KALAUPAPA, Hawaii, Catholic Herald: Thirteen mules lurched their way down the Kalaupapa trail on Dec. 1 for the first time in nearly seven months. A bridge on the second switchback of the zigzagging trail leading to the remote Hansen’s disease settlement where Father Damien labored had been washed out by a landslide in early April. The famous Molokai mule operation was left at a standstill while a new bridge was being built. Financial hardship caused the nearly 40-year-old Molokai Mule Ride to close. But now that the bridge is complete, the company is back in business under a new name — Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour.
A spirit of gratitude and celebration filled both visitors and mule tour workers on the business’ first day back. “We want to thank all the people who called us to offer well wishes,” said Roy Horner, co-owner of Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour. Family members are offering their time to help out the business. “Everyone is working for love right now,” Horner said. Co-owner and mule trainer Buzzy Sproat and his employees, called muleskinners, have been leading the mules up and down the trail for the past two weeks to get them back in shape for the rigorous trek. The mules also had to become accustomed to the new bridge so they wouldn’t spook while crossing it.
On the hour-long trip back up the 26 switchbacks, Sproat and his lead mule paused several times to give a break to the line of animals behind him who were carrying visitors for the first time in a long while. “After standing idle for seven months, they get a little winded,” he said. Sproat and Horner are re-starting the business slowly, with only 10 visitors maximum per trip, compared to last year’s maximum of 15. They are gradually getting the word out that they are back in operation.
With the new bridge completed at the end of October, the Kalaupapa trail is once again open to the public, though only those with a permit or sponsor may enter the settlement. The bridge had been scheduled to be completed in July, but was redesigned for extra strength to better withstand the perilous terrain, weather conditions and weight it must hold, according to Steve Prokop, superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park. The bridge often carries five mules at one time, which Prokop said is nearly equivalent in weight to vehicle traffic.
Engineers drilled eight 23-foot long bolts vertically and horizontally into the side of the pali, Prokop said. These were encapsulated in the concrete abutments at either end of the bridge. “The extra safety feature should enable it to withstand violent shaking of an earthquake or a major landslide,” the superintendent said. He added that in the past 25 years, at least three bridges have been built in the same location. “We wanted to do something longer lasting,” he said. “We’re looking forward to having visitors back from near and far.” The completed bridge cost nearly $400,000, paid for in part by emergency funding secured from Washington, D.C. Prokop called the project the number one National Park Service emergency repair job in the Pacific Western region.
To help keep the mule business afloat during the downtime, NPS hired mule tour employees to help with the construction of the new bridge, hauling cement and other materials on mule-back. Other local businesses were also affected by the trail closure. Damien Tours, owned by Kalaupapa resident Gloria Marks, was hit particularly hard. The isolated peninsula has become a much sought-after destination for pilgrims and tourists ever since Father Damien’s canonization by Pope Benedict XVI last year in Rome.
Marks gets much of her business from the mule tours. “We help each other out,” Marks said. Her business has been hurting for the past seven months, with visitors only able to come in to Kalaupapa by plane. During that time, barely 100 pilgrims and visitors took the guided bus tour around the peninsula each month. Normally, that number soars between 500 and 600 per month. The busy season, Marks said, is January through May, and she hopes business will pick up again then. Molokai Outdoors and Molokai Fish and Dive also offer travel packages to Kalaupapa. Clare Mawae of Molokai Outdoors said while the trail was closed, potential visitors to Molokai changed their plans when they heard they could not hike or ride a mule to Kalaupapa. But thanks to its re-opening, they are adding Molokai to their itinerary. Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour also continues to offer air travel packages into Kalaupapa, something they began while the trail was closed.
“We want to give people a good experience of Kalaupapa,” said Horner.
By Catherine Cluett
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