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SPECIAL HAWAII ISSUE | HAWAII: BIG ISLAND

'Fluming the Ditch...'

. . . And other wild rides attract families to Hawaii's rural North Kohala

July 18, 1999|SUSAN ESSOYAN | Susan Essoyan lives in Honolulu and reports regularly for The Times

HAWI, Hawaii — 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.

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