People You Meet in the Clouds
By: Jacob Hakim
One significant part of my 19th Amendment internship at Haleakalā National Park has been my simultaneous role as a Park Guide intern. Since my arrival in the park, I have been working a few shifts a week alongside Park Rangers from the Interpretation Team. Though I had anticipated doing mostly independent research for the duration of my internship, I have been thrilled at the chance to step into the shoes of an interpretive ranger and get some experience in park interpretation.
Usually, these shifts involve a 4:45 AM start time (not so bad for me since I am lucky enough to live in park housing). After a short drive under usually clear, starry skies, I meet with one or two Park Rangers at Headquarters Visitor Center. From there we retrieve our radios and keys to government vehicles, and after calling in to park dispatch (located at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park) we drive the winding road to the summit of the volcano. Usually, rangers ride together, but because of COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures in the park, we drive separately as a safety measure.
The drive to the summit is beautiful; starting at HQ at 7,000 feet, we drive up the two lane road to Haleakalā Visitor Center at 9,740 feet. The journey takes around twenty minutes, and the sky starts to glow incrementally in the east, starting as a pale blue and spreading into the full spectrum of the rainbow by the time we get to the top. There are usually several cars already in the parking lot, as the park opens for sunrise (with reservations) at 3 AM.
Once we get to HVC, we walk around the area, talk story with visitors, and make sure everyone is generally having a good time (and not straying off trail — the rails go right up to the edge of the crater). This summer, the sun has risen between 5:45 and 6 AM every day. Once the rim of the sun’s disk appears over the horizon, we begin to chant the sunrise oli (Hawaiian chant), welcoming the sun and inviting it up into the sky. The oli is repeated until the sun is fully visible above the horizon, and the final shout of “e ala e!” echoes across the crater, the House of the Sun.
E ALA E
E ala e Awaken/ Arise
Ka Lā i ka hikina/ The sun in the east
I ka moana/ From the ocean
Ka moana hononu/ The ocean deep
Piʻi ka lewa/ Climbing (to) the heaven
Ka lewa nuʻu/ The heaven highest
I ka hikina/ In the east
Aia ka Lā/ There is the sun
E ala e!/ Awaken!
(Translation found here.)
This part of the morning can be very powerful, and it has been an honor and an amazing learning experience to be able to participate in this part of Haleakalā’s Hawaiian traditional culture. Many times visitors have come up to us after the oli is finished to express appreciation. Usually, we end up talking about the oli and other aspects of the park’s significance in Hawaiian culture. It is really amazing to be able to connect visitors with the cultural history and significance of this place, especially when that is an aspect of the park that might’ve been otherwise overlooked.
Other times, it is the visitors themselves who begin the oli, and we are able to join in with them. It has been humbling to learn from the visitors, a situation where our roles in the park are reversed, and I come away from those experiences with renewed appreciation for this place.
After the oli, I drive up to the summit parking lot, which is a few minutes up the road. The parking lot is usually crowded just after sunrise, and I have the chance to talk with lots of visitors. Many times our conversations revolve around the ʻāhinahina, also known as Haleakalā Silverswords, since there is a large silversword garden in the center of the parking lot. Since the start of my internship, several of the larger silverswords have bloomed, throwing up stalks thick with purple Aster flowers. Some of these plants are five feet tall!
When I meet visitors in the parking lot or atop the stairs by the Summit Observatory, so many of them are thrilled to learn things they didn’t know about the silverswords. I also have the chance to stress the importance of staying on the designated trails, since the silverswords are endangered and very fragile. If we are up by the Observatory, I also point out the wonderful view of Big Island to the southeast. Many visitors assume that those ridges have to be somewhere on Maui, and they’re shocked at the clarity with which they can see the iconic volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
Another place I have spent much of my time on duty is the Hosmer Grove trail, an often overlooked gem nestled near the park entrance. Hosmer Grove was originally an experimental patch of eucalyptus and pine trees planted by Forestry Superintendent Ralph Hosmer in 1909. Since then, those trees have spread wildly, competing with native species for space and resources, and increasing the risk of wildfires; park staff work diligently to monitor and restrict the spread of these species beyond the confines of this historic grove.
Now there is a parking lot and campgrounds at the edge of the Grove. The campgrounds are closed now due to COVID-19, but are usually a popular first-come-first-serve camping spot. The Hosmer Grove trail itself is surprisingly short, a loop less than one mile long, with a shockingly good payoff: five minutes into the trail is a spot overlooking a gulch where visitors can spot five or six species of rare Hawaiian birds that are all but impossible to see even in the other islands. It is this place, next to the standing park binoculars, that I have had some of my most memorable encounters with visitors.
The gulch in Hosmer Grove is a spectacular example of a hidden gem in one of America’s National Parks. Of course, the sunrise at the summit of Haleakalā is mind-blowing, and looking down into the crater from the summit (or one of the two overlooks, Kalahaku and Leleiwi) is otherworldly and magical. But I was always shocked to find that most visitors skipped a visit to Hosmer Grove. I always did my best to encourage visitors to stop by on their way down the mountain, especially considering how close the parking lot is to a place where you can see some of the world’s rarest birds.
On the lucky days that I did get to spend time on the trail, I often met visitors who were at first inquisitive about the park’s birds, then frozen with awe as an ʻiʻiwi or ʻapapane landed on a branch just a few weeks away. Some visitors came with cameras or binoculars, and stayed for hours. I personally love the birds, and was especially excited to see the ʻiʻiwi, bright red as adults and a weird splotchy yellow, orange and black as juveniles, all with the iconic curved beak. These birds are thought to be extinct on Oʻahu, where I live, so seeing them bouncing from blossom to blossom in the ʻōhiʻa trees was like something out of a dream.
Sharing this wonder with visitors is more than fulfilling. It was a shared connection between people and place, something that can’t be replicated in another time or location. This, to me, is the true joy of interpretation.