native tree snail in upper limahuli
The actual grounds that the Garden manages here on Kaua‘i cover two valleys. Our headquarters are in Lawai Valley on the south side of the island but we also take care of Limahuli Garden and Preserve which is the last valley before the road ends on Kauai’s north shore. Just off the road near the visitor’s center there are lo‘i (taro patches) and a beautiful native plant section that the public can visit. Behind, in the lower valley there are restoration projects and some areas with rare plants that we monitor (the shot of “my office” in an older post). But the real gem of the north shore garden is the Upper Preserve.
Above the waterfall in the back of lower Limahuli sits a hanging valley that’s only accessible practically by helicopter. Although the forest of Upper Limahuli was devastated by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 (as with much of Kaua‘i’s forests) the habitat is much more intact than the lower valley. In other words, the area contains a relatively high percentage of native Hawaiian plants.
blurry shot from the helicopter of the upper valley's west side
Unfortunately, even in good native habitat like Upper Limahuli, there’s constant war to be waged against aggressive, exotic weeds. Plants from across the world – like Australian tree fern, christmasberry, paperbark tree, African tulip, octopus tree, and many many more – have been introduced Hawai‘i accidentally and intentionally. A good proportion of forest throughout the archipelago is already dominated by exotic plants and in a highly mobile economy like ours, new ones arrive each day (just think of the garden section at walmart, home depot, kmart, etc). Dealing with these tenacious pests for the sake of native plants – especially in the rough terrain of Limahuli – can be more than daunting.
Well, it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy…or at least we have clear weather, and the Upper Limahuli season is on. Natalia and I are not part of the full-time Limahuli crew, but we’ve been happily roped into the trips this year to help in accessing some of the steeper terrain. The last week of April was our first trip this year – my first trip ever. We dropped a crew at base camp just above the waterfall while Natalia, Emory – part of the Limahuli staff – and I climbed back in the chopper for a quick ride to the very back of the valley. The plan was to drop us off onto the ridge that runs between the two knife-edge walls forming the boundaries of the valley and spend two days traversing the route down to base camp and mapping invasive trees.
Back in the belly of the bird…We come up onto the back of the center ridge rather quickly and begin to circle, looking for the landing site. Emory and I are in the back seats, no doors, our backpacks clutched between our legs, ready for a quick exit. Natalia is in the front seat and the only one of us with a headset to communicate with the pilot. He started off pretty grumpy this morning, but of course without headsets neither Emory nor I have any idea what they’re talking about up front.
top end of the center ridge looking N down the valley
The pilot pulls the bird into a hover above a narrow section where the center ridge sort of S-curves before connecting to the valley’s back wall. As we slowly lower down, I hang my head out the doorway – the left side – as far as my seatbelt will allow and wonder what the hell is going on. The ridgetop is about 8 feet across, with the slope in front and behind us plunging a couple hundred feet into the ravines below. Despite the small clearing just below the bird, a small copse of ohia and olapa trees stands about 8 feet tall, nearly within arms reach to my left. This is no place to touch down.
We hover for another moment, the skids perhaps 6 ft above the ridgetop, and a decision is made. Natalia snaps around suddenly, motions to Emory and points out the door. Her body language is clear: “NOW!” Emory looks to me for a split second, and I point him out too. “GO, GO, GO!” But of course we can hear nothing over the rotor’s roar. He unbuckles, steps out onto the skid, drops his pack and scrambles down for the 6 foot jump onto the ridge. Natalia looks back again. I’m next. I do the same on my side, dangling my backpack as low as I can before dropping it, then lowering my own self off the skid and jumping.
I land clumsily and get myself crouched down as low as possible and as deep as I can back into the ohia copse. The noise and the downdraft are tremendous. I’m not anywhere as far from the helicopter as I’d like to be. The skid drifts 4 or 5 feet just above my head and I try to make myself small. As Natalia’s foot sets down onto the skid, I grab for the little camera in my pocket and manage to snap off a couple shots of her exit from underneath the chopper. Classic.
liko (new leaves) of Metrosideros waialealae
And in another moment its over. The helicopter rolls off to the west and we’re left on the ridgetop in the sunshine, set down deep in the Hawaiian cloud forest and amping on the adrenaline still surging through our veins. We let the energy of the experience wash over us until breathing returns to normal.
Now the energy of the place sets in – a mix of awe, humility, and respect. The power and grandeur of the mountain demands it, like compulsory meditation, absolutely superceding the human ego. Another, longer breath. One feels small here but so very much alive.
emory with his giant backpack
Cyanea fissa, a very cool native shrub
look mom, no harness - natalia descends a waterfall