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Vol. 11, No. 5
October/November 2008

  >>   My Own Private Ironman
  >>   The Moon and the Turtle

Around the Great Water 
Story By: Kamal Kapadia
Photos By: Elyse Butler

Katie Doyle fires up the Marsh Master and eases us off dry land and into Kawainui marsh. Behind us the Ko‘olau mountains offer a spectacular backdrop to the placid bird ponds, and ahead of us a jungle of tall aquatic grass and bulrushes stretches for more than a mile. Doyle is a state wildlife biologist, and she’s giving me a tour of the marsh. Her cheerful, easy manner belies the unbending resolve needed to operate this roaring amphibious contraption, which weighs as much as an elephant and moves over the wetlands like a giant riding mower. “I’ve never been in a tank, but it probably feels like this!” she shouts over the din of the machine, whose tanklike treads work as paddles in the water. Unlike a tank, the Marsh Master can be stopped by a simple flowering plant: the water hyacinth. The treads can’t get traction on the invasive species’ slippery leaves. Doyle spots a menacing patch of water hyacinth in our path. “I hope we don’t get stuck!” she shouts.

Kawainui marsh is on the Windward side of O‘ahu in what was once the caldera of the Ko‘olau shield volcano. Spanning 830 acres, it is the largest freshwater wetland in Hawai‘i, as well as a state wildlife sanctuary and a flood control basin for Kailua. For more than three thousand years it was a bay, open to the ocean. When sea levels fell, a sand barrier emerged, separating Kawainui from the sea. Stream water from the surrounding mountains poured in, turning it into a freshwater reservoir. Polynesians settled around the edges of Kawainui around ACE 1000, creating a four-hundred-acre open-water fishpond that sustained people for the next eight centuries. In Hawaiian, Kawainui means “the great water,” and it’s featured in many of the ancient Hawaiian mele (chants) about Kailua. But today you can’t really see the water for the grass. Kawainui is a wetland in need of help.

Doyle, who works for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, gives the water hyacinths a wide berth. She’s been stuck in them before, and she does not relish wading into the mucky water to free her machine from their grip. As we rumble deeper into the marsh, she points to other plants, calling out their names: Hawaiian primrose, elephant grass, papyrus, castor bean, arrow-root and the occasional African tulip tree. These species all have one thing in common: They are invasive, introduced intentionally or otherwise by people. By and large their numbers are small, kept in check by the mother of all invasive plants in Kawainui: California grass. Growing six feet tall on the surface and forming tangled mats that can reach twice that far underwater, California grass is the stuff that keeps conservationists up at night. It’s too dense for native birds to build nests or forage in, it blocks water flow and it easily out competes slower-growing native plants. It is choking the marsh.

Enter the Marsh Masters, destroyers of California grass. Two are stationed at the marsh. The one Doyle drives is outfitted with a backhoe, useful for digging out the roots of invasive species. The other, parked in the DLNR’s Kawainui base yard, is armed with rotary blades that can cut a six-foot-wide swath through the tenacious grass. Both machines are used to hold back the tide of invasives that would otherwise swallow the bird ponds, which provide important habitat for waterfowl. But as effective as the Marsh Masters are, they are not the most essential engines of restoration at Kawainui. Those are the volunteers.

Much of the restoration work at Kawainui is done by Native Hawaiian and other community groups. Many people have given their time, but few, if any, have given as much of it as Charles Pe‘ape‘a Makawalu Burrows. A dapper, retired science teacher, Doc Burrows, as he is affectionately called, has worked in and for Kawainui since the 1960s, when he started bringing his students from Kamehameha Schools there on field trips. In 1996 Burrows co-founded ‘Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi, a community group dedicated to the practice and promotion of a modern Hawaiian conservation ethic at Kawainui. The marsh is a laboratory, Burrows says, not only of science, but also of history, culture and politics. “I firmly believe that at Kawainui we can impart the knowledge and traditional practices of how the people were—and are—able to manage their cultural and natural resources sustainably, then and now,” he says.

I meet Burrows at Na Pohaku o Hauwahine, a restored, twelve-acre plot along the western edge of the marsh. With a light step he leads me through a pleasant woodland. In Hawaiian legend, Na Pohaku o Hauwahine was the home of the mo‘o akua, a guardian spirit that ensured there would be enough fish to eat if the marsh and its fishponds were properly maintained. The mo‘o could take the form of a giant lizard or a beautiful woman, Hauwahine.

Before ‘Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi got involved, this place was a degraded landscape, used as an illegal dump and over-grown with invasives like Christmas berry, Java plum and the ever-present California grass. Over the years Burrows and a multitude of other volunteers transformed the area into a thriving lowland forest of mainly native species.

Today, through an agreement with the DLNR’s Division of State Parks, ‘Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi is the curator of the site. A well-maintained trail winds through a landscape of loulu palms, wiliwili trees and some eighty other native species. A smaller trail leads to a set of large boulders that forms a perch with a panoramic view of the marsh. Alongside the boulders, an interpretive sign—also the work of volunteers—explains the history and ecology of the marsh.

It takes a tremendous effort to hold invasive plants at bay, to keep the young forest healthy and to maintain the trails. Thousands of school kids, college students and others who have come to Na Pohaku o Hauwahine on excursions have pitched in to help weed, mulch, plant and so forth. It’s a never-ending job. As Burrows shows me around, he spies an area filled with California grass. “Once I had this all cleared,” he says. “But the alien plants have come back.” I can tell he’s making a mental note to deal with it.

Doyle reduces the Marsh Master’s speed as we approach a broad patch of open water, and I notice we have attracted some followers. About twenty cattle egrets are keeping us company. The birds have learned that the cut grass and uprooted plants the machines leave behind provide a veritable buffet of insects, slugs and other treats. The shy ‘alae ‘ula, on the other hand, has not learned this trick. We see no sign of these endangered native birds, also known as Hawaiian moorhens. But one of Doyle’s colleagues pointed them out to me a few days earlier while showing me around the bird ponds. Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2015 and now managed by the state, these eleven interconnected ponds are frequented by ‘alae ‘ula and other endangered native birds. Through binoculars I focused on two black, chicken-size birds swimming serenely across a pond. Their distinctive red beak shields, which reach the tops of their heads, announced their identity. In Hawaiian, ‘alae ‘ula means “burnt forehead.” In one Hawaiian legend the bird was the keeper of fire until the demigod Maui stole its secret of fire-making.

I was fortunate to see the pair. Once ubiquitous across the Hawaiian Islands, ‘alae ‘ula are now found only on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, and even there they are rarely seen. They tend to hide and are difficult to count; the best estimate puts their number at less than a thousand. The ponds provide a home for the ‘alae ‘ula and other endangered waterbirds, like the ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt), the koloa (Hawaiian duck) and the ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coot). But the birds need more than open water to survive. The ponds are fenced, and traps are set all around for mongooses, rats and feral cats, but other birds, like the cattle egrets, will feed on the native birds’ eggs and chicks. Doyle, her colleagues and Kawainui’s indispensable volunteers are on constant watch for predators. And, in addition to monitoring water quality, watching for disease, researching habitat and conducting bird counts, there’s always the mowing to do; the California grass will rapidly fill the ponds unless kept at bay.

Doyle edges the Marsh Master alongside some open water and cuts the engine. We are deeper into the marsh now. We scan for birds. An ‘iwa (great frigate bird) glides into view. It’s a seabird, looking for something in the wetland to eat, no doubt. Doyle points to a grove of trees across the way. “That’s where Ulupo heiau is,” she says. We cannot see the ancient rock temple from our vantage, but I can imagine it clearly, having visited it a few days earlier with Paul Brennan, an anthropologist and historian who specializes in Kailua history. Brennan is president of the Kailua Historical Society and lead author of the book Kailua.

Ulupo is imposing, over thirty feet tall in places and remarkably peaceful, given its proximity to busy Kailua Road just sixty yards away. It is one of three heiau, among other ancient cultural sites, that dot the periphery of Kawainui. Ulupo’s massive size and the tremendous volume of rock that had to be carried from afar to build it reflect its importance. At its base a spring burbles, feeding a stream. Following the path of the stream, Brennan led me into a fairy tale garden. “You can’t take a step without noticing there’s something here that is more than just natural,” he said. “It is a culture, mostly Hawaiian, which has left its traces of vocational activities and residential living together—and this footprint is just everywhere.” Tall, with kind eyes and a beard like Abraham Lincoln’s, Brennan patiently fills me in on the last thousand years of history.

Polynesian voyagers settled Kawainui around the tenth century and built a flourishing settlement of considerable political importance; famous, powerful chiefs such as Kuali‘i and Kakuhihewa based their rule near the marsh. Up until the mid-1800s, Hawaiians maintained Kawainui as an immense, open-water fishpond hopping with fish like ‘ama‘ama (mullet) and ‘o‘opu wai (freshwater goby). They practiced both wetland and dryland farming along its shores, growing kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potato) and other crops. Many Hawaiian mo‘olelo tell of the abundance of the marsh, their claims bolstered by archaeological evidence such as cobblestone pathways, rock walls, upland terraces and irrigation ditches.

“We believe that when Hawaiians came in, they were able to understand Kawainui sufficiently to develop a very efficient methodology for preserving the water, the flowing of the water, and the use of the water,” Brennan says. “They had the management down to a science.”

As late as 1848 the vicinity of the marsh was densely settled and cultivated. But then the Hawaiian population declined steeply, decimated mainly by introduced disease. Immigrants from Asia, the Mainland and elsewhere leased large sections of Kawainui to grow rice and to graze cattle. The pernicious California grass got its start at the marsh after it was introduced as feed for livestock. The waters of Maunawili stream that feed Kawainui were diverted to Waimanalo to grow sugar. Sediment flow into the marsh increased due to changes in land and water use upstream and increased development in Kailua. Without agriculture, neglect ensued.

By World War II the former fishpond was choked with sediment and California grass, and Kawainui had become the floating meadow we see today. In the 1970s urban development threatened to obliterate large sections of the marsh, but community groups successfully resisted plans to build a shopping mall and housing subdivisions on Kawainui, eventually winning it state protection. 

The garden at Ulupo heiau today is another example of successful community-led restoration. The Kailua Civic Club and ‘Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi are co-curators here. Kalo and rice flourish in irrigated terraces fed by streams; plants, trees and freshly mowed grass form a soothing tableau. The marsh is just beyond, peeking through a curtain of hala (pandanus) trees. Volunteers regularly gather to work in the lo‘i, as the irrigated terraces are known, mow the grass, tend the ‘ulu (breadfruit), practice hula and pray. In doing so, they are engaging in an act of communal malama (care) of the ‘aina (land) that goes back hundreds of years.

Today the future of both Kawainui marsh and an adjacent, smaller wetland called Hamakua marsh hang in the balance. Opposing groups are battling to revise the state’s 2014 draft master plan for management of the two marshes. The DLNR and several Hawaiian community organizations, including Kailua Civic Club and ‘Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi, contributed significantly to the plan, and they are keen to finalize and adopt it. But other groups, including the Kailua Neighborhood Board, object to provisions that would increase public access through the construction of boardwalks, educational centers and parking lots. The two sides, however, agree on the need for ecological restoration and cultural conservation, even if they define these goals differently.

From the Marsh Master we can clearly see the fifteen-foot-tall earthen levee and flood wall that separates Kailua from Kawainui, and rows of roofs just beyond. People continue to inhabit the edge of the marsh and to shape it, as they have for a thousand years. As Doyle brings the Marsh Master to life and slowly turns it around, she tells me she once found an ‘alae ke‘oke‘o’s nest made of plastic straws and a Frito bag. Such discoveries speak to the ever-present impact that people have on wildlife and dwindling habitat. But when I take a last look out over Kawainui, I remember something Burrows told me and feel hopeful for this once great water. “For me this is like a wahi pana, a sacred site,” Burrows said. “Once we have a sacred place, we have not only respect but also the desire to take care of that place.” Slowly but surely, Kawainui is getting the respect and care it needs.