Along the Alaka’i Swamp Trail

July 5, 2006, Alaka’i

            Ominous clouds gathered over our planned expedition route as the winds blew from a strange direction.  The familiar northeasterly trade winds had yielded to a southerly blow.  We wondered what we would be able to see on the Alaka’i Trail as we started up Highway 550 near Wiamea. 

Steep switchbacks led us to the crest of the ridge that we followed onward and upward past grand, colorful canyon vistas.  Around one corner, 800 foot high Waipo’o Falls burst into view.  We stopped to photo and gaze on the silvery strands streaming from the green forest down a dark red cliff and splashing onto rocks below.  Other vistas provided grand views of the colorful, misty canyon with helicopters buzzing about.  

We continued on to Kōke’e Lodge and Museum set in a green, gently sloping valley.  Its sheltered serenity gave no clue to the Na Pali precipice hidden just beyond its western trees.  We checked out trail information and obtained maps that included the 8 miles, round trip, of the portions of the Pihea and Alaka’i trails that we planned to hike.  We could have lingered a long time at the fascinating museum, but we were eager to get started. 

The road was closed at Kalalau Lookout, so we had to hike ¾ mile more to the start of the trails at Pu’u o Kila Lookout.  Falling mist moistened the final steps as we puffed up the steep slope to the lookout.  The earth fell sharply away to nothingness while fog veiled the void.  Steps taken near the edge were accompanied by a terrible feeling of dread what might happen if you ventured too closely. 

To the right of the gray overlook, the Pihea trail led down a steep, wide, red ridge.  We carefully worked our way down as the trail gradually narrowed and slid between trees.  Steps and boardwalks appeared here and there between steep upward and downward stretches.  In places the ridge crest narrowed with precipitous drops on either side hidden by brush and the false ferns that offered a very false sense of security. 

In a deeply wooded area, boardwalk covered trails intersected in a confusing way.  We knew that we were supposed to take the Alaka’i Trail to the left, but we were disoriented, and that seemed exactly the wrong way.  We stopped for a moment to get our bearings and found a trail sign that had fallen off its post, but was still oriented properly.  We followed the maps and sign as directed and turned in the proper direction of the Alaka’i Trail, though it did not feel right at first. 

Wet, moss-covered steps led steeply into a gully down, down and further down until at last we came to a stony river crossing.  Veils of mist driven by gusting winds wet the stones and made the crossing appear hazardous, but footing was good and they were not slick as they appeared.  We made the crossing without a slip and started the trudge up the other side of the gully. 

Deeply rutted earth, rocks and roots lined the trail as it became treacherous again.  Finally the slope lessened and a group we met assured us that the swamp began at the top of the rise a short distance away.  The sky momentarily opened and a shaft of sunlight called up mists from the earth while we discussed the trail.  It had been raining heavily ahead, and they strongly recommended rain gear.  We all had jackets, through only Fairy and Dawn were wearing them and none were waterproof.  On the other hand we were already soaked with sweat and the steady mist that had danced over us for the past hour and a half.  My mind began its twisted working as I thought:

We heard the advice from the nice young guy

Who told us how we ought to stay dry,

But when we’re already soaked with mist and sweat

How much wetter could we possibly get?

As quickly as it had departed, the mist returned like a strained rain.  We made it to the top of the rise and stepped across swampy mud, grateful for the boardwalk.  The low plants and shrubs reflected the cool, wet climate, while old telephone poles slowly weathered into oblivion along the path.  Ferns and moss grew in clumps around wet pools of multicolored mud.  We traveled on over swamps and higher lands covered with low trees and brush.  Finally Sam noted that we had been walking for two hours and 45 minutes and that we needed to consider turning back. It had seemed like only an hour or so.  There was little likelihood of any view at Kilohana Lookout, and we had a rugged return awaiting.  We agreed to travel for 15 more minutes and then turn back.  About10 minutes later we met a returning couple and asked how much farther it was to the end.  Only a minute was their reply, so we continued eagerly on. 

Veils of mist dashed by, varying the shades of gray in the sky, but they refused to part and reveal a valley view from the unguarded platform.  Wind drove the damp chill through our clothes, and I carefully cradled my camera in my arms to keep it dry.  After a brief celebration of our successful arrival at the overlook, we headed back.

The fog and mist denied us broad, distant vistas and forced us to take a look at things close at hand.  We were surrounded by plants found nowhere else on earth, isolated in their microenvironment by terrain and weather.  Birds flitted about, some native, some not.  On steps along the trail an Erckels fracolin, about the size of a partridge, stared at us from 10 feet away.  It slowly, deliberately, stepped into the brush when we approached closer. 

We slopped down sodden slopes and strained up others until finally Pu’u o Kila Overlook came into view.   We were over eight miles into our trek at that point and were ready for the car.  We cleaned our shoes as best we could in the grass, but stains penetrated the fabric and even continued up our bare legs.  Like soaked rats we made our way up the final rise to the car.  Fairy commented that she felt she had taken a bath without the pleasure of soap.  I replied that I felt like I had taken a shower without the pleasure of getting clean. 

We giggled our way back down the ridge as we relived the events of the day. It had been strenuous, wet and cold, and worth every minute.  The views that we had expected, but had been denied, were overshadowed by the close up view of another world.  It was a world that was born of rugged isolation and continues to survive because of its isolation.  Its beauty and wonder are reserved for the few who are willing to make the effort to see it.  As Sam put it, “You would miss so much by not hiking on this island.”