'Fluming the Ditch...'

Susan Essoyan lives in Honolulu and reports regularly for The Times

When Raymond Kanehailua was a kid growing up in rural North Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii, he and his buddies would slip off into the mountains and go "fluming." That meant sneaking onto Kohala Sugar Co. land and inner-tubing down man-made channels--or flumes--built to carry water from the wet interior of the Kohala Mountains to sugar cane fields on the dry plains.

At age 39, the tall, muscular Hawaiian is getting paid to reenact his childhood trespasses, showing people from all over the world the wonders of the Kohala Ditch.

Despite its humble name, the 22-mile irrigation canal is an engineering feat, clinging to the precipitous sides of the mountains at the 1,000-foot elevation point. Built nearly a century ago, the ditch winds through canopied rain forest, bores through mountains and traverses ravines and waterfalls. Today, sugar has vanished from the region, but the Kohala Ditch and its spectacular surroundings are touching a new generation.

Our family, whose roots reach back 100 years in Hawaii, decided to stay in the islands for our last vacation, and headed to North Kohala, the thumb-shaped chunk of land that makes up the Big Island's north end. Hawaii's economy was struggling, with a downturn in visitors from Asia, and we figured it was our civic duty to spend our holiday dollars here. I was pregnant at the time, and was happy to stay close to home. Horseback riding was out of the question, but "fluming the ditch"--now, that was something we could handle.

At $75 for adults, $55 for children, it was advertised as a guided paddle in inflatable kayaks, a gentle journey in the speckled shade of kukui and guava trees, where wild ginger blossoms scent the air. The 19-foot boats "go with the flow" at a relaxed pace, riding the water in the concrete ditch at roughly 2 to 3 miles per hour. There are no white-water sections, making it an ideal family outing.

"We have taken people from 91 years old to 5 years old, so you know it's really safe," said Kanehailua, who worked as a security guard at the Kona Village Resort, about an hour south along the coast, before landing this hometown job.

The grade is slight, with elevation dropping just 78 feet along the entire course of the ditch. But the ground gives way in breathtaking fashion along parts of it, and there are enough surprises to keep things lively. Paddlers get doused by freshwater springs. In some dark tunnels, the ride speeds up a bit, and those on board must lean back in the dark to avoid bumping their heads.

The demise of sugar in the mid-1970s dealt Kohala a body blow, but created an opportunity for local entrepreneurs with an outdoor bent to give tourists a taste of the back country. Their partner is Chalon International of Hawaii Inc., a Japanese-owned corporation that has title to 23,000 acres of former Kohala Sugar Co. land and is opening some of it to eco-tourism.

Along with the kayak cruise, two family-owned ventures have sprung up to take travelers into the outback, one aboard 125cc Yamaha "Breeze" all-terrain vehicles, the other on foot. Bill Wong, a Kohala native who founded ATV Outfitters Hawaii, will hand you a helmet and an ATV, then guide you through rolling pastures to cliff-top overlooks, down into gullies and to the ocean, pausing to fill you in on folklore and geology along the way. Rob Pacheco and his wife, Cindy, who run Hawaii Forest & Trail, take travelers on guided hikes into otherwise inaccessible areas such as Pololu Valley, where spectacular Kapoloa Falls plunges 500 feet down a sheer emerald cliff.

Such excursions appeal as much to Hawaii residents as tourists. Everyone who heard about our plans to "flume the ditch" decided to join us. My sister-in-law drove two hours up from Hilo with her two children, ages 16 and 13, and friends from Honolulu brought along their 6-year-old and 8-year-old as well. The three-hour outing combines a stunning natural setting with history, culture and the spice of an adventure--no kayaking experience needed.

The operation's guides are all Kohala natives, who really do seem steeped in the history and legends of this fertile region--one of the most populated areas in ancient Hawaii, but now sparsely inhabited and little known. They add depth and personal warmth to this family outing, and a good sprinkling of humor.

The company's headquarters are in the old sugar plantation office at Hawi (pronounced HA-vee), a sleepy rural town less than an hour north of the luxury resorts that stud the Kona-Kohala coastline. There isn't much more to the town--a mom-and-pop grocery store that dates back to plantation days, a restaurant, an inn, a gallery or two. The newest addition? A burrito bar, a testament perhaps to the influx of West Coast visitors now heading to North Kohala.

The excursion starts at company headquarters with a briefing on the area's history. In ancient times, Kohala supported a thriving community of farmers, fishermen and warriors with its fertile soil, fresh water and ample fish. King Kamehameha, the man who united the Hawaiian islands, was born and grew to manhood here. A statue of him stands in the small town of Kapaau, just down the road from Hawi.

After Westerners settled in Hawaii, sugar plantations spread across the dry, leeward plains of Kohala. But sugar is a thirsty crop, requiring 500 gallons of water per pound of refined sugar. So in 1906, against everyone's advice, chief engineer M.M. O'Shaughnessey launched the seemingly impossible scheme of bringing water from the wet, deep valleys of the steep Kohala range over to the plantations near Hawi. (He later became chief engineer for the city of San Francisco and built the Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada.)

About 600 laborers, mostly Japanese immigrants, hacked their way along sheer cliffs with pick and shovel, and dynamited through mountains. They were housed in tents that rotted in the heavy rain, then in corrugated-roof lean-tos. The terrain was treacherous, and the project took a huge toll. Seventeen workers died in the attempt, one death for almost every mile of the ditch. But they finished on time, and the fruit of their labor was an unqualified success.

The $700,000 Kohala Ditch became the lifeblood of the sugar industry, pushing the prosperity of the region to new heights for nearly 70 years. But cheaper competition eventually undercut the plantations in North Kohala, and they shut down in the 1970s, throwing much of the population out of work. Although the state of Hawaii provided capital to start new businesses, 18 of the 19 companies that signed up went broke, according to Kohala Kayak general manager Rodney Inaba.

In the mid-1990s, when Inaba thought about opening his kayak business, such statistics gave him pause. But the retired Honolulu businessman, a native of Holualoa on the Big Island, was pained by his home island's high unemployment. So he and businessman Francis Ruddle gave it a whirl, figuring there was a good chance they'd be out of business in six months. The company took its first paying customers in December 1996 and has been running at close to capacity ever since.

Kayak tours are offered twice a day, seven days a week. After the headquarters briefing, guests load into four-wheel-drive vans for the 10-mile drive to the loading dock. On the way, the driver points out sites of interest, such as former plantation camps, where the bosses divided sugar workers by ethnic group in hopes of squelching organizing efforts. For the final 2 1/2 miles, the van goes off road through pasture and forest, which can be a bumpier experience than the cruise itself.

And then it's time to hit the water. Each boat holds four or five people, depending on their size. Most of the ride is in the open air, with the sights and sounds of the Hawaiian forest surrounding you. The guides identify different trees and plants, some unique to Hawaii, such as lacy, lime-green ferns; others introduced, like wild coffee. The ground drops away as the ditch launches you across ravines. Streams of chilly water surprise paddlers. In the pitch-dark tunnels the lead paddlers in each boat switch on miners' headlights to help them navigate.

Our guide, Kanehailua, who knows these waters from "small kid time," reached over the side to grasp a few tasty freshwater prawns and stuck them in his pocket to take home to his own kids. My rambunctious teenage nephew, not quick enough to grab a shrimp, pulled up some long, slimy strands of algae. He whipped them at my husband, riding one boat ahead. This launched a full-on battle. The guides took it in stride and, at the end of the trip, let paddlers who wished to climb out of the boats and float a little way on their backs.

After the ride, drinks and snacks were served at the edge of the channel. For more substantial fare, kayakers can sample Hawi's culinary delights or amble a couple of miles up the road to Kapaau for "plate lunches," the local staple built around scoops of sticky rice and macaroni salad.

Back at headquarters, the guest comment book brimmed with praise for the kayak cruise. "It's pure dynamite, start to finish," scribbled Tom Shorten of Granite Bay, Calif.

Indeed. Kohala is no plastic fantasy. This is the real Hawaii.


Kohala Kayaking

Getting there: Only United flies nonstop from L.A. to the Big Island. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $602.20. Or fly to Honolulu and catch an inter-island flight to Kona (see Guidebook and Page L13). Car rentals are available at Kona airport.

From Kona, drive north to Waimea, then take Highway 250 along the mountain slopes to Hawi. Or take Highway 19 to Highway 270, which ends above Pololu Valley. Try going up one way, down the other.

Activities: Kohala Mountain Kayak Cruise, P.O. Box 190573, 55-519 Hawi Road, Building No. 3, Hawi, HI 96719; telephone (808) 889- 6922. Twice-daily three-hour guided tours at 8:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., including transport to and from the ditch, end-of-tour refreshments; $75 adults, $55 children 5-18 (no children under 5).

ATV Outfitters Hawaii, P.O. Box 475, Old Sakamoto Building, Kapaau, HI 96755; tel. (888) ATV-7288. Three guided rides daily, 1 1/2 to 2 hours; reservations required. ATV drivers must be 16 and 90-220 pounds (children 8-15 and others can ride "scenery machinery," an oversize ATV driven by a guide); $75 adults, $62.50 children.

Hawaii Forest & Trail, 74-5035 B Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740; tel. (800) 464-1993. Valley waterfall adventure daily, 7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., reservations advised; $89 adults, $79 children 8-12. Other Kohala trips include a mule ride and a cloud forest hike.

For information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 180 Montgomery St., Suite 2360, San Francisco, CA 94104; tel. (800) 353-5846, fax (415) 248-3808, Internet http://www.gohawaii.com.

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