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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pololu to Waimanu -- Part 2 -- By John Hall

Waimanu Valley -- Photo from www.hawaii-guide.com
This is part 2 of of John Hall's recounting of a backpacking trip from Pololu to Waimanu Valley on the Big Island. If you missed it, read part 1 here.

The rain continued as we proceeded for another day to head for Waimanu. Set a course, strike a gulch, climb the mountain, cross the gully, head for Waimanu, and on and on. Once or twice we startled small pigs that seemed astounded to find us there, and quickly disappeared in the brush. That night, I again found suitably spaced, if unnervingly spindly trees for my hammock, but we were out of tree ferns, and Fred and his family had to pitch their tent directly on a muddy bank. Fred recalls that it was the "most miserable, totally wet, sleepless night we've probably ever had." I was amazed that neither of the youngsters ever complained, though I thought I noticed a certain reluctance to join their Dad and me on trips afterwards. I don't know how they cooked their meals. One night they ate cold trail snacks, I believe, and the next huddled under a tarp to cook their dinner. Fortunately, I had brought many books of matches, because my hands were constantly wet andI had nothing dry to wipe them on. After lighting the stove once, the book of matches was too damp to use again, so I had to find a fresh one for every meal. As Tootsie said, we were like travelers in the desert, looking and praying for an oasis, except that we were travelers trapped in an eternally wet oasis looking and praying for a spot of desert!

The fifth day began as a repeat of the previous two as we put on wet clothes, wet socks, and wet muddy boots in the rain. I felt sure we should be getting near the trail, which the map showed running down a broad ridge labeled Laupahoehoe 1 to a gauging station and two cabins marked as New USGS camp, and, further down the mountain, Old USGS camp. Of course, the map had been published in 1957 from surveys done several years before, so even the "New USGS camp" must have been at least 20 years old. I believe it was mid-afternoon when we scrambled up out of a gully onto a broad ridge covered with low brush. I was behind the others when I spied what appeared to be a slightly more open line running perpendicular to our course, but it was so faint and indistinct that I could not be certain it was a trail. It could well have been a natural feature that gave the illusion of a track. I called for the others to wait, while I turned right and went up it a few yards. Then I noticed that some stubs were protruding from the ground at the side of the trace--the ends of stems of the brush that had been cleanly sliced on the angle so typical of machete cuts. The cuts were quite old and it was obvious that the trail was no longer used frequently, if at all. I returned to my friends and announced, with a melodramatic flourish, "Either this is the trail or the pigs have started using machetes!"

We turned to the left and followed the dim path downhill for several miles in the fading light. Just before dusk, we saw the welcome sight of a corrugated aluminum roof on the slope below us. The New USGS camp had been built with a timber frame and aluminum walls and roof. The floor had rotted out and collapsed, but there was a pile of left-over aluminum sheets beside the cabin and we carried these inside to provide a floor that would keep us out of the mud and debris. The cabin was in such poor shape that we were not sure whether it was the New or the Old USGS camp, so Fred and I hiked on down the ridge for a quarter mile or so, until we could look down the slope and see the ruins of another camp a mile below us, which must have been the Old camp. I slung my hammock between two posts and the Dodges made themselves comfortable, relatively speaking, on the floor. After two nights in the rain, we were glad to be under roof, as primitive as it was. Fred claims that I slung my hammock under the only sound section of the roof and that they were still exposed to leaks and drips, but he tends to be seditious, and inclined to cast unjustified doubt on the felicity of my arrangements. I'm sure I wouldn't do such a thing.

During the night we heard some very strange calls outside. It sounded like some night flying bird was abundant in the vicinity, but I could not imagine what the noise could be. I knew there were night herons in the islands, and since the name implied that they were active at night, I thought that perhaps they had a rookery nearby, although there was no open water near large trees in the vicinity such as I believed they would favor for their nests. (After we returned to town, I mentioned these sounds to some of my friends in the Audubon Society, and they urged me to publish a report of the observations in the Elepaio, which I did). Apparently we had stumbled upon a significant colony of Newell's Shearwater, a sea bird that was known to nest on Kauai where it digs burrows under the uluhe on remote ridges. After our report, one of the Fish and Wildlife experts on the Big Island planned to hike down to the site to confirm the existence of this colony, but I never heard whether this was done.

In the morning we rose to find the weather clearing, and that we were not far from the rim of Waimanu Valley. We hiked makai down the broad slope parallel to the rim until we came to the ridge lying just upvalley from the gulch formed by Wai'ilikahi Stream as it pours over therim of Waimanu Valley as Wai'ilikahi Falls. With backpacks on, the descent of this very steep ridge was a precarious one, but as the alternative was to return the way we had come, we were determined to take it. Fortunately, the mass of uluhe helped to retard our descent, although at one point Tootsie lost her footing and tumbled down the slope a dozen feet or more. Fred was below her, and as she bumped into a tree, which slowed her fall, he was able to grab her. Luckily she was unhurt, and by cautiously picking our way we finally reached the bottom safely.

From above, the valley floor had appeared to be a lush spread of inviting green, a meadow offering easy passage. I had been in Waimanu Valley before, and knew that there was a path leading from the beach up to Wai'ilikahi Falls, but I was not certain how far from it we were, and the guava and Christmas berry bush in that direction appeared to be fairly dense, so I suggested that we cross the valley floor instead. This turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation--one of the worst I have made in a long lifetime devoted to perfecting the art! The lush greenery of the floor was composed of great clumps of some kind of giant grass that towered over our heads while the footing was an irregular tangle of swampy holes and hummocks that required great effort to move through. We should have turned around immediately when we encountered this obstacle course, but we kept thinking it would soon get better. At one point, we even tried to take to the stream, hoping it would be easier walking, but the water was over our heads, so this was not feasible either.

After two hours or so of fighting this morass in the hot sun and high humidity, we approached the palm trees lining the dunes behind the beach, only to find a shallow lagoon lying like a moat across our path. Charlie said later that this crossing of the valley floor was the most miserable, arduous, and unnecessary part of the trip as far as he was concerned. I slung my pack up onto my head and waded out into the muck and water, finding the deepest part came up to my armpits. I'm not sure how the the Dodges were able to get across, but in short order we were at last assembled on the beach, in an idyllic campsite in a valley that seemed completely deserted except for ourselves. We quickly spread out everything we owned to dry and took a dip to get clean, basking in the welcome sun and cool sea breezes, and the chance to be dry for the first time in days.

The next day we discovered that there was a good trail up to Wai'ilikahi Falls, about a 15 minute walk from the beach, and probably only a hundred yards or so from where we had descended the wall of the valley. We spent that day relaxing and drying out in Waimanu Valley, walking up to the falls, and taking a dip in the pool at its foot. I recalled that we had the valley all to ourselves, but one of Fred's pictures seems to show a stranger in our group at the falls, so perhaps there were a few other people there. In any case, the Valley was certainly much less visited at that time thanit is now. The next day we hiked out the 10 miles to Waipio Valley, meeting a couple of young fellows on their way in to do some conservation work, and taking another swim in a pool along the way. Tootsie startled another pig on a bend of the trail, but in all, the trip was much less eventful than our previous days. We had planned to do the trip in 5 days, but just in case, we carried provisions for 8. Not everything went wrong! It took us exactly 8 days. Fred's oldest daughter, Francesca, and some friends met us on the other side of Waipio Valley, somewhat concerned as we were later than expected and because of the storm, and took us into town.

Fred said he'd like to do the trip again sometime, but in the reverse direction. Locating the end of the Kohala Ditch Trail from above, however, and finding the right ridge to descend to reach it, would require a degree of clairvoyance, and I could not imagine trying to scale the precipitous Wai'ilikahi Falls ridge through the dense uluhe with a pack on my back, but I guess this goes to show that there are some backpackers even crazier than I am. In any case, we never did. This was a memorable trip, and illustrates Hall's First Law of Backpacking quite satisfactorily: "A well-planned trip in which everything runs smoothly will soon be forgotten." It is only when something goes awry and one is successful in surviving perils, mishaps,and misery, enduring acute anxiety, discomfort and exhaustion, but finally emerging more or less unscathed, that one looks back on the expedition in later years and recalls it fondly to mind while reminiscing with the comrades who shared its "delights!"


  1. Really enjoyed reading this account!

  2. Yikes! You guys made is sound fun! Good job and good writing!

  3. That is some amazing feat you folks did! I am very intrigued to give it a try, and re explore this beautiful historic area.