Kawai Nui Marsh
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Overview

...from the Pali Lookout...

On the Island of O‘ahu, at the highest point along the Pali Highway, along the crest of the Ko‘olau mountain range, there is a scenic lookout (the Pali Lookout) which affords a panoramic view of windward O‘ahu. From that vantage point, one can see north up to Moko Li‘i, or Chinaman's Hat, a conical-shaped island just off the coast of Kualoa Beach Park in Kāne‘ohe Bay. The view to the east continues past Mōkapu peninsula, across Kailua Bay to the beach at Lanikai. On the left side of this view plane lies Kāne‘ohe town and to the right, Kailua town. The Pali and Ko‘olau golf courses and Ho‘omaluhia Park ramble along the base of the Ko‘olau mountain below the pali. Down to the right, fronting Kailua town, one can see a grassy green area of open space snuggled between Mt. Olomana and Ulumawao (Oneawa Hills).

Kawai Nui and Kailua seen from the Maunawili Demonstration Trail
Kawai Nui and Kailua town beyond from the Maunawili Demonstration Trail (elev. about 800 ft)

The verdant triangular plain, which spreads out below the hills for nearly a thousand acres, is Kawai Nui Marsh (a Ramsar wetland site). The early Hawaiians who named the area had a propensity for naming places after physical characteristics and this one is no exception. Its full name during pre-European contact days—when Hawaiian society was in full flourish—was Kawai Nui Loko, or "the big freshwater pond."

The Ko‘olau forms the backdrop of Maunawili valley, a large windward watershed. The valley contains many streams and springs that feed into Kawai Nui as Maunawili and Kahaniki streams. This feeder stream drainage system flows into the Marsh today at the measured rate of approximately 6.8 million gallons of water per day, thus helping make Kawai Nui the largest fresh water marsh in the Hawaiian Islands.

However, these were not always the physical conditions that prevailed here. Core samples from underneath Kawai Nui Marsh reveal marine coral and calcium-containing deposits under clays and organic sediments.2 These findings indicate that from approximately six thousand to about four thousand years before the present, Kawai Nui was an open marine bay, similar to present day Kāne‘ohe Bay. Coral sands washed up on the silty beaches along the inland portion of the bay, while the peripheral slopes supported a natural tropical forest. This embayment, having by then become a lagoon with carpeted mud bottom, was existing here when the earliest Polynesian voyagers discovered Hawai‘i, about 1500 years before the present. In fact, archaeological and geological

evidence from Kawai Nui and nearby areas indicates that O‘ahu was one of the earliest areas occupied by these Polynesians, as early as the fourth century A.D.2,3,4

At that time, a sand accretion barrier, partly closing off the lagoon, was already forming on the reef tract across the Bay. The sand barrier at the makai end (i.e., the ocean face) of the lagoon would have supported coconut and hala. And the wet plains in the valley would have provided natural garden plots for the newcomers to plant kalo shoots for lo‘i farming (i.e., pondfield agriculture). The crops would provide forage for the pigs brought with them on their cross-ocean voyages.

Inland from this lagoon were plots suitable for kalo cultivation along the valley streams, as this was their staple food. Lagoon fishes were available for gathering, and offshore deep ocean canoe fishing could have provided aku and alua, favored and plentiful local fishes. Basaltic outcroppings in the immediate vicinity of Kawai Nui would have provided materials for stone tools. Ohi‘a trees grew here, and kauila in the valley that could be used to make their ‘o‘o, the only cultivation tool. Coconuts and sweet potatoes for eating, noni for medicine, and kukui to light the night would have been able to grow on the wooded slopes surrounding the lagoon, if forests were removed by controlled burning. Thus, the area was rich in potential resources. It is no wonder that it was among those earliest occupied in Hawai‘i.

A description of the marsh as it appears today along its western edge is provided by ‘Ahahui Mālama I Ka Lōkahi for a place called Nā Pōhaku o Hauwahine.

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This webpage edited and reposted Mar. 30, 2011. Copyrights of cited text retained by original authors.