Mary Adamski

Hawaii’s Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Festival celebrates royal trek

Cold, wet, misty, 10 square miles of remote, rugged wilderness -- the Alakai Swamp seemed like an unlikely destination for a queen. But in January 1871, Emma Naea Rooke, widow of King Kamehameha IV, did indeed hike there, in what likely was one of the greatest adventures of her life.

Some historians believe her brother-in-law, King Kamehameha V, had marveled about the beauty of the place, which he had explored during a pig hunt 20 years before, and Emma yearned to see it for herself. The intrepid queen had already scaled Mauna Kea on the Big Island in the early 1860s. In fact, because of her love for such challenging treks, she was affectionately dubbed "Ke Alii Pii Kuahiwi" or "The Mountain-Climbing Chiefess."

Dancers will gather to commemorate Queen Emma's wilderness trek to Waimea.

The fact that there were virtually no trails in the swamp, meaning the going would be strenuous, didn't dissuade Emma. Neither did the possibility of getting lost. She put her trust in the skills of her guide, an old Hawaiian man named Kaluahi, and set out for Alakai from Lawai Kai, her seaside vacation home on the southern coast of Kauai. By the time she reached Waimea, on the west side, her entourage had swelled to 100 men, women, children, hula dancers, musicians and retainers, all mounted on horseback. The cavalcade stretched for nearly half a mile.

When the bridle path became too steep for the horses, the group dismounted and continued on foot, wading through deep, narrow streams; climbing slippery slopes; and trudging through knee-deep bog. In one section of the swamp, they walked over an ancient trail that had been constructed of logs laid horizontally over the mire. One misstep either way and a person could sink chest-deep in the mud.

When darkness fell, everyone huddled in a circle around a fire, comforting each other in the thick fog and biting cold. Few slept. Throughout the long, miserable night, Emma maintained a demeanor of good cheer, entertaining them with ancient mele (songs).

Morning rewarded the weary travelers with magnificent views of Hanalei, Wainiha, Naue and Lumahai from the lookout at Kilohana, 4,000 feet above sea level. Emma was entranced: "Oh, the scenery, mosses, lehua, ferns and wildflowers are perfectly beautiful," she exulted later in a letter to Kamehameha V, adding that she wanted "to go up again in the autumn."

Dancers gather at the Kokee State Park to pay tribute to " The Mountain-Climbing Chiefess."

On Jan. 29, 1871, a huge luau was held in Waimea to celebrate the success of the expedition. Songs and chants written in honor of the event were shared, including one titled "I Waimea O Kalani." Part of it goes:

"On the long trail we moved,
Till the mountaintop was reached.
Ohelo berries were gathered,
For the lady to eat.
She endured the mountain cold,
The cold mountain of Alakai.
This concludes my praise,
Of the name of Queen Emma."

It was in this spirit of joy, fellowship and adoration for the queen that Eo E Emalani I Alakai was launched in 1988. Sponsored by Hui O Laka (the community-centered, nonprofit organization that opened the Kokee Natural History Museum in 1953 and has operated it ever since), this annual festival at Kokee State Park recalls Emma's journey to the upland regions of Kokee 131 years ago.

Highlights include Hawaiian music, demonstrations of traditional crafts such as lau hala weaving and Niihau shell lei-making, performances by hula halau from around the state, and actors representing Emma and her entourage re-creating the scene. This year's celebration is set for Saturday.

Marsha Erickson, executive director of Hui O Laka, still gets chicken skin when she sees the "queen" ride on horseback into Kanaloaloahuluhulu Meadow, where the festival is staged.

"It's breathtaking," Erickson says. "But the core meaning of the event for me is that so many kupuna, kumu and haumana (students) choose to make the journey to these distant mountains to honor Emma -- a great woman of faith, a humanistic leader of endless compassion whose spirit comes to life through them.

"Many old-timers have made the festival a personal pilgrimage to one of Hawaii's cherished places. People come because it is an event of the heart, and it is held in one of the world's loveliest, most peaceful sites," she says.

The Queen and her guide, Kaluahi, leaving the meadow at last year's ceremony.

Erickson describes Eo E Emalani I Alakai as a historical commemoration of the queen's 1871 journey. Because of that, she explains, "Musicians, chanters and dancers are performing for Emma, not the audience, so that always gives the affair an extraordinary poignancy, as if Emma were truly with us. Many new chants have been composed for the queen and offered at the festival. Many old ones have been rediscovered and shared, too.

"Noted Hawaiian authors such as Puakea Nogelmeier and the late George Kanahele have participated by doing readings and signings of their books about Emma," Erickson says.

The event is more important than ever this year, adds Erickson, as "we reflect on the nature of 'great leadership' and its role in the history of a people." She cites Emma's trials and triumphs -- the losses of her 4-year-old son, Prince Albert, in 1862, and her husband the following year; her defeat by David Kalakaua in a heated election for the throne; the key role she played in the establishment of St. Andrew's Priory, the Queen's Hospital (now the Queen's Medical Center) and the Episcopal Church in Hawaii.

"Alii pono, no hoi! (A righteous leader, indeed!)," says Erickson. "We celebrate Emma this year with the thought of inspiring such leadership in today's world."

Eo i Emalani i Alakai

Place: Kokee State Park, Kauai
Time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Admission: Free
Phone: 335-9975
Web site:
Also: On Oct. 13, there will be a Welcome Paina (feast) for the queen from 3 p.m. to sunset at Waimea Plantation Cottages. Entertainment headliners are Eddie Kamae and Emma Veary. Admission, including dinner, costs $40 for those aged 13 and up; $35 if you are a member of the Kokee Natural History Museum. Price for children 12 and under is $15. Without dinner, kids are admitted free with an adult.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer
and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.

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