A Visit to Pu'u Kukui on Maui, Day 2)

A Visit to Pu'u Kukui on Maui, Day 2

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It's Friday, 12/18/98, and everyone is up by 5 a.m. to prepare for the hike to Pu'u Kukui. Our first night at Haelaau House has been a quiet one, with only a gentle whisper of wind and the happy absence of the tap of raindrops on the cabin's corrugated metal roof. A few embers are aglow in the fireplace and in a couple of minutes Grant has stoked the fire, bringing it to a pleasant crackle that pierces the cool 50-degree morning nip.

It's still dark outside and Pat is the first to leave the cabin. He reports the distant summit of Pu'u Kukui is cloudfree and the sky overhead is a parade of stars. Hearing the good news, we shuffle outside to see for ourselves. Ken, whose talents seem to have few boundaries, uses his flashlight beam like a pointer to show us the different stars and constellations. Thanks to Ken, I now can identify the North Star, Hokulea, the Little Dipper, the Southern Cross, the Pleiades, and Cassiopeia, among others.

Thanks to June, we dine on a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried rice, and orange wedges with a chaser of hot coffee or cocoa. Grant supplements the meal by breaking out his campstove and backpacker oven to bake some fresh piping hot biscuits. There is leftover pasta and brown rice from the previous night's dinner, and I wolf some for breakfast and pack the remainder in a ziplock for today's lunch. Like we always do on these service trips, we eat much and we eat well. For on-the-trail dining, June has made available tuna sandwiches, apples, power bars, and a bag of gorp. Several folks assist in lunch prep and when everything is ready, we all grab what we want and stuff the grub into our packs. Everyone has at least two liters of water for the trip to the summit and back. A big H20 consumer, I pack five, just in case, and ultimately end up needing only three.

Nervous that the weather somehow might turn sour, someone periodically steps out of the cabin to check the cloud condition upslope. The report is always the same: clear skies above and no clouds on the summit. At 6:45, the sun peaks over the crest of Pu'u Kukui and the facing slopes of distant Lanai are lit up with a soft orange hue.

Just like he said he would, Hank arrives at the cabin at 7:30. By 7:45, we're on the trail, embarking on a trek none of us, save Carole and Kost, have been on before. The route has been marked as a long transect line. Starting at the Pu'u Kukui summit, Hank and Scott have planted markers, specifically a white length of PVC pipe, at 50 meter intervals. Each marker has metal tags affixed to it with one tag stamped with the transect number--the PK summit being zero, the one 50 meters from it one, the one at 100 meters two, and so on down the trail. I find out later the boardwalk ends at marker 17, a straight-line distance of 850 meters from the top.

We proceed at a very relaxed pace, Hank stopping often to point out a native plant, to look for a tree snail, or to explain an interesting anecdote about the area. The lower section of the trail proceeds under a canopy of trees on a broad ridge, so we're hiking in the shade most of the time. The path is infrequently used and slightly overgrown but finding our way isn't a problem, especially when following Hank, who says he's traversed the trail at least 80 times. The trail is also muddy in spots and within an hour we're all coated with a film of brown from the knee down.

Hank is wearing a pair of shin-high rubber boots, recommended footwear on this trail. The rest of us opt for hiking boots and gaiters, attire we're used to wearing. I'm suited up in my trademark red Coolmax shirt, black nylon mesh shorts, my trusted Nike Sharks, gaiters, and blue knee pads. I later find out that Hank, upon seeing the knee pads and my burly appearance, expressed his concern to Carole that I might be unfit to make it to the summit area and back. Having hiked with me before, Carole assures Hank that I'm able in the mountains despite appearing less than so.

At one point, Judy slithers down a fallen log and into a deceptively deep hole of muck which denies her attempts to free her booted foot. After several tries at extrication, she frees herself to my cheers. The mud also christens Pat's new boots, and he and I laugh whenever we hear the telltale sucking slurp of a boot being lifted from a mudhole.

About two miles up the trail, at a point where the ridge narrows and falls off steeply left to Kahana Gulch and right to Honokowai Valley, the Maui Land and Pine folks have placed a gated fence and adorned it with a "no trespassing" sign and menacing strands of barbed wire. One can't proceed upridge beyond this point without the key to the gate (or wire cutters and/or rappelling gear), but, of course, Hank has the key and onward we hike. Before moving on, we snap photos of Kost peering through the bars of the gate. Kost, a retired UH professor with a visage that is a cross between Fidel Castro and Willie Nelson, has a great sense of humor and happily poses for our photos.

Beyond the gate, we begin climbing more steeply for the half-mile ascent to Nakalalua (4,500). The slopes we ascend are akin to ones we travel in the mountains of Oahu. In fact, I feel right at home in the Pu'u Kukui watershed because it's as if I'm hiking in the beloved Koolaus. The major difference is the increased quantity and quality of the flora in this West Maui Mountain wonderland. Regarding the plants we see, Kost, Ken, and Hank continue to "talk the talk," an expression Carole uses to describe the genus/species flora banter that carries on between this trio.

As noon approaches, we reach Nakalalua and a clearing used as a campsite and an equipment drop zone. This is a good place to rest and we take 15 minutes to kick back and relax. During the break, someone asks Hank where the boardwalk begins. "Oh, about 20 yards from here," he replies to our surprise. Hank also tells stories about camping atop the mountain while building the boardwalk. From his accounts, Hank obviously loves his job, albeit a lonely and hard one. His affinity for Pu'u Kukui is clear, strong, proud.

Just as Hank said, the boardwalk commences 20 yards beyond the clearing. At that point is a rain gauge with about half a gallon of water in it. We find out that Hank and/or Scott record readings from several rain gauges along the trail once a month and also make checks of rat traps and poison bait stations that are placed at most transect marker points. Rodent control is an important undertaking because rats eat the eggs of native birds as well as the seeds of certain native plants.

The first half-mile of the boardwalk is clearly an older section, with the wood on it coming from the planks of a torn down cabin. The planks are the 2' x 8' variety and most of the boardwalk is a single plank wide. Atop each plank, heavy steel wire is also used for traction. Early on, the boardwalk isn't completely continuous, and there are a few short sections where we have to scramble up or down rocks, fallen trees, and the like.

In a few minutes, we begin the righthand turn toward Pu'u Kukui, reaching an overlook with a fantastic view down into Honokohau Valley. The far wall of the valley is a massive sheer pali topped by 'Eke Crater (4,751). Hank tells us the ancient Hawaiians referred to the face of the pali as "the wall of tears," because dozens of waterfalls, akin to teardrops, etch its precipitous slope during a period of heavy rain. At the rear of the valley is Honokohau Falls, at 1,120 feet, the highest on Maui. As might be expected, we utter an array of superlatives and snap photos aplenty of what we see.

From the overlook and beyond, the forested terrain we've tramped through makes the transition to a mountaintop of waist-high native shrubs, periodic open meadows, and amazing bogs, populated by plants that have grown excruciatingly slow over the eons. While hiking the boardwalk, we pass silverswords, the much rarer (but plentiful atop Pu'u Kukui) greensword, lobelia of several varieties, and miniaturized ferns and ohia, the latter, despite being just an inch high, boasting red-spiked blossoms like the ones from full-sized trees. Amazing.

The summit ridge is very broad, and the boardwalk atop it stands out like the yellow brick road to the land of Oz. The summit of Pu'u Kukui, marked by trees planted long ago by Fleming, is in view much of the time. Clouds roll upslope from the west and we begin to worry that we'll face a whiteout. But the upper slopes hold the white masses at bay and our views are only briefly blocked and the clouds eventually dissipate.

Around 12:45., we stop for lunch at a 10x10 wooden platform that Hank and Scott use as a campsite when working on the upper segment of the boardwalk. We spend 20 minutes at the platform, also used as a helicopter landing site and where the twelve annual lottery winners are choppered in for their boardwalk tour. Instead of plunking down $500 like the lottery dozen, the price we've paid is but a day's hike up a rugged yet beautiful trail. And the ridgetop is clear. We're gratified to no end.

But will we be allowed to the summit? The answer when we reach the boardwalk's end about 15 minutes beyond the platform is no. Admittedly, to be within a half mile of the top on such a beautiful day is disappointing. But Hank tells us foot traffic will inflict major damage to the fragile ecosystem and a trampled bog needs hundreds of years to repair itself since plants in it grow so slowly because of the oxygen-depleted chemistry of the terra which they grow. In other words, until the boardwalk is completed, hiking to the summit of Pu'u Kukui will not be allowed.

With the summit visible just a couple gentle humps upslope, we snap pictures of ourselves at the boardwalk's current end, hopeful that we'll have a chance to return someday to see the trail to its terminus. But today will not be that day, and with our pictures snapped, we turn from the holy grail of Pu'u Kukui and commence the journey back to the cabin.

What did we miss at the top? Views down the heart of Iao Valley, of Haleakala, and of the multitude of other valleys that radiate from Pu'u Kukui like spokes of a wheel. A source I read said that ancient Hawaiians regarded Pu'u Kukui as the domain of the gods, where the heavens rained the gift of life-sustaining water on the land. As a matter of fact, nearly 400 inches of rain falls annually on the mountain. Compared to Waialeale's 400-plus inches of annual rainfall, Pu'u Kukui is also a wetland heavyweight and days when it isn't cloaked in clouds are rare.

We're back at the cabin at five--muddy, tired, a bit disappointed about not summiting, but happy to have an opportunity few others have had. After a resting a couple minutes, Hank motors off down the mountain, saying he'll see us on Sunday morning when he accompanies Arnold and David up for our departure. In the meantime, we wash ourselves and our gear, stopping often to gaze up at the wondrous mountain we'd just returned from.

After cleaning up, we spend another relaxing night in the cabin, enjoying a nice meal, each other's company by the fireplace, and some time stargazing later in the evening. Everyone is bunked down by ten, for we have a full day of service work ahead the next day.

Next: Day 3--An attack on Blackberry and Tibouchina


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