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Volunteering on Mauna Kea

As a guide at Hawaii Forest and Trail, I meet people from around the world every single day. The visitors flock to our shores to experience adventure. Part of my job is to highlight the more spectacular and unique aspects of the island of Hawaii. This is an easy task with the island’s abundance of climate zones, active volcanoes, ancient temples, and hiking trails lined with endemic plants.


Being born and raised here on this beauty, it’s dangerously easy to become complacent and forget to appreciate the beauty of our island. When Mauna Kea, the world’s largest volcano, glows orange with an evening sunset, your heart practically skips a beat. But when you’re seeing Mauna Kea glow for the thousandth time, it’s easy to turn a blind eye. I imagine it might be what a veteran security guard at the louvre might feel after clocking in and walking under the world’s most magnificent art pieces day in and day out for 28 years.


The beauty becomes a bit more dull over time. The fire dies down.


The splendor of this island should stay sharp.I was feeling the dull ache of daily life on the Island of Hawaii last month. I was overlooking the grandeur of the subtle beauty, until I volunteered with the Mauna Kea Reforestation Project. A few days and nights spent camping on the slopes of Mauna Kea, planting mamane trees in attempt to reforest the once thriving habitat for the endangered palia bird did wonders for my soul.  It was like throwing kindling, even gasoline, on the dwindling fire that is my love for the Island of Hawaii.


The first day my co-worker and I arrived we set up camp with four other volunteers and the leaders from MKRFP, Ku’ulei, Kama, and Pohaku. They took us up to our planting site and taught us the efficient way to outplant. One person digs a hole with a special implement, one person plants the tender mamane after carefully coaxing it out of it’s dibble tube, finally one person follow behind gives a final gulp of water to the tree.
After the planting we drove above 10,000 feet, above the  tree level, and took a look at the extremely rare ahinahina (silversword). We weren’t even allowed to touch them, as tempting as the soft looking leaves were.
PT-Ahinahina ahinahina

We called it a night after shared dinner and tried not to freeze in our sleeping bags.

Up with the sun the next day, and after breakfast we planted the bulk of the mamane trees until lunch. We were then met by Mark the Iliahi hero, who brought Iliahi (sandalwood) for us to plant. This was the most difficult task because besides being expensive, the trees are extremely rare. We had to find just the right type of soil underneath a mamane tree to plant the baby iliahi. According to Mark the roots of the tree intertwined with the mamane in a semi-parasitic relationship, borrowing some nutrients from the host tree, but not harming it. After planting these trees we found some mature iliahi and harvested about 25 pounds of seeds from them for future planting.
PTplantiliahi planting iliahi

That night the team was treated to a spectacular sunset in the West and simultaneous full moon rise in the East. The Hawaiians had a different name for each moon, each night in the sky. Luckily my co-worker Bridget and Ku’ulei were practicing a catchy way to remember each moon’s Hawaiian name. The girls kept practicing a hand clapping, singing, chanting, kids game of sorts. I was told that our moon that n   ight was the Mohalu moon.


The next morning we planted the rest of the mamane trees before breaking down camp, searching for some paliala on a fresh and public palila trail, and heading home. All told, we planted roughly 420 mamane and 160 iliahi.


Now when our beautiful Mauna Kea lights up in the sunset, I find a bit more happiness, knowing that I understand her slopes more thoroughly. I’ve dirtied my boots in the soil. I’ve planted trees for the palila, for our Big Island community, and for our future generations. I can’t wait until the next outplanting. Please join. Check out for information on how you can help.



by Peter Thoene

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