Building the Ala Loa on Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe

Last month I had a trip of a lifetime, having the opportunity to experience Kaho’olawe for a service project through Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana (PKO).  For those of you who have never heard of Kaho’olawe, it is the smallest of the 8 main Hawaiian Islands, located about 7 miles offshore of Maui, and unexploded ordinances still present a risk.  Access to the island is restricted, due to its long history of being a training ground and bombing range during World War II.   Military used the island to test torpedoes, bombs, projectiles, and other explosives.  This destruction continued on until 1976, when the members of the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana filed suit in Federal District Court resulting with a mandatory environmental impact assessment to be conducted by the Navy in order to supply an inventory of, and protect, the historic sites of the island.  Surface ordinances were cleared from 10,000 acres, and soil conservation and revegetation programs were initiated.  On March 18th, 1981, the island was listed on the National Register for Historical Places. The Kaho’olawe District contains 544 recorded archaeological/historical sites.  In 1993 Senator Daniel K. Inouye transferred ownership of Kaho’olawe to the state of Hawaii in order to promote environmental restoration of the land and create meaningful safe use of the island for appropriate cultural, historical, archaeological, and educational purposes.


Kaho’olawe was named for the god of the ocean and the foundation of the earth, it is a sacred island that in modern times has served as the foundation for the revitalization of Hawaiian cultural practices.  Restoring the island will provide a lace for the current and future generation to rediscover what it means to be Hawaiian, and how to be stewards of the land.  It is said that you do not choose to come to the island, but rather you are chosen by Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe.  This experience offered me the incredible opportunity to learn and participate in the Hawaiian culture.  Being born on O’ahu, but raised on the mainland, I have always felt a deeper connection with the islands, and considered Hawaii to be my home.  That being said, only moving here in July, I have just recently been able to learn more about the language and culture of Hawaii.  Luckily for me, getting to go to Kaho’olawe was an eye-opening journey and I have found it very difficult to portray in words, but I will do my best.

First off, I was surrounded by amazing, passionate, and caring people which made for positive energy throughout the trip.  Most of the participants were affiliated with Kupu, so we all had a common interest in environmental stewardship, and were all on the same page with the benefits of working hard to help protect the aina.  We spent three nights on the island, working to restore the Ala Loa Trail which will connect all of the ‘ili (districts) of Kaho’olawe. The goal is to have a path that will go around the entire island of Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe for the observance of the Makahiki Ceremonies that take place on the island.

Enjoying the view from our hike


On the first night we all met at the Hawaiian Canoe Club, where we had orientation and prepared our bags to be transported to Kahoolawe the following morning. This required several trash bags and a lot of duct tape to ensure that water didn’t leak into our gear.  We slept among the canoes and picnic tables at the park, and had a 2:30 AM wake up call to pack our belongings into the bus and head to our  boat harbors, either Kihei or Maalaea.  We were cold, shivering, and a bit anxious, but we excitedly boarded our boat and were soon out at sea heading to our destination.  The goal was to arrive to Kahoolawe right around sunrise, where we would meet the zodiac which would drop us and our bags, food, water, ect offshore. We followed cultural protocol, and requested permission to pae (land) onto Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe as we approached the island.  We chanted Oli Kahea, and our leader responded with Oli Komo, granting us permission.  After our ride towards the island, we finally arrived as the sun was starting to peek up behind Haleakala (a beautiful sight to behold).  We were all transporting in three separate boats, and mine was the second to arrive, so there were already helping hands in the water to aid in moving our gear from the sea to land.  We got into a line and pushed our floating bags towards shore, where they were piled high.  Although we were anticipating strong winds and rough seas, the weather cooperated and we were blessed to arrive safely with a small swell; it was a perfect landing.  As soon as we walked onto land, the wind went still and I got an overwhelming feeling of belonging, it is very hard to put into words, but it was immediately evident to me what a special place Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe is.  The first thing we did when we were on Kahoolawe, was to gather in a circle, hold hands, and pule (pray).  I could feel the energy and excitement and felt so happy to be in a place with so much mana.  Next, we got into a semicircle facing the sea, and cleansed ourselves of any obligations or worries.  We then headed into the ocean and submerged beneath our waves to finalize the cleanse.  It was a very cool experience.  The remainder of the morning was spent unloading, setting up, getting situated, and preparing an imu.

Setting up camp for the night


Preparing the imu

The next two days were dedicated to working on the Ala Loa.  We woke up at 4:30 the next morning to pack an overnight bag, as we would be hiking a few miles to our next site, where we would begin our trail work, stay the night, and resume in the morning.  Before we departed camp, we gathered together and chanted E Ala E with the purpose of aiding the sun in its efforts to start a new day.  This chant is an opportunity to be grateful for the sun and appreciate how it rises every single day, without fail.  We all faced the sea, and began the chant when we first saw the sun, but didn’t end until it completely arose from the horizon.  The sunset was spectacular, with vibrant colors all throughout the sky.  The angle of Haleakala was beautiful, and the clouds made for an outstanding scene.  It was so beautiful it could spark an emotion and really make you stop and appreciate nature and how magnificent it is.

Sunrise over Haleakala

The hike to Aikupau was gorgeous, and a little tiring.  Carrying tools, overnight gear, and water, we made our way and eventually got to our destination just in time for lunch.  The remainder of the day was working hard to build trail.  Some people went ahead and weed-wacked a path so we knew where we would be building the trail.  We followed behind with rakes to clear away small pohaku (rocks), and moved the larger pohaku to the sides where we would build a wall the next day.  The weather was great, a slight wind and a moderate amount of cloud coverage, so it wasn’t too hot, but it also never rained.  The second day on the trail was dedicated to making the trail more flat and moving all of the pohaku out of the trail, while building a wall on the sides.  The purpose of the wall was so that even if there was regrowth of vegetation, they could still follow the path.  Although it was hard work finding and carrying the rocks to build the wall, it really helped to have such a coherent team that worked together and we accomplished an extraordinary amount in just a few days.

Beautiful coral reefs on the North tip of Kaho’olawe


Overall, my time on Kaho’olawe was filled with laughter, hard work, and amazing new friends.  Leaving was not easy, and I think I will always have an urge to return to the island.  As my friend and fellow Kupu intern, Julia Espaniola, eloquantly expressed, “Not any words in our human existence [can] describe the way Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe has made me feel. Thank you for cleansing us, as we attempted to cleanse you.  Thank you for accepting us, as you have accepted your history. Thank you for releasing us, as you have released your anger…Life is comprised of many experiences good and bad, but I can definitely say that this has been a service project that has changed my life for the better.  My na’au is shaking in fulfillment, my heart has exploded in purpose.  Thank you God for this magical, beautiful, abundant life!”



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