Appreciating Hawai`i, Hāmākua Hawai`i

Notes on Hawai`i’s Botany


The following note was written for a landscape manager in our neighborhood. A well-intentioned and intelligent person, he had introduced “Mysore raspberry” on a near-by property because he grows them on his own place and enjoys eating them. He has since removed them from the place under his care.

The geological history of the Hawaiian Islands goes back some 75 million years; the botanical history is less lengthy because about 40 million years ago a 10-million year hiatus in the process of hot-spot island production apparently resulted in the drowning of all terrestrial life that had populated the extant islands up to that point as the lands subsided into the Pacific.

Still, 40 million years is a long time. The remoteness of Hawai`i’s location in the middle of the north Pacific is so extreme that the thousands of miles of open ocean in every direction has acted as a filter to make arrival of organisms – before the intervention of humans – a very rare event. Thus, only two mammals that can be considered terrestrial populated pre-human Hawai`i: a bat and a seal. There were no amphibians nor reptiles before people brought them. Only nine or ten forest birds had successfully arrived here, and only 250 plant species. One interpreter of the island’s natural history has compared the successful arrival of a new plant species to the likelihood of a person standing on the edge of an Olympic pool being able to hit with poppy seeds a postage stamp floating on its water. Others have calculated that a new plant species got here on the statistical average of one every 100,000 years.

In short, whether their seeds were light enough to be airborne for thousands of miles, durable enough to survive the freezing temperatures of high altitudes, and fortunate enough to land on ground suitable for their germination and propagation; impervious enough to withstand months of immersion in saltwater and being caught in currents that carried them to parts of the islands that were conducive to their survival and reproduction; sticky enough to adhere to bird feathers or muddy legs, or in fruits or berries tasty enough to be ingested and carried here in avian digestive tracts, pre-human colonization of Hawai`i by new plants just didn’t happen very often.

The islands, though are very diverse in their range of habitats and ecological niches. Once a plant species did establish itself here and began to disperse, it typically adapted to the various circumstances to which it spread, changing its characteristics to do so to the extent that it gave rise to a number of new species. Thus, the 250 ancestral arrivals gave rise to some 2,600 native species – accounting in large measure for the fact that over 90% of Hawai`i’s native plants are found nowhere else in the world. In the absence of grazing animals, the need for protective characteristics (e.g., thorns, toxins, strong tastes, noxious odors) was absent and these tended to diminish or disappear.

Another testimony to the remoteness of Hawai`i is the fact than it was one of the very last places suitable for human habitation that was actually discovered and populated by our kind. That only happened about 1,500 years ago, but the event was marked by significant changes. Pigs and dogs were introduced deliberately, the Polynesian rat and a species of gecko apparently accidentally, and 30 species of plants culturally significant to the settlers all had their several and cumulative impacts. With the arrival of the British, the ships of James Cook’s third Pacific expedition in 1779 – on his way to search for a passage around the upper reaches of North America – the impacts of introduced species accelerated hugely (including micro-organisms infecting naturally immunized human carriers of diseases that began a massive die-off of the native human population).

Observers in the early stages of “post-contact” times commented that scarcely a ship called at the Islands without new botanical specimens to set out. That tendency has not remitted with time. Thus, presently, perhaps 10,000 species of plants are found in Hawai`i that were not here at the time of Cook’s arrival. All of these are likely to have evolved in environments that were much more challenging and competitive than those of Hawai`i. As a consequence, these historic-era introductions strongly tend to have patterns of growth and dispersal that are highly aggressive relative to the native species (comparisons with human culture also spring to mind) and a strong likelihood of displacing them. The Casuarina trees, often in Hawai`i called “ironwood,” lay down a thick mat of its needle-like branchlets that keeps other plant species from thriving; the many species of ornamental ginger spring vigorously from corms inches thick and inclined to mass into impenetrable thickets where nothing else can grow; Eucalyptus trees continuously drop leaves, twigs and branches that change the chemistry of the soil to inhibit the successful propagation of potential competitors; and the list goes on.

Consider as a contrary example the native raspberry, `Akala (Rubus hawaiensis). It was probably one of those species brought to the Islands in the digestive tract of birds. In the course of time, the thorns so typical of the genus have, in this species, become modified so that they are absent or relatively small and soft to the touch. According to the University of Hawai`i, “There are also several introduced species (of Rubus), many highly aggressive invasives, in the Hawaiian Islands: Prickly Florida blackberry (R. argutus), Himalayan blackberry (R. discolor), Yellow Himalayan raspberry (R. ellipticus var.obcordatus), Andean raspberry (R. glaucus), Mysore or Hill raspberry (R. niveus), Mauritius raspberry or thimbleberry (R. rosifolius), and Molucca raspberry (R. sieboldii).”  The Mysore is one of the members of the genus Rubus that thrive in tropical climates (most preferring colder winters) and bears cautious monitoring because of its thorniness and vigorous spread (see

Needless to say, all these are subject to dispersal by birds and pigs feeding on the tempting berries – and their thorny stems and characteristic formation of dense patches makes their presence problematic for those who would protect spaces for native plants, or those who simply find their forest wanderings blocked by them and their formidable defenses.

Nearly everyone who lives in Hawai`i and cares for plants enough to propagate and nurture them has for a variety of reasons regrets about some of his or her botanical introductions. Our ordinarily mild tropical climate shifts the struggle typical in more extreme zones to promote plant growth, to on-going efforts here to control their growth. Without such efforts, yards and fields in Hawai`i become jungles and/or weed patches with startling rapidity.

Many people have a fatalistic attitude toward the growing dominance of historically-introduced specimens, thinking that the tipping point has long been passed; that the shrinking share of habitat for native species will inevitably continue to diminish. That may indeed be the case, but we should not “go gentle” into that frame of mind, but be inclined to err if need be on the side of the native species.

Hāmākua Hawai`i

Battlefield Hamakua

Hamakua is the ancient district of the Island of Hawai`i in which I have lived since arriving in the Islands in 1973. Following is one of a number of articles I wrote for The Hamakua Times, intended to enhance the appreciation of fellow residents of the amazing qualities and history of our home lands.

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The most thorough and inspiring archeological/historical synthesis ever done on data from the Island of Hawai`i  was published in 2000: Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai`i Island, by State archeologist Ross Cordy. One of the most riveting things about the book is the fact that, since it deals with our Island, it has numerous references to our Hamakua lands.

Many battles were fought during what Cordy calls “The Decade of Strife & Tears,” the period between 1782 and 1791. Because western observers were intermittently present during this period, either to witness the events or to hear of them from participants, there is a good deal of written information about the twists and turns of events that eventually led to Kamehameha’s establishment of dominion over all the islands of Hawai`i. Hawaiian historians also were able to document the history of the time with accounts from individuals with direct or second-hand experience. One particular episode in all these conflicts is of particular interest to us as residents of Hamakua and is summarized as follows:

With the death of Kalaniopu`u, three rivals emerged for control of the Island of Hawai`i, after a very brief reign of the old king’s son, Kiwala`o. Keawema`uhili controlled the lands of Hilo, eastern Hamakua and eastern Puna. Keoua held sway over Ka`u and western Puna, while Kamehameha ruled the lands of Kona, Kohala and western Hamakua, including Waipi`o. Warriors from Maui had gotten involved in the fighting among Hawai`i’s chiefs and Kamehameha had invaded to conquer portions of that Island.

After the bloody battle in `Iao Valley on Maui, in which Kamehameha’s lead in the race for western weapons assured his victory, Kamehameha traveled to Moloka`i. His intent was to increase his power by arranging connections with several powerful women. It was at this time, too, that he received the prophecy that a heiau dedicated to Ku and built at Pu`u Kohola at Kawaihae, would assure his success in conquering all the islands. In his absence, Keoua invaded Hilo and slew Keawema`uhili at `Alae, thereby extending into Hamakua the land under his control. With no one to seriously oppose his movements, Keoua continued on up the coast into Kamehameha’s strongholds, including Waipi`o. There, according to accounts put forth by Rev. Stephen Desha (see Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekuhaupi`o), he “…dried up the famous ponds of Lalakea and Muliwai, and also broke down some other fishponds. The kalo patches being cultivated by the men were damaged. The kalo was laid waste, and the banks of the lo`i needlessly broken down. He plundered the maka`ainana and abused the women of Waipi`o.” From the Valley, Keoua’s troops moved on to Waimea – probably along the alanui, or main trail that ran approximately along the route of the current-day “Mud Lane Road” — where the same kind of despoliation continued.

Reports of these terrible activities had reached Kamehameha, and his heart was greatly troubled. Kamakau, in Ruling Chiefs of Hawai`i, quotes Kamehameha as saying, “Alas, while I have been seeking new children my first-born have been abandoned.” He and his troops set out to return to Kawaihae. Their arrival was observed by Keoua’s spies; when he learned of the landing of his rival, Keoua immediately ceased his harassment of the people of Waimea and descended the slope of Mauna Kea toward the windward coast, placing himself and his army directly in Hamakua. John Young and Isaac Davis helped lead Kamehameha’s forces, and they caught Keoua at Pa`auhau, on the shoreline below and toward Hilo from present-day Honoka`a. Their cannon, Lopaka, did great damage to Keoua’s troops, but was for a time captured by one of Keoua’s leading fighters. The battle was indecisive, and Keoua retreated down the coast toward Hilo; another bloody but also indecisive battle was fought at Koapapa in east Hamakua. It, too, was inconclusive. Both armies retreated from the field, Kamehameha to Waipi`o, Keoua to Hilo.

These events, centered in Hamakua, were sandwiched in between the prophecy that led to the building of Pu`u Kohola heiau at Kawaihae, and the destruction of much of Keoua`s army at Kilauea by the violent eruption a short time after in 1790. At least in the temporal sense, and perhaps in even more critical ways, the lands under us here were the stage upon which pivotal events in the unfolding of history in Hawai`i occurred.

Hāmākua Hawai`i

Kukui in Hamakua


Nowadays the vegetation seen from the main roads through Hamakua is mostly eucalyptus with patches of pasture and abandoned weedy former sugar fields.  Most of us remember, almost half a decade ago, when sugar was the most common plant in fields along the     highway.  In between the era when the land was purely native forest and the time when it was cleared of forest for sugar, large areas of Hamakua were covered with Kukui trees.


Kukui is a Polynesian introduction, one of the more than 30 kinds of plants brought by settlers from southern Polynesia because of their usefulness.  Kukui well illustrates the ingenuity of the people of old in utilizing the qualities of plants. Isabella Aiona Abbott, in La`au Hawai`i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants,  lists the following uses for kukui: adhesive (the sap), canoe building (the trunk), fire making (small pieces of wood rubbed with a softer wood), fishbait (nut kernels), healing (flowers, nuts, bark, leaves), kapa (oil and burnt shells as dye), wood finishing (canoes and containers), and tattooing (burnt nut and juice from husk).  Others mention that the nut was also chewed by fishermen, who spat the oily residue onto wind-riffled water so it would smooth out and allow them to see into the depths.  `Inamona, roasted and chopped nuts mixed with sea salt, makes a delicious relish.  Toy spinning tops are still made from whole nutshells.


The Kukui was, because of its usefulness, planted everywhere it would grow in inhabited areas.  With its pale leaves, dusted with granular particles that make it almost glow in sun or moonlight, Kukui is easily distinguished among other trees or shrubs. In their authoritative book, Native Planters in Old Hawaii, Handy, Handy and Pukui comment that a broad strip of Hamakua, between the shoreline and the upper elevation forest of koa and ferns, was. “…before the era of early sugar plantations, completely covered by kukui forest.”   What a sight it must have been from a distance, from high points or from the waters off the coast, to see the large band of pale kukui crowns!


Kukui is, in the traditional culture, regarded as a kinolau (body form) of Kamapua`a, the hog-god associated with Lono, the bringer of rain (and therefore of crops).  Glades were opened in the kukui forests and taro was planted in deep holes in which was placed the plentiful refuse of the kukui, which constantly drops leaves and branches; sometimes, apparently only in Hamakua, trees were felled and taro was planted in the decayed remnants.


The tree is one with which I have a personal affinity.  I recall that the first time I gathered the leaves of a kukui to make a lei for one of our youngsters’ graduations, I was drawn to a particular tree I had seen in my explorations just above sugar fields not far from where I live in Ka`apahu Homesteads.  Going after work, I drove to the area just before dark and found the tree in the gathering dusk.  By the time I had picked the leaves, about 60 of them, it was dark and a little spooky.  I hustled out of the forest, back toward my car, and just before I got there, a pueo glided silently out of the trees and flew about 10 feet above my head.  I stopped in my tracks, and my feeling grew that this was an event of some significance as the bird circled back and crossed the air over me several times more.

I felt as if my activity had been blessed by this quietly powerful visitor from the forest and from some mysterious realm.  One of many sayings about kukui in ka `olelo Hawai`i, the language of Hawai`i, conveys something of the special qualities one can notice about this wonderful tree: Ka malu halau loa o ke kukui – the long shelter of the kukui trees – with its full canopy arching over those of us fortunate enough to have the pleasures of being under them.





Hāmākua Hawai`i, Uncategorized

Na Manu o Hamakua


It wasn’t unusual for hiking clients to be interested in whether we would see birds on our adventures, and it was always a bit sad to tell them the fate of many of our native birds.  Douglas Pratt, in his informative book, “Enjoying Birds in Hawaii,” comments that the 45 species of native forest birds known to have existed in Hawai`i are thought to have evolved from only eight or nine ancestral species.  Of those recorded 45 species, at least 15 are extinct, and over half of the remainder are endangered or threatened.  Mosquito-borne diseases (avian malaria and avian pox) and habitat loss are important factors leading to the loss of our native birds.  Charles Stone, in a volume entitled, “Conservation Biology in Hawai`i,” also specifies predation by introduced rats, cats and mongoose as important contributors to the disappearance of many numbers and kinds of native birds.  Native forest birds are seldom found at elevations less than 4,000 feet, mainly because that’s about the cut-off point, above which mosquitoes do not reproduce.  Thus, in the accessible remaining forests of Hamakua, the only native birds we have much chance of seeing are the larger birds, the raptors – pueo, the owl,  and `io, the hawk — that are apparently immune to the pox and malaria so deadly to Hawaiian forest birds.  Stone lists three known species of native hawks and four of native owls, but only one of each are now to be found; the ‘io is officially classified as an endangered bird.  Its range, notably, is limited to our Island: nowhere else on planet Earth can our wild native hawk be found.


The inspiration for an article about birds of Hamakua came one summer when at dusk my wife and I were enjoying the orchard we’ve planted down below our house, on the edge of Ka`apahu Gulch.  As we sat on the grass and talked, a shape approaching in the sky above the pasture makai of our place caught my eye.  I silently pointed to the pueo – our native owl — flying toward us.  As it drew near, I whistled sharply.  Though the steady stroking of its wings didn’t seem to change, the pueo veered sharply to its right and passed directly over our heads.  It was so obviously visible that our Labrador retriever, Kela, leaped up as if to intercept it, though even his powerful jump was about 15 feet too low.  I continued repeatedly to whistle, and the bird banked to cross above us again, then a third time.  We could see it turning its head on each pass to examine us.  Our last glimpse of it ended as it blurred into the darkening trees around our house up the slope: we thought it might have landed on a branch, but we never saw it again.


As always is the case, we felt privileged to have been visited by this native raptor, and especially honored by the repeated attention.  We reminisced about other such contacts, recalling a number of experiences with both pueo and the introduced barn owl, and some notable encounters with our native hawk, the `io, as well.  I wrote in an earlier article about kukui an account of a pueo seeming to bless my mission of collecting kukui leaves to make a graduation lei for one of our youngsters.  There was also the unforgettable time when one of my sons and I were working our way through a lava tube from one collapse to the next opening and a beautiful, mostly white barn owl flew down the length of the tube toward us, passing by about six feet away, in amazing silence.  My wife, Kaulana, had frequent sightings of owls as she returned from hula classes over the years.  Several times birds sat alongside the road and allowed her to stroke them, without seeming alarmed by her approach or contact.



My long-time friend Dr. P. Q.Tomich has recounted his review of naturalists’ reports and some of his interesting personal and professional observations of the `io.  His photograph of one of these hawks in quest of a rat in a brush pile reminded me of a time last year when my wife and I saw an `io while driving through Kalopa Gulch.  We had just made the sharp turn off the bridge and begun to climb up out of the gulch when an `io streaked directly over our car and seemed to crash into the brush above us.  We drove on up to a place where we could leave our car off the road and walked back to see what the bird’s fate might be.  It was on the ground, in the grass and shrubs above the road, looking both occupied and fierce.  This demeanor was explained when it suddenly took flight with a sumo-weight rat hanging limply in its talons, flying up the gulch toward the sound of a hungry juvenile somewhere above.  Its sharp eyes had evidently spotted a “roof rat” on a limb, and the strike had dislodged the heavy rodent so that both `io and prey fell to the ground.  During the time we were parking and returning to the scene of the battle, the death of the rat was accomplished.  The `io must make a noticeable dent in the rodent population, for another time, we stood in silent wonder with a group of hikers from the cruise ship Statendam while a large `io dispatched a rat it had carried to a tree limb in clear view of our trail in a forest on Hualalai.  It worked steadily but without haste to devour its meal, wiped both sides of its beak on the bark of the limb, then launched itself down the slope and glided away.


The royal palace on O`ahu, ‘Iolani, symbolizes the singular view with which the traditional culture of Hawai`i sees the hawk, for the name of the building translates as “heavenly ‘io.”  Just as the ali`i, the monarchs of Hawai`i mediated between the realms of humans and gods, so does the ‘io soar to the heavens and rest upon the earth.  The pueo is held in special regard, too, particularly by members of families who regard this bird as an `aumakua, or family god.  A Hawaiian friend on the Island of Moloka`i whose family has this kind of relationship to pueo drove us to the airport for an early morning flight: the birds seemed to be everywhere on and alongside the road, an extraordinary set of circumstances that seemed a matter of course to her.


Hamakua is not a unique area so far as its birds are concerned: the same adverse impacts have impoverished the native populations here as they have elsewhere on this Island and the rest of Hawai`i.  We are, nonetheless, fortunate to have visible populations of the two remaining raptors here.  As is the case with much else in Hawai`i’s natural environments, encounters with these creatures often carry an unusual impact, imparting a feeling of portent and significance that transcends the mere facts of the experience.


Hāmākua Hawai`i

Streams of Hamakua



                     Most of the water that finds its way to the bottom of Waipi`o comes from the Kohala side, down the drainages of Koiawe, Alakahi and Kawainui, beyond the boundary of Hamakua.  Along the Hilo-side pali of Waipi`o, the Hi`ilawe and Waima sections of the Valley, there are springs that send water down to the Valley floor, but not many streams spilling over the rim, especially during times of little rain.  The kahawai (gulches) Waikoekoe and Waiulili run through the village of Kukuihaele, and Kaluahine goes along the edge of the pali, crossing under the road into the Valley just below the lookout, where the road makes a sharp turn at the bridge over the gulch.  Waikoekoe, near the Last Chance Store, seems to run only in heavy rainfalls.  Waiulili runs with water released from Lalakea Reservoir, which is supplied from Lalakea Stream, a mile to the west or the reservoir.  Kaluahine usually only has water when Ditch flow is diverted into it, such as when repairs down the ditch from there must be made.

Waipi`o’s side valley of Hi`ilawe has three main drainages that contribute water to the floor of Waipi`o.  Ipu`u is the first stream (coming from east to west) that actually drops water over the edge into the Valley, since the others mentioned above put their water right into the ocean.  Ipu`u has been dry most of the time for the past several years, though springs on the pali down below put water into its streambed.

Hakaloa, Hi`ilawe Falls’ “twin,” is the next in line.  These days, it ordinarily has such a small trickle that it is not visible from a distance and looks as if it isn’t running at all. Hakalaoa was for years channeled up above into Lalakea.  This latter re-routing occurred late in the sugar plantation time, after flooding  and associated landslides in 1989 damaged the Lower Hamakua Ditch tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls in the head of Hi`ilawe side-valley.  For years water poured out of the opening part-way up the pali.  Repair of the system involved elimination of the falls dropping into the newly exposed tunnel.  Plantation bulldozers cut through a narrow strip of land up top that separated the two streams, so that the water of Hakalaoa pours into Lalakea.  It took three years and about three million dollars to repair the tunnel behind the falls, compared with 14 months and $150,000 to complete the whole nine-mile system in 1910.

Lalakea, the stream that flows over the pali to become Hi`ilawe, is to the west of Hakalaoa.  Hi`ilawe itself has, more often than not over the past few years, been so low that it hasn’t flowed out of the plunge pool some 200 feet down, going instead down the inside of the pali through cracks in the bottom of that first pool.  A major portion of Lalakea, as mentioned above, is diverted upstream into a tunnel system that takes it a mile away to Lalakea reservoir, from which it is sent into fish ponds and to a rancher.  The left-over water taken from Lalakea, rather than becoming Hi`ilawe Falls, dumps into Waiulili stream, as described earlier.

The only other water flowing over the rim of Waipi`o on this side is Kakeha.  It drains a rather small area of land owned by Parker Ranch and it was, a few weeks ago, barely moist.  Kakeha’s water goes into the Waima branch of Waipi`o, the part of the Valley that goes almost straight back from the beach toward Waimea.

When rainfall is heavy, of course, the streambeds fill and rush with runoff.  They often are discolored with soil washing away and we notice the stain in the ocean.  Shortly after the rain ceases, the streams begin to drop, and if the weather stays dry, most of them will stop flowing again.  In the times when the upland forests were intact, changes in stream flow were apparently not so extreme.  The forests caught and held the rain and cloud mist, slowly releasing it over time.  With the destruction of the forests, the sponge-like qualities of the foliage and ground were lost and the effects of heavy rain became noticeably more destructive.  In her book, Sugar Water, Carol Wilcox describes the long-standing concern that the watersheds of Kohala and Hamakua were changing adversely and quotes from a government report prepared in response to a drought in 1902: “Today the land is dry and unable to support life by reason of the lack of water.  Old inhabitants of Kohala and Hamakua … corroborate one another in stating that not many years ago there was a very large native population in those sections, and that the streams which are now dry were once considered unfailing.”  Ms. Wilcox also quotes J. Waldron, a manager for the Hawaiian Irrigation Company, as worrying in 1924 that the forests of upper Hamakua were vanishing rapidly.  He observed that the `ohi`a trees were dying, the ferns were unhealthy, and that the trees below and around Pu`u Alala (the now-forested hill sitting amid cow pastures, toward the Valley from Lakeland) were gone.

Instead of continually flowing streams, we now have streambeds that are mostly dry, but in stormy times become channels for muddy rushing water that carry soil to the sea, adversely impacting life there.  These conditions also obviously challenge the survival of the creatures, such as o`opu, that live in the streams.  The basic human need for water is not just for drinking, but for the support of all life.  Reduplication of wai, the Hawaiian word for fresh water, waiwai, means “wealth.”  We all know it when we think about it, but the subsistence culture of ka po`e kahiko, the people of old, had continuously in mind, Ola i ka wai: Life comes from water.


Copyright 2003 Hugh Montgomery, PhD

Hāmākua Hawai`i, Uncategorized

Notes on the Geology of Waipi`o Valley


Elsewhere we have briefly discussed the role of water in shaping Waipi`o Valley, mentioning the five major drainages that contribute to the Valley’s form and stream flow.  Hi`ilawe, the most famous, is also the closest to the mouth of Waipi`o.  Waima goes nearly straight back from the Valley’s coastline toward Waimea, taking water from the slopes of the old cinder cones called Pu`u Lala (or Alala, on some maps) and Pu`u Ka`ala in a northeasterly direction to the sea.  On the Waimea side of the slopes of  Pu`u Ka`ala are subdivisions, including the one called Pu`u Nani.

The Waima axis of the Valley may have been formed as water flowed down the overlapping lava fields of Kohala and Mauna Kea, but toward the back of Waima the three other drainages — Koiawe, Alakahi, and Kawainui —  have followed a fault zone running on a southwest-northeast axis.  The cracks and zone of weakness from Kohala’s summit provided a path for streams to form that now flow almost at a right angle into the channel carved by Waima.  Before the gulches got too deep (about 1,200 feet above sea level, to judge from topographic maps), Kawainui stream was the headwater of Waimanu.  The faults in the underlying rock, eroding more rapidly, in part because of the erosion of the Alakahi stream, captured Waimanu’s original water, leaving a “wind gap,” a v-shaped notch through which Kawainui used to flow, abandoned now to the breezes.   Waimanu, robbed of the water that used to flush through in powerful quantities, is slowly filling with debris in its rearward regions, since the slides and slumps from its walls are not washed down and out of the Valley.

In times long before humans saw it, Waipi`o (and the other flat-bottomed valleys of the windward coast) was both narrower and deeper.  As water cuts its way into mountain slopes, the stream beds tend to be only as wide as floods will cut them.  Waipi`o Valley is obviously many times wider than its river, but the reason is not at all obvious.  The most recent ice age ended some 10,000 years ago.  As the great glaciers and polar ice caps began to melt at the beginning of the warming trend which we humans are still enjoying (temporary though it is), the ocean began to rise.  The valleys of Hawai`i that had carved the lava down to sea level started to have sea water flooding into their mouths.  The rocks, gravel, sand and dirt carried by stream erosion began to be halted before getting to the former shoreline, filling in the old stream bed and raising it so that the erosion-produced debris began to back up behind it.  Eventually, the wide floor of Waipi`o was filled with this material (what geologists call “alluvium”) to a depth, at the mouth of the Valley, of as much as 300 feet.

Most of the major valleys on the windward side have submarine canyons that extend on into the deep.  Waipi`o does not.  Some suggest that it did at one time have such a feature, created by stream-flow when the shoreline was lower, but that it was filled with alluvium.

In some traditional Hawaiian stories,  it was Kamapua`a, the demigod related to Lono, who, in his form as a giant pig, ripped the valleys out of the mountain slopes in his passionate search for food.  Either way, the story behind the scenery of Waipi`o and its companion valleys on the windward slopes of Hamakua and Kohala is amazing.


Copyright 2003  by Hugh R. Montgomery

Hāmākua Hawai`i

Hamakua i ke ala ulili.  “Hamakua of the steep trails.”

(Title from `Olelo No`eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, by Mary Kawena Pukui.)

One of the most interesting ways to learn about the view people in times past had of the land is to hear the stories that have been passed down.  In many ways, the proverbs and sayings of ka po’e kahiko — the people of old – are a distillation of such stories.  Rather like a poem, such expressions compress the ideas about places, the images people used to have about areas that they may have visited or just heard about from others who traveled more extensively.  The crowning achievement of Mary Kawena Pukui’s long and productive career as an interpreter of her Hawaiian culture was the compilation of her collection of proverbs and sayings in the book referenced above.  Of particular value is the series of indexes in the book: not only is there a general index, but one for personal names, for plants and animals, and for places.  If one wants to know the reputation an area had for people in times far past, looking up the sayings about that area gives a good idea.

When it comes to sayings about Hamakua and Waipi`o, it is the rugged grandeur of the landscape that is emphasized. Na pali alo lua o Waipi`o speaks of the Valley’s cliffs facing each other.  Hamakua i ka wakawaka tells of the gulches and valleys characteristic of the land in our district – “irregular and rough Hamakua.”  The saying that heads this article describes the steep trails of Hamakua, and in doing so, points to the geological events that create the conditions necessitating trails going sharply up and down.

Most of the eastern side of Hamakua is on Mauna Kea, but a portion around Kukuihaele is on lava from Kohala.  The district also extends along the windward cliff-and-valley coast of Kohala volcano past Waimanu and Honopue Valleys.  Kohala, Hawai`i Island’s only extinct volcano, has had no eruptive activity for an estimated 60,000 years.  Mauna Kea, our Island’s only dormant volcano, has been eruptively quiet for about 3,300 years. The last acts of Hawaiian volcanoes sees a shift from effusive eruptions of molten rock to explosive eruptions of pulverized material that falls to the ground as cinders and/or ash.  For a very long time, then, the main geological activity impacting these slopes has been erosion.

It is only when the lava is covered by ash, in fact, that flowing streams begin to develop and significant fresh water erosion begins to occur.  It takes some explanation to convey to visitors why they cannot see flowing rock and flowing water in the same area!  We are all familiar with the lack of standing or flowing water on the flanks of Kilauea and Mauna Loa – even their windward slopes.  If the ground surface were not almost entirely porous rock, water would accumulate and Kilauea would have geysers, thermal pools and other features similar to those seen at Yellowstone, the other U.S.  National Park located over a geological “hot spot.”

Once the ground is covered with ash, at any rate, rainfall, instead of percolating into the surface, begins to flow over the surface.  Drops become trickles, trickles turn into rivulets and thence to streams.  As the volume of the flowing water increases, particles of soil begin to be displaced and channels start to form  (most residents here know about Ka ua wa`awa`ahia o Waipi`o – “The furrow-cutting rain of Waipi`o”).  As erosion progresses, the streams continue to cut down through ash layers and become powerful and debris-bearing enough to begin to erode the underlying lava.  Since lava flows differ in their density, they erode at different rates and waterfalls begin to appear at the edge of harder rock.  As experience of this Island reveals, some of its beautiful features occur only on the rainy sides of the oldest volcanoes.

One consequence of the water undoing the creations of Pele is that as we traverse the windward flanks of Mauna Kea and Kohala we frequently encounter steep-sided kahawai, or gulches.  Thus, the ala ulili, down one side and up the other.  Those traveling on foot count themselves fortunate if they are on a trail, steep though it may be, that takes them across the kahawai.  Lacking a trail developed by humans, in fact, travelers are well advised to stay up on the side until they find a pig trail, since these creatures are quite familiar with the best ways to cross such obstacles.

Isabella Bird, describing her visit here in 1873, wrote of her astonishment when, on a ride from Hilo toward Waipi`o, her mounted guide suddenly disappeared in front of her!  She quickly understood when she came to the side of the precipice to see him sliding on his horse down the pali and had to overcome her own considerable hesitation in following.  It was a measure of her progress when, some months later, as she ended a day of riding solo from Waimea she did not hesitate to urge her mount over the edge to take evening shelter with the residents of Laupahoehoe.

These days, of course, highway bridges take us right across the kahawai, going between Waipi`o and Hilo, only into the three with sweeping curves at Ka`awali`i, Laupahoehoe and Maulua.  The old trails have often disappeared under brush, landslides or construction projects.  Finding and walking on the remaining ala is like traveling to an earlier time.  And whether or not you get to walk on an old trail, take a look at the gulches as you drive the awesome Hamakua Coast.  Think about what it would be like to cross them on foot.  Honor the skill and determination of the people of times past by whispering softly, “Hamakua i ke ala ulili.”