With the water conditions remaining poor for diving, it was time to consider some other activity for the Labor Day weekend. Recalling a news release from a few months ago I had an idea… Flumin’ Kohala.
The fun is in using kayaks to explore one of the old irrigation canals that is carved into the mountains above Hawi. Tours of the ditch are available as a tourist excursion. Reserving our trip for a Sunday morning Deb and I were lucky, we got a private tour, the only guests for the trip. The months of September and October are a slow season for businesses that depend on tourists after the start of school and before the holidays begin. Locals know this is the best time to go do many activities as the crowds are sparse.
Flumin’ Kohala offers two tours a day, an 8am tour and another at 12:30pm. I knew that the earlier tour was far more likely to offer clear blue skies and rain free conditions. In the afternoon the clouds often build along this coast, creating the rain that the irrigation canal is designed to collect.
This tourist attraction has been closed several times when the canal was damaged. The 2006 earthquake destroyed one flume and damaged others forcing the kayak tour to close. This was eventually repaired allowing tours to begin again. In early 2015 the canal was again badly damaged, this time by heavy rains and flooding, forcing tours to cease. After repairs the tour was restarted, this time by the ditch operator instead of contracted out. Thus the new company is locally owned and employs local residents. All of our guides were guys that grew up in North Kohala, full of information about the area.
Construction started in 1905 and took 18 months to complete. The fourteen miles of ditch and tunnels were carved into the rock by hand, Japanese laborers working for a dollar a day. Tunnels over a thousand feet long were bored through the ridges, with sections of elevated flumes crossing the gulches. In many places the canal exits a tunnel, crosses a bridge, then immediately enters another tunnel. Completed on schedule the final cost was $694,000 in 1907 dollars, the equivalent to over $18 million today. Seventeen men lost their lives carving this ditch into the mountain.
The water was used to irrigate thousands of acres of sugarcane and to supply the five sugar mills that once operated along the Kohala Coast. While sugar production ceased in the 1970’s the canal system continues to supply water to local ranchers and a nursery.
Today it is the employees of Flumin’ Kohala that maintain the canal system as well as providing tours. Repairing the old stonework, clearing debris and sediment from the ditch and pruning back the rain forest that would quickly overgrow the canal. Water level is maintained through a system of sluice gates that must be adjusted with the rainfall to let water out of the ditch where needed.
It is the tunnels and bridges that make this section of canal so spectacular. The tunnels seem to go on forever, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel disappearing as the channel curves and bends inside the mountain. A headlamp is provided to every guest, but I had my diving video light along providing a flood of bright light that drowned out the small headlamps and lit up the tunnel for photography. Our guides were asking where they could buy something like that!
Midway we stopped an got out to enjoy the view from one of the flumes crossing a pretty gulch and waterfall. Of course there is no trail here, getting out meant we were standing in a couple feet of flowing water wading across a bridge. Usually one wades under bridges, not over them. Everything about this tour was definitely unique!
The laborers who carved and maintained the canal system left marks of their passing. In a few places Japanese Kanji characters can be found along the tunnel walls, preserved underground. Thousands of hand carved blocks of stone line the tunnels and banks of the canal, a testament to the craftsmanship of those who built.
As the website strongly warned us… You will get wet! We wore swimsuits under our shirt and shorts, good choice. I wore a set of hiking sandals, Deb a pair of scuba booties. For cameras I used the GoPro while Deb shot a G11 in the waterproof housing. My sturdy canvas hat was a good choice as well, protecting my scalp from the tunnel ceilings a few times. Wet we got! As recommended we brought towels and the Flumin’ Kohala office has large bathrooms set up for changing into dry clothing when you finish the tour.
I was expecting a fun day, Flumin’ Kohala was more fun than I expected. This was no short trip, the miles of canal and tunnels just kept flowing past. This is an adventure well worth the cost. Great guides and a fascinating experience provided just the thing for an otherwise quiet Sunday.