“What do you mean he’s gone?!” Mr. Huddleston, the director of our trip, exclaimed at the bus driver. We had just returned from our 4.5 mile hike down a trail in Kokee State Park, a trip which had reduced our numbers from 31 down to 24 (no they didn’t die, they just went back to the bus or we picked them back up going back up the trail). Mr. Huddleston had instructed everyone to remain either at the bus or on the trail and wait for the rest of the group to come back, but one of the other students decided he didn’t want to wait. The bus driver replied to Mr. Huddleston that one student — I don’t want to reveal who it was, that’d be mean, so let’s just call him Bambi — wanted to be driven back to the hotel, to which the driver refused because it was 50 miles away, so the bus driver watched as Bambi walked down the road towards the entrance to the park. Our fun hiking day had taken a turn for the worrisome.
The trip started really well. We left the hotel at 7 for Kokee State Park, a park that is adjacent to Waimea Canyon where we visited earlier in the trip. It was a long, long trip…About an hour and a half not including the stops we made for bathroom breaks and food stops. I got a mubosi spam and a different mubosi sandwich for breakfast (basically meat covered by rice covered by seaweed in a little roll) and they were good. The Kalalau lookout marks the start of the trail. Interestingly, it is also the location of the US’s emergency missile response center/building and it looks like an absolutely massive golf ball.
The trail was essentially a steep descent down the mountain in a J-shape toward Alakai Swamp. The trail was very eroded, as the layer of top soil was completely gone, a result of several different things. Firstly, the erosion process began during World War II. Kaua’i is the western-most island, and the one closest to Japan. The Americans wanted to make a road that connected the North part of the island to the roads of the rest of the island along the coasts because they were fearful of Japanese invasion. So they began to make a long road along the northern coast of the island. Climatic conditions such as heavy wind and rainfall caused flooding conditions in which the soil became very muddy, making it impossible to move trucks through the area. Consequently, the government abandoned the project, but by bulldozing the plants in the area, the soil lost its adhesion and began eroding on a massive scale. Secondly, many people have clearly been walking on these trails, so the top soil is gone. The layer that you walk on is the igneous lava rock — iron-rich basalt — that is very hard and is very difficult for plants to penetrate.
The first and primary ecosystem that we passed through was a tropical rainforest. In this ecosystem, there are several problematic conditions for plants, but I’ll focus on one: it rains a crap ton. In some places in this area, 600 inches per year, the most in the world. In Philadelphia, having some water in your roots is good (after all, all plants need water), and its ok if water lands on your leaves, because even though leaves don’t take in water, the water goes evaporates or falls off. In these forests, however, rain is constant, and you know who loves lots of water? Bacteria. So if water lands on a leaf and the leaf doesn’t have any way of getting it off, the leaf will rot as the bacteria develop in the water and decompose the leaf. To counter this, many plants have developed some way around this. Metrosidius polymorpha, known by the Hawaiians as Ohea, is the most-common tree in the tropical rainforest and makes up the vast majority of trees in it. Some of these trees have very smooth top surfaces. Others have hairs on the surfaces. Other plants in the rainforest have leaves that quake in the wind. All of these are adaptations for getting rid of water off the surface of the leaf.
The day was incredible. There was no rain, no clouds, no wind, and it was possible to see all the way down into the valley. Mr. Huddleston and Brian said that there had never been a better day than this one. It usually was pouring rain, extremely slippery flooding conditions, and highly windy. We had very good luck.
The trail was pretty tough though, not because it was strenuous climbing, but because it was very easy to slip. The basalt rock is pretty smooth because it is hard for water to break it down, there was also some moisture mixing with the remaining top soil to together form slippery conditions. But I didn’t fall once! It was pretty fortunate because I was not looking forward to getting muddy.
After about half an hour of walking, we started doing a fun ecology-related exercise. Our group assignment was to look at both the intra and inter-plant variation of the Metrosidius polymorpha. My group mostly looked at the inter-plant variation (meaning between different plants), but others did intra. We found two plants growing right next to each other on a ridge. The bottom one was slightly covered by the top one and the bottom one had darker leaves. My explanation was that the bottom plant had to allocate more energy to making chlorophyll pigments in its leaves because it had less access to sunlight and thus needed to make the most of the sunlight that it gets. The top one, by contrast, has more access to sunlight and so can focus less on spending energy on pigments and use that energy for other things. When I said this, Bryan made a face that was like, “That is a good scientific explanation.” Other groups found other things. The take-home message was that that this plant is extremely variable, hence the species part of its epithet polymorpha meaning “many forms”. I enjoyed this exercise because I liked the kind of connections people were drawing from their observations.
(Above: Japanese honeysuckle shrub, one of the few invasives in this tropical rainforest, a testament to the preservation of the forest’s biodiversity at least when compared to the coastal low-lands)
At about 1, we had lost 6 people of our starting 30. Bambi had left very early to go back to the bus, as did a bunch of other people (though we didn’t know he had disappeared at that point). Around 12 we sat down for lunch. Brian said that the path would be getting harder at that point forward and that we would have to start using our hands. One girl was highly disturbed by that fact because she didn’t want to get her hands dirty. One of her friends said, “You can do this! This is the best kind of hiking, you’ve got it!” And then the first girl and her friend took one look at the next path and said, “Nope” and they left back to the bus. It seems that adventuring is not for everyone.
We saw some really cool plants along the way as well. We saw several of the 7 species of Dubautia, the third genus of plants in the Silversword Alliance, a group of 3 genera of plants endemic to Hawaii. The Dubautia were found only along that trail, as were many of the other things we saw. We also saw Hawaiian mints that were flowering which was a big deal because they only flower for a week or two each year. A Hawaiian mint plant is very similar to a mint plant that we might see in a garden that is used for spices. Except Hawaiian mints wouldn’t be used for spices because they don’t have the compound that makes them smell like mint anymore. So they are basically mintless-mints! We also saw several species of lobeliads, a plant pollinated by the honeycreeper, one of the only (if the only) group of birds native to Hawaii. They have these very curved flowers that have adapted to the curved beaks of the honeycreepers to allow the honeycreepers to access the plant’s honey and pollinate other flowers. Because different species of lobeliads can only be pollinated by certain species of honeycreepers, the extinction of several species of honeycreepers due to humans is causing some lobeliads to be endangered. We also saw several species of mistletoe! It turns out that it is a parasitic plant that grows on and eats the nutrients from trees. Another plant was the woody violet. Most violets that you might see in a garden are very small. These woody violets are very large because they have experienced arborescence: the process by which an herb species evolves the adaptation of woodiness and becomes closer to a tree. Whereas regular violets are only about 6 inches tall max, these woody ones were about 3 feet tall which was pretty impressive. We saw a bunch more, but I don’t have time to name them all. How disappointing! (Look up all of the pictures online! They’re all really cool, especially the flowers).
Finally, we emerged at the Alakai Swamp after about 3.5-4 hours of hiking down the mountain. This swamp is unique because it is a tropical swamp. It’s not like a lot of depictions of swamps that you might see in pictures. It instead has very few trees and mostly short plants. This is because of what I mentioned earlier: huge amounts of water cause leaves AND roots to rot from bacteria. Consequently, plants bring their roots as close to the top of the soil as possible to get away from the water in the soil. Because of that, the plants have less access to vital nutrients. Due to limited nutrients, the plants cannot get very tall and only approach waist height at the highest.
One plant overcame the limited nutrients problem by becoming parasitic. The plant Drossera anglica is a parasitic plant that has little hairs that excrete sugars that attract insects. The small insects land on the hairs, but the hairs are sticky and the sugars are poisonous and have digestive enzymes, so the insect dies and its nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are transferred to the plant.
After talking for a while about the ecology of this area, we headed back up the trail. It was a long, but fun hike back up the mountain.
Oh wait, what about Bambi! We heard that he decided to walk back to the hotel or try something else, but how was he going to get back to the hotel 50 miles away? As we drove back to the hotel, everyone was asking questions about what he was thinking and what was going through his head. When we got back, we heard that he had hitchhiked his way back 50 miles! On top of that, he had beaten the car that was bringing the other people back that probably left shortly after he did! So it’s a happy ending where we all reunited and no one was left in the woods to starve. The end. Come back tomorrow for another happy story!