stepping back in time… waikamoi forest

Maui Concierge Magazine _ Waikamoi Forest PreserveIt’s a “lucky we live Maui” morning. You know the kind: crystal clear blue sky; refreshingly cool air; the scent of residual dampness from an overnight rain. On Haleakala these conditions are intensified, making way for whatever Mother Nature has in store that day. I’m in line with thirty other hikers waiting my turn to thoroughly brush any seeds or invasive species from my boots before entering Hosmer Grove, gateway to the Waikamoi Forest Preserve.

Access to the preserve is restricted—you must be with either a docent from the Nature Conservancy or a staff member from Haleakala National Park. Bird Loop Trail hikes (3 miles / 3.5 hours) are held every Monday and Thursday at 8:45 a.m., and the Boardwalk Trail hike (5 miles / 4.5 hours) is every third Sunday of the month at 11:45 a.m. On this day Nature Conservancy docent Michele Augello is leading a special excursion through both areas for the Mauna Ala hiking club, of which I’m a member.

Once inside, we gather around Michele who tells us that Ralph Hosmer, for whom the grove is named, imported tree species from around the world near the beginning of the 20th century in hopes of creating a viable timber industry on Maui. “He also wanted to protect the watershed by stopping erosion from goats and other ungulates [hoofed animals],” she says. “So he planted stands of pine, spruce, cedar, and eucalyptus, which we’ll see today in the grove.” But only a few species survived and thrived. The Mexican weeping pine and the eucalyptus have actually become aggressive invaders, and are now recognized threats to the native ecosystems within the Park. Hosmer’s actions, while well intended, contributed greatly to the proliferation of invasive species on Maui.

While walking down the grove trail, a pleasing aroma of pine envelops me, and I’m reminded of summer vacations at Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border back in the day. We stop at a large ‘ohi‘a, an important tree in native Hawaiian culture. Michele explains these trees were considered sacred, and there were many uses for their hard wood. “Honeycreepers love the nectar of the ‘ohi‘a lehua blossoms,” she says. Michele shows us a mamane, another important tree, which actually puts nutrients back into the ground to help other plants thrive, thus living in lokahi with the forest. “Its wood was used by native Hawaiians as posts for hale, handles for tools, and runners for dry land sleds,” Michele says.

We see kahili ginger, an invasive species that can quickly take over an entire hillside. The plant’s origin is the Himalayas at the 10,000 foot elevation, just like Haleakala. “Non-native species arrived in Hawai‘i by one of the three “Ws”: wind, wings, or waves,” Michele says. “Every 10,000 years or so, one species could adapt and survive, evolving into a new species that then became native to Hawai‘i.”

Prior to entering the preserve, Michele explains it’s a native Hawaiian forest that still looks like it did prior to human contact. It’s an important sanctuary for hundreds of native Hawaiian species. Sadly, only 11 to 12 percent of native forest remains on Maui. They play an important role in the water cycle, drawing clouds and rain to the mountains. The 5,200 acre preserve is part of the 100,000 acres comprising the East Maui Watershed. Owned by Haleakala Ranch, the preserve is managed by the Nature Conservancy.

We learn about native birds, all from the honeycreeper family, we’re likely to see and hear while in the forest—‘apapane, ‘i‘iwi, the Maui ‘alauahio, the Hawaiian ‘amakihi, and the rare Maui Parrotbill, which was recently given the Hawaiian name kiwikiu. “There used to be 49 types of birds, but only about 20 are left,” says Michele. They’re all threatened or endangered due to loss of habitat, as well as predators such as mongooses, feral cats, and mosquitoes. “Mosquitoes carry avian pox and malaria, and there’s an 80 percent fatality rate among birds from just one bite,” she continues. “And with global warming, the mosquito may press the birds to higher elevations where there’s less habitat and less chance of survival.”

Leaving the main trail, we start down a narrow path though a dense forest containing more than 40 different species of ferns, 75 percent of which are endemic, according to Michele. Underfoot is a lush carpet of moss in various shades of green. I pause to inhale the rich, woodsy fragrances.

Soon we reach the beginning of the boardwalk, which was built to protect the ferns on the forest’s floor. “In ancient days, one had to have a purpose for coming here,” Michele says. “Harvesting plants for food or medicinal purposes, quarrying rock, hunting pigs, looking for canoe koa, or hiding the remains of a family member, were common activities.” We face the forest and Michele intones an oli, asking that as we immerse ourselves into the forest we are given guidance, wisdom, and enlightenment that will flow through us and out into the world.

We begin our descent down a steep, narrow trail. The boardwalk itself was constructed with side-by-side wooden planks, sometimes two and sometimes three wide, covered with wire for traction. The temperature drops significantly and the air is alive with birdsong as we make our way through the thicket of ferns and berries: the raspy, hawk-like sound of the ‘amakihi; the “chip-chipping” noise made by the ‘alauahio; and the “rusty hinge” sound produced by the ‘i‘iwi. Tree ferns abound, including the ‘ama‘u, which sends up bright red new fronds that turn green as they mature. There’s so much to take in I’m forced to set aside my hectic day-to-day life and simply savor the marvelous splendor.

It takes about 15 minutes to walk slowly down the length of the boardwalk. At the end a deck with benches allows us to rest our weary quadriceps. I give my hamstrings a pep talk for the ascent. Michele lets us sample pohole fern, which is used by some Maui restaurants in salads. It’s delightfully tender with a distinctly nutty taste. She points out an ‘olapa tree, explaining native Hawaiians used its berries for dyes. It has supple, fluttering leaves which readily distinguish it from others in the forest. “Modern day hula dancers work hard to imitate the graceful movements of ‘olapa leaves,” she says.

On the way back to Hosmer Grove, we take a detour onto the Bird Loop Trail. It descends steeply into a gulch filled with ‘ohi‘a trees enshrouded with lichen, which gives them a ghostly, other-worldly look. We’re again surrounded by birdsong; this time it’s magnified by reverberation off the steep, rocky walls of the gulch. Climbing out, Michele shows us areas where the Conservancy is propagating several rare plants unique to East Maui, including members of the lobelia and geranium families.

Visiting Waikamoi Forest Preserve is like taking a step back in time. It’s an extraordinarily special place not many people have the opportunity to see, and I feel privileged to have immersed myself in it for a mere few hours. It’s a magical, not-to-be-missed Maui experience.

Reservations for hikes are taken up to one week in advance by calling 572-4459 from 8am to 4pm. Hikers should be prepared with layered clothing, rain gear, water, and sturdy shoes. There is no charge for the hikes, but a $10 per car admission fee applies at Haleakala National Park. Please visit and search “waikamoi” for more details.

– by heidi pool

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