Kauai Hiking Tours founder Jeremiah Felsen helps clients learn how to respect the island's sacred places while appreciating its natural beauty. // © 2017 Kauai Hiking Tours
Feature image (above): Kauai Hiking Tours offer adventures on varied terrain for all ages and ability levels. // © 2017 Kauai Hiking Tours
Kauai Hiking Tours founder and lead guide Jeremiah Felsen walked me to the edge of the ridge where a sign read “Trail Ends.” Off in the distance, I could see the three pools and the waterfalls cascading down the side of Waimea Canyon. It’s a glorious perch, fit for a pack-lunch picnic. Felsen reached into his backpack and dug for our sandwiches. He was tall, fit and lanky like a string bean, the sign of a man who has been walking — and wandering — his entire life.
“It’s easy to take for granted that which is indiscriminately given,” Felsen said. “Many visitors mistakenly look at this place like it’s Disneyland. If you put in the work, if you find special places through natural curiosity and sincere intent, if you show respect, well, that’s one thing.”
He was speaking about the unmistakable impact of a hiking company’s worst nightmare: the internet. In the world of hiking, it can split the room in half. Experienced hikers were always going to go on their own, Felsen says, but now, you have people with access to information who may not be prepared for Kauai’s unique brand of dangerous challenges, who might otherwise have wisely hired a guide. Look no further than Kauai’s most popular hike, the Kalalau Trail, from which rescues have become uncomfortably routine.
But that’s not even Felsen’s biggest problem. More to the point is that many are not treating these sacred places with the respect they deserve, he says. The local government has put up educational signs explaining the significance of these places and basic protocol surrounding behavior in such areas. The signs are a start, but there’s a long way to go.
“Unfortunately, people are discovering places only locals knew about before,” he said. “Not only are they often not prepared, but they often lack a basic understanding of how to treat these sensitive areas with respect.”
Before starting Kauai Hiking Tours in 2015, Felsen held a variety of outdoorsy jobs both in Hawaii and on the mainland. He was a wilderness trip leader for high-school and college students, and a counselor and field instructor for “youth at risk” programs. From this, he learned how to open people up to the outdoors, and what a powerful influence that can have on a person.
In this way, Felsen doesn’t want to just take people on hikes. He wants to use the wilderness as his classroom, as a way of introducing people to Kauai, its people and its ecosystems — aiming to inspire understanding, respect and reverence for the sacred, often fragile, environments he shares with his clients. This includes everything from basic environmental intel to in-depth principles regarding the land they walk on — with beautiful views and vistas mixed in every step of the way, of course.
As for the internet, Felsen hopes he will inspire enough understanding in his guests that they will share — or not share — their Kauai experiences responsibly. By the end of a tour, he wants his clients to walk away “a little bit different” than they were the day before and, just like his former students, to undergo a profound change in how they view, interact with and respect the natural world.
We enjoyed our lunch and conversation, looking out and watching the waterfalls drop into the pools, the sound too far in the distance to disrupt the soft wind and the chirping birds in bushes below us. We packed away our trash — including all food waste such as apple cores, another of the basic principles Felsen teaches — and tightened our boots back up.
As we walked the ridge line and I looked down into Waimea Canyon at the waterfalls, I found myself wondering where they went. The trail had ended for me, and it was time to head back. But I knew the journey of that water, just like Felsen’s quest for a better Kauai, was just beginning.