The Deep Freeze of Makauwahi Cave

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The Deep Freeze of Makauwahi Cave

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Nov 20, 2012

Hawaii may be one of the few places in the world where a temperature reading below 80 degrees will have kama’aina scurrying in the backs of their closets for boots and jeans and long-sleeved shirts. But temperature is not what signaled Hawaii’s imminent approach to winter early Sunday morning. The high was still 82; the low 73. It was the cool winds from the north, traveling hundreds and thousands of unobstructed miles from Alaska’s string of Aleutian Islands. And, so, I happily snapped off the ceiling fan, slipped on a pair of capri-length pants, creased from summer’s neglect, and pulled on a three-quarter-length gauzy cotton top. It is not the so-called lack of seasons in Hawaii that I miss, but the change in my wardrobe.

The first Sunday of every month, I drive to Mahaulepu on the south shore of Kauai. Not to go to the beach at Poipu. Not to golf at Kiahuna. Not to dine at the Beach House, Merriman’s Fish House, or any one of the many fine restaurants reachable via Kauai’s well-known Tree Tunnel, although sometimes, I do wind up at Puka Dog or Da Crack for a quick bite.

Instead, I keep driving when the paved road turns to dirt. Take a right when the road dead-ends. Park in an abandoned sugar cane field. And channel my inner cavewoman. That is, I volunteer as a docent at Makauwahi Cave Reserve.

Sometimes called the “sinkhole,” Makauwahi Cave Reserve is a treasure trove of fossil-bearing sediments, the largest limestone cave in all Hawaii—if not the South Pacific—and a veritable gold mine of plant and animal matter. We’re talking shells, bones, seeds, leaves, wood. Even microscopic fossils like pollen, spores and algae. Human artifacts, too.

When David and Lida Burney stumbled upon this place in 1992, they discovered “the perfect storm” of preservation conditions that allowed them to put the pieces of the paleoecology puzzle into place and answer questions about what plants and animals once lived within what kind of ecosystem in this particular spot on Kauai. The husband-and-wife scientific duo found a limestone cave system, quite unusual for islands of volcanic origin. And until relatively recently, they soon learned, the main portion of the cave was a shallow fresh-water lake, and upon further research, they discovered the PH balance of the ground water carving out the tunnels and rooms and nooks and crannies of this cave system and filling up the one-time lake was not acidic or alkaline but rather, surprisingly, neutral. So, we’ve got limestone, a lake, and PH-neutral water. Three characteristics that ensured nearly everything that fell into the sinkhole over the last 10,000 years or so was preserved. Booyah.

Most people literally stumble upon Makauwahi Cave Reserve, a big hole in the ground that’s the result of the ceiling’s collapse some 7,000 years ago. Indeed, Burney stumbled upon it in 1992. The PhD-toting Burney goes by “Burney.” Not David. Not Doc. Not Mr. Burney to you. Just Burney. He’s a man of a distinguished age, bushy grey beard and possessing a Carolina drawl that no amount of world travel to the far corners of the globe has erased. He talks a blue streak, sharing his riches of discovery, and only pauses for a good laugh. I’m sure I could never keep up with him—physically or mentally. Lida, perhaps, is the only person who could. She always shows up at the dusty cave crisp and clean. No misshapen, ratty T-shirts for her. No baseball caps, either. It’s always a fresh, tailored Aloha shirt and proper Southern woman hat. But she does carry a Leatherman and gardening clippers in a special holder on her belt.

The story goes that a few hikers emerging from a worn trail caused Burney to ask, “Where does that lead?” When he heard the answer, “Cave,” his skin had to have tingled and his bones hummed as he raced to find the tunnel in a slab of rock that serves as the cave’s only ground-level entrance. And because paleoecologists never really go on vacation. Even when they are on break between college teaching stints. Even when they have young children in tow. Even when they are in the vacation paradise of the Pacific. Burney pulled out his handy-dandy, portable soil sampling device and dug out a few chunks of dirt. The first three-inch-wide core revealed extinct land snails. The second offered the intact skull of an endangered bird.

Eventually, they would discover the fossil remains of a diverse group of land snails and 45 species of birds, half or more now extinct and a half-dozen previously unknown to science. They would unearth the seeds and pollen of plants and trees in layers of sediment pre-dating human arrival in Hawaii but that were previously thought to have been introduced by early Polynesians. And more seed pods and pollen were found in this coastal environment that today are only growing in high, cold, wet and steep environs.

Burney calls Makauwahi Cave Reserve a giant pickling jar. I call it the Hawaiian deep freeze.

That’s why when I heard Burney had put out a call for volunteers to help around the cave, my hand shot up in the air. Me. Me. Pick me.

They did. Lucky me.

These days, it’s much easier to find the cave. I’ve met visitors—and kama’aina alike—who tell me they’ve visited/lived on Kauai for 20 years and never knew the place existed. And now that I think about it, I’d visited and lived on Kauai for nearly 20 years myself before stumbling upon Kauai’s nature-made time machine. As I find myself saying again and again, “Hawaii is like that.” You never know where a dirt road will lead you. A surprise around every corner.

[Note: After the holiday, I’ll post a follow-up to this piece on Makauwahi Cave Reserve. Because there is so much more to share. Right, Mary?]


Mary | Nov 26, 2012 12:06 PM

What a great review. Such an interesting place. How lucky you are to have been chosen, and how lucky the Burneys are to have you as a docent. Thanks for all you do. BTW........What do you eat at Puka Dog?

David Burney | Nov 26, 2012 12:53 PM

Kim, Mahalo for writing this excellent article about what to me after over two decades is still one of the most exciting places in the world.

Kim | Nov 26, 2012 01:42 PM

Hi Mary, glad you found this post. The answer is a veggie dog, of course! Betcha didn't know they had 'em. Da Crack even offers up a vegan burrito. And, Burney, hi. Glad you found the post, but I'm even more glad you found Maukawahi Cave and turned it into a reserve. There's never a dull moment down there. Just last week, I discovered two endangered Hawaiian coots in the kalo lo'i. What? Taro patches? Where did they come from? But I get ahead of myself. I meant to save that for another blog post ;-)

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