The trail down to Kalaupapa Settlement is one of Molokai's most popular attractions. Eldon "Buzzy" Sproat, who has been training mules for the rides since 1972, has met thousands of visitors who venture down and back up some of the steepest sea cliffs in the world.
Under former ownership, tours ran seven days a week. Brother Sproat, ward mission leader in the Hoolehua Ward, Kahului Hawaii Stake, acknowledges that the rides - especially at sharp turns on the steep decline - have led many tourists to prayer. But, he said, "I told myself that if I ever owned this company, I would rest all operations on Sunday." Now that he owns the business, he does just that. On Sundays, Koko, Primo, Hoku, Upu Hau and about 20 other mules in his stables get to take a day off.Any day of the week, Brother Sproat contends, brings riders a feeling of awe and wonder, and not just at the 26 switchbacks along the trail that send pulses racing along the descent of 1,700 feet of trail that is about three miles long. The view is nothing shy of spectacular.
One of the challenges of the outfitters is getting tourists to relax enough to enjoy the ride. "On some of the switchbacks, the mules' necks are hanging out over the cliff," he said. "The riders don't stop to think that the mules have long necks and that their feet are still securely on the trail. The riders, perched atop the mules, see just empty space for a mile beneath them. They think they're going over the cliff.
"These mules are very well trained. If they were any more tame, they'd be dead. They know their job. We put people on, tell them how to hang on, and let the mules go. They really just babysit the tourists on the trail all the way to and from Kalaupapa."
Brother Sproat is renowned throughout Hawaii as one of the top all-around cowboys. He takes his wife, Marlene, along as he travels with the Hawaii Rodeo Circuit. They have four daughters and two sons.
Brother Sproat has always been around mules. He remembers looking down the two ears of a mule when he went to Church as a little boy. His grandfather, William Jacob Sproat, came to Hawaii from Missouri with the U.S. militia in the 1890s. He stayed on and became the keeper of the royal palace's stables, caring for the horses and mules, and then went to work at the Kohala Ditch Co., a subsidiary of the Kohala Sugar Co., being in charge of the mules that were used to work on the irrigation project.
"My father (William K. Sproat) followed in his father's footsteps and went to work for the ditch company, and later took over as the foreman from my grandfather."
Brother Sproat is a defender of the mule and its reputation. "If anybody says someone is `stubborn as a mule,' he doesn't know anything about mules," he said. "If you can't make a mule do what you want him to do, he's not being stubborn - he's just outsmarting you. If you can't get him to do something, you ought to stop and think. He just knows better."
Born and reared in the Church, Brother Sproat is always delighted to meet other Latter-day Saints who take his mules on the trail. "I don't just announce that I'm a member of the Church," he said, "but I drop some strong hints, like whistling Church hymns on the trail. After I've gone through two or three hymns, the members on the ride figure out that I'm one of them."