Elevation: 4,025 feet
Even on an island that does boast night life, the summit is still a refuge, a step back in time. One moment I am in Honolulu, a metropolis of a million people, and the next I am driving up the side of Mount Kaala, on the road that climbs all the way to the roof of Oahu. Kaala is a flat-topped mountain, and its summit is home to two things that couldn’t be more at odds: a bog much like the Pepeopae, filled with native plants and traversed by a boardwalk; and a military installation, which is officially under the command of the FAA or possibly the Air Force, but home to “a lot of other three-letter agencies, the ‘we-could-tell-you-but-we’d-have-to-kill-you’ kind,” says Betsy Gagné. Gagné, who is accompanying me up the mountain, is a biologist and the executive secretary of the state’s Natural Area Reserves System commission; NARS oversees nineteen sanctuaries on five islands, encompassing 109,000 acres.
While the top-secret post at the top may be more focused on defense than ecosystems, it does provide a bulwark for Kaala’s bog, keeping out the vacationing throngs below. “Having limited access—that’s been the saving grace,” says Gagné, who likes to quote from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental fable: “I speak for the trees.” She has led me out Farrington Highway, past Waialua High School, then up an unmarked road and through three padlocked gates, all with warnings: No trespassing. No hiking. No bicycling. No skateboarding. No rollerblading. No hunting. And for good measure: Beware of dog. Gagné and I arrive at the summit to thick cloud cover—visibility is only about twenty feet, and we can’t even see the military instillation in the clouds, though we know we’re right next to it. We step off the road, and Gagné leads me into the bog.
We walk along the boardwalk that runs its length. This one, too, squishes and bows under my weight, and when my foot slips off the planks at one point, I sink into the bog up to my knee. On Kaala the boardwalk leads first into a tunnel of dripping ohia lehua trees, alive with the chatter of nectar-feeding apapane, then opens up to reveal an intricate forest of native plants. Within minutes the drizzle that greeted us turns into an epic downpour. My glasses are steamed and smudged, but we press on on the boardwalk, walking all the way to its end and the bog’s edge. The rain is whipping sideways, the fog billowing across the mire, but I have no trouble seeing that Gagné, a widow and cancer survivor, could not be more delighted. “Welcome,” she says, “to my home.”