Flashback Friday: The Majesty and Magic of Mauna Kea on The Big Island of Hawai’i

I suppose I should give a bit of a personal history for the rest of this story to make sense. Here it is in brief – in 2017, I moved my family to Hawai’i. We sold our antique store and little community paper on the Oregon Coast and I came here, found a job, and rented an apartment on Oahu. I lived on Oahu for almost a decade and graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a degree in Anthropology back in 2008, then I left. That and my familiarity with Hawaiian history and culture enabled me to get a job as an archaeologist with a private company here. The pay was below what it takes to survive on Oahu – luckily we had a little bit saved from the sale of our business’ in Oregon which tided us over until I found a job in my pre-university line of business – being a tour guide.  So,  I was a working archaeologist. It was pretty cool. Now…on to the Flashback…

This week I had the opportunity to come to the Big Island of Hawai’i, stay in the scientific dormitories at about 10,000 feet, and visit historic and cultural sites from this level up to the peak at 14,000 feet. I was living among some of the top astronomers and scientists in the world and I was a working archaeologist on the highest mountain in Hawai’i.

This particular job is an annual event in which a team of archaeologists and botanists visit a series of sites to note any changes, vandalism, or other noteworthy events. The biggest challenge is the altitude – any time you go above 10,000 feet, you are putting your body into an altered state – there is not as much oxygen and your body can go through dangerous changes.

Although minor symptoms such as breathlessness may occur at altitudes of 1,500 metres (5,000 ft), AMS commonly occurs above 2,400 metres (8,000 ft).It presents as a collection of nonspecific symptoms, acquired at high altitude or in low air pressure, resembling a case of “flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover”.It is hard to determine who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness. However, most people can ascend to 2,400 metres (8,000 ft) without difficulty.

Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), both of which are potentially fatal, and can only be cured by immediate descent to lower altitude or oxygen administration.

So, you can imagine what it’s like to be doing strenuous hikes in the neighborhood of 14,000 feet. My understanding is that most of my co-workers have suffered ill-effects. Yesterday, my first day hiking on the mountain, I experienced some light headedness and a bit of vertigo but for the most part was fine if out of breath more than I liked.

My co-worker moves quickly and I was frequently quite a ways behind him. There is not supposed to be any pressure to move faster than feels personally safe, but he has a cold and gets paid a salary instead of being an hourly worker like me – so we’re moving a lot faster than we should be. We’ve got a bright red jeep for the week – but he won’t let me drive it. Kind of lame.

Mauna Kea is mankind’s window to the stars. The dry climate and 90% clear skies have made this the world’s premier location for large scale observatories. The world’s largest observatory is here along with a dozen other giant telescopes for optical and infrared astronomy as well as submillimeter wavelength and radio astronomy. The most familiar portion of the summit is what people here call the 007 array – this was featured in the James Bond movie Moonraker back in the 1970s. We are staying in the barracks that house scientists from 11 countries and support staff for the mountain.

Mauna Kea is not simply a technological treasure. The Hawaiians considered this the realm of the Gods, a sort of Mt. Olympus where the goddess Poliahu dwelled. The Hawaiian name is Mauna a Wakea which means sky father – Wakea is considered the father of the Hawaiian people. This mountain was forbidden ‘kapu’ (taboo) to commoners and the Hawaiian Ali’i were the only ones allowed to make the trek to the top without special dispensation – which was reserved for priests (kahuna) and skilled stone artisans. The rock on Mauna Kea was treasured for the making of stone adzes, knives, and other stone tools.

This is a wahi pana, a sacred and legendary place. This was where Hawaiians would study the stars, make tools, and practice elaboriate religious rituals. My colleagues have recorded 96 sites between 12,000 and 13,000 feet – 76 of which are recorded as shrines. The shrines can be elaborate or as simple as an upright stone jutting from a crack in the lava where it was placed. There are modern shrines, ahu, as well – placed by modern kahuna. There are a whole mountain of laws and regulations regarding these – we keep it simple. Disturb nothing. We pack out what we pack in. We do not photograph human remains but we note their placement.

Mauna Kea is also home to several endemic species and a host of invasive species. Silversword, ‘ahinahina, is an endangered plant species endemic to Hawaii. They can grow for up to 40 years before blooming. Not threatened are mamane and pukiave shrubs which tend to b found at the lower altitudes and provide food and shelter for endangered birds like the Hawaiian palila and the Hawaiian goose or Nene. This bird in the gallery below is an Erckel’s Francolin, a sort of African pheasant which was introduced long ago and is endangered in its native home of Ethiopia but doing just fine here.

This is a magical and majestic place. I am priveliged to be able to spend a week here.

Hilo, Hawai’i – from Kurtistown to Volcano to Akaka Falls – Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – back in 2017 when I knew that I was moving back to Hawai’i and bringing my family with me – I had two plans and didn’t know which one would be better. The first was to move to Honolulu, find a job, find an apartment or house, and get ready to pay the quality of life tax. The second one was to move to Hilo, use the proceeds from the sale of my antique store in Oregon to buy a piece of land near the volcano, and then to live a sort of Hawaiian Mosquito Coast adventure…ultimately, I decided on Honolulu as being the best decision for the good of my family….but even after all the eruptions and hurricanes of the past year – there’s a part of me that wishes I had chose Kurtistown.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

It’s Father’s Day and I have to admit – this was one hell of a present to myself. Alright, actually, it is happenstance – I didn’t plan this as a Father’s Day gift – I wasn’t thinking about Father’s Day at all – but I was doing my damndest to be the best father I can.

I’m waking up and sitting in a big comfy bed with lots of feather pillows around me. I’ve brewed a cup of coffee and I’ve got a view right out my window and off the lanai of Hilo Bay as the Hawai’ian sun brings the silhouete of the Big Island to life. Happy Father’s Day!

The picture above actually shows where I’m sitting in bed. The Grand Naniloa Double Tree by Hilton in Hilo, Hawaii.These past few years I’ve been living in Reedsport, Oregon. I was a bit surprised when I was driving up to find that the bay on the back side of this hotel is called Reed’s Bay. That Reed fella got around. I’m not here on a vacation – at least that wasn’t my intention, but it did sort of work out that way.

I came here to look at a property south of here in Kurtistown. Sitting in Oregon, I wasn’t at all sure that I would be able to accomplish the 5-day mission I set out upon – land a job, secure a house or apartment on Oahu, and rediscover the lay of the land in Hawai’i. So, I had a backup plan. If, when I got to Oahu, it was just too expensive, too crowded, too much to bring my wife and little girl to – if there was no home for us on Oahu – I was going to purchase (perhaps) a remote cabin in the rainforest – a very real mega-fixer-upper on a beautiful piece of land – and I was going to move us there. The owner was willing to carry the loan, I had just enough for a down payment, and I’d figure out a way to make it work…that was the plan. So, before I left Oregon I booked three days on Oahu and a weekend trip to Hilo where I used my new Hilton Honors Amex to book two nights in the Grand Nani Loa and got a great package deal on a car.

Thankfully, Oahu welcomed me home with open arms. I got the job, I found a home and secured it, and by the time I flew to the Big Island on Friday – my work-family-mission in Hawai’i had already been accomplished. Still, there was a part of me that loved the idea of pulling a Mosquito Coast (Paul Theroux moves his family to a remote tropical jungle situation) and building a life in the jungles of Hawai’i. So, I arranged to tour it with the realtor at his earliest convenience and since he wasn’t available until Sunday morning – I got directions from the owner and drove out some serious country roads as soon as I got off the plane.

I loved the property. Pineapples, coconuts, bananas, haliconias, big ohia trees, wide grassy fields. It was actually the type of property I dream about living on – except for the mosquitos. And except for the house. The house was a disaster. It was livable – but to be honest, I’ve lived in huts, tents, and cars that were less grody. It had some very real structural issues as well. Plus, it was so far out and off the grid that there was no way I could move my wife and daughter there. Not just because of my responsibility, but because once she saw it – my wife would have revolted. The only way to move her there would have been in manacles and frankly, even if that was my style, I’m pretty sure it still wouldn’t have worked.

So, I cancelled the showing, let the owner know that it wasn’t going to happen…and set about rediscovering Hilo and a bit of the surrounding areas…from the posh comfort of my posh hotel room – when I checked in – the universe rewarded me for thinking about my wife and child by getting me an upgraded room…which, by the way, is why it always pays to be kind and understanding when your room isn’t ready and you are ready to check in…

Kamehameha the Great was the first king of the United Kingdom of the Hawaiian Islands. His actual name was Kalani Pai’ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali’ikui Kamehameha o ‘Iolani i Kaiwikapu kau’i Ka Liholiho K’nui’kea – which history has shortened to Kamehameha the Great. There are multiple large impressive statues of King Kamehameha which each have interesting histories. The original was created by a sculptor in Italy which explains why King Kamehameha is standing like a Roman general and has vaguely Italian features…it was commissioned by King David Kalakaua to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i – an event which probably would not have been celebrated had Kalakaua known he would be the last king of the islands and he would be overthrown by the missionaries who followed  – but he had no way of knowing that and so he ordered the statue and had it shipped around South America – where it sank. But wily King Kalakaua had insured it and so another was cast – but by the time it arrived, the first had been recovered and sent ahead. So there were two – one went up at Iolani Palace and the other went up near the birthplace of Kamehameha. But the photo below is neither of those.


This statue was commissioned by a resort on Kauai that seemed unaware that King Kamuali’i of Kauai was never conquered by Kamehameha – in fact, Kamehameha never set foot on Kauai. It was a politcal unification, not a military one – so the people of Kauai have strong feelings about a statue of Kamehameha being erected on their island – and made a big stink about it – which resulted in this beautiful statue being sent to Hilo – a place where Kamehameha was loved and revered. There is also a statue of Kamehameha in Washington DC which was in the hall of heroes next to Father Damien (Hawaii’s only saint) – each state has two heroes there…and Kamehameha was in the shadows until Barack Obama became President of the United States – at that point – it was emancipated and moved to Emancipation Hall. A much better spot.

I love Hilo. The whole Big Island of Hawai’i is a bit like the Oregon Coast in that the economy is rural and agricultural. And it is fairly wet on this side…and the economy seems a bit depressed when compared to Oahu or Maui. Just like Oregon is depressed when compared to California or Washington. In fact, in the past, when I’ve thought about the islands and their very distinct personalities – I’ve sometimes used a West Coast shorthand to describe them. Oahu is the like the Bay Area, Maui is like Los Angeles, Kauai is like Portland, and the Big Island is like Oregon although Kailua-Kona seems to have become more like Seattle. Lanai is like agricultural California and Ni’ihau is (as far as I know because I haven’t been there – more like actual Hawai’i. As for Molokai – it’s also more Hawai’ian than Haole – but it’s been ten years since I’ve been there – so I can’t say for sure. Anyway, that’s a very imperfect West Coast shorthand. Each island has a flavor and each district has a flavor and each town has a flavor.

The farmer’s market in Hilo is fantastic. The smells and sounds brought me back to a place I didn’t know I had forgotten. I was fortunate to be here on a Saturday when the local canoe clubs were having a big regatta – and one of the things I love about Big Island is that when families go to the beach, they really go…they bring huge tents and electricity and even one guy with a lazy boy recliner. I wanted to take a picture but he was just so comfortable and I didn’t want to intrude on that.

I drove down to Volcano and checked out the show Madam Pele is putting on. Fantastic. At night the spectable is extraordinary – but I didn’t really want to hang out. I’ve walked the lava fields before, poked pennies into the lava, and melted my shoes as well as seeing the nighttime wonders. This time, I just wanted to be there and then to move on.

It’s nice that I’ve been here before – I feel no pressure to do anything. I strolled through the Queen Lilioukalani Gardens and walked out to Coconut Island. I wandered through downtown and had a fantastic plate of Hawai’ian food at Hawai’ian Style Cafe – it’s been a while since I had laulau, poi,lomi-lomi salmon, long rice soup, or poke that was that good. I walked through Hilo leaving my rental car at the hotel and going miles and miles and miles. I browsed the bookstores and antique shops, bought a delicious cardamom muffin, and just soaked it in. Then I sat on the lanai at my hotel, looked at the water, and just breathed.

This morning, on Father’s Day, I counted my blessings. Being my daughter’s daddy is the best thing that this world has ever given me. I am so blessed. Then, I got a text from her thanking me for this privilege!

The Big Island is beautiful. There is no question about the stunning beauty, the abundance of beautiful birds and the wonders of nature. Akaka Falls and the Hamakua Coast, the majestic volcano mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and the wonderous sense of space. Being on the Big Island again was like meeting a girl you were crazy about but never really got to know very well a decade after you had both moved on with life. The Big Island is pregnant with possibilities. And, there are also some very real dangers.

The first that comes to mind is Rapid Ohia Death – this is a relatively new phenomenon where a form of Ceratocystis fimbriata – a root fungus is killing the large Ohia trees all over the island.

The Ohia tree (aka Ohia Lehua or sometimes just as Lehua thought that is usually the word used for the flower) is endemic to Hawai’i and is often one of the first plants to grow on lava – it is a tree closely associated with the volcano goddess Pele. I should point out that endemic means that a species developed here and is not found in nature anywhere else on the planet. There are five species of ohia that are endemic to Hawai’i. The Hawaiian islands are home to a great variety of endemic species because they are the most remote landmass on the planet and on the islands you can find nearly every climactic zone where life thrives from desert to tropical to temperate, etc. Unfortunately, the isolation in which speciation occurred made the unique species of these islands susceptable to disease and pressure from invasive species. A great many of the unique species of Hawai’i have gone extinct and a great many more are endangered. Many of the endangered species rely on the habitat created by the Ohia forests…so, in 2015 when huge swaths of Ohia began dying rapidly – there was panic. The fungus killing them has been identified, but the source of the fungus is unknown and a solution to the growing problem has not yet been discovered.

And of course, there are other Big Island dangers – volcanos, malaria, West Nile Virus, and other tropical mosquito borne pathogens.

The Big Island is bigger than all the other islands combined. I only saw a tiny portion of it on this trip, but it was enough to know that this place is precious. On my last morning on the Big Island (this trip) I drove North from Hilo to Hakalau Bay, I didn’t have time to hike or really dive in – I was just soaking in an impression. I stopped briefly at Akaka Falls and Kolekole State Park – I stopped to help a stranded motorist with a broken down car, but she was busy doing Facetime with her mom and said a tow-truck was on the way so I didn’t stick around. I just drove and enjoyed the driving.

I bought a plate lunch (to go) and then drove to the airport and returned my rental car. I did better on timing this go round – I was only one hour early for my flight but from Big Island to Oahu, I would have been fine with a half hour or maybe even 15 minutes. No wait, no line, no problem.