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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pololu to Waipio, Part 1 -- by John Hall

John Hall. Photo by Nathan Yuen

It was August of 1977 when Fred Dodge and his two teen-age children, Charlie, 17, and Alyce (Tootsie), 16, and I hiked across the north slope of the Kohala mountain from the end of the road above Pololu Valley to Waipio Valley. I had hiked the Kohala Ditch trail with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club some years before on a trip organized by Dick Booth, I believe. On that trip we had taken the inland trail, and wound behind a waterfall and in and out of many deep gulches before reaching the end of the trail. This time we stayed on the coastal route, crossing the mouth of Pololu Valley and climbing the wall on the farside. Here the trail forks, with the right branch running up the ridge and eventually connecting with the inland trail in Honokane Nui Valley.

We intended to take the left fork, but it crossed a patch of bare dirt at the junction and was less obvious, so we missed it and hiked some distance up the ridge before realizing our mistake. This is standard procedure for a Dodge-Hall hike. Each of us suffers from the misguided notion that the other one is paying attention and will keep us on the trail! Eventually, we found the right trail, however, and followed it down and across the mouth of Honokane Nui and over the next ridge to a small but lovely campsite near Bill Sproat's cabin in Honokane Iki. There is a small, but secluded bay at the mouth of Honokane Iki, and I slung my hammock between two trees at the head of this bay, while Fred and his youngsters put up their tent on a flat nearby. Cliffs lined thesides of the little inlet and coconut palms graced the shore at thehead. In all, it would be hard to find a more beautiful and tranquil camping spot.

Honokane Iki -- Photo by timberwolf.smugmug.com/
In the morning, I had the usual hassle with Fred over whether to leave at a reasonable hour (the crack of dawn) or sleep late and diddle around until it got nice and hot so we could have a good sweat while climbing the hills and, at the end of the day, have to grope around in the dark to set up camp and fix supper. Fred claims I've sometimes insisted that we leave at 4:00 AM. He exaggerates! I may rouse people out of bed at 4:00 AM, but am rarely successful in getting everyone on the trail much before 7:00. We climbed out of the valley and headed up the ridge toward the second junction with the inland trail. We had lunch at a large, old cabin on a dry ridge, above Waipahi Stream, just before the junction. At this time, no one was living along the ditch, and the cabins were no longer being maintained and were becoming dilapidated.

We then joined the inland trail and began to traverse the slope of the Kohala Mountain, winding in and out of gulches large and small. Many of these were sheer-walled and very deeply cut. I remember crossing one plank bridge, no more than 12 or 14 feet long, that spanned a very deep ravine. I dropped a pebble from the center of the span and counted the seconds until it hit bottom. I estimated the floor was nearly 200 feet below us! In many spots, the trail had been hewn into the side of these steep walls. There was one reach where the trail angled upward for quite a long distance along the wall, with an extremely steep, nearly sheer drop to the left, and an equally steep cliff above. I think this was probably in Honopue Valley. As I was ascending this trail, a few hundred yards ahead of the Dodges, I noticed a large black rock lying in the trail a short distance ahead, and thought to myself,

"That rock sure looks like a pig!"

Then it stood up, and I realized I was facing a large black boar! There was a small alcove in the wall at the side of the trail, where the ditch workers had carved out a niche for shelter, I assume, and I wondered if I could duck into that if the boar charged. I didn't much relish the idea of being cornered in such a small space, but I didn't want to get knocked off the side of the trail either--it was a long, long way to the bottom. Fortunately, the boar took a good look at me, and turned and trotted out of sight up the path, and we never saw him again. Pigs were abundant along the trail. Fred also had an encounter with one after he'd dropped his pack for a break. He walked up the trail a short distance and encountered a large pig. Reaching reflexively for his machete, he realized he'd left it with his pack. He turned to make a hasty retreat, but looking back, discovered the pig was doing the same. As he said later,

"I guess the way John and I looked was enough to scare anyone!" It started raining that day and we were glad to reach the last of the ditch cabins for the night. This was a small cabin in a very lush, wet-looking area, and we slept on the floor, our last dry night's sleep for several days. This cabin had a small fire-pit built into one outside wall where it could serve to heat a simple home-made furo. The furo was made of galvanized iron and just large enough for one person to squat in comfortably. It must have been quite a luxury for the ditch tenders to relax in this hot bath after a long day of patrolling the ditch in the cold and wet. We found a patch of watercress in a wet spot near the cabin and picked some for a salad. Fred noticed an ancient bottle of vinegar in the cabin. The lid was rusted in place, but he was able to wrench it off, and to our surprise, the vinegar still seemed to be good, so we had watercress salad with vinegar with our supper.

Approximate route from Pololu to Waimanu
The next day we continued along the ditch in a steady drizzle. It was obvious that few people went beyond the last cabin and the trail was increasingly overgrown and difficult to push through. Eventually, we could no longer identify it at all. According to my old topo map, the Kohala Ditch Trail ends at Waikaloa Stream, but I am not sure we actually got that far. Certainly there was no major stream where we finally lost the trail. A straight line route, as the crow flies, from the end of the trail at Waikaloa Stream to the near side wall of Waimanu Valley is less than two and a half miles long. It was to take us 3 days of hard, wet, miserable, hiking to get there. We were caught in a major storm. The rain never let up for the next 3 days, but maintained a steady, drenching drizzle, quite often with bursts of heavier rain. I had lined my pack with plastic bags, but after this trip I put grommets in the bottom of each compartment to serve as drain holes, as I found that the fabric, while not exactly waterproof, would (and did) hold about an inch of water in each pouch, so that it had every opportunity to find any pin-hole leak in the plastic bags. Fortunately, my sleeping bag and matches stayed reasonably dry. Fred and the kids were not so lucky. They slept in wet sleeping bags.

When we neared the end of the detectable trail, we were in a lush gulch choked with uluhe and other dense vegetation. We took out our machetes and pushed on to the end of the next ridge, and then, trying to find the least precipitous route to the ridge top, carved our way up the steep slope. The going was heavy. At times we could follow a pig trail, but for some reason, the pigs didn't want to go where we did, so these sections tended to be short. Fortunately, once we were well up on the top, the vegetation thinned out and progress was easier. Much of the slope of the Kohala Mountain in this area approximates the original contour of the shield volcano, lowered somewhat by sheet erosion, perhaps, but fairly flat, with a relatively gentle slope. This mountain is unique in Hawai'i in being covered by vast sheets of sphagnum moss, which coats these slopping plains with an ankle-deep layer of water-filled spongy vegetation. A few scraggly olapa and `ohi'a trees are scattered across this area, most of them not much larger in diameter than my arm. There is not much other vegetation in this boggy terrain. I was fortunate that these frail trees, though they bent, and complained at the weight, were just strong enough to support my hammock with me in it, though I lived in constant fear of being gently lowered into the wet moss every night as I slept. If I had weighed a few pounds more, I might well have been soaked.

Once on this plain, we set a compass course for Waimanu Valley and headed in that direction. Before long, we encountered a gulch too deep to cross and turned uphill to find a spot where it became shallow enough to traverse. The gulches were, of course, steep-walled and filled with dense vegetation, requiring the attention of our machetes to penetrate. Even when we were able to manage the slopes, the streams were a formidable hazard, swollen and swift, filled as they were by the steady rain. Several times we roped up, and also passed the packs across to make crossing in the treacherous waters easier. Even so, more than once we encountered streams we could not safely cross, and had to scramble back up the wall of the ravine the way we had come, and push on up the mountain again until the stream became more fordable. Once across, we again set a compass course and proceeded, until the next ravine was reached. In this way we advanced for 3 days, climbing ever higher up the mountain and drawing, we hoped, ever nearer to Waimanu.

The first night in the open, I slung my hammock between two spindly trees, and sitting in it, held my little Bluet butane stove between my feet to keep it from sinking in the sphagnum and turning over. In this way I cooked and ate my supper, sheltered under the tarp which I had stretched over the hammock. Fred, Charlie, and Tootsie found a reasonably level spot, and, since tree ferns were common in the area, cut armloads of fronds to build up a platform on which to pitch their cheap Sears tent. I cannot imagine that it was a very comfortable night for them, but worse was to come.


  1. Wow! I hope to one day hike this myself, and this has certainly made me want to make sure the weather is expected not to be wet!

  2. It is very safe to say that you have gone where the natives of late seldom consider going. To have journeyed here was a calling for you. We are Hawaiians from Kohala, these valleys are very special to us. Mahalo for your energy and Aloha to place your footprint where the ancient ones once ventured.

  3. It is my sincere desire to duplicate this effort! Thank you for the narrative.