I am indebted to my hiking buddy “A” for doing all the botanizing necessary for me to write this post. And for hiking with me!
Normally, at the end of a stint in the field, I try to get back home as fast as I possibly can, rushing through the 8 mile hike then, er, adhering strictly to the speed limit in our state vehicle as we drive down the road from Koke’e State Park. But there’s another way home from the field, a little-used trail that runs from our camp all the way back to civilization. My boss hinted that trying it once would be mandatory, so a few weeks ago, armed with a GPS route and instructions to “turn left after the redwood grove”, my hiking buddy/fellow field tech A and I trekked downhill about 18 miles (29 km) from our field site in the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve to the coastal town of Waimea.
After a week of mostly sunny weather—unusual for a site only a few miles from Mt. Wai’ale’ale, allegedly the wettest place on earth—the heavens finally opened the night before our hike. I remember lying awake fretting that the trail would become a series of mudpits connected by slip-‘n’-slides, and that the streams might be uncrossable the next day. But in the morning, another tech reassured us (sort of) by insisting that we’d miss this weather about a third of the way into the hike, when we hit dry forest.
So off we went—early, as we’d been warned the hike could take up to twelve hours, and laden with litres of water that seemed redundant at the time. What at first appeared to be a lull in the rain soon became a genuine cessation—or was that because we were leaving the rainforest already? After only three miles the understory already appeared more open, and more and more nonnative plants were showing up. And we began to hear fewer and fewer native birds. In fact, it wasn’t long before we saw our first rooster—chickens run wild on Kaua’i—and soon after that, our first mynah. A suggested marking waypoints on our GPSs for these unfortunate firsts, but I found that too depressing.
We reached the redwood grove we’d been warned about—there are a few such groves scattered around the edges of the native rainforest on Kaua’i, and the towering trees with almost no undergrowth look stark and mystical—and had no problem finding the left turn, which led us down a series of switchbacks into more mixed forest.
The switchbacks led to a river valley, our first stream crossing. The stream was, as I had worried, swollen with rain and would clearly overtop our hiking boots, so we crossed barefoot, though our socks were soaked already from the muddy trail. We took a break across the stream by an old cabin, and the newly-shining sun combined with the dripping grass convinced me to take off my heavy rain gear, too.
The next section of trail was a mix of rain-damp grasses and brambles, alternately cutting and soothing my legs as I passed. Once, ahead of us, a deer crossed the path, then froze and stared at us. We stared back until it marched away. The mixed forest gave way to a monoculture of strawberry guava, a plant with tasty fruits that has become a major invasive pest in Hawaiian native forests. This stand was truly eerie: every trunk looked the same—of the same size and with smooth, brown bark lacking the moss that covers everything in the Alaka’i—and not a bird could be heard, native or otherwise.
Our first sign of civilization was a pile of horse dung—still pretty far into the forest. I was surprised a horse could actually be taken there; not only is the terrain steep but the path itself is extremely narrow. The next sign of civilization was, I kid you not, a pink mansion with a massive lawn in the middle of the jungle. Presumably, this was located outside of the state park and on private land. A and I debated about whether we could see a road along the ridge leading to this strange building; we ultimately decided that we couldn’t see any ingress to this place by road and that the owners probably helicoptered in.
Waimea Canyon from its east slope
We left the guava grove and hiked through a forest compose of increasingly stunted and dry-looking plants. Ghostly pale ohia snags stuck up above the lower vegetation and the trail change from slippery to hard-packed and dry, with gouges indicating that the upslope forest watered this drier habitat. On a barren knoll we stopped for lunch and our first clear view of Waimea Canyon with its distinctive red soil (exposed, so I’m told, by grazing goats, which have caused serious erosion problems). Around us grew spiky-leaved lobelias and greenswords and stunted ohia trees—the dominant tree of the wet forest also thrives, in a different growth form, on the drier side of the island.
Our lunch, and the rest of the hike, was constantly interrupted by helicopters. They carry tourists over the canyon and the Alaka’i plateau, where they can see spectacular waterfalls and forested ridges. I certainly would jump at the chance myself, if I had the money and didn’t want to hike, but a copter flew by us almost once a minute for most of the afternoon, a constant reminder that we were nowhere near as remote as we felt out there.
A greensword and some ohias, with Waimea Canyon in the background.
The trail continued downhill as the forest gave way to chapparal. There was no shade, but it was fortuitously overcast, making the hike warm but not unpleasant. On a sunny day it would’ve been miserable. Having been soaked through in the forest, I began to dry off, and soon reached an equilibrium where the sweat seeping into my clothes perfectly balanced the evaporating rainwater.
The trail was also obviously well-worn. Horse and donkey hoofprints—we now saw dry dung in abundance—had worn a path as deep as a foot into the clay. In some places, charred branches littered the ground, as if a small wildfire had been contained. We encountered water catchments and little shelters (filled, sadly, with more garbage than we could carry out), probably intended for state workers but mostly used by hunters. Good conservationists, we checked any standing water for mosquito larvae, but found none—mosquito season, apparently, isn’t til the fall.
While the red clay makes Waimea Canyon iconic, we found a few places where it came in an array of colours—reds, oranges, yellows, even purples and blues. Erosion by wind or rain had sculpted it into ridges and moguls. Where harder, black volcanic rocks were scattered, the clay had eroded out from under them, leaving them on little pedestal. But for the shrubs, it looked like Mars or the moon.
This was easily the most beautiful part of the hike, but also one of the hardest. It was exposed and hot, and began to turn uphill. We approached Pu’u Ki, a conical hill in the middle of the canyon—fortunately the trail would lead us around it. A pointed out wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis), a Hawaiian endemic with orange bark and strange orange flowers. Unfortunately they weren’t flowering at this time of year.
The multicoloured clay soils above Waimea Canyon
After Pu’u Ki, we descended into another river valley. Black bluffs loomed above our heads, and—finally—some shady trees grew along the riparian corridor. The path wound through tall grasses, crossing and recrossing the stream via stepping stones. Soon, this river joined up with the Waimea River—my GPS calls it Waimea Ditch. We were now on the last few miles of the Waimea Canyon Trail—actually a dirt road at this point. A noticed that all the trees here were curved in the same direction, as if regular, massive flooding had sculpted them. Piles of logs and other debris did, indeed, seem to indicate that the river was sometimes higher—several metres higher—but it was hard to imagine it. Surely the houses along the lower reaches of the river would have been swept away?
We had to ford the Waimea River twice, at shallow gravelly points where 4WD vehicles can cross. At the first of these, there’s also a long, rickety Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge which I skipped across. Bizarrely, though, there was no proper path on the other side, just a rock face with some agave, so I skipped right back. Crossing on the “road”, I made a stupid mistake: stepped on a wet rock (never step on wet rocks; it’s lesson #1 in the Alaka’i), slipped, and fell on my back. This was such a stupid thing to do, and the cold water felt so good, that I just lay there and laughed until A helped me up.
Across the river, a dog appeared down the trail, then another, and another, and finally a man on horseback and a fourth dog. A genuine paniolo? The first human we’d seen since that morning cheerfully told us that we were only two miles from the end.
At the next river crossing, I gave up trying not to overtop my boots—my socks had been wet for the whole hike anyways—and instead welcomed the refreshing water rushing in. I think A managed to keep his feet dry at both crossings. And here we were at the end of the trail—or the beginning of the road, for here were houses and families swimming in the river, and soon the mango-lined, chicken-infested streets of Waimea. Conversation ceased; subdued by the shock of civilization—even the most laid-back town in the United States—we walked with suddenly-aching feet and staring eyes.
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