokai Mule Ride, a well-known and bumpy experience that guides visitors on the narrow trail winding down 1,700 feet of cliff on mule back, has been closed since the trail shut down in April. They normally offer daily treks to the settlement. Horner said he hopes to continue on a reduced scale after trail repairs are complete.
Steve Prokop, NPS Kalaupapa superintendent, said he has employed the ‘muleskinners” – as mule drivers and guides are known – to help with the bridge repairs whenever possible. But the business is still struggling for survival.
“We’re hoping and praying we can find some money,” said Horner.
The options left for pilgrims and tourists hoping to visit Kalaupapa are few and expensive. The only commercial air carrier that flies into the settlement, Pacific Wings, charges $250 one-way for the 10-minute flight from topside Molokai.
Molokai Mule Ride has adapted to provide air charter packages with Makani Kai Air Charters, offering a package deal that includes a round trip air ticket as well as a spot on the guided Damien Tours. Charter packages from Oahu are also available.
“Not having the trail has hurt the whole island, not just Kalaupapa,” said Clare Mawae, owner of Molokai Outdoors. Her business offers Molokai tour packages, outdoor equipment rentals and activity bookings.
Molokai Outdoors offers day hikes for those coming from Maui on the ferry, hike-in and fly-out packages, and also special pilgrimage hikes for those who want a more slow-paced spiritual and historical focus. Charter flights to Kalaupapa are also available through Molokai Outdoors. Molokai Fish & Dive offers similar options.
“We’ve had people cancel because they can’t hike or do the mule ride,” said Mawae.
Marks said the bridge failure not only affects visitors, but Hansen’s disease patients who still live in Kalaupapa as well. She said family and friends who used to hike down to visit cannot afford the air fares.
In addition, she said she believes it is important that people continue to visit Kalaupapa to learn about the patients and the rich history of the peninsula. “They take it back home and talk about it,” Marks explained.
Trail or no trail, no one is allowed in Kalaupapa without a permit from Damien Tours or by special invitation of a patient or employee, per patients’ request.
Prokop said three bridges have given out in the past 15 years in the same location – switchback No. 2 toward the top of the 2.9 mile trail. The soil is unstable in this section, he explained, prone to washing out with heavy rain.
The new bridge will be built to last. Prokop said eight holes have been bored in the cliff side 23 feet deep to hold steel pins that will secure the bridge. Next, concrete anchors will be installed at either end. The actual bridge will be flown in in sections, scheduled to take place in another few weeks, Prokop said.
Bridge repairs are estimated at $200,000 to $500,000, paid for by the NPS.
Walking in the footsteps of Saint Damien and the exiled Hansen’s disease patients he served, and gazing at breathtaking valleys populated by ancient Hawaiians is an experience coveted by people around the world. Until bridge repairs are complete, even fewer can have this privilege.