Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

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.

Waipo‘o Falls flows into Waimea
Canyon from Koke‘e Stream in two
separate drops that total 800 feet.
The Canyon Trail, probably the most hiked
trail in Koke‘e State Park, takes hikers to
swimming hole at the top of the
upper falls.

Bruce, now in his eighties, spent childhood holidays in the family cabin at Koke‘e. He reminds me that ancient trails through the Koke‘e area gave people access from the western side of the island to the valley communities along the eastern coast, with more than one trail even descending the seemingly impassible cliffs of Kalalau. But while Hawaiians may have traversed the mountains, says Bruce, they rarely settled in them for the mountains were considered wao akua, the land of the gods. There is one early group, though, that Koke‘e is believed to have been home to—a group about which so little is known it is generally considered mythical: the Menehune. The most intriguing physical evidence of the Menehune? The remains of an irrigation wall of beautifully cut-and-dressed stone. “This stonework is found nowhere else in the Hawaiian islands,” says Bruce. “The people now known as Menehune… were masters of stonework and engineering.” It is the Menehune who are believed to have built a small stone slab altar on the rainy summit of Wai‘ale‘ale. Tradition has it that eventually, Bruce says, they sailed away from Kaua‘i, leaving a landscape richer with stones and stories.

The first Westerners who explored the uplands of Koke‘e were guided by Hawaiian bird feather collectors or those who harvested the young of seabirds nesting in mountain cliffs. Betsy Toulon’s grandfather, Valdemar Knudsen, was one of the first Europeans to venture into the area. “He was an adventurer from Norway who arrived here in 1857,” says his granddaughter, a blue-eyed, energetic woman now in her eighties. “He obtained a lease to over 100 square miles of west Kaua‘i from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. He built the first Koke‘e cabin sometime around then; he had a great interest in the plants and birds of the uplands.”

Valdemar’s family and friends came up in the summer to camp in the cool heights, and before long they, too, threw up rustic cabins. By the time Valdemar’s lease expired in 1917, Hawai‘i had become a territory, and there was talk of making Koke‘e a public park. Teddy Roosevelt had inaugurated a movement nationally to open up public lands for recreation and campsites, and it was thought fitting to do the same at Koke‘e. Over the years, a community unlike anywhere else in Hawai‘i sprang up, melding a kind of WPA backwoods style with the local ethic of “use what you got.”

Frank Hay, who is head of the Koke‘e Leaseholders Association, walks me through a cluster of residences in an area known as Rice Camp; here for thirty-five years, he has held a lease on a cabin built in the 1940s. We meander down a dirt road among towering Sugi pines and eucalyptus trees, past beautifully maintained yards. Frank, a man who passionately believes that most of Koke‘e’s 105 residences deserve to be preserved as testament to a historic community, points out samples of Koke‘e vernacular architecture: board-and-batten dwellings with old, six-paned sash windows; some teetering on post foundations, others set into stone; some with stone chimneys, others with stovepipes; most with twisty ‘ohi‘a-wood porch railings.

The end of Awa‘awapuhi Trail in Koke‘e
State Park, where it meets the ridgeline
dividing Awa‘awapuhi and Nu‘alolo ‘Aina
valleys on the western end of the
Na Pali Coast. Ancient, abandoned taro
patches can still be seen today
along the streams that run at the bottom
of both valleys.

Most of the leaseholders in Koke‘e are members of Hui O Laka, a volunteer group that came into being fifty-two years ago, at the same time Koke‘e became the first public park in the territory. Laka is a Hawaiian forest goddess; the name means loosely “coming together to honor the forest.” The Hui, now 500 members strong and with much creative input from Marsha in the last seventeen years, has created a fine museum, renovated the historic buildings of an old Civilian Conservation Camp and established two yearly festivals, the Banana Poka Roundup and the Eo e Emmalani I Alaka‘i Festival, which honors Hawaiian Queen Emma’s 1871 trek across the nearly un-navigable boggy lands to the northeast of Koke‘e known as the Alaka‘i Swamp.

For the last three years, the community has been involved in a debate with the state over a park master plan that calls for raising revenue for state parks by taking over many of the cabins when the leases expire at the end of this year. The state’s plan is to create short-term rentals, and a gated entry and to also charge fees. “It’s been a painful but very fruitful period,” says Marsha. “All of us with a tie to this place have had to think very hard about… what are our responsibilities as nonofficial custodians of Koke‘e.”

How many places are there where the layers of human history entwine so intricately with a kind of absolute wildness, I wonder, standing at the beginning of the Alaka‘i Swamp trail. Queen Emma, widow of King Kamehameha IV, came here on a whim to see the famed lookout place, where all the coast from Ha‘ena to Hanalei is spread out. The Queen was accompanied by nearly 100 servants, musicians and hula dancers. Our entourage is much smaller: myself, naturalist David Boynton and his wife, Sue. David is founder and director of the Koke‘e Discovery Center, a nonprofit partly funded by the state Department of Education; every year the Discovery Center immerses over 1,000 Hawai‘i schoolchildren in the natural world of Koke‘e, hosting them overnight in the barn-like center and providing them with close encounters with places like the swamp.

The sun is shining as we start up the trail, and I think that “swamp” seems like an overwrought name for this ten-square-mile plateau of rainforest and bog. But David reminds me that while this modern trail includes a boardwalk over some of the boggiest areas, in the old days it was easy to get lost here. When Queen Emma decided to make the trek, Valdemar Knudsen had to scramble to find a guide, his granddaughter Betsy had told me. “He asked an old Hawaiian man who had taken him there years ago. ‘That trail was bad when we went there,’ the old man reminded him. ‘Now it will be impossible. Try to persuade the Queen not to go.’”

The mokihana shrub's anise-scented
berries are coveted for leimaking.
Endemic to Kaua‘i, it is found nowhere
else on earth.

“But the royal mind was made up,” Betsy’s uncle, Eric Knudsen, wrote, retelling the tale years later. The Queen, it is recorded, wore a “mulberry riding habit.” The guide must have groaned inwardly when her entire retinue left the horses and started on foot, somewhere near the point we were entering the trail. The chants her musicians composed when they all got back safely to civilization record the event:

We lovingly held hands
To the rocky top of the hill,
Entered the beautiful forest,
The forest of mokihana trees.

My nose tells me, before David points out the plant, that we are indeed among mokihana, a shrub found only on Kaua‘i, whose anise-scented berries, coveted lei-making material, are the official flower of the island. We are in cloudland rainforest, an epiphitic wonderland of plants on plants, many of them found nowhere else in the world. I stop under a venerable moss-draped ‘ohi‘a to examine an endemic version of mistletoe clinging to its trunk: The pendant plant bears the Hawaiian name hulumoa (“chicken feathers”).

We break out of the forest into a sharply different world, just as the famous noe, or mist, of the Alaka‘i rolls in. Thankfully, the boardwalk begins here, stretching over bogs the color of old tea and dotted with holes like Swiss cheese. I stare down into a canopy of fully mature, riotously blooming ‘ohi‘a trees only two feet high. Between bulbous tussocks of sedge, every bit of land not fully underwater is crowded with tiny plants that would have looked at home in the age of dinosaurs. David, accustomed to guiding the young and agile, soon has me kneeling on a tussock, peering at a two-inch high carnivorous plant the Hawaiians named mikinalo (“suck insect”). Today the sticky leaves that trap bugs are innocently bedecked with drops of dew.

Earlier I had asked David what made Koke‘e special to him. “In the whole world, island archipelagos are the hotspots of evolution,“ he’d said, “places where isolation seems to fast-forward the whole process. Of all the archipelagos, Hawai‘i has the highest rate of species that have evolved locally. Of all the Hawaiian islands, Kaua‘i has the highest rate of flora and fauna found nowhere else. In all of Kaua‘i, this area is the richest biologically. Something like ten new plant species and two new insects have been identified here in just the last few years. This region is it—biologist nirvana! Not to mention that it’s also stunningly beautiful.”

Papa Laua‘eo Maakana halau during
the allual Eo e Emmalani I Alaka‘i
Festival. Held each October on the
grounds of the Koke‘e Natural History
Museum, the festival commemorates
Queen Emma's 1871 trek across the
bogs to the northeast.

I’m as intrigued by the human response to this compelling landscape. They were barely on the trail before Queen Emma halted her retinue and asked the hula dancers to perform. History has recorded this as queenly frivolity, but perhaps it was ancient protocol: chants and dances to the forest gods. After all, the forest goddess Laka is also the patron of hula.

It occurs to me, slogging back through the wet forest, that the pomp and ceremony Western culture reserves for visiting heads of state Queen Emma had given to the land. Koke‘e, in its rugged, regal splendor, seems to call forth this response, though for lesser mortals than the Queen it takes the form of consuming passion. Witness the work of David Kuhn.

I’ve recovered enough from my bog-hopping later in the evening to join David Kuhn at the Waimea Canyon Lookout. The canyon’s red-and-dusky purple ramparts and the thin ribbon of Waimea River far below are vanishing into the twilight. The visitors have vanished as well, and soon there is only a vast dark chasm of silence beyond the guardrail. Then David, by the light of a flashlight hanging from his neck, starts adjusting his equipment. He looks like what he is: a serious mountaineer and birder who started leading backpack trips into the High Sierra thirty-six years ago. But a few years ago, at Koke‘e, he found his life’s work.

Now his intent face, encased by earphones, is bent over state-of-the-art recording gear: stereo receiver and recorder. As absorbed as a doctor listening to a stethoscope, he slightly tweaks a parabolic dish on the end of a tripod to point it toward some landmark hidden in the darkness. I’m listening to a great yawning silence and feeling the cold air moving down from the heights of Wai‘ale‘ale. He hands me a second set of earphones. I hear magnified silence, and at the far reaches of it, the sibilant sounds of water. The river.

Then the darkness springs alive with sound: cries like fretting babies and sliding-
scale cackles like maniacally laughing geese. I can sense David’s grin in the darkness. “Newell’s shearwaters,” he says. “Found only in Hawai‘i. The only major colonies are here, in the mountains of Kaua‘i. They feed out at sea and fly back to their nests after dark.”

“Ah!” David says suddenly. “See if you can listen through that sound to a different call.”

As I concentrate, the gabble of bird voices begins to sort itself into a soundscape: individual voices and call-and-response, echoing off the walls of the canyon. Through the raucous calls of the shearwaters, I hear a new note, more bell-like.

“Fingers on glass is what I think of,” says David. “That’s the band-rumped storm petrel, a very rare bird in the main Hawaiian islands.”


Taking off the earphones is like losing a newly discovered sense. The darkness is suddenly one-dimensional. “We’re just a few hundred feet from the Koke‘e Road,” says David, “and listening to these rare seabirds. I can go up the road a few miles, hike out the Alaka‘i Swamp trail and hear a dawn chorus of some of the world’s rarest forest birds. That’s what makes Koke‘e amazing to me. Incredible diversity packed into a small world.”

At the Banana Poka Roundup the next day, the diversity is of the human kind. In the huge meadow fronting the museum are gathered a few hundred people: tourists, cabin owners and locals from all corners of Kaua‘i. They’ve come together, in a spirit of gentle irony and big-time optimism, to celebrate a plant pest.

The recently mowed meadow looks like a space cleared by human hands, but it is in fact a natural feature. Hawaiians explain the clearing with various stories. The one I like most talks of a forest deity who fell asleep under a tree when the meadow was once an ‘ohi‘a forest. The misty noe rain dripped onto the deity from the leaves and so angered him that he tore up the tree by its roots and settled down under another. The rain found him there, too, and he tore up that tree, and so on, until nothing was left but a broad empty space with no protection at all from the weather.

This legendary meadow with its cautionary tale seems the perfect setting for a festival dedicated to finding creative, community-based solutions for the problems that beset Koke‘e. Banana poka is one of several introduced plants that threaten to smother or crowd out native plant growth. At the festival, people weave baskets out of the ropey vine, harvested by volunteers the day before, and in the midst of all the fun learn that controlling exotic plant species is essential to preserving native forests.

I’m seated in the midst of the basket makers, learning the art from Mary Nakamura, who drives up to the festival every year from the other side of the island. She has brought a friend, and they are weaving a huge basket, big enough to hold a stuffed turkey. Nearby, the Koke‘e Annual Rooster Crowing Contest is happening, honoring the prolific Koke‘e flock—which are not just chickens, as every local will tell you, but descendants of the fowl brought here by the Polynesian voyagers. “That’s my neighbor,” Mary says, after a young man gives a notable performance, complete with flapping and scuffling at the ground. “He’s been practicing out in the yard all week.”

By the time I finish my basket, Hawaiian musician Gary Haleamau has taken the stage, singing in a sweet, clear falsetto about the beauties of Koke‘e. Everybody is kicking back now, and in the good feelings that suffuse the air seems the assurance that Koke‘e and its various stewards will find the best way to malama—care for—the land. Looking at my basket, I’m very pleased with my efforts to weave an invasive weed into...well, maybe not gold—my basket shows a strong disinclination to stand upright—but something very Koke‘e: hardy and beautiful and exceptional in its own way. HH