HANAPEPE, Kauai — In summertime, on a soupy tract of garnet-hued dirt, Hawaiian salt makers join on hands and knees, coaxing salt crystals out of tiny pools of seawater like miners extracting diamonds from the earth.
The Hanapepe salt flats on Kauai’s arid west side are the last frontier of true Hawaiian salt making. On land separated from the shore by a thin buffer of beach, a series of hand-dug wells collect ocean water swirling with teensy brine shrimp. Salt makers transport the well water into shallow coastal basins that bake in the sun. The water evaporates, leaving crystals of salt.
The basins, which are the size of living room windows, wear a glaze of sticky, black clay dredged up from beneath the salt makers’ crimson-stained kneecaps and palms.
It takes five hours and many hands to rebuild an old basin, and they all must be made anew at the start of the summer salt-making season. Then, if it rains, or if the clay glaze cracks, or if the salt flat floods, each crystallization pool must again be rebuilt.
Pa’akai, the Hawaiian word for salt making, means “to solidify the sea.” Unlike manufactured Hawaiian salt sold in grocery stores, pa’akai forms naturally with the aid of sunshine and manual labor.
“When the beds get contaminated by the weather, I turn to the family and say, ‘Okay, are we going to do it again? Are we going to try again?’” says Kuulei Santos, a 42-year-old salt maker. “And most of the time we say ‘yes,’ like crazy people.”
The reward for this arduous work are salt crystals solidified as crunchy snowflakes the size of nickels, which have both utilitarian and spiritual benefits.
Kauai’s iron-rich volcanic soil produces a unique red salt called ‘alaea. The Hanapepe salt flats also produce crystals in shades of pink or snow-white. Regardless of color, the salt can be used in the preservation and seasoning of food or as a purification agent in Hawaiian medicine and rituals.
In keeping with centuries-old tradition, Hawaiian salt cannot be bought or sold. It may only be given away or traded.
All told, 21 families bound by bloodline continue to work the Hanapepe salt flats, which have been in production for so many generations that the lineal descendants have lost count.
But today pa’akai is threatened by a storm of factors ranging from helicopters to broken beer bottles. The families carrying on the legacy worry that their earth-milled salt could be on the verge of vanishing.
“Back in the day, when we gave away salt we gave away buckets,” says Santos, who works as a finance director for a construction company. “If you wanted salt you were getting a 5-gallon bucket. Now if you ask for salt you’re lucky if you get a sandwich bag. So now we are more particular about who we give it to. We have to be. Now, it’s like, are you salt worthy? Are you worthy for my salt? What have you done for me lately? This is not going to survive for future generations if we don’t all band together and come up with solutions.”
Santos is vice president of Hui Hana Pa’akai, a group representing the traditional families that still harvest sea salt. The state owns the land where pa’akai is practiced, allowing the salt makers to farm it without any formal signage, permit or lease.
On a recent morning, she toured the salt flats taking inventory of what she describes as risks to the health of the harvest.
The last place on earth where Hawaiian salt is still made in keeping with ancient tradition is bordered by a beach. On this particular morning, a half dozen trucks belonging to beachgoers lined the sand fronting the salt flats. The traffic has lowered the sand barrier that helps block ocean waves from reaching the basins. For salt makers, this means more flooding, which in recent years has been so significant that no white salt at all could be harvested, Santos says.
She has been advocating for a driving ban on the sand.
The salt-making area is also fringed by a small airport. Helicopters blow sand and dust on the basins, especially when flying directly over the property, Santos says. The debris contaminates the basins and adulterates the black clay that salt makers coat the basins with. When the clay is full of grit, it doesn’t stick. Finding good, clean clay is getting harder.
Last month Maverick Helicopters announced plans to establish itself as a tour operator out of Port Allen. The news has made salt-makers tense. As the company prepares to add two helicopters to Kauai skies this summer, Santos says she will seek an agreement for a no-fly zone over the salt flats.
There are other issues. Homeless people sometimes take up residence within the salt flats, trampling the basins and littering the premises with trash. Beachgoers sometimes party in the adjacent parking lot. Santos says nearly everyone who works in the salt flats has been cut by glass shards from discarded beer bottles.
“Sea level rise might be a problem for us someday, but right now our biggest problem is people and the way they treat this place,” Santos says.
Most of these threats to pa’akai are solvable, Santos says. All it would take is a little compromise and cooperation. But for now, there’s been little success. She says her efforts to compel others to take the salt makers’ interests into consideration have been met with inaction.
“I get to stand in the same place my grandmother stood and do the exact same thing she did to create a product that we just give away,” says Santos, voicing a plea for the importance of pa’akai preservation.
It’s her hope that her own grandchildren will be able to say the same thing.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues