In case anyone was wondering, it actually does get cold in Hawai’i; you just have to go up a few thousand feet in elevation. I, along with the two other Laysan Island volunteers, have ended up on the side of Mauna Kea, working on the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, theoretically through March, but that is not entirely decided yet. Actually, nothing is really decided yet, but we’ll get there.
This past week started off in Honolulu, mostly just hanging out, thankfully, because there was not really any work, planned for us to do. The interesting event, though, was that CAST members (Crazy Ant Strike Team) for Johnston Island were arriving at the bunkhouse on Tuesday evening. To make room for them, four of us had to be housed differently. Luckily, FWS still had to take care of us, so we got put up in a swanky hotel downtown (the Ala Moana Hotel, in fact). It is located against the Ala Moana Mall, has a gym and a pool, etc… It was kind of neat to experience Honolulu as tourist for a day and a half. Tuesday morning, we went down to the FWS office to learn more about the Hakalau opportunity that was being place in front of us – reviewing potential tasks that we would be working on, what their thoughts on our hours might be, what housing was like, and other such important pieces of information. It all sounded quite positive, and they had room for all three of us, so we agreed to take advantage of it. We would be shipped out on Thursday morning.
We moved to the hotel that afternoon, hung out by the pool, and explored the mall in the evening. If you didn’t guess, being a tourist in downtown Honolulu is way less cool than going out to Laysan. On Wednesday morning, one of the FWS supervisors took us to Ross’s and WalMart to try to find a few more warm things for us to wear at Hakalau because we only really had clothes for living on a sunny island at sea level. We got to spend the rest of the day packing (re-packing), lounging by the pool, and then going to a bar to hang out with all of the other island peoples we had gotten to know over the past couple months before leaving early the next morning. Leaving the bar, there were many good-bye/see-you-soons and hugs. We’ll miss them.
We were up at 0400h the next morning to catch our flight to Hilo at 0615h. Checked out of the hotel, got a cab, breezed through check-in and security (thankfully Hawaiian Airlines does not charge for the first two checked bags), and were on the Big Island by 0700h. There, the Refuge Manager for Hakalau and Kona forests picked us up to help start our next adventure. He took us on a brief tour of “downtown” Hilo (trust me, brief is all that is required) and to Ken’s for breakfast (loco mocos – rice, meat, fried egg, and brown gravy – are delicious and filling). First impressions of Hilo area are almost entirely opposite to Laysan: clouds, moisture, and lots of greenery. With bellies full, we were whisked off to the FWS office to meet the team there and eventually work our way up the mountain.
The office crew is, of course, very nice and they are excited to try out the seasonal volunteer position. That excitement, though, is lined with minor chaos figuring out what a seasonal volunteer will do, where they will live, how and how often they will go up and down the mountain, along with a plethora of other questions which we can only hope will be answered in the next week or so. After meeting everyone, the Biologist on staff (our new supervisor) took us to get bedding and foods for us to bring up the mountain with us. Our new purchases, along with our belongings and our bodies, were packed into a pick-up truck and up Mauna Kea we went.
The first leg of the journey, about 30 miles and 30 minutes, took us into the clouds we had seen above us all morning and was on what everyone would consider a road. The second leg, though, only those who have worked in some sort of remote environment would consider a “road”. Those last 6 miles took about an hour over rocks and pits. Along the way, the Biologist gave us names, facts, and stories about the plants, animals, and landscapes we could see (which were certainly limited). We arrived at the Hakalau camp/cabin area midafternoon. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon we met most of the permanent pest control staff (on the mountain Monday through Thursday), the current intern/volunteer they had recently acquired after he worked with them through AmeriCorps (on the mountain Monday through Friday usually), Nene, and the buildings of the camp. For now, we would be staying in the Volunteer cabin, where weekend volunteers stay. Almost every weekend groups of volunteers come up the mountain to work in the Horticulturalist (on mountain Friday through Monday) to work on the reforestation of the old pastureland in the upper refuge. Additionally, we met the nearly continuous mists that would aid our coldness during our upcoming stay on Hakalau. Our sleeping bags are thankfully warm enough (we try not to use the propane heaters in the cabins as to save propane for cooking and hot water).
On Friday a group of volunteers arrived mid-morning. The group consisted of ten people, of varying ages, from throughout Hawaii, half of whom had been to Hakalau before, came under the banner of the Conservation Council for Hawai’i. The Horticulturalist gave all of us a tour of the greenhouses, then had us pick our own trees to plant near camp. I picked an ‘Akala (a relative of the raspberry which does produce large tart berries). After planting we spent a couple hours shucking Koa (another tree) seed pods for future plantings. The volunteer group was nice enough to invite us to join them for dinner. We actually got to see the sun briefly in the middle of the day which was relieving and very exciting. We spent Saturday with the group again, mostly weeding Banana Poka and Blackberry plants off of endangered native trees, Oha ‘Wai and Haha. On Sunday, the volunteer group gets their reward for helping out on the refuge: a bird walk in the old forest and special t-shirt, only available to volunteers. The walk was fantastic, seeing many old Koa and Ohia trees and the associated forest birds: I’iwi, Apapane, Akepa, Amikihi, Hawaiian Creeper and others. Driving around the refuge we have also seen a variety of the larger organisms, all of which are invasive (and many of which look tasty). These include cows, wild pigs, wild turkeys, Ring-necked Pheasants, California Quail, and Kalij (Pheasant like). CCH was an excellent first crew to work with because they were a great crew! They all got along, worked happily, and made good food. Apparently, this not always the case, but at least we will know that good crews do come along and won’t be disheartened by the less pleasant ones. (If you were thinking you would like to volunteer at Hakalau, you should plan head, about two years. The wait list is that long.)
I am looking forward to the next several months here, especially having gotten glimpses and good looks at the forest birds that we will get opportunities to work with. I am also eagerly awaiting a package of more warm clothes from home.