Day 3 – The Slopes of Mauna Kea

Saturday April 3, 2021

It was cold outside and fresh from a long rain when we woke up at 6:00 at the Volcano Inn. That early, I was the only one who decided to try the hot tub, and it was beautifully peaceful. The water was a toasty 104 degrees, and I wilt easily, so I didn’t stay long. Afterward, Joseph and I went to the main house for breakfast, which included fresh papaya boats (papaya halves with lemon juice, stuffed with fresh pineapple, banana slices, yogurt, and almond slivers), home-made banana bread, tropical fruit juice, and Kona coffee. I would recommend the friendly Volcano Inn to anyone!

The morning’s route took us back through Hilo and over the Saddle Road between the world’s most massive mountain, Mauna Loa, and its tallest, Mauna Kea. We stopped for a hike at the Pu’u O’o Trail, named for an extinct native Hawaiian bird species. The o’o flaunted fluffy yellow feathers that were prized for making Hawaiian royal capes. Cape making didn’t drive it extinction, but instead it was the introduction of invasive species (especially mosquitoes carrying avian malaria; native birds have no immunity). Along the trail, we heard lots of lovely songs and saw lots of lovely dark blobs darting across the sky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t identify anything because the birds were far away and very active, not liking to perch long, and avoiding visible places like treetops. We didn’t recognize any of the songs, but they were sweet. Some of the little dark blobs were likely native ‘elepaio (Monarch flycatchers, [Chasiempis sandwichensis]), but nobody held still long enough for us to be sure.

The Pu’u O’o Trail was rough in places with “aa” and easier in places with “pahoehoe.” (Aa is the sound you make when you try to walk across this sharp, rough rock. Pahoehoe is smooth and flows, like its name.) Along the trail were ohi’a trees, ‘ae ferns (Polypodium pellucidum), and kukaenene (Coprosma ernodeoides). The ‘ae are tough little plants with only one to two fronds that grow straight out of lava rock. Native Hawaiian Island geese, or nene (Brantus sandvicensis), like kukaenene, and they also like to eat ohelo (Vaccinium arborea), with little red, crowned berries. Said to be edible, I sampled one or two ohelo berries, but they were kind of bland, at least when raw. Along the trail were also pukiawe shrubs (Leptecophylla tameiameaie), with small red, pink, or white berries and no crown. Nene like these too, but they’re not edible to humans.

Ferns on Mauna Kea that are probably ‘ae, growing among kukaenene

At the top of the saddle, we drove the six-mile spur to the visitor center on Mauna Kea. At 9000 feet, the center was only about 1000 feet below the alpine zone. A four-wheel drive vehicle was needed to go further, but there was a happy surprise for a plant geek like me waiting behind the visitor center: a tiny forest preserve with threatened ahinahina (Mauna Kea silversword, Argyroxiphium sandwicense ssp. sandwicense). This species and others in “the silversword alliance” descended from a single species of California tarweed (Centromadia or Madia spp.) that adaptively radiated several million years ago into widely different forms across the Hawaiian Islands.

The slopes of Mauna Kea are striped with different ecological zones. These are some of the species I’m pretty sure I identified correctly. Many resemble plants I know back home in arid western Colorado, making me think that the climate on parts of the mountain is similar in some ways.

  • Mamane (Sephora chrysophylla) – a tree-shrub that reminds me of Scotch broom, a friend from California
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – the flower spike looks different than that of the same invasive species back home
  • Aheahea (Chenopodium oahuense) – its leaves look a lot like desert species of the same family growing back home
  • Lots and lots of grasses including nodding needle grass (Nassella cernua)
  • Conifers – plenty of pine species grow on the Big Island. All are introduced, as are other conifers like cypress, redwood, and Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris). Cook pine isn’t really a pine; it resembles “Norfolk Island Pine,” which only appears in potted form back home

At the base of the Mauna Kea road were the remains of a Native Hawaiian camp where people were protesting a new telescope at the summit. The telescope was proposed without consulting Native Hawaiians. In fact, the existing Mauna Kea telescopes were built without their consultation. I am a scientist, and I highly value what the scientists are discovering there, but the telescopes should not have been built in this way. I have heard that Native Hawaiians have an adaptable culture. They essentially journeyed from the stone age to the modern age in a generation, after all. Their belief in Mauna Kea as an umbilical cord between earth and sky may mesh well with the study of the universe, if only their concerns had not been ignored. The camp looked unoccupied, but there was a sign reading, “Tourist Go Home!” This was the only sign of hostility we saw during our whole visit, and the sentiment is certainly justified, especially to those who bolt to conquer the mountain’s sacred summit without a second thought.

Rainbow at the Waimea Country Lodge

We drove down the other side of the saddle road toward Waimea. The ecology continued to change as we approached Waimea. Here are some of the life forms we saw there:

  • Jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) – a South American native with bright purple blossoms
  • Chickens (Gallus callus domesticus) – in particular, there was a colorful rooster who was a bit of a character scratching and crowing with his flock behind the motel. It was hard to tell if the fowl were domesticated or wild
  • Saffron finch (Sicalis flaviola) – native to South America, with brilliant yellow and yellow-green feathers and an orange head
  • Zebra dove (Geopelia striata) – a cute little bird native to Southeast Asia
  • Red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata) – a striking South American who is actually a tanager
  • Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) – an invasive weed in Hawai’i, but at least it has the grace to bear sweet, edible fruit
  • Blue morning glory (Ipomaea indica) – with big blue blossoms, it also grows wild in the grasslands surrounding Waimea
  • Lots of grasses – it’s drier here than in other parts of the Big Island, making grasslands abundant, so Waimea is a cattle ranching community

Some rooms at the Waimea Country Lodge were still being remodeled, but ours was finished nicely, and it had a full kitchen (aside from the very obvious omission of a coffee maker). We went shopping at Foodtown, a grocery chain from Honolulu, and found some local sweet potatoes, Asian greens, shutome (Hawaiian swordfish), and ahi (tuna) along with Kona Brewing Company Hanalei Island IPA. At the motel, a full-arc rainbow stretched across the sky. We would come to learn that rainbows are common in Waimea, so much so that the locals don’t seem to notice them. Unfortunately, we needed a key to access a grill to cook the fish, but there was nobody at the front desk, and nobody could be reached. So rather than settling for sushi, we pan-fried.

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