- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2015

HILO, Hawaii (AP) - A crisp forest breeze whisked through the path of the Kilauea Iki trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where a group of keiki stood at a “T” in the path, listening to 9-year-old Fiona Broward read from a sign.

Caution. Stay on trail. Beware of steam vents, earth cracks, cliffs.

High above in the trees, birds called back and forth. For a nanosecond, the calls were all that could be heard, but it is hard for 19 Junior Rangers to be still for long.

The group was midway through their second day of Keiki o Hawaii Nei, a free summer program for kids 8-12. They were on their way into the Kilauea Iki Crater itself.

“Embrace the landscape,” park ranger Dean Gallagher told the group. “Make it part of you.”

He produced a photo of a brilliant red bird — an apapane — and asked if anyone knew its name. A robin, someone guessed. An iiwi, ventured another.

“I don’t know Hawaiian birds,” one Junior Ranger said.

“That’s OK,” Gallagher said. “That’s why we’re here.”

About four miles long, the Kilauea Iki trail is fairly short as far as hikes go, but it crosses over an impressive variety of terrain. Kids squished through muddy paths on the rainforest trails, then crunched over piles of lava rock in the crater, 400 feet below the trees. They knelt to pull shoots of invasive ginger from the paths, and to study shining strands of Pele’s hair.

“By coming to the park, they’re learning to love the park, and becoming stewards of it,” the park’s chief of interpretation, Joni Mae Makuakane-Jarrell, said after the hike. She’s been at the park since 1978, before the Junior Rangers were established some 30 years ago, and has seen generations of keiki come through the program. Some are now working at the park, as rangers and supervisors.

Being in the crater itself, where the air smelled of sulfur and Halemaumau’s steam rose far in the distance, was exciting for the keiki. The uphill hike back to the main trail, with its switchbacks and steep inclines, was not.

“Mostly, I’m just hungry,” 9-year-old Lochlan Nash said.

For lunch, the kids headed to the park’s education center, where they practiced an oli they would sing when they visited Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Part of the Junior Rangers’ goal is to show that there is more on the Big Island than volcanoes.

It’s a lot to pack in to just three days. Each year, the group traverses the island, learning about Hawaiian culture in addition to Hawaiian landscapes, plants, and animals.

Different rangers accompany the keiki on their tours, each bringing their own expertise to daily activities. Gallagher’s Kilauea Iki tour “wove the culture and science together,” Makuakane-Jarrell said. “That truly is the message.”

A 9-year veteran at the park, Gallagher drew on vivid metaphor to describe the “kingdom of the birds” to the kids.

The forest they were in was a quilt, he explained, stitched together by honeycreepers like the apapane and iiwi as they drank nectar and scattered seeds. Gallagher pulled no punches describing how the forest quilt had unraveled as humans arrived, first Polynesians and then Europeans, bringing rats, pigs, goats and eventually mongoose (here he produced a photograph of a mongoose eating an apapane).

“These animals are not bad by themselves,” Gallagher said. “They just got brought into a place that wasn’t prepared for them.”

“The program is never a watered-down adult version,” he said after the hike. “People say, ‘Oh, Dean, maybe it’s over the kids’ heads.’ It’s not.”

Funding for the program typically comes from the Hawaii Pacific Park Association, and is about $2,000 per year, Makuakane-Jarrell said. Most of the cost goes toward transportation.

This year, initiatives like May’s National Geographic BioBlitz and the creation of a new visitors’ center video meant that there wasn’t enough money allocated for the Junior Rangers. The Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, helmed by executive director Elizabeth Fien, stepped in to help sponsor the program.

KapohoKine donated buses for transportation, freeing up funds for extra supplies like water bottles, green Junior Ranger backpacks, and a children’s Hawaiian language map.

“It’s usually just enough for water bottles,” Makuakane-Jarrell said.

Most kids in this year’s group came from Kau and Puna, with some from Hilo and Kona. Some were repeat rangers, back for another session. Makuakane-Jarrell said she hopes to have two groups next year, expanding the age range to include ninth-graders.

“It’s a different dynamic every day,” she said.


Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, https://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/

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