Treading Lightly in Kauai’s Wet Forests
One of the great pleasures of visiting Kauai is hiking through a native Hawaiian forest. Owing to its extreme isolation from continental influences, the Hawaiian Islands have become home to more than a thousand plant species over the past million years, which evolved from fewer than 300 founding species. Carried by wind, water and wings, these first plants found their way to the islands as seeds and spores before the arrival of the first human settlers less than 2,000 years ago.
Hawaii’s first native plants originated from Asia, Australia, the Americas and other Pacific Islands. They evolved in isolation over millennia, free of competition from other more aggressive plants, destructive animals and human activities like agriculture, forestry or collecting. When the first humans arrived from the Marquesas Islands and later Tahiti and Samoa, they found islands that rose to great volcanic peaks like Maua Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii Island, but also lower level mountains like Kauai’s Kawaikini and Waialeale.
These smaller mountains supported forests of large trees and, in Kauai’s case, a diverse swamp network where plants found nowhere else on earth, not even on the other Hawaiian islands, created a rich habitat for birds and insects that co-evolved with plants equally unique and limited to Kauai.
Today, over a thousand years after first being settled and 234 years after the arrival of Captain Cook and the deluge of humanity (and animals and aggressive non-native plants) that followed, these high elevation wet forests are the last refuge for Hawaiian flora and fauna that represent Hawaii’s irreplaceable natural legacy.
Walking amongst these plants, admiring the stately ohia lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) trees that dominate Kauai’s wet forests and the vibrant green mosaic of ferns, mosses and liverworts found growing in open swaths and shady recesses, it’s valuable to pause and consider the remarkable beauty and fragility of these important Hawaiian ecosystems.
Kauai’s wet forests found in Kokee State Park and near the Alakai Swamp are home to endemic plants like the yellow-bloomed Scaevola glabra, filmy ferns, sedges, lichens and a number of melicopes (in the Citrus family) and lobelias (Bellflower family). These forests contain beautiful trees like olapa (Cheirodendron trigynum), the tiny red berry-filled pukiawe bush (Leptecophylla tameiameiae) and Hawaii’s three native species of orchid so rare, it’s unlikely you will see them.
Many of these plants are endangered and subject to damage from invasive non-native plants like Himalayan gingers, blackberry bushes and Australian tree fern, just to name a few. Feral goats, deer, wild pigs and rats cause more damage, and humans can irrevocably impact Hawaii’s forests with the litter we drop, the plants we pick and the seeds we spread—no matter how unintentional.
But it is important to preserve Kauai’s high elevation forests and the Alakai Swamp, as these locations serve as a giant “sponge” for the entire island. Rain and cloud moisture are captured by plants, absorbed by the earth and filtered to the lower elevations, ultimately feeding and nourishing the entire island.
In order to gain a better appreciation of Kauai’s wet forests and to help preserve and enjoy them safely, Kauai Traveler spoke with botanists and field collectors from the National Tropical Botanical Garden and Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention program to seek what advice they had.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while in Kauai’s forests:
Don’t be a conveyor of seeds and weeds. It’s easy for tiny seeds to stick to your shoes, clothing or backpack. Unwitting hikers have transferred weeds to places previously free of plants, which can be invasive or harmful to a new ecosystem. Avoid this with a visual inspection of your gear before each hike and clean your shoes before you reach the trailhead.
Stay on well-maintained, well-marked trails. Hawaii’s forests are both rugged and fragile. Leaving the main trail increases the likelihood that you will inadvertently trample on or through rare or endangered plants, which, especially on Kauai, can mean plants found nowhere else on earth.
Don’t get lost. It’s not uncommon for a seemingly “easy” walk to turn into a treacherous hike, maybe leading you to a patch of forest that is unknown, or steering you near or over an unseen cliff. Trails in Hawaii’s wet forests often follow steep ridges and animal (usually wild pig) trails can be easily mistaken for proper hiking courses that lead to dangerous and difficult terrain. The wet forests in particular can start to all look alike very quickly once away from a well-marked path. People do occasionally go missing—don’t be one of them. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Pack it in; pack it out. Everything you bring in—not just the obvious man-made trash—should be removed from the forests. Things that may seem innocuous like fruit peels, peanut shells or other small pieces of food should never be left behind. True, your apple core won't launch an invasive grove of Granny Smith apples on Kauai, but food waste tossed into the scrub can attract rodents, pigs or other animals that destroy delicate and rare native plant life. Discarded orange peels can carry disease and fungi can potentially harm native Hawaiian members of Rutaceae (Citrus family) of which there are many in Hawaii’s native forests.
Be prepared. As you hike in Kauai’s forests, you may come across others just “cruising” along rugged mountain trails with nothing but beach sandals and a small bottle of water. On Kauai, it pays to have proper footwear, a sufficient pack and enough supplies, necessities and equipment. Bring suitable clothing that includes waterproof gear that will keep you warm and dry should the wind blow in clouds, rain and unexpected fog. Don’t be fooled by warm sea level temperatures—locations like Kokee can easily be 20 degrees cooler and is known to dip into the low 40s and below. Sunscreen, water and snacks are also essential—know what you’re getting into and prepare accordingly.
Research your adventure. A hike marked “easy” in one guidebook may not be the kind of easy you are used to. Take advantage of reliable print and web resources that publish accurate, up-to-date information about hiking trails and conditions. The Kokee Natural History Museum in Kokee State Park is an excellent source of information and is a good place to speak with others about the latest trail conditions.
Let plants grow where they are. Native Hawaiian plants cannot be picked without a permit and there are many reasons not to disturb or remove them. As a general fact, many of Hawaii’s native plants don’t bear tasty or edible fruits and some plants may or may not have poisons.
Follow the well-known maxim: Leave only footprints and take only memories.