Volunteering in the valley on Maui

Volunteering in the valley on Maui

“The great thing about it is that, by default, they’re going to be the better tourists because they’re choosing to help.”

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OLOWALU, MAUI, HAWAI’I – Petyr Beck has been on Maui for a day, but he’s still not hanging out at the beach or relaxing under a palm tree.

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Instead, he’s a mile or so from the coast, knee-deep in dry grass, hacking away at invasive trees in the hot sun of the Olowalu Valley. He slides a small saw back and forth several times, grabs a loose trunk of a haole koa tree and tosses it into a pile by the side of a dirt road. Then it’s on the next one.

Beck is one of several volunteers who’ve showed up in the valley on a fine February morning to help a group called Kipuka Olowalu help transform this slice of Maui into something more like its native state.

It’s hard work, made tougher by a blazing sun, but most have brought water and snacks, and nobody seems to mind the work.

Petyr Beck cleans up haole koa tree branches in the Olowalu Valley.
Petyr Beck cleans up haole koa tree branches in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

Beck tells me he just got in the day before and is visiting his old buddy from Washington state, Erik Giesa.

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“I was talking with him last night and asked what was up for today,” Beck told me. “He said, ‘I can’t be with you tomorrow morning as I’m volunteering.’ I thought, ‘Why not come along?’”

“We do get tourists helping out,” said Lizzy Gibson, a transplanted Vermont resident who serves as a field technician and artist for Kipuka Olowalu. “The great thing about it is that, by default, they’re going to be the better tourists because they’re choosing to help.”

Kipuka Olowalu (Kipuka means an area of land surrounded by younger lava flows, while Olowalu is the name of a deep valley south of Lahaina) has been working hard to get rid of invasive species in the valley.

Ua Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practioner and supervisor for Kipuka Olowalu, said the area was used for cattle grazing for years, which did a great deal of damage to the land.

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Ua Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and supervisor for Kipuka Olowalu.
Ua Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and supervisor for Kipuka Olowalu. Photo by Jim Byers

Maji shows off various fruits trees and flowering shrubs that have been planted in the valley in the past few years. One of the prettiest is a crown flower, known in Hawaiian as puakalaunu. It’s often used to make flower leis, and Maji explains it was a particularly favourite of Queen Lili’uokalani (who penned the song, Aloha Oe.)

I pause to take a photo of some beautiful, small berries on an Akia plant, which has neurotoxic oils that can be used to stun fish. Hawaiians found that if they collected the roots, trunk, branches, leaves, fruit and flowers and smashed them up, they could use the mash to saturate coconut fibers. The fibers could then be dropped into tidal pools to knock the fish out cold.

The gardens also contain sweet plantains and puffy white noni fruit, which have a distinctly funky smell when ripe but have been used as a healing agent for centuries by Hawaiians and Polynesians.

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A few workers hack their way through a dense thicket of haole koa and find a nice path that leads to a lovely pool of water in the stream that runs through the valley.

A Hawaiian crownflower in the Olowalu Valley.
A Hawaiian crownflower in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

With our work for the morning finished, Maji takes me upstream for a short walk in the valley, which has towering, jagged peaks clad in soft shades of green. We spot some Mud Dauber Wasps, which build nests out of mud, and a meadow that’s home to an ancient stone heiau or temple. The heiau is mostly covered by a monkeypod tree, which gives it a bit of a mysterious, Indiana Jones feel.

Another morning I find myself on the opposite side of the West Maui mountains, where the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund is leading a clean-up effort on Ka’Ehu Beach, a black stone beach just outside of Wailuku.

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The Hawai’i Wildlife Fund is one of the groups that takes part in the Malama Hawai’i  program, which links visitors to the state with local charities or environmental groups to care for these beautiful islands. Participants who sign up with select hotels and do volunteer work can get a fourth or fifth night free. Some hotels also offer free breakfasts to those who lend a hand.

Bright orange fruits on an Akia plant in the Olowalu Valley.
Bright orange fruits on an Akia plant in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

On Maui, both the Ritz Carlton Kapalua and the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea are part of the program, as are many others. Kauai, Oahu and Hawai’i Big Island also have hotels that participate.

“The Malama Hawai’i program currently has more than 100 total partners statewide with 14 partners” on Maui, says Leanne Pletcher, director of public relations for the Maui Visitors Bureau.

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On my beach clean-up morning I’m joined by a disparate group of volunteers. Noelani Lee is a former Molokai resident and activist who now has a plot of land on Maui and is here with her two boys. Jerry and Esther Rice are from Illinois but come to Maui for part of the winter. Danyel Erickson and her husband, Jonathan Rodriguez, live on nearby Lana’i and manage a community called Plastic Pickers in Paradise.

Lee isn’t a big fan of modern tourism, but says the Malama Hawai’i program is a good way for visitors to get their hands dirty or mix with locals and learn about the islands.

Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, says she loves the Malami Hawai’i program and that her group features the volunteer work in nine of the video stories at their Hawai’i Wildlife Discovery Center at the Whalers Village Shopping Center at Ka’anapali Beach.

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A group of volunteers surveys some of the items they picked up at Ka’Ehu Beach on Maui.
A group of volunteers surveys some of the items they picked up at Ka’Ehu Beach on Maui. Photo by Jim Byers

“What I love about the videos is that they feature us real people who really do malama Hawai’i. Plus just saying those words and defining them, words like malama and aina (“the land”) and aloha and more, are bathing the listener in concepts that reach the heart and can move mountains.”


The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel is consistently voted one of the most Hawaiian hotels in the islands. They’re not part of Malama Hawaii but they’ve run extensive Hawaiian cultural programs for decades.

The Fairmont Kea Lani, which is part of Malama Hawaii, has large suites, a beautiful swimming pool and a great beach

The Napili Kai Beach Resort also is not part of Malama Hawaii, but they, too, have extensive Hawaiian cultural programs and support beach clean-ups and other environmental initiatives.

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The Ritz Carlton Kapalua takes part in the Malama Hawaii program and has had a Hawaiian cultural practitioner on site for many years. It’s a quiet spot on West Maui with luxurious rooms and tremendous food.


The Sea House at Napili Kai Beach Resort has a great bar overlooking the beach and excellent seafood.

Mala Tavern is a fun, casual spot in Lahaina that’s right on the water.

Huihui is the new, fine dining restaurant at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel. Look for lot of Hawaiian touches and a tremendous breakfast menu.

Located at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel, Nick’s Fishmarket restaurant has a romantic setting and wonderful, fresh seafood.

Merriman’s Kapalua offers tremendous cocktails and a patio with some of Maui’s best sunset views.

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