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When a pair of earthquakes rippled through the Hawaiian Islands on a sunny Sunday morning in October 2006, injuries were limited, no lives were lost and communities pitched in to reach “business as usual” status as quickly as possible.
Most did. But in Hawaii Island’s North Kohala district, the historic and vital Kohala Ditch irrigation system was severely damaged. Landslides covered flumes and the water flow from rivers snaking through the Kohala Mountains came to an abrupt halt.
That direct punch to the century-old waterway also forced the closing of eco-operator Flumin’ Da Ditch’s kayak tours through a two-and-one-half-mile stretch of the 23-mile system.
After a five-year hiatus that saw a two-year, $6 million repair to the damaged ditch, kayaking is back in the flow. In 2010, landowner Surety Kohala Company approached ATV Outfitters’ Bill and Sandie Wong to reopen the historic canal for recreational tours. Today, their Kohala Ditch Adventures provides visitors with an otherwise inaccessible taste of North Kohala by floating through history.
The first thing that impressed me when I arrived at the company’s headquarters in Halaula was how the business has such a family feel. I found out that most of the 30 employees are fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation locals who have grown up together.
I was greeted by Elmer, the resident feline who actually has his own business card. After the obligatory neck scratching, he solicited from all 10 people in our group, our guides briefed us, provided us with life belts, loaded us into 12-passenger Pinzgauer military utility vehicles and hauled us to a privately owned Kohala Mountain area etched by the ditch.
As we took a short hike through the rainforest to a 150-foot flume bridge with a beautiful waterfall view, guide Kelii helped us understand what an engineering feat we were witnessing. In 1905, approximately 600 Japanese laborers were hired to build the system to channel ground and stream water to North Kohala’s plantation fields, ranches and dairies.
With picks, hoes, shovels, chisels and a bit of dynamite, the crew cut through the rainforest, built bridges, dug tunnels and lined them with five-inch square stones made by hand. It took 18 months to complete the project, with 16 miles of the ditch running through 57 earthen tunnels and seven miles open to the lush surroundings.
Once we slid into our 18-foot, four-passenger kayaks, Kelii continued to explain all the difficulties in repairing and maintaining the ditch so it can remain a vital water source. This 1 1/4-hour floating portion is equal parts relaxation and education, as Kelii shared the region’s vast culture, history and folklore. Everything links back to the aina (land), and we discovered it in a truly special way.
Front and back passengers donned miner headlamps to help with visibility in the tunnels. Paddles were used more for guiding than propelling, as the system’s slight downhill slant creates natural floating.
Our first tunnel was a doozy, rambling and curving along for 1,800 feet. There was literally “no light at the end of the tunnel” for a good portion of that 15-minute stretch. The remaining nine tunnels were shorter, requiring us to dodge and duck at times to avoid getting scalped.
If your clients are looking for rigorous exercise, they won’t find it here. The hike is mellow, and there’s no need to paddle in the ditch. That all seemed just fine with our group, since so many of us woke up early to make the drive north from the Kohala Coast.
We were asked to wear clothing we would not mind getting wet, but there was not much of that action either, aside from our seats and feet. This soft adventure provided its rush in knowing we were doing something extremely eco-focused and way off the radar.
At the end, we enjoyed macadamia nuts and a cold beverage before hopping into six-passenger guide-driven ATVs that meander through a macadamia nut orchard and back to the base area. After the trek, Bill Wong explained to me how Kohala Ditch breathes more than water into the community.
“When our sugar mill closed down in the 1970s, the North Kohala town of Hawi pretty much closed as well,” Wong said. “No one knew anything but sugar. So to see Hawi revived in part by our eco-tours makes it all special.”
Wong added that a good portion of his company’s tour-generated revenue is earmarked for maintenance of the intricate network and its structural integrity.
“When visitors buy a seat, it helps us keep the ditch flowing for the farmers and cattle ranchers in the area,” he said. “It’s a vital part of economic sustainability for the community and Hawaii Island.”
Kohala Ditch Adventures888-288-7288www.kohaladitchadventures.com
Tours: Six tours are offered daily between 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Rates: $139 per adult; $75 per child ages 5-11. Commission: Varies.