TALK STORY WITH JOHN HALL
Joined HTMC: 1962
Favorite hike (currently): Hawai’i Loa
Interviewed by: Hawkins Biggins on November 23, 2021
WHEN and WHY did you join HTMC?
It would probably have been around August or September of 1962. I had just been hired by the Biochemistry department at Hawai’i University and I only knew one other person in the state and was not particularly close to them. However I knew I liked to hike. I was coming from California where I had gone to graduate school in Berkeley and often hiked in Yosemite and Kings Canyon, and then had hiked the mountains around Pasadena when I was a postdoc at CalTech.
When I got to Hawai’i, I kept track of the newspaper to see if there were any hiking organizations. At that time, HTMC was the only game in town, so I joined, and over Thanksgiving I signed up for a trek in Haleakala. We probably spent 4 days in the crater. I remember going to the Kapalaoa Cabin and cooking Thanksgiving dinner there—we had a turkey, pumpkin pie and all the fixings. In those days you did not need to reserve the cabin, they were so little used, you just drove to the ranger station and checked in. The wood for the stoves was brought in by horseback, I believe they even had telephones although I don’t know if they worked or not. I think they were hooked up to the ranger station. We had a cabin full of people, ten or twelve of us. Bob Wenkam and his wife Nao were along. He was a member who had published a number of coffee table picture books on Hawai’i.
Do you have a FAVORITE trail or area of O’ahu?
It varies. Gerald Leao and I worked out the loop hike that I named Halapepe Nui (I named it that because the largest Halapepe tree is up there). It was a trail that went around two minor drainages that were cut off by the Waimano Valley (on the North), and Waimalu Valley (on the south) and Waiau ran up the middle. We hiked along the ridge that cut those two drainages off at the top of their watersheds. The major valleys here expand quite a bit as they go upstream, so there were smaller drainages cut off by the two major valleys. This left a horseshoe shaped ridge that helped define the watersheds of the minor valleys. By hiking along this horseshoe shaped ridge we could create a nice loop, which was close to the jeep roads that allowed you to return to the starting point. On the top of the ridges that marked the upper watershed boundary of the minor drainages, you had a view of the crests of the Ko’olaus along the way, in one direction, and of Pearl Harbor in the other. But then we lost access to the entrance to this trail and also I realized that while I really enjoyed the native vegetation on the higher parts of the ridge, I realized that we were carrying up the guinea grass seeds and other invasives which were slowly making their way up the ridge, and ruining the trail, so I was not too upset to lose access. For a while there was a geocache at the roots of the Halapepe tree, so I was worried about the roots of the tree getting damaged, but the last time I was there the tree looked pretty healthy, so I don’t think the geocache is there any more.
Right now the Hawai’i Loa ridge is one of my favorites because it has a lot of natives, especially the plateau area. But it is hard for me to get up there these days (due to my Afib).
One novice hike that I like to take people on is the Ka Iwi coast hike where there is little climbing until we reach Kapaliokamoa (cliff of the chicken or Pele’s Chair). There are some native plants of interest along the way— the bright yellow Native Cotton is so pretty when it is in bloom, and you get a good view of the mangrove buttress roots and the silver buttonwood with silvery leaves, and the fruits with nice lumps, they would make attractive buttons, I think that is whey they named it that. Sometimes we see the native capper, maiapilo, in bloom with its attractive white flowers.
What is one MEMORABLE HTMC HIKE you would like the share?
I remember one day I was leading a hike up Moanalua Valley with the intent of going to the summit above Haiku Valley—we got on the trail that runs up the valley there, but it was one of those days that was cloudy with occasional showers, and you have to cross the streams many times on this trail. There were ten or twelve people, and we came to a spot where we were going along the bank cutting across a loop of the stream and when we came back to the stream, it was a raging torrent and I wondered if I had gotten lost, and was in a different valley, but I realized there must have been a downpour somewhere upstream and the stream had risen 1-2 feet, it was a gulley-buster! We waited a bit to let the water slacken some, and then formed a human chain across the stream, linking our arms to support each other so the smaller people would not lose their footing. Mabel Kekina, the originator of our trail crew and a real character, always said that on that day I had saved her from getting swept downstream on that hike. So that was probably one of the more vivid adventurous hikes I led so I remember that.
Thelma Smith Greg Warren (she was married 3 times when I knew her) was once leading a hike she told me about. She was a very active and important member of HTMC back then. She served as club secretary for many years, and was also a hike leader. I remember one time she was leading a hike above crouching lion (Pu’u Manamana), and those days the hikes were not marked or cleared at all regularly. They were overgrown, and the hike leaders were supposed to clear them with their friends before the hike, but rarely could do much with so little help, and often didn’t bother. The group got up on the top of the Pu’u Manamana ridge and was trying to find the way down, but they got on the wrong ridge and came to a sheer cliff on a narrow section. It was getting dark, so they all perched there for the night. Fortunately they had enough water, but they were getting hungry. Someone had a can of tuna fish, so they were sharing it, but one of the people dropped it and it landed just below them on the ridge out of reach, but they could smell it all night. When morning came, they successfully escaped back up the ridge and got out safely, but they never forgot that hike.
Tell us about hiking in Hawai’i BEFORE GPS and smartphones. How did you know where to go?
We had old timers that were familiar with the trails, so they led the hikes and the rest of us learned them with experience. When I first came out here I bought all of the USGS topographical maps. In those days you could write to Denver and buy all of the maps, they were 25 cents each so it was not too expensive to buy all of the ones for O’ahu, and the good hikes on the outer Islands. They were invaluable because they were topographical, so it gave us a rough idea of the terrain. There were no cell phones, so you knew when you went into the mountains, you knew you were going to get yourself out. There was no help.
One time we did the Poamoho hike, and there were some retired visitors from New England. The older woman fell right off the trail into the stream bed below and was seriously injured. She was semi-conscious, so we climbed down to her but I was worried she had damaged her spine, so to avoid moving her unnecessarily, I sat with my feet in the stream and held her upper body on my knees. All we could do was to send a hiker out to drive to a phone to call the firemen with the search and rescue squad. I sat in the stream for something like 3-4 hours until they came, and they just picked her up like a sack of potatoes and carried her up to the trail and plopped her onto a stretcher. That was one of the first hikes I did with the club, and I don’t think there was another hike since then we have had such a serious injury. I believe she lost an eye and had serious head injuries as well.
What do you bring along IN YOUR PACK when you go on a hike?
I always bring a first aid kit. One of the most essential features is an ace bandage, which is probably the most useful thing for any serious injury, antibiotic ointment and a band aid is always nice—but that is more just for reassurance. At least a liter of water is important and it’s nice to have a snack.
Now at my age, sometimes I get light headed, so I bring some sugar candies in case I get low glucose. If we are going into country that is at all rough, I like to have a hand saw and a pair of loppers so I can cut the brush. I also carry a copy of my book so I can look up any plant that I may have forgotten about. A loop of duct tape is always handy to repair boots if the sole suddenly comes off and it can also be used to secure bandages if you have a major injury. I often carry a little sunscreen and mosquito repellant. If I was going to the summit or high altitudes, I would probably carry a rain jacket, but in this climate I usually sweat enough that I am usually soaking wet anyway, and a little rain is pleasant. I really hate sunny days. I prefer overcast cooler days when it sprinkles. I noticed a lot of novices that I hike with will carry a rain jacket and put it on and take it off constantly to try and not get wet. My day pack feels a little too heavy, especially with all the tools, but I don’t notice it when I am carrying it. I think it is good for my back because I have a touch of sciatica. I had a slipped disk a few years ago, and it does give me pains from time to time. I think when I tighten the backpack with the waist belt, that helps correct my posture so I feel better when I hike with my pack. Often these days I will just take a waist pack with water, lunch and a first aid kit, which is lighter, but doesn’t help my back.
When I am carrying lunch I always try to carry a tangerine or two because I don’t drink enough, and the juice in them provides extra water. Although I try to remember to drink regularly, it is nice to have something juicy! I have an orange tree in the yard, and will bring an orange if they are ripe. I generally peel the fruit and bring it in a plastic container so it is lighter, and I carry a can of cappuccino. Hiking is the only time I drink caffeine, because otherwise it will keep me awake at night. The cappuccino hits the spot when you’re thirsty. Aside from that I have a gorp mixture: lots of dark chocolate chips (the baking kind), almonds or walnuts, dried cherries and cranberries. Sometimes the chocolate melts so then I have lumps.
What inspired you to write your book, A Hiker’s Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawai’i?
John Hoover inspired me to write the book, he was a serious hiker with the club and he was also a scuba diver and he had written a number of books inventorying all the fish he saw in Hawai’i, which was substantial enough that it’s been adopted by marine science classes and he also wrote a book on marine invertebrates. Both include a number of new species, and are really scientific contributions to marine biology. His book has sold much more than mine, which is confined to a Hawaiian audience. He and his wife, Marsha would come on the Nature Conservancy hikes that I would lead, and I had written a plant guide for the Palehua hike (to Palekea summit), John and Marsha were on the hike and he said to me afterwards, “John, you should write a book on the native plants, and I could take pictures and we could work on this book together.” I thought, that might be fun, so we started working together, but it turned out that John did not know a lot of the native plants, so while I got a lot of pictures from him, I had to rely on Ken Suzuki and Tom Rau and others as well. So in the end John was listed as a contributor and not a co-author.
With the updates, I have not made major changes, as far as the average hiker is concerned, but with the DNA studies they are doing, a lot of reclassifications are occurring at the higher classification levels. There is a group called the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG), that puts out a lot of papers reclassifying plants, so I try to correct any of the taxonomic assignments that I have made in my book to reflect the recent findings. I included the common plants that we see along the trails, even invasive weeds, not just natives, because I felt that the people using the book would be very frustrated when they saw many plants that were not in the book, especially in the low land areas. I have continued to write up new plants and I have 20-30 additional plants that I could include, but I have been reluctant to make the book any larger or heavier than it is for fear it would be too much for the average person to carry with them. It already weighs about a pound, so I often don’t bring it with me.
WHY is HTMC important to you?
For many years it was my major hiking exercise. I would go out with HTMC almost every Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays. They had outer island trips frequently in the old days and I liked to go on those and I led some of those. I grew up in Denver and my folks were very fond of the mountains, so hiking was something I did from childhood on. Then my father transferred to Kansas so I ended up in college there. I went to KU rather than CU, so I didn’t get to hike much. But in graduate school I moved to California and hiked much more. I love the mountains and the people I hike with, it is just a great experience to get into the mountains periodically. When I came out to Hawai’i the mountains were certainly just wilderness—it was nothing like it is today—if we hiked Hawai’i Loa we would start at sea level and hike jeep roads and find our way upwards in the hot sun. Once we got to the trail, we’d bring out our machetes and push through the brush, and finally get to the summit. It was an all day struggle. The next year, we could tell that no one else had been up there since, so it was just as hard. There was no trail clearing crew, and often we could not get anyone to help us, so it really was a lot of work. Then Mabel started the trail crew with “Slow Joe”, Bill Gorst, Gerald Leao, and a few other regulars. There was a fellow who brought Monkey Bread to share (a kind of pastry) when we had snacks at the end of the day. Mabel’s crew slowly grew and I joined and a lot of other people started coming, June, Carol, Jean and Charlotte and many others. Sometimes I remember trail names better than people’s names.
Have you hiked with other clubs or HTMC members outside of Hawai’i?
I hiked with the Sierra Club and I have done some mainland hikes with them. I did a hike on the Appalachian Trail—the Nantahala Hike—we hiked for about a week on that and then I did a week in the BearTooth Mountains in Montana and Wyoming. And I have gone with individual club members on various hikes, like Grant Oka and Stuart Ball. Stuart was going to section hike the length of the Continental divide trail, a few weeks at a time, we started in Canada and we went down a lake into Montana and hiked through Glacier National Park. We had bad weather and I ended up pitching my tent poorly, and my sleeping bag got so wet I had to wait out one day for it to dry. I joined them again on a hike in Idaho or Montana along the Chinese Wall Trail, (the Bob Marshall Wilderness). That was an interesting hike. I did a write up on that hike, I will look and if I can find it I will share it. And I spent a year teaching at Chitwan University in Nepal and did hikes there, which I’ll also send you.
Do you have concerns about the FUTURE OF HIKING in Hawai’i?
Well, yes, certainly, we have been losing a lot of trails, some of them unnecessarily, like the Dupont Trail, which is a traditional Hawaiian trail and those are supposed to be preserved for public access indefinitely. And we have lots of that because people who live in the area don’t want the hiker traffic. I think the state should provide parking away from the housing if at all possible. Legally they should keep Dupont open. We have never done what the Sierra Club does through its EarthJustice spin-off, and file legal cases to defend our rights. Of course the cases with legal access are few and there are a lot of trails we would like to gain access to but we do not have that kind of leverage. We need to keep the pressure on Na Ala Hele so when new subdivisions are in the planning stage, if they might block access, we can insist that they are required to preserve the trail access.
In a way, situations like Hawai’i Loa is good, because it prevents over usage of the trail. Perhaps there should be some kind of a licensing system. But unless it goes through a gated community someone would have to monitor it and as I don’t think the state would want to monitor it, it is a question of how to control access.
The state is really in a dilemma regarding rescues, because if they do charge and someone really needs help and does not call for it because of the charge, the state could be liable or the delay may make the rescue much more difficult and costly, and increase the risk of serious injury to the hiker. Lawyers seem to find a way to launch a case even if the individual is the one who is responsible. I remember a time when it was difficult to launch a lawsuit, now it has gone to the other extreme, so now insurance is becoming a major expense.
Anything else you would like to SHARE?
I wish we could get a few more members involved in leading hikes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI-UHM) program. was a leader and Mike Fujita, Richard Nettle and Larry Lee are leading hikes. Initially, I started a hiking program with OLLI because of my book. We thought people would like to go out on plant hikes, but I realized people didn’t have that much interest in plants, but they did enjoy hiking. So we tried just offering hikes. The OLLI members were so enthusiastic about it, the program grew and grew. There is so much interest now that we can’t accommodate everyone, it has become one of the most popular offerings in the Program, so I have been trying to get other people to come and lead. If we had more hike leaders we could keep the groups smaller, preferably under 10 people. [EDITOR’S NOTE: if you are interested in volunteering with OLLI please reach out to email@example.com]
About JOHN HALL
John Hall has explored Hawai’i’s trails for almost 60 years. He is a life member of both the Hawaiian Botanical Society and the Hawaii Audubon Society; he has led tours into the Honouliuli Reserve as a docent for the Nature Conservatory of Hawaii, and served on the Citizens Advisory Council in the Division of Lands and Natural Resources unit. Hall also served on the Board of Directors for the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club (and 4 years as President) and founded a local hiking group known as Solemates. In addition to his own love for hiking and trailside plants, Hall and his friends have done a great deal to maintain and re-open old paths to make them available to the public. (Above bio quoted directly from Amazon)
You can find A Hiker’s Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawai’i on Amazon, and local bookstores.
CLICK HERE to read John Hall’s adventure stories from Peru, Cameroon, Mongolia, Nepal, Tsavo, Montana, Mauna Loa, Nova Scotia and more!