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Diving deep with master spearfisherman Rob White
Vol. 9, No. 1
February/March 2006

  >>   The Naturals
  >>   The Great Wet Hunter
  >>   The Changing Face of Koke‘e
 

The Changing Face of Koke‘e 

story by Pamela Frierson
photos by David Boynton


Students and chaperones from
Richard Larson's 5th grade
class at Kilaua School pause on the
Alaka‘i Swamp Trail boardwalk—the
best trail in Koke‘e for viewing

native birds.

"The most sublime view in the archipelago,” Marsha Erickson murmurs, raising her wine glass in homage to what lies before us: Kalalau Valley, where fluted razor-sharp walls fall nearly vertically to the valley floor 4,000 feet below. It is an image that for decades has graced postcards, magazine covers and travel posters, a glimpse of Hawai‘i at its most glorious, and I raise my glass to join in a toast to its unparalleled beauty. But standing here where I am—at the valley lookout spot in Koke‘e State Park— I am also toasting Marsha, who as head of the area’s Natural History Museum, has helped provide a window onto this, one of the world’s most fascinating regions. I am here to learn about Koke‘e, which Marsha calls “perhaps one of the most Hawaiian of places.

“The most sublime view in the archipelago," Marsha Erickson murmurs, raising her wine glass in homage to what lies before us: Kalalau Valley, where fluted razor-sharp walls fall nearly vertically to the valley floor 4,000 feet below. It is an image that for decades has graced postcards, magazine covers and travel posters, a glimpse of Hawai‘i at its most glorious, and I raise my glass to join in a toast to its unparalleled beauty. But standing here where I am—at the valley lookout spot in Koke‘e State Park— I am also toasting Marsha, who as head of the area’s Natural History Museum, has helped provide a window onto this, one of the world’s most fascinating regions. I am here to learn about Koke‘e, which Marsha calls “perhaps one of the most Hawaiian of places.”

It is certainly one of the most inaccessible. Koke‘e sits at the end of a challenging mountain road that winds up along the rim of Waimea Canyon, through a carved, spare terrain that looks decidedly non-Hawaiian. Koke‘e’s native treasures don’t easily reveal themselves: The region is often wrapped in mountain mist, its trails slick with mud. Koke‘e perches on a plateau on the side of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, where the annual deluge—432 inches of rain—creates one of the wettest, if not the wettest, spots on earth. “This is a mountain world sculpted by water as much as by fire,” Marsha says. “Here on the oldest of the main Hawaiian islands, you have a sense of Hawai‘i at its full flowering: Just as there is a more complex native flora and fauna here than on any other island, there’s
a sense of cultural richness.”

When I think of Koke‘e, I think of dense forest and nearly impassible swamp or of sheer inaccessible valleys: I think of wilderness. But talking to Frederick “Bruce” Wichman, I am reminded how thoroughly the idea of wilderness as a desolate, uninhabited region is a Western concept. For Hawaiians, mountain regions like Koke‘e were storied places, full of the ancestral exploits of both gods and humans. Bruce, whose ancestors settled on Kaua‘i in the 1840s, has collected many of the traditions of Kaua‘i into a series of wonderful books, beginning with the classic Kauai Tales.


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