The lava rocks on this narrow, irregular pathway are hundreds of years old and are part of the 175-mile Ala Kahakai, “trail by the sea,” that linked communities, temples, fishing areas and other important locations along Hawaii Island’s western coast. For generations, it has been one of the trails that kept Hawaiians and others in touch with neighbors, valuable resources and cultural practices, as well as a crucial link for the exchange and transport of goods.
Today, the historic Kiholo-Puako Trail in Puuanahulu, a government road known as the “King’s Trail,” is still used for recreation and cultural purposes. On the state and national registers of historic places, it is considered one of the finest examples of trails constructed by the Kingdom of Hawaii. It has also become the site of a unique restoration project for the National Park Service, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ State Parks and Historic Preservation divisions, Na Ala Hele, Hui Aloha Kiholo and community members whose families have resided in the area for generations, said Rick Gmirkin, archaeologist for the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail.
A major earthquake and its aftershock in 2006 damaged two major masonry causeways on the trail. One causeway is approximately 140 feet long with an average height of 10 feet, a maximum height of 15 feet in the center, and 8 to 10 feet wide. The other causeway is about 40 feet long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet high. In these damaged sections, the kerbing on the trail’s sides collapsed, making the trail vulnerable to erosion and further collapse. All that was left was the trail tread, Gmirkin said.
The project, located in the Ala Kahakai National Historical Trail corridor within the Kiholo State Park Reserve, will address safety concerns and return the trail to its former glory. It’s being funded with about $195,000 of NPS cultural resource money, and with the blessings and involvement of those with deep ties to the ahupuaa, Gmirkin said.
The project is expected to begin in two weeks. When completed, most likely in September, it will honor and mimic the style of the original trail, Gmirkin said. Historic documents place the original construction prior to 1858, according to NPS.
At noon Monday, a special ceremony was held on the Kiholo-Puako Trail. It was led by Kuulei Keakealani, a descendant of this aina and founding member of Hui Aloha Kiholo, who blessed the start of the project. She mixed salt from Kaupulehu with freshwater from Kekaha, Kauai, and saltwater from the bay makai of the trail. The salt and ocean water was gathered by youth. Then with great care and purpose, she sprinkled the mixture on the trail and on those in attendance who will be working on the project.
“It’s important that this path not be fixed in the past and that people continue to return to these trails,” she said. “By walking these trails, our footsteps will be felt, our voices heard.”
Family members from the area chanted, prayed and and told heart-touching stories. The masonry workers and tradesmen also performed a haka.
During her speech, ShirleyAnn Keakealani, an area descendant, explained the trail’s importance and the specialness of the place. Her father, Robert, was among the paniolo who used the trail, which helped guide cattle and horses safely over the roughest area of jagged lava flows between North Kona and South Kohala on the way to Kawaihae. She also spoke about how the trail made travel easier for her ancestors to get to the shoreline to fish, travel between communities and access other areas for sustenance — something still done today. She expressed sincere gratitude and appreciation from the descendants of Puuanahulu and Puuwaawaa to those involved with the trail restoration and wished them good health and safety throughout the project.
With the help of the community and partners, the trail has been documented using Lidar scanning, photography and mapping. Two National Park Service archaeologists are involved with the project. All the repair and stabilization work will be performed by eight full-time NPS and volunteer stone masons, including a recent Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School graduate.
This crew, led by master stone mason and hale builder Walter Wong, has participated in several significant stone masonry repair and stabilization projects at Hawaii parks, including Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Kaloko-Honokohau National Park and Lapakahi State Historical Park. Because the trail segments are elevated causeways, Gmirkin said an olokea, a traditional Hawaiian lashed ladder system, will be used.
Traditional Hawaiian dry set masonry is a technique that involves the setting and interlocking of stone without the use of mortar, as well as mana, Wong said. He added that he’s humbled to work on this project and teach the younger members of his team.
Others will have the opportunity to assist and work under direct supervision of the crew as a part of the educational sessions offered. This project is part of the Hawaiian Legacy Program, a park service program focused on promoting historic preservation maintenance ethics and the perpetuation of traditional Hawaiian trades, as well as teaching these methods to the present and next generations, said Aric Arakaki, Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail superintendent.
Arakaki stressed Monday the importance of community-based management in preserving this trail network and associated sites. To ensure the authenticity and integrity of the trail, the NPS works with kupuna, descendants and others in the community. Those interested in volunteering can call 326-6012.