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Lake Waiau

Water captured in the piko (the center) of a taro leaf, the nodes of bamboo or the coconut is considered pure and sacred water because it has not touched the ground. Similarly and even more so, the water of Lake Waiau, suspended high above in the realm of Wakea, is considered the most sacred.

Hunters and other regular visitors to the mountain collect the water from Waiau and bring it back to the family to drink for good health.

Water from Waiau continues to be used in rituals of dedication, such as the blessing of a new canoe.

Waiau is also an area where families take the piko, or umbilical cords of their babies, to bury, and where the bones or ashes of deceased family members are placed.

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Wao Akua, the place of the Gods. I would not just go up for willy-nilly energy. I’d go up to do special things, to put the umbilical cord of my baby in there, to plant my kupuna, my mama that has passed. We did holy, special, deep things up there because of the immensity of its power.

Manu Aluli Meyer
Philosopher of Education
excerpt from Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege

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Mauna Kea falls in the senior line genealogy. During the 1880's, Emma Rooke, the wife of the late Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha, and David La’amea Kalakaua were in competition for the position of ruling chief for this kingdom of Hawai’i. Both of them needed to prove their connection to the senior line and connect back to a wahi pana.*

David La‘amea Kalakaua went to Kanaloa-Kaho’olawe to bathe in the waters of the ocean god Kanaloa. Emma went to the top of Mauna Kea to bathe in the waters of Waiau. The ceremony was to cleanse in Lake Waiau at the piko** of the island. The water caught at Lake Waiau was considered pure water of the gods much like the water caught in the piko of the kalo leaf is thought of as being pure therefore it was used medicinally.

Mauna Kea Science Reserve and Hale Pohaku Complex Development Plan Update:
Oral History and Consultation Study, and Archival Literature Research
Kepa Maly
Copyright 1999: Kumu Pono Associates

*wahi pana: legendary place
**piko: navel

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It is reported that Hawaiians would often choose a pool of water to watch the reflection of the moon, observing over time the north-south swing of its orbit. Waiau has attracted navigators and other sky-watchers to its shores to view and track the motion of heavenly bodies as their reflections move across the lake.

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Climbing over much old aa lava, we came out at last on the weathered and eroded side of the old volcanic mountain.

We traveled down the slope of the shoulder of the mountain wherein nestles the surprise of Mauna Kea — Lake Waiau. Here, as the sun dipped behind the blue waters of the Pacific, we gazed with astonished eyes upon a tiny emerald gem, glacier made in some past time, set in a niche in the arid side of Mauna Kea.

We pitched our tent hurriedly by the green, cold lake. We were in an Arctic zone under a tropic sky. Taking our last look across the lake, we saw the image of fair Venus shimmering light across the tiny, rippling waves. A thousand jewels glittered in the reflected light.

On Arctic Peaks 'Neath Tropic Skies
Afoot Over Mounts Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Largest Isle
by Lawrence Hite Daingerfield
Paradise of the Pacific
December 1922

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Suspended in a stony alpine desert near the top of Mauna Kea at 13,000 feet, Waiau is one of the world's highest alpine lakes and the highest lake in the Pacific.

There are questions about its source.

Rainfall at the summit is less than 15 inches a year. Precipitation is almost entirely snow and fog. Where does the lake water come from? Why is there always water? And why doesn't it drain through the porous cinders below?

Could the source of the lake’s water be melting permafrost (ground ice), all that remains of a once-giant glacier that covered the summit during the last ice age?

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That glacier formed Lake Waiau, and it gave birth, I believe, to a lot of the springs that we now have. Some of that water is very, very old. Waiau is another of the kupua.* Waiau is the kupua of Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea. So Waiau is the keeper of all these hidden waters. Under Mauna Kea, under the lake and all the way through that whole area are large streams of water. And Waiau as the kupua, is the keeper of all those springs and hidden reservoirs, the great water supply of that island.

Keawe Vredenburg

*kupua: supernatural being

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There’s a mystery about the lake and that is that it doesn’t seem to have enough water to actually maintain itself. People say, gee, it’s not that deep of a lake and it should evaporate because in the higher altitude there’s less moisture. It’s very arid. However, they think that there is an ice cap down through the lava tube. So it holds the water in the lake.

Kealoha Pisciotta
Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

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In certain respects the most remarkable drainage feature of the Mauna Kea summit area is Lake Waiau — a perennial body of water in the bowl of the comparatively old Waiau ash cone.

Waiau has the appearance of an ordinary crater lake, but striae directed toward the basin from the northeast, morainal deposits high up on its southern slope, and scour marks on its outlet bar, show that it was occupied by glacial ice…to a depth of 100 feet or more.

The possibility is suggested that downward seepage of lake water is impeded not only by fine-grained ash and organic material but also by ground ice that probably forms each year.

General features and glacial geology of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
by Herbert Gregory and Chester Wentworth
bulletin of the Geological Society of America
Vol. 48, 1937
Read more

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“Lake Waiau is a nearly circular pond, 300 feet in diameter, situated on the summit platform of Mauna Kea at an altitude of approximately 13,007 feet. It is the highest lake within the boundaries of the Pacific Ocean Basin. The southern rim of the depression containing the lake is a low segment of a cinder cone, Pu‘u Waiau, on which rests moraine of the latest period of glaciation.

The lake water is perched on a layer of silt and mud washed into the basin from the sides of the cone and from the glacial moraine. The lowest point of the rim is on the western side, where the lake water occasionally overflows into the headwaters of Pohakuloa Gulch. The water is derived entirely from precipitation and runoff from the edges of the basin.”

Geology and Groundwater Resources of the Island of Hawaii:
Hawaii Division of Hydrography Bulletin 9. Stearns, H. T., and Macdonald, G. A.

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Stearns and Macdonald also observe that the water of Waiau is "probably perched on ground ice." While the spring of Waihu, situated at an elevation of 10,387 feet above sea level, is "perched on ashy hill wash interbedded with lavas." Stearns and Macdonald also suggest that "the Waihu Springs on Mauna Kea are supplied in part by melting ground ice."

excerpt from Mauna Kea – Kuahiwi Ku Ha‘o i ka Malie
A Report on Archival and Historical Documentary Research
Ahupua‘a of Humu‘ula, Ka‘ohe, districts of Hilo and Hamakua, Island of Hawai‘i
By Kepa Maly
©1997 Kepa Maly, Kumu Pono Associates and Native Lands Institute

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Afterwards, when we had had the coldest drink I have ever taken in these islands, from a mountain spring at an elevation of 10,500 feet that is probably seepage from the Crater Lake.

Mauna Kea, the Highest of Island Peaks
by Alonzo Gartley
The Mid-Pacific Magazine
November 1911 (vol. II, no.5)

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Pyroclastic deposits of the Pu‘u Waiau cinder cone are well exposed immediately west of the lake, where the cone is dissected by the upper end of Pohakuloa gulch. The deposits consist of scoria and bombs alternating with layers of ash and lapilli. The fabric is similar to that of other cinder cones, but the deposits, particularly the finer grained, originally glassy ash and lapilli, have been altered, causing them to be less permeable than the pyroclastic deposits of most of the neighboring cinder cones. Similar deposits are exposed in the flanks of Pu‘u Poliahu.

The decreased permeability has led to greater than normal gullying of the flanks of Pu‘u Waiau and Pu‘u Poliahu and apparently accounts for retention of water in Lake Waiau.

Mauna Kea Summit and South Flank
Field Trip Guide Book
by Edward W. Wolfe
U.S. Geological Survey
May 20, 1987

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Their [Wentworth/Powers]* research, primarily in the study area which they called the Waihu branch of Pohakuloa Valley, led them to conclude that the ground water supplying the springs is perched in and on top of permeable glacial drift deposits, some of which are buried under later lava flows. Stearns subsequently challenged the glacial origin of the springs.

The glacial thesis appears to be correct, however, based on evidence collected by Porter** regarding the origin of Lake Waiau and, thus probably all of the freshwater lenses at higher elevations on Mauna Kea.

Archaeological Reconnaissance of Hopukani, Waihu, and Liloe Springs, Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i
by Patrick C. McCoy
prepared for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
October 1984
Dept. of Anthropology, Bishop Museum

* Glacial Springs on the island of Hawaii
Chester K. Wentworth & William F. Powers
Journal of Geology
51 (8): 542-547

** “Quaternary Stratigraphy and Chronology of Mauna Kea: A 380,000 Year Record of Mid-Pacific Volcanism and Ice-Cap Glaciation”
by Stephen C. Porter
Geological Society of America Bulletin II,

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In the September 20, 1892 issue of the Hawaiian Gazette, W. D. Alexander penned an article titled "The Ascent of Mauna Kea, Hawaii."

At last about 3 P.M. we clambered over the rim of a low crater west of the central cones, and saw before us the famous lakelet of Waiau. It is an oval sheet of the purist water, an acre and three quarters in extent, surrounded by an encircling ridge from 90 to 135 feet in height, except at the northwest corner, where there is an outlet, which was only two feet above the level of the lake at the time of our visit. The overflow has worn out a deep ravine, which runs first to west and then to the southwest. A spring on the southern side of the mountain, called "Wai Hu," is believed by natives to be connected with this lake. The elevation of Waiau is at least 13,050 feet, which is 600 feet higher than Fujiyama. There are few bodies of water in the world higher than this...No fish are found in its waters.

excerpt from Mauna Kea – Kuahiwi Ku Ha‘o i ka Malie
A Report on Archival and Historical Documentary Research
Ahupua‘a of Humu‘ula, Ka‘ohe, districts of Hilo and Hamakua, Island of Hawai‘i
By Kepa Maly
©1997 Kepa Maly, Kumu Pono Associates and Native Lands Institute

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Fossilized organisms have been discovered, frozen in time within a year round permafrost layer, itself only recently found. The extent of the permafrost is not yet known, but parts of it lie beneath the cinders of the cones. An underlying layer of permafrost, acting as a seal, may account for why the water of Lake Waiau does not drain through the porous lava. Other speculation of why the water seems permanently pooled is that it is perched above a dense layer of tuff.

Lake Waiau is located at the 13,020-foot elevation in the crater of Pu‘u Waiau cinder cone. It is only about eight feet deep and 240 feet in diameter. Snow melt feeds it yearly. The water is thick with algae and supports a "tiny community of microscopic life and frozen fossils from a prehistoric era."

The Top of Mauna Kea
Story and photos by Pat Duefrene
Aloha magazine
August 1, 1984, v7 n4

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"The water from Waiau Lake is a veritable infusion. Bacteria are extremely numerous and probably the chief factor in causing the turbidity of the water. A small ciliate...a few diatoms and numerous dead bodies of a crustacean, Daphnia, which are being consumed by a fish mold. The muck contains several blue-green algae, desmids, diatoms, at least two species of nematodes, hosts of bacteria and many kinds of protozoa. [letter written by Dr. H. L. Lyon]

The Plant Ecology of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
by Constance E. Hartt and Marie C. Neal
Experiment Station, Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association
and Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu
Ecology, Vol 21. No. 2

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The lake has suffered the indignities of modern times. It was once investigated as a source of water for the Hilo Kohala Railroad; stocked with trout that didn’t survive; and touted in magazines as a tropical ice skating rink.

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A party representing the Hilo Kohala Railroad recently carried to the lake, at a good deal of expense, lumber for a raft and a 1000 foot sounding line. Only 40 feet of their line was needed, for that was the depth of Lake Waiau. They thought to make use of the water if the lake was of any great depth.

High mountains of Hawaii
by Charles Baldwin
The Mid-Pacific Magazine
April 1, 1916, voI n4

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Lake Waiau, a small body of water located in a depression at 13,007 feet, has never been known to run dry and probably furnished them [Hawaiians of old] with drinking water as it is situated not far from their old quarries. Of interest is the recent introduction of trout eggs to this Lake by the Territorial Division of Fish and Game. Last May a number of eggs were taken up and deposited in the water and a recent examination showed that hundreds of the eggs had hatched and that the young trout were apparently enjoying their new home. And with a growth of trees around the edge to act as a wind break and prevent evaporation there is no doubt but that the level of the water therein can be maintained at a more constant and perhaps even higher elevation.

From surfing to skating in twenty-four hours is not at all impossible. During the winter months Lake Waiau is usually covered with a layer of ice often times thick enough to bear the weight of a horse and the surrounding hills are usually shrouded in snow. Last winter it was the privilege of the writer to actually engage in snowshoeing near the Lake and for skiing this section would be ideal. With the advent of good roads this area will become more easily accessible to the average tourist and may perhaps in time serve as a winter playground for Hawaii.

The Mauna Kea Forest Reserve
by L. W. Bryan, Assistant Territorial Forester
Paradise of the Pacific
December 1927


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