Legend says barren Kahuku, in the southern district of Kau on the Big Island, was once lush with forests, fruit trees and taro fields. Many villages dotted the area, and when the people were not tending their crops they enjoyed competitions, including holua (sled) races down steep grassy hillsides.
One day Pele, the tempestuous volcano goddess, appeared in Kahuku as a beautiful princess and exhibited her prowess in this exhilarating but dangerous sport. Captivated by her grace, daring and athleticism, two handsome young chiefs challenged her to race with them, and wound up vying for her affections as well.
As time passed, however, the chiefs noticed the princess had a volatile temper. "Be careful," an elder warned. "She might be Pele, here to play among us before she returns to her fiery home in Halemaumau Crater."
Agreeing it would be best to cool their relationship with the mysterious princess, the chiefs began declining her invitations to race. Their aloofness angered Pele. Body ablaze, eyes flashing and smoke pouring from her mouth, she stamped the ground and earthquakes shook Kahuku. Red-hot lava burst from fissures and flowed far and wide. The once-verdant land turned bleak and desolate.
Terrified, Pele’s former lovers ran toward the sea, hoping to escape her wrath. She quickly caught up with them and embraced them. Molten lava piled over them, creating Na Puu o Pele (The Hills of Pele). Spared from subsequent eruptions, these lonely landmarks still can be seen along the coast of Kahuku.
This might be one of the stories you’ll hear on the monthly Kipuka Akihi Hike in Kahuku led by National Park Service rangers. On July 3, 2003, the park service partnered with the Nature Conservancy to purchase the 116,000-acre Kahuku Ranch from the estate of Samuel Mills Damon as an addition to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The $22 million transaction — the largest land conservation deal in Hawaii’s history — increased the size of the park by 50 percent to 333,086 acres.
Now known as the Kahuku Unit of the national park, the property runs along the slopes of Mauna Loa, which, covering half the Big Island, is the largest volcano on Earth. Ranging between 2,000 feet and 13,000 feet in elevation, the unit encompasses diverse ecosystems, including forests, pastureland, shrubland, stark expanses of lava, and subalpine and alpine communities.
Park rangers Adrian Boone, Dean Gallagher, John Stallman and Kupono McDaniel launched the five-hour, 1.5-mile hike in April 2009.
"We thought it would be a great opportunity for the public to see dozens of rare and endangered plant and bird species, and also to visit an area that was privately owned for a century and a half," Boone said.
"We walk through a pristine forest that’s surrounded by pastureland. The forest kipuka (oasis) survived 150 years of ranching because it’s located in a ravine with steep walls, and cattle, sheep and goats had a hard time getting into it."
The vegetation flourishing there include hapuu pulu (tree ferns); kupukupu (sword ferns); fragrant maile; and kolea lau nui, whose wood was long ago used to make tapa beaters, house posts and beams . Also of note is a patch of rare olona, which the early Hawaiians wove into rope.
"We’ve incorporated a stewardship program as part of the hike, so participants can help preserve the kipuka," Boone said. "We explain that highly invasive, non-native plants like strawberry guava and kahili ginger can blanket the ground and choke out the native plants, and it’s important for us to remove them before that happens. Once people understand that, they are happy to lend a hand."
As hikers walk among the trees, they keep their eyes peeled for the native pulelehua or Kamehameha butterfly and three species of endangered forest birds — the akepa, akiapolaau and Hawaii creeper. The endangered io (Hawaiian hawk), opeapea (Hawaiian bat) and nene (Hawaiian goose, Hawaii’s state bird), and five species of rare songbirds — the elepaio, iiwi, amakihi, omao and apapane — also make their homes here.
"In olden times, the people of Kahuku were known as bird hunters," Boone said. "They valued birds for food and for their beautiful feathers, which they made into cloaks and capes for the alii (royalty). Kahuku was also well known throughout the islands for its abundant forests, which provided koa wood for canoes."
During the mid-1800s, the Hawaiians also gathered sandalwood and pulu (tree fern fibers) from Kahuku’s forests for trade. Ranching began there during the same period; the meat, hides and tallow of cattle also were prized as commodities.
Kahuku also is significant geologically because a large part of it lies within Mauna Loa’s very active southwest rift zone. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory regard it as a prime area to conduct research. Although frequent earthquakes and lava flows have buried some archaeological sites, many remain, including ancient trails, ahu (altars), house sites and petroglyphs dating back 700 years.
"The Kipuka Akihi Hike allows visitors to see a different side of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park," Boone said. "It’s a challenging, but enlightening, excursion back in time."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.
IF YOU GO ……
Kipuka Akihi Hike
» Meeting place: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Kahuku Unit, Kau, Big Island. The entrance gate is located mauka (toward the mountains) off Highway 11 between Mile Markers 70 and 71.
» Upcoming hike dates: Sept. 25, Oct. 3, Nov. 7, Dec. 11
» Time: 10 a.m.
» Admission: Free; donations are accepted
» Phone: 808-985-6011
» E-mail: email@example.com
» Notes: This hike is not recommended for children under age 10; it’s limited to 15 people and advance reservations are required. You should be able to walk over fallen trees, rough lava rock and wet, slippery terrain. Wear sturdy hiking shoes, long pants, sunscreen and a hat. Bring rain gear, garden gloves, a day pack, mosquito repellent, lunch and water.
» Visit on your own: Except for the first Saturday of the month, you can visit the Kahuku Unit on your own on weekends between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Most people drive 30 minutes to the top of the road at the 4,000-foot elevation, and do a two-mile round-trip hike to a huge pit crater. A native Hawaiian forest thrives at the bottom of the crater.