Discover Maui's wondrous wildlife, geology and culture

Exonians explore volcanos, glimpse rare species and engage with homesteaders on immersive learning trip.

Townley Chisholm
March 7, 2018
A group of Exeter students standing in front of the ocean in Maui

Whether listening for the call of the endangered honeycreeper, snorkeling with a school of colorful tropical fish or slashing through overgrown vines to help make way for an orchard, a small group of Exonians found something extra to be grateful for over Thanksgiving break.

Exeter Science Instructors Townley Chisholm and Albert Leger led a small group of students on an educational excursion to Maui in November. Participants studied a variety of volcanic features and encountered the island’s unique plant and bird species — many of which are now endangered — that developed in isolation before humans arrived.

Also on the program? A rewarding visit with a community of Hawaiian families who are reclaiming land their ancestors farmed more than a century ago.

With more than 40 programs across five different continents, Exeter is committed to offering exceptional educational travel opportunities. In addition to the 17 term and yearlong curricular programs, Director of Global Initiatives Eimer Page oversees a host of extracurricular, experiential travel programs like the Maui program, which take place during school holidays.

Science Instructor Townley Chisholm shares some reflections on the Maui trip below.

“Talking story”

We held hands in a circle while our hosts welcomed us to Kahikinui, first with a traditional chant and then a sung prayer. The words were Hawaiian, but I immediately recognized the tune as the Doxology from my Southern Baptist childhood. Our group of eight PEA students and two teachers had come to Maui to learn and marvel about the ecosystems, geology and human traditions of the most isolated island chain in the world.

The nine-day trip had been filled with high points: Hoping to experience intact rainforest and glimpse some of the rarest birds on the planet in their mountain refuge, we had hiked into the Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve, on a visit arranged by former trustee Eiichiro “Eich” Kuwana ’82. We had been thrilled at the prospect of viewing akohekohe and Maui parrotbills, two of the 26 or so surviving species of Hawaiian honeycreeper birds. Alas, the rains that day were too heavy even for them, so, though we could hear honeycreepers calling, we couldn’t see them. Later, we had snorkeled on both sides of Molokini Crater in water as clear as air, with fish innumerable. And we had hiked into the crater of Haleakalā, known also as East Maui Volcano, which forms nearly three-quarters of the island, to learn about its layered, pitted past with Dr. Leger.

Now, the last highlight of the trip was at hand, our visit to the dry leeward side of that vast volcano, and to Kahikinui. Here, 35 Hawaiian families are homesteading land their ancestors had farmed until ranchers leased it in the 1890s and chased them off it with hungry cattle. When I wrote to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands before the trip to request permission to visit some of the archeological sites in the Kahikinui area, a helpful government worker had put me in touch with Charmaine Day, who is the secretary of Ka ’Ohana O Kahikinui, the homesteading community. She listened to my request to visit ruins and then proposed a very different and much better visit: We would set aside time to “talk story” with Charmaine and other members of the community, to learn about their traditions, their struggle to regain access and title to their land and their efforts to save and revive the Hawaiian language.

After welcoming us to their roadside community center on the outskirts of Kahikuni, Charmaine and her son, Patrick, talked with us, played the ukulele and sang for us. In the spirit of Hawaiian hospitality, Charmaine fed us vast amounts of chili, its beef sourced from their free-range cows. Wise in the ways of teenagers, she had left the pot of chili with us after dinner, and our group polished it off overnight as we sat in the moonlight looking out over the Alenuihaha Channel to the lights of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. We were about 2,000 feet up the side of the mountain, and the views were expansive.  

The next morning, our last on Maui, we rose early to enjoy the sunrise. Charmaine and Patrick brought us an ulu (breadfruit) tree to plant as a symbol of renewal. Breadfruit is a valued food; days earlier, one of our students, Vivi Kraus, had bought one and fried it up into delicious and filling fritters. As we knelt and scooped dirt into the hole on top of the little tree, each of us blew into the soil to add our energy to its growth.

Patrick and Chad, another Ka ’Ohana member, loaded us into four-wheel drive vehicles for the slow drive up into the community, a neighborhood unlike any other, with widely scattered houses in different stages of construction and no power lines, no water system, no infrastructure of any kind, aside from the paved road and buried telephone cable that ran partway up the mountain. We looked out across a huge landscape to the ocean, and the silence was complete.

While visiting Chad’s house, we met her husband, Harry, a bassist who once opened for The Band. Harry had been working on his house while living in it for 20 years. He was recovering from cancer and had lots of fruit trees parked in pots on his back deck, trees that should have been planted long ago. Chad was touched and delighted when we asked if we could help. We were delighted, too. Helping the community had been part of our plan all along, but Charmaine had been too courteous a host to ask us to do anything.

Some of us set to work clearing the glycine vines, which grew up the trees that had already been planted around the house. Others hacked through the kikuyu grass and glycine in a little ravine to plant the new orchard. The digging was slow and tough due to all the rocks, but the soil was rich and black. With the little orchard in place, we stopped to drink and savor the view before trundling back down the mountainside for a farewell blessing from Charmaine and the trip to the airport.