Back to the Future

Learn about plans to preserve the past on this coastal hike of Waihe‘e

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Ashley Stepanek

waiheeWith your ready imagination and willing curiosity, hiking the shoreline of Waihe‘e, where the central isthmus yields to the West Maui Mountains, can be like traveling by time machine—especially when you roam with Scott Fisher, a  sweetly verbose post-doctoral student in ecological restoration. As Maui Coastal Land Trust’s project manager, Fisher guides public hikes through Waihe‘e habitat refuge the first Saturday of each month.

Along the way, he talks about the region’s history, providing hikers with a perspective that spans millennia. Suggest a date, and Fisher takes you there in a trice. More than 10,000 years ago? “Massive sand dunes form by the wind.” Circa 1,000 A.D.? “Hawaiians catch o‘opu from the fishpond.” Last century? “A baby drinks bottled milk from the dairy.” Yesterday? “Volunteers clear an area to plant native species.”

Years from now? Er . . . future undetermined. The Land Trust brings school kids to Waihe‘e “to learn about history, culture, ecological restoration, and aspects of science,” and is hoping to build an education center. But that’s dependent on funding.

It’s 9:09 a.m. on Saturday morning, and we’re sitting in ‘Iao Congregational Church’s meeting room, part of what Maui Coastal Land Trust uses for an office in Wailuku. Fisher gives us driving directions while pointing to a map, a helpful visual for navigating our way to today’s hike. We’re instructed to cut through town on the road to Kahakuloa, past Waihe‘e Golf Course and the stream, up Kahekili Highway. It sounds more complicated than it really is—but the majority of today’s group hasn’t spent much time on this side of Maui. That’s why I’m here: to get to know a part of the island that still feels like Old Hawai‘i, one less marketed as a “visitor destination.”

We’re a ragtag bunch: mostly grey-hairs, some equipped for serious trekking and others barely prepared for a walk in the park. The token “youngsters,” my gang included, are ready for anything, wearing the bare minimum (a critical mass of slippers, shorts, tank tops and, most importantly, sunscreen—in hindsight, a hat would have been handy to keep out the sun).

Fisher then briefs the group in the geological, historical and traditional context of Waihe‘e, one of many coastal properties the nonprofit Land Trust manages. In the case of this property, however, Maui Coastal Land Trust also owns it. Three years ago federal and state grants, private donors and fundraising efforts enabled the trust to purchase 277 acres, more than a mile of shoreline, from Round Table (“a colloquialism for a giant wire spool placed [at one time] by Maui Electric Company,” says Fisher) to Kalaekaho‘omano, or Waihe‘e Point. The width extends from a pristine rocky beach—where, a few yards beyond, the ocean crashes with crystal-blue waves—to the far side of the last remaining sand dune.

Waihe‘e is part of what is scientifically known as an aeolian dune system that was shaped during the glaciation period, between 50,000 and 19,000 years ago. According to Fisher, as the sea level dropped, the shore gradually wore away from waves and wind, which blew sand and bits of coral dramatically upward, over time shaping 200-foot-high ridges in a repeating pattern from Kalaekaho‘omano all the way to Ma‘alaea.

It has been proven through carbon dating of charcoal taken from a midden site that Waihe‘e was home to one of the earliest Hawaiian settlements on Maui, going back to the year 941. Hawaiians are believed to have built a fishpond here that endured to the early 1800s; they named it for the trade wind that formed the dunes: Kamakani Kili O‘opu, or “the wind that carries the scent of o‘opu.”

This loko kalo i‘a, or freshwater pond, was built by diverting water from what was Waihe‘e Stream during the reign of Pi‘ilani in the mid-1500s. Scientists haven’t proven which fish were actually farmed here, though Fisher believes, partly because of the wind’s name, it held o‘opu and moi—the kinds ali‘i (royals) would have savored. “We want to take a pollen coring, a paleoecological plug to analyze under a microscope,” says Fisher.

Documentation of oral history (Fisher likes to reference writings by the Hawaiian scholar Kamakau) states that Kapoho village thrived near the shore of Waihe‘e from 1464 to 1813. “It is very hard to determine how many people would have lived [here] at any given time—probably between 60 and 150 people.” Fisher expounds, “They had huge wetlands where you would have had taro production, access to the shore, all those aquatic resources that Hawaiians depended on.”

Reeling from vast visions of the past, I carpool with my friends and play follow-the-Fisher to the base of the dune, parking along the road. He leads us up the trail, passed an old cemetery that Waihe‘e community volunteers keep tidy; many have family buried there. (Seventy-two-year-old Diannah Goo, granddaughter of Rebecca Nu‘uhiwa—an authority in Hawaiian culture—is often seen working, since she grew up in Waihe‘e. Goo is generous with her time and knowledge of the place. “So much of what I know I owe to her,” says Fisher.)

We tread lightly out of respect and for fear of stepping on a surviving indigenous plant species, such as ‘ulei (strong and malleable, it was used by Hawaiians for making nets, its berries for dying kapa) and ‘uhaloa (good for la‘au lapa‘au, to treat a sore throat). The latter is believed to grow only in the sand dunes of Maui.

At the top of the dune, the view of nature overwhelms us. I look left to the Point, then across the ocean to great Haleakala, gently cradling the opposite side of the isthmus. My gaze lands on trees near shore, and, further inland, surveys a large patch of discolored, slightly depressed soil (where the fishpond once stood) sheltered by the dune. Looking to my right, I’m struck by Mauna Alani, soulfully staring back at me.

Of all the places I know, it is here I’d return to sit and journal, reflect and meditate. Fortunately, I can. Preservation of coastal lands for public use is one of the driving forces behind the Land Trust—this preserve is open daily for those on foot. Another force is posterity, to remember and learn from history.

“The dunes between Wailuku and Waikapu, for example, were flattened for sugarcane,” Fisher recalls. When you read accounts of the Battle of Kakanilua in 1776, [the Big Island chief and his warriors] were able to travel from Kihei to Wailuku in the troughs of these dunes. So incredible were the amount of sand dunes—and they’ve all been lost.”

What still thrives is Hawaiian mythology of the dunes. According to Fisher, the Hawaiians believed that Haumea, goddess of childbirth, built them to protect an ancient “tree of changing leaves” called Kalaukekahuli. In the story, she is given this tree in reward for a painless delivery, and plants it at Pu‘ukumu, a hill behind the site where Waihe‘e School now stands. Legend holds that while Haumea is away, a man climbs the dunes and cuts the tree down. For 20 days and nights a storm rages and the tree washes out to sea. But branches show up on shore, and from these spring various gods—sacred images are carved in the wood, and different heiau (sacred sites) are built to house them on Maui.

“So, of course, there is a blending of the mythological and historical.” Fisher contemplates, “There probably was a certain tree.”

Back in our cars, we follow Fisher’s truck east to the other side of Waihe‘e; we will enter the area viewed from above on foot. Parking near the former dairy manager’s house, we stretch our legs, and gratefully guzzle bottles of water brought by Maui Coastal Land Trust. I sneak away from the group and quickly explore a building that has fallen into ruin, now beautifully reclaimed by banyan and ferns—it was once the office of Waihe‘e Dairy, which operated from 1919 to 1970. Cows were milked in abundance and downcountry paniolo (cowboys), like Marco Molina, grazed cattle here for eventual slaughter.

We walk slowly on an old dirt road, past remnants of more buildings and house foundations. One is where former dairy manager Toshi Ansai lived with his family until WWII (when, under martial law, Japanese were no longer allowed to live near the shore). Another used to be a doctor’s house; all that’s left is the chimney. (Seeing it, I wonder who would need a fireplace at the beach?) A red-roofed residence designed by renowned Hawai‘i architect C.W. Dickey appears to our left. It’s in good condition. Here is where Maui Coastal Land Trust would like to open an education and cultural center.

At the fishpond site, we see where Fisher, with the help of staff and volunteers, weeds invasive species like Indian fleabane and kiawe daily. “Basically, all the ecological repair work is done by hand,” explains Fisher. “That means we use chainsaws, brush-cutters, sometimes my teeth . . . just kidding. It’s labor intensive.” They can’t bulldoze because the area is part of a burial treatment plan, as determined by archeologist Theresa Donham. Five cemeteries exist throughout the preserve; the trust is still in the process of assessment.

It’s exciting to see little native sprouts and saplings cropping up in the clearing.

“We had six indigenous [plant] species spontaneously return as we were removing the invasive species,” Fisher says, adding, “We are also seeing significant return of animals like the endangered Hawaiian stilt—there are only 1,200 left in the world. Same thing for the Hawaiian coot. . . . We’ve seen the Hawaiian duck and, surprisingly, even a pintail. Someone saw Makana, the monk seal. Also turtles. There is a huge array of ecological species. As soon as we did the restoration, the species returned.”

As Fisher tells me this, I ponder the concept of return. It’s exciting to hear about plants and animals returning to their natural surroundings. Native ecological restoration and the preservation of Hawaiian culture are also important, especially for the next generation to experience and understand. But how can a place truly return to its former self? Time moves forward and, these days, existence seems to be a matter of survival by adaptation and constant development.

Before the Point, I observe Kealaka‘ihonua heiau standing towards the north, its rocks undisturbed. “The past is so palpable here,” Fisher says, looking at it admiringly. “You see the structures, and feel the presence of the ancestors.”

Then it dawns on me: In the long run, they never really left.

Who Do You Trust?

Land trusts are private, nonprofit organizations that preserve open space by giving landowners an alternative to development, through the sale or donation of their land, or donation of easement. While some property owners do this to obtain a sizable tax deduction, others turn to a trust to cut their loses. When former landowner Sokan (a Japanese company) learned it wouldn’t be economically feasible to develop property at Waihe‘e because it’s believed the “sand dunes contain the densest [concentration] of Hawaiian burials in all the Islands,” the company sold it to the Maui Coastal Land Trust for just under $5 million, says Dale Bonar, the Land Trust’s executive director.

Established in 2000 “to preserve and protect coastal lands in Maui Nui for the benefit of the natural environment and of current and future generations,” the Maui Coastal Land Trust has “seven easements and close to 1,000 acres currently in conservation,” Bonar adds. “By the end of 2007, there’s a possibility we’ll have over 4,000 acres.”

Coastal lands are defined as running “from the top of the watershed on down, [with] a focus on the shoreline.”

Sign up for the hike by calling Maui Coastal Land Trust at (808) 244-5263. To learn about them online, go to www.mauicoastallandtrust.org. Inspired? Volunteer your time, or give a donation.

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