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Kauai's Alakai Swamp

As one of the world's wettest land areas, the Alakai Swamp is bypassed by most visitors to Kauai, which is more reason to hike into this soggy Eden.

a wooden walkway through Kauai's Alakai Swamp, image
Photo caption
A boardwalk leads visitors into the Alakai Swamp, a mountain rain forest which is also a wilderness preserve.


Six million years ago, give or take or take a millennium or two, a tremendous volcano erupted from the ocean floor, thrusting upward through the Pacific waves a smoldering lump of land we now know as the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Several mighty explosions left the new island with a deep cavity (or caldera) on the northwestern slope of its central summit. This was soon filled with a nearly impenetrable lava called pahoehoe. And from this unyielding base, amidst a network of bubbling bogs, a forest of dwarfish trees and weird plants sprang to life.

That, grievously truncated, is the scientific explanation for the creation of Kauai's amazing Alakai Swamp. A somewhat less plausible but certainly more entertaining version has Pele, the red-haired and short-tempered Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, stomping her foot in a fit of pique (bad hair day) from the top of 5,148-foot Mount Waialeale onto the oozing lava a thousand feet below. Her tantrum gouged out the 16-square-mile swamp.

Whichever account you prefer—I rather like the second—the swamp has remained a primeval habitat that only within the past 10 years has been made readily accessible to the general public through the construction of boardwalks over its murky surface. Before that, the Alakai was pretty much the exclusive stomping ground of ornithologists, botanists, meteorologists, adventurous hikers, and pig hunters. To enjoy and explore the swamp's sights and sounds, all were obliged to hack their way through dense underbrush and to wade in and, hopefully, out of its waist-deep bogs.

One such intrepid explorer was Hawaii's Queen Emma, who, in January of 1871, while mourning the death of her husband, King Kamehameha IV, sought surcease from her sorrows in the Alakai Swamp. And so, with a retinue of 100 or more servants, hula dancers, and musicians, she sallied swampward with great fanfare. Before entering the swamp, the queen invited her private orchestra to sing traditional Hawaiian numbers. Emma traveled as far as she could, which wasn't far, on horseback. Then her aides spread a carpet of fern logs before her as she tromped through the swamp. Emma completed the seven-mile round-trip much invigorated and relatively unmuddied.

Other swamp travelers have been less fortunate. Some, in fact, have entered the Alakai and never exited, presumably lost forever in its tangled forest, sunk beneath its bogs, or crumpled at the bottom of the cliffs that encompass it. Best to stay on the boardwalk.

The Alakai is not, in truth, a swamp at all but a mountain rain forest rising at its highest some 4,000 to 4,500 feet above the Pacific. It is no alpine Okefenokee. Do not expect to find gators slithering through the black waters. Or primitive barefoot folk speaking in tongues. The Alakai has a beauty and strangeness all its own.

A state-designated Wilderness Preserve, the Alakai Swamp is a haven for rare plants and birds, many, as with so much of Hawaii's bird and plant life, on the endangered species list. It has been estimated that of the 71 known Hawaiian bird species, 24 have disappeared and 32 are endangered. And of a thousand flowering species, 120 have fewer than 20 plants growing in the wild. Hawaii accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. landmass but 75 percent of its documented plant and animal extinctions. The swamp's latest loss has been the 'o'o bird, once the source of feathered capes for Hawaiian royalty.

"Hawaii has lost more bird species than all of North America combined," says Jherime Kellerman, who, as an ornithologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, is part of a collaborative effort in which the government, the Peregrine Fund, the Zoological Society of San Diego, and the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center have joined to rescue from extinction at least one bird, the puaiohi, which is also known as the small Kauai thrush.

Several years ago, it was feared that no more than 25 of this rare species of thrush were extant. Estimates now bring the total to between 200 and 300, thanks in large part to the rescue agencies. The save-the-puaiohi campaign involves filching eggs from nests (to prompt the birds to lay more eggs) and hatching them at the conservation center on the Big Island of Hawaii. The young are nurtured and then bred. When the offspring are strong enough, the fledgings are released into the swamp with miniature radio transmitters attached to their backs. Researchers monitor the returnees' behavior.

The returning puaiohi have mingled well with their wild cousins, says Kellerman, although the discovery of an abandoned transmitter on a pile of tiny bones in an owl's nest would suggest that at least one of the newcomers ran afoul of a predator not common to bird conservation centers.

The Alakai Swamp's fragile ecosystem is the focal point of a gallant rescue effort by environmentalists and scientists, much of the activity centered in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a relic from FDR's administration. Restoration of the 66-year-old camp itself is one of numberless projects undertaken by Marsha Erickson, executive director of the Kokee Natural History Museum, and her volunteer workers. The Kokee museum functions variously as an educational center, a sponsor of events such as the annual Queen Emma Festival in October, and the hub of wilderness preservation projects, among them Weedbuster Workdays.

"There may only be a handful of us interested in saving the planet," Erickson says, "but we need to find solutions quickly. And if we must be saints to do that, so be it."

The Alakai has another ally in Ed Petteys, district manager of the Forestry and Wildlife Division of the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources. Under his jurisdiction, the wooden boardwalks are being built. These narrow walkways not only provide easier access to the Alakai Swamp, they also keep visitors from wandering dangerously off the beaten track. Before construction started in 1991, hikers trampled out ever-wider courses through the thicket and beyond the bogs, thereby further endangering plant life. With federal funding, the Forestry and Wildlife service has also fenced off portions of about half of the swamp's 20 major bogs, protecting them from marauding wild pigs that menace the few hardy plants somehow able to survive in these otherwise uninviting premises.

Despite their status as marauders themselves in the eyes of environmentalists, hunters have done their part in alleviating the pig problem. The few hunters who do venture into the swamp's wilder regions may well be unknowing "best friends of the greens," Petteys says. Among the swamp's visitors, Petteys too often finds himself the man on the spot, juggling as best he can the interests of the greens, the pig hunters, and, more recently, the entrepreneurs who would, if they could, convert the Alakai into a tourist trap.

Large group tours are not now permitted in the Alakai, and on the day I entered there in the company of guide David Boynton, we encountered only two other small parties in five hours of swamping. Boynton is a retired high school biology teacher who is not only a swamp guide but a swamp historian and swamp photographer par excellence. He is a tall, lean, leathery man who looks years younger than 56, the age to which he cheerfully confesses.

Our entry point, logically enough, was the Alakai Swamp Trail, which is reached by driving over a rutted dirt road for about three unnerving miles. The alternate Pihea Trail is more easily reached by car, and it intersects with the Alakai trail after little more than a mile. But ours seemed the more authentic route to the swamp's soggy heart.

We parked on a misty plateau at the trailhead and descended into what appeared to be a forested tunnel. I should confess at this point that my ability to identify birds pretty much stops at the seagull, and the only plant I'm remotely familiar with is the grapevine. But Boynton is a blessed hybrid of Audubon and Burbank.

"There," he said as we began our descent, "is the apapane." I beheld a small red bird with a short black beak. "This bird has the shape and color of the plant it feeds from, the curved red flowers of the ohia lehua tree. It's cam-ouflaged naturally from its enemies, the owl and the hawk. You'll find all things are interdependent here."

We were deeper into the forest now, and though it had been an unusually sunny day (the Alakai Swamp's annual rainfall ranges from 100 to more than 300 inches), a curtain of fog crept in upon us, transforming the trail, it seemed to me, into the set of a 1940s Wolfman movie. I stared nervously ahead, fully expecting to spot Lon Chaney Jr. in full lupine mode, lurking behind an ohia lehua tree.

Boynton brought me back to reality. "Here," he said, "is the lapalapa tree. See how its branches sway." Indeed, though there was little wind, the lapalapa's slender limbs were dancing seductively. "These movements are the inspiration for a type of hula performed by agile young dancers called the olapa."

A few yards farther, I came across a leafless tree with unusually smooth bark that towered majestically over the Alakai's pint-size timber. "Here's a strange one," I called out to Boynton, proud of the discovery.

"That's a telephone pole," Boynton said. "During World War II, the army tried to establish a phone line across the island. Took them months, fighting their way through the swamp. When the war ended, these poles were left behind."

Suddenly, Boynton seized my arm and, pressing fingers to lips, commanded silence. "There's a puaiohi," he whispered loudly. "I haven't seen one in nearly 20 years." Boynton's excitement was understandable, considering the scarcity of these creatures. I dimly perceived a grayish bird with long pink legs. I expected to see the little fellow chirping into his transmitter to the boys back at the CCC camp. But he was soon gone.

The next section of the hike required us to clump down an exceptionally steep and appar-ently endless flight of stairs. Going down all 200 or more steps was not all that disagreeable until it occurred to me that on the return trip I'd be going up those same steps after hiking the better part of six rugged miles.

We reached a small stream the color of tea, the Kawai Koi. "Don't drink from it," instructed Boynton as I dipped a hand tentatively into the Lipton-esque liquid. "It carries a bacteria that can cause leptospirosis, a disease which can prove fatal."

We were headed uphill when Boynton began mouthing peculiar sounds. Had he sneaked a sip of the Kawai Koi? "I'm calling the elapaio, a fly-catching bird," he explained. "Early in the morning, you can hear a chorus of them. Now, they're mostly quiet." Just as well.

As we climbed, Boynton occasionally pulled from the soil a large green plant that seemed to grow everywhere. Was the environmentalist despoiling the environment? "It's the kahili," he said, handing me a leaf. "It's a type of ginger weed that overwhelms other plants. The kahili is more dangerous to plant life than the pigs."

As we labored on, Boynton pointed out the hulumoa, the Hawaiian mistletoe, which, he quickly explained, "is not used that way here." He squeezed the berries of the ukiuki, which discharged a yellowish juice.

We were high on the perimeter now, after a stiff climb. A refreshing wind brushed our faces. And then we were standing on the edge of a formidable cliff—the Kilohana Lookout at the crest of the Wainiha Pali.

And there before us was an extraordinary sight. The wind had dispersed the clouds and the sun shone brilliantly on the gorgeous valley below. We looked down nearly 4,000 feet and could see in the distance the whitecaps of Hanalei Bay. The cliff where we stood cast an immense shadow on its counterpart on the opposite side of the valley. A faint mist rose from below like smoke from a distant campfire. The dark green of the cliffs, the deepening shadows, the intense blue of the sky and the sea, the wispy clouds. What swamp was ever like this? None, of course. I thanked Pele for her petulance.

Photography courtesy of Djzanni/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.