Q & A with Jeremiah Felsen

Q & A with Jeremiah Felsen

If you go to Kauai and just sit on the beach with your fruity cocktail, you will not see what the island has to offer. If you are seeking adventure and exploration, then we highly recommend going on a hiking tour with Kauai Hiking Tours. Founder and guide, Jeremiah Felsen, has a wealth of knowledge of not only the island but primitive backcountry skills. He hosts daily guided trips all over the island as well as the occasional guided backpacking trip.

The Live Large crew had the privilege of going out on adventures with him as well as learning about the Hawaiian culture and new backcountry skills. We sat down with him for a Q & A to learn more about his background and what inspired him to get into the outdoors industry.

Q: How long have you been in Kaua'i?

A: I have been on Kauaʻi for 8 years. I lived on Oahu and Maui briefly before moving here.

Q: Why did you pick to start your business in Kaua'i?

A: I instantly fell in love with Kauaʻi; it felt like home right away. I have been a hiking guide for most of my adult life.  Kauaʻi is the best Hawaiian island for hiking, perfect with so many trails, such diverse terrain. I saw a niche that needed to be filled. No companies were offering the kind of private, customized hiking tours I envisioned.  It was the perfect fit!

Q: Where is your favorite place to hike or camp in Kauai?

A: Kōkeʻe and Waimea Canyon State Park(s) because they offer access to diverse and stunning scenery in a relatively small area. For camping, I like Waimea Canyon and Kalalau Valley - basically any place where I feel like I can ‘get away from it all' and immerse myself in nature.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: Meeting new people and sharing stories. I’m consistently surprised by the diversity of our clients - learning a little bit about their lives and perspectives deepens the experience for me. And, of course, seeing the looks on their faces as they experience Kauai’s deep beauty.

Q: What is the one thing you MUST bring on a hiking trip?

A: Water!

Q: What else would you bring, besides water?

A: Good footwear, trail running shoes, boots, or tabis (local water shoes with felt bottoms) - depending on the trail/activity. Make sure your footwear had good tread and you have 'broken them in' before your hike.

Q: Do you guide any other types of trips besides hiking or camping? If yes, what are they?

A: Snorkeling. I take people to spots where we see lots of colorful fish and often honu (green sea turtles), sometimes a Hawaiian monk seal too! We can snorkel on both sides on the island but the South Shore is best for year-round snorkeling.  

Q: It shows that you are very passionate about hiking and sharing the experience with others. What is it that makes you so passionate about it?

A: Experiences in nature as a teenager gave me a deep sense of a connection with the natural world, a sense of calm and safety that I hadn’t felt up until that point. I wanted to share this feeling with other people.

I grew up on the outskirts of Washington DC in a very diverse and divisive area. There seemed to be a lot of competition and aggression and I just felt out of place. When I was 16, I applied to a summer trail work program offered to high school students by the Student Conservation Association. I ended up spending just over a month camping and working close to the earth in rural Arkansas. It’s hard to put into words exactly what happened to me that summer. Basically, I felt a deep connection to the nature and it’s cycles - to that which is timeless and eternal. Knowing that I was a part of that empowered me in a unique way, I knew whatever happened to me externally, whatever others might try to do or say to me, I would be okay. That experience helped steer me in the direction of getting a degree in Outdoor Education, working with 'youth at risk' in the wilderness therapy field, and has continued to serve me throughout my life in countless ways.  

Q: Do you remember the exact hike where you decided this is what you wanted to do with your career?

I was living in Western NC and had been working in the wilderness therapy field for about 5 years when I met an actor/producer who was visiting the area in an effort to temporarily escape the pressures of LA and work on a screenplay. He had never been camping before but he wanted me to take him into the wild, even though it was the middle of winter. We ended up climbing the highest mountain on the East Coast, Mt. Mitchell. The wind was howling, there was ice and snow everywhere, and I showed him how to make a fire by rubbing sticks together. After that trip, he said 'Dude, I have never been camping in my life - that was one of the hardest things I have ever done and you made it feel easy. You never belittled me and you made me feel completely safe; you need to do this for a living.'

Until then, I had never considered starting my own company. I had only worked as a guide for other companies and had no idea where to even begin doing things on my own. At that point, I had already spent a couple winters working as an organic farmer on Maui and Oahu and was feeling pulled in that direction, but owned a house and was part of a great community in Asheville, NC. It was a hard decision to sell my house and leave North Carolina. I first went to Bend, Oregon to fight fires for the US Forest Service. That Fall I moved to Kauaʻi and began building my business while living under a tarp on someone's farm. I did work/trade for rent and worked landscaping jobs to make money, going on hikes whenever I could, learning about websites and marketing on a MacBook from under my tarp in my outdoor office (extension cords;).

Q: What’s the longest hike you’ve gone on? How did you feel afterward?

A: I’ll have to think hard about that one. It may be parts of the Appalachian Trail. But, I never did do the whole thing or any of the 'great US long hikes', for that matter. I’ve done long distances in beautiful areas in relatively short periods of time as a mountain trail runner - including a 50k in the mountains of North Carolina in just 4 hours and 28 minutes. While that kind of distance/speed is exhilarating, especially while flying through a tunnel of natural beauty, it’s different than long days/multiple nights spent immersed in nature. I’ve done many backpacking trips averaging 20-25 miles a day; it’s not so much about the distance as the time spent out there. One of my most impactful camping trips was a month-long canoe trip in a remote part of Northern Ontario.   

I like this question but let me answer it somewhat differently. When you spend more time in the wilderness, say a week or more, everything starts to shift. You get the feeling that everything slows down, you unplug, and your pace/rhythm begins to align with that of the nature around you. So much so that when you go back to 'the outside world' everything feels like it is going way too fast. It’s a very cool thing to allow yourself to unplug long enough to get that type of experience.

Q: What do you do on the island when you aren’t guiding trips?

A: I am busy on the computer and working in the office when I’m not guiding. I’m doing my best to organize things so I can be away from the computer more - very ironic when I think about what got me into this business in the first place and why I do it. Ha, this interview has got me thinking about taking off to go on a long, immersive, backpacking trip.

When I first moved here I was doing a lot of personal trips with my friends where we would find new routes to places we felt called to explore. I would go somewhere new, cross it off my list, and in the process think of 3 new places I wanted to check out - kind of amazing when you consider what a small island this is! Most of this island is off the beaten track -  you literally have to 'beat down' invasive, thorny shrubs like lantana, cat’s claw, and Florida blackberry to get to some places - making it slow, often painful, going.

I’ve also been trying to spend more time doing relaxing, meditative activities like yoga, surfing, reading, and freediving. I try to read a little something about Hawaiian cultural and/or natural history every night before I go to bed and dabble in travel writing when I have the time.  

Q: If you could guide anywhere else in the world, where would it be?

A: I have spent 5 summer seasons in Alaska, so that is first on my list - I would love to spend some of my summers guiding there, or just exploring. As far as new places, I would like to guide in New Zealand even though I have yet to visit.

Ideally, I’d like to guide trips all over the world, to places I have an interest in and my clients want to go - I would advance scout them and arrange a custom trip. I did this in Chilean Patagonia a couple years ago. It was with two people I had guided on Kauaʻi, so they knew and trusted me already. They wanted me to be their guide in Patagonia even though they knew I had never been and my Spanish is marginal. All things considered, it went surprisingly perfect. I was pleased with how my backpacking and plain new adventure skills transferred over - helping us have a safe, amazing time in places that were new to all of us.  In over two weeks we did about 65 miles of backpacking in remote areas and went on several other cool adventures!   

The list is endless but I’d also like to explore Italy and Southeast Asia - through research and with the firsthand advice of my many traveler friends I look forward to writing up compelling itineraries for day hikes or backpacking trips in many new areas. I would also link up with local experts to arrange specific components of our adventure - a real cross-cultural adventure exchange!

Q: What does “Live Large” mean to you?

First and foremost, it means an open-minded approach to perceiving all that is possible in life and what it is you most desire of these possibilities. Second, determining your natural talents and abilities and making the most of them. Finally, it means relentlessly pursuing passions with a commitment to learning and growing at all levels, and helping others to do the same in the process. You can do all this in a way that is respectful to others and the environment - large vision, small 'footprint'.  

To book your trip with Felsen go to www.kauaihikingtours.com , you will not regret the potential adventures you could have! 

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