Friday, May 4, 2007

Heart of Hawaii - Kaua'i

Photo by: Cory Lum
Source: New York Times, May 4th, 2007

THE Poomau Ditch Trail hugs a mountainside, and we hiked carefully, looking down at the path so as not to take a false step and fall hundreds of feet to eternity. Gnarly ohia lehua trees lined the side away from the chasm, and abrasive blackberry bushes — not native to Hawaii, but thriving here on Kauai like so many other invasive imports — reached out their scratchy canes. Everything around us was green: mountains, canyons, tree canopy.This was the Kokee Forest, a place of spectacular mountain crags, fertile valleys, treacherous hidden paths — and very few people. I've lived on Kauai for decades, but bird calls coming from the dense tropical woodland were new to me. When I mimicked them, sometimes there was a sonorous response. Off and on, we heard the rush of streams. Other times, there was no sound at all.

The trail switched back three times, leading into dank canyons and out to hot sun, and then emerged on a tip of land that seemed suspended in air over Poomau Canyon. An edge-of-the-seat view spread out before us: confluent valleys and a waterfall with double-dip pools draining from a swamp in what is one of the very wettest spots on Earth — Mount Waialeale, which averages 460 inches of rain a year. White-tailed tropicbirds with two-foot long tails cruised in the gentle wind. We were looking down on them.

Kokee (pronounced ko-KAY) is a Kauai that few tourists imagine — 20 or 30 miles from the white sand beaches that draw 1.2 million visitors a year, but wild and otherworldly, its cool, blossom-drenched inner reaches still reverberating with the ancient heartbeat of the Hawaiian Islands. Much of Kokee — the generalized name for the area including Kokee and Waimea State Parks — lies in Kauai's no-drive zone, the mountainous northwestern quadrant of the island that has few roads and no coastal highway. Even Kauai residents rarely penetrate far into it. When someone returns from a few days there and describes the trip, the neighbors' typical response is a low breath of respect and awe.

Kokee has not only remoteness and exotic beauty, but also a mystique — Kauaians think of it as the island's spiritual center, where natives traditionally went to find renewal and where beleaguered indigenous plants and birds still survive. Jack London, who used Kokee as the setting for “Koolau the Leper,” a grim allegorical tale of capitalism's invasion into Polynesia, described the place with magical atmospherics that still apply — an earthly paradise with “gorges among the jumbled peaks” and “fantastic draperies of tropic vegetation.”

Thomas Kaiakapu, wildlife manager for the Hawaii division of forestry and wildlife, described the significance this way: “All of the islands have a special place where locals go to do the gathering, to hunt pig and perform the hula. Kokee is where Kauaians go.”

Anyone willing to hike challenging trails and sleep in rustic cabins or sturdy tents can get to know Kokee. On a trip there this past winter, my wife, Chie, and I and another couple — all longtime Kauai residents — and a German visitor made it our mission to hike as many trails as possible in five days, while staying in one of the 10 barebones state cabins in Kokee State Park.

We walked amid cathedrals of magnificent koa trees; koa wood is treasured by furniture and musical-instrument makers. We examined weird mosses, huge mushrooms, colorful lantana and feathery ferns, and experienced the sounds of rare birds and the smells of exotic flowers and fragrant earth. We saw spectacular ocean and canyon vistas, and we felt at peace in a place that is both exhausting and totally refreshing.

We were lucky; the weather held out. It can rain for days straight in Kokee at any time of year, and vacationers who commit to going are wise to take along diversions. But the real magic must be experienced in Kokee's 24-hour cycle, from when the sun emerges and warms the cold morning air to the sunset over the forbidden island of Niihau, where only the descendants of the original Hawaiians may go. We kept on the move by day, warmed ourselves in front of the fireplace in the evening, and slept deeply in the chilled mountain air — temperatures can dip into the 30s in the winter months.

Kauai is like an artichoke: you must uncover it layer by layer. Most vacationers who spend at least a few days on the island venture inward from the outermost layer — the coast and its resorts — to the much visited Waimea Canyon and Kalalau lookouts — both can be reached by car on the Kokee Road, and the first two Waimea Canyon lookouts are accessible to tour buses. Weather permitting (that is, if rain and clouds don't intervene), the views from both of these lookouts are awe-inspiring, and the fresh air is perfectly clean and cool.

At the next layer, adventurers hike from the northwestern end of the coast road along an ancient, mountain-hugging Hawaiian trail to the beach and into the Kalalau Valley, where a stream flows until spilling out into the ocean from the sequestered Kalalau Beach. This 11-mile trek has often been featured in outdoor and hiking publications. It weaves in and out of canyons on a switchback trail that traverses the coastal cliffs.

We wanted to go deeper still into the 6,182 acres of Kokee and Waimea parks, with their thundering waterfalls, vast canyons, primeval mesic forest and unique high-altitude Alakai Swamp.

Our cabin was near what functions as downtown Kokee: an ethereal meadow, a quaint museum, a small restaurant (breakfast and lunch only) and two pay phones that provide the only lifeline to the outside world in this cellphone graveyard. We awoke to the screeching of wild chickens, a major element of Kauai wildlife. We hiked by day and returned to the cabin each night.

One memorable trail took us into the Alakai Swamp, a vast, green boglike area with stunted plants and endangered birds in the leeward shadow of Mount Waialeale. In the past, hikers there sometimes found themselves in thigh-deep mud as they slogged toward a magnificent vista of Wainiha Valley and Hanalei Bay, on the other side of the island and 75 miles away by road. Today, a grated-board trail makes walking easier.

The women in our group, Loutoa Zoller and Chie, have both practiced hula and felt a special attraction to the lush forest, where Laka, the Hawaiian goddess of the hula, dwells. The tourist-trade hula, or hula auana, with its smiling dancers and suggestive movements, is a far cry from the traditional hula kahiko, a sacred rite. Jo Manea, a hula dancer for more than 20 years and now an instructor, told us that we would find Kokee “full of Laka.”

“It's where people from all over come to gather the seven sacred plants of hula kahiko,” she said. “We adorn her and ourselves in the plants so we can honor her.”

We felt Laka amid the 40-foot koa trees, now protected by law, and the puffy red ohia lehua blossoms, and heard her along the babbling brooks. She can be inhaled in the fragrance of the maile vines and mokihana berries.

As the oldest of the main islands, Kauai has been etched away by wind and rain to create unique microclimates that are home to a variety of indigenous flora and fauna. For instance, Kokee is home to birds that still live because the mosquitoes bearing avian malaria and other diseases can't exist at its cool elevation. This environment, and dozens of native species of birds, are endangered by feral animals that chew and trample and wallow in the vegetation.

ONLY rarely in our days on Kokee's trails did we meet anyone else in the forest. On our most adventurous hike, deep in the woods, we strolled along a fairy-tale mountainside trail, picking and eating lilikoi (passion fruit), guava and other wild fruits, and were suddenly engulfed by a sea of tail-wagging retrievers. Close behind was Jim Cassel, a local hunter looking for wild pigs — a cross between pigs introduced by the Polynesians centuries ago and the European boar.

Hawaii suffers from many misconceptions on the part of outsiders, one being that it's a wonderful thing that most everything thrives and grows easily there. But the operative word is “everything.” Insects, rodents, invasive plants, molds and fungi have destroyed many of the original plants and birds. Wild goats, introduced in Kauai by Capt. James Vancouver in 1792, eat fragile plants to extinction. So do the blacktail deer first imported from Oregon in 1961.

The pig not only roots and digs, exposing virgin soil to invasive species, but disperses seeds from undesirable plants as it travels. It is this part of the “everything” growing here that must be culled if the native species are to have any chance of survival. The hunters are happy to help, finding the pigs fun to chase and good to eat.

Kokee is absorbed in a give-and-take about the future of the state parks. Locals chafed at early proposals for a 40-to-60-room hotel, a helicopter pad, more parking areas and wider roads to allow large buses. Proposals and public hearings continue.

The future is uncertain, but for now, aside from the damage inflicted by the imported plants and animals, much of Kokee still remains untouched, even occasionally dangerous. Hikers should never go off-trail. Even seasoned hikers have slipped, become lost or fallen through a hole under a fern bed and never been found. We were Kokee veterans, but we still needed constant mapping references and weather assessments.

Yet it was magical. This, we found, was a place to get high on life in some of its richest natural forms — and on the oxygen of unpolluted air in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This was the domain of Laka.

Walks And Vistas: Using the Car Is Just the Start

KOKEE is accessible by car from the west side of Kauai, via the Kokee Road or the steeper Waimea Canyon Road. “Downtown,” the main visitor area of Kokee State Park, is reached from a driveway at Mile 15 of the Kokee Road. Guides and relevant information on trails and park conditions can be picked up there, at the Lodge at Kokee, which is a small restaurant open daily for breakfast and lunch and a gift shop, or at the rustic Kokee Natural History Museum next door, open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information is available at

The museum is an excellent primer for the area. Though small, it presents a number of scientific and natural exhibits, including a three-dimensional map of Kauai, and has a well-stocked book rack.

To rent a cabin (they start at about $95 a night and are best reserved well in advance), contact the Lodge at Kokee (808-335-6061; There are also four state campgrounds in Kokee and Waimea State Parks, and some hikers backpack and camp in the woods.

Many trails are best reached by hiking more than one day or by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Visitors who do not have their own trucks or S.U.V.'s will be limited by rental car companies' strictures against taking their vehicles off-road.

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