So, there I was, four o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy September Sunday, 10 miles by foot from the nearest paved road. Sitting in a wilderness cabin the size of my living room at 6,380-foot elevation inside the dormant volcano known as Haleakala on Maui
. No cell service to call my mother and say we’d hadn’t died on the trek the day before. No wi-fi to check my email. No electricity to charge any electronics whatsoever. But running water that needed purifying with a filter (thanks Bryan) or boiling for five minutes (thanks wood-burning stove). All alone except for nine strangers I’d met the day before and my husband of nearly 24 years; two endangered nene grazing outside the cabin; one vermillion i’iwi
) sipping nectar from the lehua
blooming in the ohia
visible through the kitchen window. And 299 bull thistles ripped from the willing ground by our eager, leather-gloved hands.
The day before was all about the ahinahina, silversword
, growing at higher elevation in the wide-open, barren Haleakala Crater. Today, at Paliku, snuggled in a rainforest below a cliff, was all about the bull thistle.
Bull thistle was the enemy. The point of our trip. The reason we’d hiked 10 miles the day before carrying our food and clothing for three days on our backs. The reason we would face another nearly 10 miles at twice the grade the next day to return to elevation in the double-digits and civilization, where I could call my mother and assure her we were very much alive.
Bull thistle is an aggressive, invasive weed, we were told, in need of eradication. It was vital to get bull thistle before it went to seed and the plentiful and generous winds rushing up Kaupo Gap spread the evil offspring to the four corners of Haleakala. It was a Sisyphean task.
So, as a steady, cold rain drizzled down all morning, persisting to fall even after the sun crested the cliff behind us at 10:00 (so much for those famous Haleakala sunrises), we had layered up. Rain jacket over fleece over long-sleeved, water-wicking top. Rain pants over sweat-stained hiking pants from the day before. Waterproof boots over SmartWool socks. Hats. Sunscreen. The aforementioned leather gloves.
Lesson number 598 of the trip: Not all rainforests are tropical and warm. This one met with daytime highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. But the most surprising element was the 40 mph gusting winds that found their way up the pit toilet and almost had me screaming for my husband in the middle of the night. But I talked myself down from my fear with comforting words like, “Surely, they’ve got this wooden outhouse staked down.” And, “I’m sure this shack has survived stronger winds than this.” (And besides, Pollyanna would prove to be the screamer, anyway, after a round of ghost stories later that evening.)
After some initial confusion and clustering, Laurent organized us into formation, and we moved forward in a long time. Just like hunters flushing birds
, my husband said. Just like search-and-rescue technicians looking for clues
, I thought. We wielded shovels and pick axes to dig up the enemy, counting each unrooted foe as we went. We’ve never cleared this much field before,
Elizabeth said again and again as my raingear kept the rain out and the sweat in, soaking my clothes in perspiration. Meanwhile, rainwater draping each blade of knee-high grass slid down the outside of my rain pants and into my hiking shoes. Where the water pooled, because it couldn’t drain or find an exit out of my expensive, waterproof hiking shoes. Squish
went my shoes with every step. Squish
went the ground with every step.
This was the same ground where 50 years ago, a group of Boy Scouts traveled the same path I had the day before, headed for the same destination, Paliku, and stood in the same field in which I found myself wet and cold. I carried clean socks and fresh greens in my pack. They carried birds from Great Britain in boxes strapped to their backs.
The Hawaiian goose is known as nene
in the Hawaiian language, a word that comes in handy in crossword puzzles. Some 30 individuals made up the native bird’s entire population in the early 1950s in a losing game against human-introduced predators (rats, cats, dogs, mongoose), loss of habitat and Mother Nature (tsunami). A captive breeding program got started in Pohakuloa on Hawaii Island and, of all places, England, and in June 1962, thirty-five British-born nene were flown to Hawaii, driven to the summit of Haleakala and, then, carried 10 miles to Paliku by a group of hard-working, badge-earning Boy Scouts, where the birds were released onto ground where the birds’ ancestors had last roamed 70 years prior. Today, an estimated 2,000 nene populate Hawaii on Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai.
Back in the cabin near sunset, a break in the clouds gave way to a sky of reds, oranges and yellow but revealed no moon. Again. I felt cozy and calm. Jeff and Bryan had fired up the wood stove, using chunks of wood provided by the park service and feeding it with paper scraps from our food packaging, trail maps and, even, the wrappers of fresh rolls of toilet paper. We sipped peppermint tea made from actual leaves plucked from plants around the cabin.
By now, the cabin was homey, its one room, a long table in the center and four sets of three-tiered bunk beds lining the walls. Elizabeth read a biography of adventurer Isabella Bird. Someone read a year-old copy of National Geographic
; someone else read an ancient women’s glossy magazine--all reading material left behind in the cabin. (I wouldn’t be leaving my Kindle behind.) Laurent, Pollyanna, Jeff and Bryan played a card game.
Soon, we’d start chopping vegetables to make veggie burritos. Soon, we’d start purifying water and re-filling water bottles for the next day’s hike. Soon, we’d start peppering Elizabeth, our leader, with questions: What time should we start? Should we wear rain gear? How long will it take? What’s the trail like? Are there portions that will require climbing? Is it shaded?
As the cabin grew warm, my eyes grew heavy, and I napped to the soft sounds of nene calling outside my window. It was ever so comforting.
[Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series of my weekend with ahinahina and day one here. And watch for an upcoming blog post that will recount our hike out of Haleakala National Park through Kaupo Gap, where we’ll sate our desires for something cold with ice cream and popsicles. And beer.]