The Officer and the Gentleman

At the height of the Great Depression, a forester and a US Army general teamed up to create the Piko Hiking Club, which pioneered many of O`ahu's trails
Story by Noel Nicholas.

At the end of Pūpūkea Road on O‘ahu’s North Shore is a locked yellow gate with an unfriendly sign: US Army Installation Authorized Entry Only. The uninitiated would probably turn around here, imagining patrolling MPs, stray bullets or unexploded ordnance beyond. Yet just outside the gate, cars are parked along the road, and people climb in and out: The regulars know that three minutes down the crumbling gravel road beyond is the Kaunala trailhead.

The Kaunala Trail winds through groves of paperbark trees, past hillsides blanketed with impenetrable uluhe fern and across carpets of fallen ironwood duff. Massive, mossy trunks litter the slopes to either side of the trail, and toward the end of the route, it’s common to see a camouflaged sentry watching from behind a branch in the distance. The hills above Pūpūkea are a model for collaborative land use, a combination of military training areas, nature preserve and public hunting grounds. The area, and the Kaunala Trail itself, are also testament to an unlikely friendship between a dedicated forester and a plucky Army general who together laid the foundation for much of O‘ahu’s modern trail system.

Prior to the 1930s O‘ahu’s trail system was relatively rudimentary. Sugar companies had blazed some trails to access the island’s network of irrigation ditches, but for the most part the only public trails were remnants of the footpaths used by ancient Hawaiians and maintained by pig hunters and a few wealthy recreational hikers. That began to change at the beginning of the 1930s, when Hawai‘i’s territorial forester Charles S. Judd, who’d been striving to protect the Islands’ forest reserves, turned his attention to O‘ahu’s trail network. A black sheep from a prominent family of Honolulu doctors, lawyers and politicians, Judd had a passion for the outdoors developed as a child roaming the forests of O‘ahu. His interest took him to Yale University, where he studied forestry. Afterward he worked for the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest before being assigned to head its Hawai‘i division. The main issue on Judd’s plate in 1930 was combating O‘ahu’s growing population of feral pigs, which were (and remain) highly destructive to sensitive forest areas. The solution, he thought, lay in getting hunters into the woods. But to do that, they needed trails. “The solution to the pig problem on O‘ahu may be attained through the construction of trails and consequently opening up of the mountain country to voluntary hunters,” Judd wrote in The Hawaiian Forester and Agriculturalist. Judd and his staff began clearing trails and building cabins to enable the growing number of Depression-era pig hunters to stalk their dinners.

Into the woods: The Piko Hiking Club (seen here on the trail) emerged in the early 1930s as a collaboration between US Army Maj. Gen. Briant H. Wells (seen at right in 1933, hiking in his signature yellow kerchief) and Hawai‘i’s territorial forester Charles S. Judd (title photo).

At about the same time, newly arrived Maj. Gen. Briant H. Wells became interested in exploring routes over the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae ranges on foot to improve the Army’s defense plan. Conventional wisdom at the time held that O‘ahu’s two main mountain ranges would be impenetrable to an invading army. If the Japanese, for example, were to land on the North Shore, they wouldn’t try to bushwhack through the mountains but instead would head toward the easier terrain between the ranges. Wells was not so sure: A veteran of the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, the Pancho Villa campaign and World War I, he had fought in all sorts of terrain and wanted to make his own determination.

Judd and Wells met in January 1931 during a discussion about tree removal and planting at Schofield Barracks. When Judd told Wells about his pig eradication plan, the conversation shifted to trail talk. The two agreed to collaborate: Wells would provide soldiers to clear trails if Judd would guide Wells and his staff along nearby mountain routes. In February Judd led nine officers on a hike above Punalu‘u, in windward O‘ahu. Among the company were Maj. Charles W. Thomas Jr. and Capt. Raymond G. Sherman, who hit on the idea of forming a hiking club including members from both the Army and the Division of Forestry. The main objective, of course, would be to pioneer and improve trails, but there was another motive: At the time, tensions were mounting between the civilian and military communities due to cultural differences, land-use conflicts and racial discrimination. A hiking club might serve as an example of camaraderie and understanding between the two groups.

Wells embraced the idea and enthusiastically volunteered to be the club’s first president; he appointed Judd as chief guide. Judd and Wells named it the Piko Hiking Club—“piko” being Hawaiian for “summit.” The club’s main objective would be to scale the sometimes remote and dangerous peaks of the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae ranges. The name also provided them with their slogan; one common Hawaiian greeting of the time was “Pehea kou piko?” or “How’s your belly button?” (“navel” being another meaning of the word “piko”). The club adopted the phrase and would yell it on their hikes, particularly upon reaching a summit, reflecting the lighthearted spirit that would characterize the club over the decade to follow.

Newly arrived Gen. Wells needed information about O‘ahu’s forested areas to defend against possible invasion, and Judd needed manpower to build trails that would allow access for pig hunters. Their professional alliance led to a number of hikes across O‘ahu, and eventually, talk of organizing hikes as recreation. Above, the club on the Kawainui Gulch Trail in 1934.

It’s perhaps rare to the point of uniqueness that the interests of a forester and a general should dovetail, much less that the two should become friends, yet Wells and Judd found both comity and common cause. “Judd and Wells got along so well together,” says Stuart Ball, who’s written about the Pikos as well as authored several Hawai‘i hiking guides. “I think that was the main impetus for the club. They liked each other and they had interests that matched. The Army could help the Forestry, and the Forestry could help the Army.”

The Piko Hiking Club was established as “an association of men who enjoy hiking and the exploration of the out-of-the-way places on O‘ahu,” according to its 1931 charter. Joining wasn’t a matter of merely signing up, though; one became a member only after crossing the Ko‘olau or Wai‘anae range three times on foot. The club’s membership certificate featured images of apple pie (Judd’s favorite food), a hiker, a branch of the kōpiko tree and Judd’s little white dog Panache, the club’s mascot and doughty hiking companion. Judd also wrote the club song, a cheeky number set to the tune of a popular song titled “Ahi Wela” (“Love as Hot as Fire”).

Recruitment was no problem for Wells, who signed up sixteen of the twenty inaugural members. “Apparently he was quite a guy,” says Ball, who knew Wells’ son Thomas. “Very gung-ho, very enthusiastic. He drew people along with him.” Inaugural members included Capt. Sherman and Maj. Thomas; a part-Native Hawaiian forest ranger named Thomas R.L. McGuire, who had earlier served as a guide to the well-established civilian Hawaiian Trail & Mountain Club; George R. Ewart III, forester for Bishop Estate; and Territory of Hawai‘i Gov. Lawrence M. Judd. Gov. Judd, being Charles’ brother, made Ewart’s inclusion a not-so-subtle maneuver to ensure that the club would have access to trails through private or government land.

Over the years, the Piko Club’s Sunday hikes attracted large groups including potential members, women and children. Though strenuous, the hikes were relaxed, informal outings, with breaks for coffee, cigarettes and lunch. Wells could always be seen sporting his signature canary-yellow neckerchief, and Judd would always be attended by Panache. Cooperation between the Army and Division of Forestry was at an all-time high. Officers would accompany Judd and his rangers to scout cabin sites. When three Army officers went missing off Pe‘ahināi‘a Trail, Judd rescued them. Wells authorized the Army to airlift building materials for forestry cabins, saving Judd’s crew from carrying them uphill. It was not an easy time for such a collaboration: Tensions reached a boiling point during the infamous Massie murder trial in the winter of 1932, in which Thalia Massie, a US Navy officer’s wife, accused—most likely falsely—a group of local residents of sexually assaulting her. After a mistrial, Massie’s mother organized the kidnapping of one of the alleged assailants, who was beaten and killed. The trial became a flash point in the various grudges between the military and Island communities, but the Pikos remained in solidarity and club activities continued.

With Wells’ help Judd made progress in his effort to open the reserve areas. In March 1932 Judd introduced the club to the newly completed Piko Trail from Mākua Valley to Wai‘anae, named in honor of the club. In the months that followed, the club reached its peak of sixty-four members, and Judd completed three new trails: Puna‘iki, Hau‘ula and Kaunala.

In May 1933 Judd received a devastating blow: The Depression forced the territorial legislature to cut the Division of Forestry’s budget by three-quarters, from around $260,000 dollars to just over $65,000. Judd had to lay off seventy-four of his eighty-seven employees, and he spent two days straight writing letters of recommendation for each one. But the Pikos persevered: Working with Gov. Judd, they managed to convince the US secretary of the interior that the Territory of Hawai‘i should be eligible for Emergency Conservation Work funds. The Depression-era relief program was intended to put unemployed men to work in national forests and parks on the Mainland. Judd and Wells proposed a suite of trail-building and tree-planting projects across the territory and received $421,000 in EWC funds. Gov. Judd helped pull together the labor force, named the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was divided into two units, one in Honolulu and one in Wahiawā, with the Wahiawā unit housed in a barracks at Schofield courtesy of Wells. The CCC program lasted seven years and employed more than seven thousand men on five islands. They left a legacy of fifteen trails, many of which the state maintains today, including the Poamoho, Keālia, Lā‘ie, ‘Aiea Loop and ‘Aiea Ridge trails.

Throughout this period the members of the Piko Hiking Club slowed down, hiking less and avoiding CCC construction areas. The club did, however, complete an ambitious Ko‘olau trek in May 1934, hiking the unfinished Kawailoa and Summit trails and descending through Kaunala on the North Shore. During the club’s annual meeting, held mid-hike along the trail, they declared Wells’ son Thomas chief scout and amended the club’s articles to allow female members. A few months later Judd’s wife Louise and their daughter Emma became the first female Pikos.

O‘ahu’s trails were rudimentary in the 1930s, but Judd and Wells helped to secure New Deal funding to improve them — a feat considering that Hawai‘i was not yet a US state. Here, the club pauses for a photo in the Wai‘anae range.

Throughout 1934 and 1935 many of the Piko Club’s military members left the Islands for deployment elsewhere. Wells retired at the end of 1934, and though he remained a Piko, he hiked less often. The club hiked consistently over the following years, often on the new CCC trails. In 1936 the club welcomed Lt. Col. (and later Gen.) George S. Patton and his wife Beatrice, who often brought their daughter Ruth Ellen on outings. Beatrice was an enthusiastic student of Hawaiian culture and an accomplished outdoorswoman. In her journal, she recounts hiking near their lodgings at Schofield Barracks and stumbling upon a group of huge stones half-buried in the red dirt among the sugar cane—she later discovered that these were the ancient birthing stones of Kūkaniloko, where pregnant Hawaiian ali‘i (royalty) would come to deliver their children. Quite possibly Beatrice Patton was the first person in modern times to rediscover them. The Pikos hoped that with the addition of the Pattons, military membership would grow, but that didn’t happen. It seems the commanders who followed Wells did not share his enthusiasm for the club.

Following one last epic twenty-eight-mile journey from Pūpūkea to Wahiawā along the Ko‘olau summit, Judd discussed the fate of the club with Wells and Patton. With its now majority civilian membership, the Piko Hiking Club had drifted from its original mission. Judd disbanded the club in early 1937, encouraging its members to reorganize. None did, probably joining other civilian hiking clubs like the HTMC. Upon Judd’s death in 1939, his obituary read, “Modest and not inclined to demonstration, he had a rare zeal for his work. He loved to see the greening of reforested areas, the reclamation of desert spots into areas of beauty.”

Today a short, muddy trail in Nu‘uanu winds through jungle, a grove of Cook pines and past a picturesque freshwater pool. Every day dozens of hikers walk the Judd Memorial Trail largely unaware of its namesake, a dedicated forester who pioneered much of the trail network that we still walk today. HH

Story by Noel Nicholas.