“Rob Pacheco hikes for a living”. That’s how an article in This Week Hawaii introduced the co-founder of Hawaii Forest and Trail. Doesn’t sound so bad to us. And in a way, it’s true. But it’s a bit of a disservice to Rob and the role he plays in raising awareness of, and protecting, Hawaii’s unique natural habitats. Though Rob would agree, the best way to get close to the island’s unique nature is on foot.
Since starting the tour company in 1993 with his wife Cindy, Rob has dedicated his days to sharing his passion for the islands’ incredibly diverse nature and landscape with others. For Rob, spending time in nature isn’t a job. It’s a calling. And while Rob wouldn’t change it, it never felt like a choice. “It’s just who I am,” Rob says.
Rob's passion for the outdoors began long before he arrived on the Big Island. In fact, it began by exploring his parent’s bookshelf.
“I read everything I could get my hands on from an early age,” Rob recalls. “I actually read the complete World Book Encyclopedia in the fourth and fifth grade.
“Growing up in rural Northern California, I was surrounded by fields, wetlands, streams and rivers. My earliest memories are of exploring and playing in this landscape known as the Butte Sink. It’s a major resting area for birds along the Pacific flyway, one of the planet’s great migratory routes. Each fall and, to a lesser extent, in the spring, millions of birds descend there in a great spectacle.
“My parents had a copy of [James] Audubon’s Birds of North America. One summer morning, I took this huge tabletop book sat in a stand of tule rush with an old pair of my mom’s binoculars. I wanted to figure out the name of a bird that hid in the rush. Everyone called it a ‘sh*tsquawk’. It was called a sh*tsquawk because when disturbed it would burst into the air with a loud squawk while simultaneously… well, you can guess.
“After a bit of waiting, I found the bird standing upright, perfectly motionless in the shadows. I opened Audubon and there on the first page was my bird, the American bittern. That discovery changed my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun the journey of a naturalist. It’s a journey that I’m still on today.
While Rob’s dedication to the natural world began with the birds, it was the bees that first brought him to Hawaii.
“I first moved to Hawaii to work a seasonal job while studying. I was working for a commercial beekeeper raising queen bees, something I’d done since high school.”
“I arrived in Hawaii with virtually no knowledge of the islands. I was gobsmacked. Landing in Kona I was instantly captivated by the lava fields. Turning onto the highway from the airport, a couple of common myna birds hopped across the road. I nearly caused a collision pulling over to identify them.”
“By the time I arrived in deep South Kona, I was smitten and overwhelmed with questions and wonderment. I had landed on one of earth’s greatest natural history settings in complete ignorance.”
If Rob’s relationship with Hawaii was love at first sight, his appreciation for hiking took a little longer to build. It was back at university in Boulder, Colorado, that hiking became more than a mode of transport.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Boulder that I discovered a dedicated hiking community. There were folks who walked for the sake of walking! Even today, while leading guests on hikes, it’s hard for me to pass up on stories along the way, but I have to keep the pace up.
Stories are just as much a part of Rob’s work as hiking is. In fact, it was the stories of Hawaii’s landscapes that brought him back to the Big Island after college – and it is sharing those stories, and protecting their protagonists, that has kept him there for 30 years.
“Originally I was astonished that very few folks who lived here and visited here, understood the remarkable story of Hawaii’s nature,” Rob explains.
“Not only is Hawaii one the planet’s greatest treasures of nature, it is also one whose native ecosystems and species are the most endangered. We have one of the highest rates of extinction on earth.”
“People needed to know this if there was to be any chance of slowing the demise. Later, I came to the conviction that humans also need nature in their lives to be healthy and spiritually whole. The power of Hawaii’s landscapes, the ease in which her stories reveal themselves to the visitor was a direct way of connecting visitors to nature.”
You might think Rob would get bored telling the same tales over and over. Think again. Hawaii’s islands are unique not only in their landscapes, but in their constant evolution.
“Think about Hawaii for a moment. Volcanoes rise from the middle of the largest ocean creating the most isolated archipelago. Though extremely isolated, life finds a way here. That life then transforms into new, unique, endemic species.
“Think Madagascar, the Galapagos – Hawaii is just as profound, and in many ways, surpasses the evolutionary tale we find in those places. “
In recent times Hawaii has, like much of the world, become a little less wild. But on the conservation front, progress is being made.
“It’s gotten a bit busier and more crowded here, we’ve got big-box stores and most of the major national chains, which is more ‘mainlandy’. Rob says.
“From a conservation perspective things have improved on some fronts. Hundreds of thousands of acres have gone from grazing pasture to management for native resources. There is a much broader public awareness of Hawaii’s unique ecosystems and the endangered nature of those resources, so there’s a lot more public engagement and support.”
And if respect and understanding of Hawaii’s ecosystems has grown, Rob and the team at Hawaii Forest and Trail have played their part. Driven by the mantra that “conservation begins with education,” Rob and the team work with students in schools, sponsoring free field trips and tree planting. By connecting the next generation of guardians with the island and its past, they are helping to protect its future.
When he isn’t guiding, hiking Hawaii’s hidden trails alone has connected Rob even more closely with its history and its legends, or moolelo, as they are known in Hawaiian.
“Honestly, I love solo hiking the most.” Rob says. “When I’m hiking alone, it clears my mind and settles my soul.
“Many years ago I was exploring the Pololu Valley. I ended up in this low hollow in a dry stream bed at a dead end. This valley is a dry fjord, with cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the valley floor.
“I didn’t want to bushwack back through the jungle so I decided to scale up the wall to get back up to the valley floor. Not the smartest choice. I ended up having to pull myself up a very muddy and almost vertical cliff face by grabbing guava trees and clawing the ridge. My hands were a mess. I had scratches all over my arms and somehow lost my machete. When I finally got to the top, I laid back exhausted trying to ignore the swarm of mosquitoes.
“As I rested and caught my breath I suddenly remembered an old moolelo. It was about the creation of the first man in Hawaii. Deep in the Kohala volcano, Kane, one of the four primary Hawaiian deities, made himself a creature out of sticks for company.
“At first, the stickman had straight arms and legs. Kane saw that it was difficult for him to walk in the rugged valleys of the mountain, so he took a club and broke the arms in two to make elbows. Then he broke the legs to make knees. Now the stickman could move better – he could hike!
“As the stickman moved up and down the valley walls, the ends of the sticks splintered and that’s how he got his toes and fingers. I really empathized with that story at the time and I gave thanks it came back to me at that moment.”
So Rob knows better than most that Hawaii’s landscape can be brutal as well as beautiful. When we handed over a pair of our Cloudridge hiking boots to try, we knew they were in for a serious test.
“Hawaii is an incredibly challenging place to keep outfitted properly,” Rob explains. “We can experience a year’s worth of seasons on one hike here. And that’s not hyperbole. The terrain can be unforgivingly rugged. I’ve destroyed a pair of new boots in one hike a few times in the lava fields or caving.”
“My first impression of the Cloudridge was, ‘nice fit!’ I’m in the camp that boots should be comfortable when you first put them on – and they are. And they’ve gotten even better as I’ve worn them. I like how light they are but they are very rugged and supportive. The lacing is just how I like it and easy to get a good even tension across the foot.
“I’ve been surprised by the outsole. When I first put them on they felt very cushy but grippy, I wondered how they’d hold up on lava. They are very tough. Another thing that happens to our boots over here, especially with light boots, is it’s easy to rip the material as the sides and toebox because of our sharp rock and tropical vegetation. The Cloudridge have been bombproof so far. Oh, and they breathe really well.
As well as a serious terrain test, our product team will be getting a longevity test as well. Since it first erupted from the Pacific Ocean five million years ago, Hawaii’s story has never stopped evolving. And as long as there are stories, Rob Pacheco will be out there telling them.
Asked if he’ll ever get tired of hiking, Rob’s answer is unequivocal: