The Magical, Mystical World of the Alakai Swamp
In diving, there is a condition called Nitrogen Narcosis in which a diver develops feelings of exhilaration and giddiness, usually at depths greater than 100 feet. The symptoms somewhat mirror the effects of a couple (or more) martinis or benzodiazepine drugs, such as diazepam, and has been called the "rapture of the deep."
At the other end of the spectrum, at elevations of 8,000+ feet, High Altitude Sickness makes a person feel like they have the flu or a hangover--after drinking one too many of those martinis.
Last week, I headed to Kokee State Park on Kauai to do some hiking on the Alakai Swamp Trail at about 4,000-foot elevation. (This in order to train for my backpacking trip this Labor Day weekend through Haleakala National Park, at elevations starting at 9,740 feet.)
One would think I was safe from both these medical conditions. But two hours after first stepping foot on the raggedy boardwalk that transects the mis-named Alakai Swamp, I would swear and bet my life's savings--not that there's much--that I was experiencing one of these two states. Which one? Read on.
Scene setup: It was 4:45 p.m. I was sitting on rotting bench at the end of the Alakai Swamp Trail. Three-and-a-half-miles of boardwalk and so-called swamp sat behind me. And the infamous Kalalau Valley lay those 4,000 feet below me. This spot is a rather famous lookout known as Kilohana. I had driven two hours around Kauai, ascended up the road that skirts Waimea Canyon and maneuvered a four-wheel-drive truck across a four-mile dirt road into the heart of Kokee State Park to reach the trailhead. And I had trekked those three-and-a-half miles on a boardwalk built of double-wide planks, each board measuring one-inch-by-12-inch-by-12-feet and lying end to end, to reach this point. When I finished gazing at the view, I would have to retrace each step and double-back on the same roads to complete my adventure. As I sat on the bench and ate my trail mix, I pulled out my iPhone—no service—and pressed play on my digital voice recorder app.
The view from the Kilohana Lookout is a total whiteout. I cannot see one palm tree on the valley floor below. Not one speck of sand. Not even the ocean. All I can see are clouds. A valley full of clouds.
And I realize I am glad.
Here’s the thing. I don’t feel like I’m in Hawaii. It’s definitely cooler up here. There are no palm trees along the trail. No ocean vistas. I feel more like I’m in Scotland. But I’ve never been to Scotland, so how would I know?
I didn’t plan on listening to The Paris Wife as I hiked, but I’d gotten to the point in the audio book that was pretty good just as I arrived at the trailhead, and so I kept listening. I find it ironic that at the end of the book, Ernest Hemingway’s marriage with his first wife, Hadley, goes to hell at the point on the trail when the weather deteriorated. The sun had gotten lost and the clouds swirled. It was as if the environment was mimicking the mood of the book. And sure enough when Hemingway put a double-barrel shotgun to his head and committed suicide, I walked into the whiteout. I had to admit, it felt a bit like I was walking in another famous place filled with clouds—heaven.
And that’s why I don’t want to see the view of Kalalau Valley, because then I will be reminded that I am in the paradise of Hawaii and not in heaven. I figure as long as I don’t see the greenery-draped valley, its sandy stretch of beach and the distant blue of the ocean, I can stay in this magical, mystical place in my mind, maybe back with Mr. Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s, maybe even in heaven. Not that I’d be with Hemingway then. The devil.
At this point in my recording, I paused to reflect on the three-and-a-half miles I’d thus far hiked.
Parts of this trail remind me of my hike on Oahu’s Kuliouou Ridge Trail, a completely different hiking experience and yet stairs.
There is one lengthy section of the Alakai Swamp Trail that is made up of stairs. Different from the Kuliouou Ridge Trail in that those stairs are made from railroad ties contoured into the ground. Here, the point is to keep hikers off the ground. So, the stairs are made of wood and look much like the kind that lead into my house. Only these have dangerous, mesh fence half-attached to them. I suppose to provide traction but, over the years, the fence has rusted and curled and threatens to snag the toes of my hiking shoes with each step.
The vegetation is somewhat similar to that on the narrow ridge of Kuliouou Ridge Trail. Ohia lehua. Tree ferns. Orchids. Alakai feels like ancient forest. Except the plants here are all stunted. I passed two men. They were stopped on the trail, one man on his hands and knees and the other standing with a wide grin plastered on his face. “We’re botanists,” the happy man said. I noted his accent was British. “For us, this is an 11 on a 10-point scale.”
(Hint: happy man.) Technically, the Alakai is not a swamp. According to science, it is “a high altitude plateau covered by a rain forest interspersed with bogs.” It’s the bogs that create this place’s unique plant life. Fine-grained clay lines the bottom of this area and very much unlike the rest of the island’s substrate, does not act as a sieve. The water does not seep away. Decaying plant matter creates another layer of ground matter that acts as a sponge to absorb—and retain—rain water and fog drip.
I realized this was a swamp or bog or whatever it’s called every time I heard a splash as I stepped on a board and the other end hit the water. Much of the water is hidden under the vegetation, but there were pools of it as I got closer to the lookout and this bench.
The unusual composition of soil and elevation of Alakai Swamp dictates the plant life. And it varies. At the start, trees line the trail. There are live ones, dead ones. There are mosses, lichens. There are vines. Some run on the ground; some climb trees. There are a myriad of plants growing on top of other plants. A high proportion of what you see is endemic—found here and no place else in the world. As you hike, the vegetation changes. The land opens up. Bogs are visible. The tall trees disappear, replaced by dwarfs.
I wonder if the native Hawaiians hiked this and how long it would have taken them and what a chore it would have been and how the simple technology of planed wood has made it so much easier. Did Hawaiians place plaited lau hala mats down? Did they line up logs?
In The Alakai: Kauai’s Unique Wilderness, Fernando Penalosa reports that Hawaiians traveled through the Alakai on their way from Waimea to Kalalau Valley and back. Their paths were preserved in legends and mele, song. Hawaiians also used the Alakai to reach the summit of Waialeale, considered a sacred place to Hawaiians. Here, they were close to their gods. The Alakai was sacred for another reason, too: its water.
And, now, here’s the give-away to my condition:
I feel euphoric. How can I be so happy? Why am I giddy with joy? It’s not the view. Is it just being in nature? Maybe getting away from my desk and deadlines and a website that’s acting persnickety? No, I don’t want the clouds to part like a curtain and reveal the view below. No. I want this feeling to stick with me. I don’t want paradise. I want heaven.
Least you think I’d totally fallen off my rocker, there was a moment of lucidity.
Is there an altitude condition that is the same as nitrogen narcosis?
I managed to quell my rapture that underwater might have convinced me to dive even deeper—and to my death—and hike out on the boardwalk, passing the happy Brits, maneuvering the four-wheel drive, rutted road and driving down the mountain as the sun set over the ocean to my right. But, then, as I rounded a bend, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something flutter and rise from the ground. It was a pueo, an owl. A little further on, around another bend, another owl rose up from the side of the road and flew over me. And again. When I came across my fourth pueo, it was sitting smack in the middle of the two-lane road, its back to me.
In the Hawaiian tradition, pueo are considered aumakua, ancestral gods that appear to provide guidance and/or deliver a message. A common theme of the pueo is rescue, according to Catherine Kalama Becker, Ph.D., in Mana Cards: The Power of Hawaiian Wisdom. The pueo’s message may be to turn back, take a safe route and go where help awaits.
I came to a full stop and waited. If I had not stopped, I would have run right over it. It took several seconds before the pueo decided to take off. Before it did, it swiveled its head full around to look my direction—I swear we made eye contact. Another chicken-skin moment. As I speak about this, driving through Kalaheo, there’s a man on the side of the road riding a mule. A man on a mule. He’s wearing cowboy hat, a plaid shirt and cowboy boots. The mule is outfitted with full gear. Where am I? What world am I living in?
I did a little research when I returned home—the high of the hike had long evaporated. Penalosa writes about tiny bubbles that break the surface of some bogs. “When the organic matter decays in the absence of oxygen, it cannot produce carbon dioxide and instead produces methane.” When the gas is released, the bubbles appear.
Now, the Great Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle forbids his travel writers from using Wikipedia as a source, but sometimes I start there. (That may explain why I do not write for Spud.) On the topic of nitrogen narcosis, I discovered this, “Apart from helium and probably neon, all gases that can be breathed have a narcotic effect.”
So, was it the methane gas that generated my euphoria? The gods and goddesses in habiting the clouds? Hemingway come back to bid me welcome? Or 100% pure Mother Nature?