A Visit to Pu'u Kukui on Maui, Day 1)

A Visit to Pu'u Kukui on Maui, Day 1

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On Thursday, 12-17-98, with all the planning of the past couple months complete, Grant, Ken, Carole, June, Judy, Pat, Kost, and I depart from Honolulu on a 6:45 a.m. Hawaiian Air flight bound for Maui.

Upon arriving at Kahului Airport, we are greeted by Arnold DeClercq and his buddy David. Arnold is the President of Hidden Adventures, a company that offers Jeep-guided tours to out-of-the-way spots on Maui (call 808-665-0559 for info), and David is the manager of a car dealership in Kahului. To our delight, via prior arrangement they have agreed to provide ground transport to and from the cabin where our group will stay. Arnold is driving a cherry '83 Jeep CJ7 and David a brand new Luxury Lincoln SUV 4x4. We will ride in style, no doubt.

After a quick stop at Kahului Gaspro to purchase propane for our cooking stoves, we motor off to Maui's west end, specifically the Napili Plaza Shopping Center, where we are to rendezvous with Randy Bartlett and his assistants, Hank Oppenheimer and Scott Meidell. The drive on Honoapi'ilani Highway from Kahului takes about 40 minutes, and on the way we enjoy the makai views out across 'Au'au Channel and mauka views of the drier lee side of the west Maui Mountains. The day is cool and superbly clear, and Arnold remarks how lucky we are to be visiting Maui with such nice weather.

The drive takes us past tourist-centered Lahaina and Kaanapali and at places where the highway passes near the ocean, we see Lanai and Molokai across a tranquil azure sea. There's a market at Napili Plaza, and we buy lunch and snacks there and await the arrival of the Maui Land and Pine staff.

First to arrive is Scott, a former Maui police officer. He introduces himself, collects the waivers of liability forms we've filled out, and inspects our gear to make sure they are free of mud and seeds that might lead to the introduction of non-native plant species to the pristine areas of the Pu'u Kukui watershed. Yes, the watershed has non-native pests, the two most troublesome being blackberry and tibouchina herbacea, but the watershed is free of menaces like strawberry guava, clidemia, and miconia, to name a few, and the gear inspection is a measure to prevent further watershed contamination. Fortunately, Randy informed us beforehand of the inspection, so prior to the trip we all have taken care to wash and scrub our things, especially our boots, gaiters, and packs. Pat admits that his boots were so dirty, he had given up trying to clean them and had bought a new pair a couple days before the trip.

Soon after Scott's arrival, Hank and Randy pull up, and we introduce ourselves, are briefed about the day's itinerary by Hank, and are bound for Haelaau House aka Fleming House, a nicely kept cabin built in the early 1920s by David T. Fleming, then a foreman for Honolua Ranch, which later became Maui Pine, and then the current entity, Maui Land and Pine. The cabin, perched atop a pu'u called Kaulalewalewa (elev. 2,980), is reached via a seven-mile drive on a dirt road. The road commences near the Kapalua Airport, passes through a large tract of red dirt pineapple fields, and winds its way upslope through the mauka forest reserve. There are two locked gates on the way, but Hank is along to unlock these and lead us through. Randy and Scott have other projects to tend to and don't accompany us.

The drive from the highway to the cabin takes about 30 minutes, and when we arrive at Kaulalewalewa, we pile out of the 4x4 vehicles to ogle the fantastic panorama that includes makai views of the Lahaina/Kaanapali coast and Lanai and Molokai across the channel (Oahu is even visible on really clear days, says Hank). Mauka stands the green summit mass of Pu'u Kukui, more often cloaked by clouds than not. Just like Arnold, Hank mentions how fortunate we are to be here in such ideal weather.

The cabin, constructed of wood planks, is quaint and functional. It has a large fireplace, a bathroom with flush toilet and bathtub (no electricity, hot water or shower), and a large main room (about 30'x 20') with a table for meals. Four double-deck bunks line the walls of the main room and another bunk is situated in a separate room in one corner of the cabin. There is no kitchen per se, but two countertops in the main room work well as food prep locales. On the mauka side of the cabin is a large water tank (full during our visit) fed by roof catchment. Jealousy windows offer ventilation and light.

We unload our gear and thank and bid aloha to Arnold and David, who'll return three days later to ferry us down the mountain and back to civilization. Hank accompanies the duo out in his own vehicle and will return after lunch to supervise our group for service work in the watershed. Meanwhile, we invade the cabin, choose bunks, organize our gear, and then eat lunch.

Hank returns about 12 and provides an interesting orientation prior to our service work in the afternoon. Among the things he points out is the route to Pu'u Kukui, which is clearly discernible from the cabin. The trail commences 20 yards southeast of the cabin, dips down into a ravine initially, and climbs steadily for 5 miles to the summit. About the 2.5-mile mark, the trail reaches a distinct pu'u called Nakalalua (elev. ~4,200), where there are four tall sugi pine trees, planted by Fleming. These are easily visible from the cabin.

From Nakalalua, the trail heads right, basically south, for the final 2.5-mile stretch to the summit. To protect the fragile ecosystem, Hank, Scott, and an occasional volunteer have constructed a boardwalk in this segment. To date, the boardwalk is three kilometers (~1.8 miles) in length with another 800 meters remaining to be built to reach the summit of Pu'u Kukui. Hank estimates completion by the year 2000. To actually tread on the boardwalk, we'll have to wait till the next day when we are scheduled to hike up the trail and proceed to the boardwalk's end.

Before that, we have service work to tend to. We spend several hours on our first afternoon working in the first quarter-mile segment from the cabin. The only tools we wield are sturdy leather gloves and muscle power. Our goal--to pull from the trail corridor tibouchina herbacea, a weed with qualities similar to clidemia, a weed that infests Oahu's mountains. When we first begin, Hanks asks us, for data collection purposes, to keep an approximate count of the number of "tibs" we pull. After a few minutes, Hank realizes that the weeds are sprouting up in such profusion that trying to keep tabs on the number pulled is hindering our efficiency, so he cancels the count 'em order. Freed of this requirement, we now attack the weed patches with abandon, heeding Hank's advice to keep our gloves on to avoid contact with the skin-irritating resin emitted from the plant's cane.

Aside from the tibs, the flora along the trail is predominantly endemic native. Amazingly, Lobelia, relatively rare in the mountains of Oahu, is abundant in the Pu'u Kukui watershed. Kost and Ken, the most knowledgeable of our group regarding native flora, are excited like kids in a Kaybee Toy Store at Christmas time. Like a kid knows what's what with GI Joes or Barbie dolls, Ken and Kost effortlessly recite strings of genus, species, and Hawaiian names of just about every plant they see, and the rest of us are inundated with utterances like Clermontia micrantha ('oha wai), Smilax melastomifolia (hoi kuahiwi), and Nertera granadensis (makole). Hank, a New York transplant and former construction worker, is no slouch in the flora identification department. In fact, so thorough is his knowledge that Ken declares, "That guy knows his plants."

Since pulled tibs have the demonstrated ability to regrow fairly easily, Hank instructs us to form large piles of pulled weeds instead of several smaller ones. The thinking behind that tactic is that large piles will tend to compost better and if regrowth occurs, patches will be fewer and thus more manageable. As it turns out, in the three hours we work that afternoon, each of us pulls hundreds of tibouchina and several huge piles of yanked weeds remain.

As we usually do when we do trail maintenance work, we pass the time by talking story, telling jokes, and enjoying each other's company. The day continues its clear, cool disposition and this helps to make our labor more pleasant. During a break, Hank leads us off trail to show us a clutch of loulu palms, a common sight in the Koolaus of Oahu but rare in the West Maui Mountains. We also search for tree snails and find one in an ohia along the trail. We are also on the alert for native birds and spot several red-feathered apapane.

By 4, we're done with the service work for the day and not long after that Hank has hopped in his truck and motors off down the mountain. He'll return at 7:30 the next morning to lead us on the hike up the trail to Pu'u Kukui. He has orders not to take us beyond the end of the boardwalk, but we're hoping that perhaps the order may be rescinded and we'll have a chance to hike to the summit where views on a clear day have been described as otherworldly.

For the rest of the afternoon, we tend to tasks like filtering water for drinking, cutting firewood (Hank chainsaws some bigger logs before leaving), and preparing dinner. Time is also available to nap, explore the grounds around the cabin, and enjoy the views upslope and down. We also take turns jumping into the bathtub to clean up, and we all laugh when we hear someone in the tub gasping upon dumping a bucket of cold water on his/her head to rinse off.

On the eve of our hike to Pu'u Kukui, an air of nervous energy emanates from the group. We all realize how fortunate we are to hike this trail. In the past two years, only two dozen members of the public have been allowed up on Pu'u Kukui, and these folks had to pay $500 to enter a lottery to have the chance. A huge looming bonus for our group is the possibility that we'll have beautiful weather for our hike. Would the weather hold?

After dinner, Grant starts a warming blaze in the fireplace. We then walk outside to enjoy views of the lights of Kaanapali below, the stars in the sky overhead, and the dark inviting mass of Pu'u Kukui mauka. The temps have dropped into the 50s (Judy insists it is 49) and the wind is light so whatever the temperature is, we're comfortably cold.

By 9:30, mesmerized by flickering flames in the fireplace and having consumed a cup of chocolate mint cocoa and a couple of Judy's ono-kine brownies, I'm asleep. I find out the next day the others hit their bunks soon thereafter, no doubt lulled into the arms of Morpheus by the drone of my rhythmic snoring.

Next: Day 2--A hike to Pu'u Kukui

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