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Finally: Hiking the waterline in Hawaii

By on January 28, 2019 in Travel with 0 Comments
Among the unique obstacles encountered during the Ka’u Mountain Water District hike are cable suspension bridges where the hiker has to straddle the 12-inch PVC pipe during the crossing.
The white PVC pipe exits a cave on the side of the volcano Mauna Loa to bring water to coffee farms and cattle ranches below.
Here, the trail travels over a ravine directly under the irrigation pipe. The trail itself is a narrow section of aircraft gauge aluminum.
During a stop in a clearing, the hikers heard from local experts about the history and nature of this area of Hawaii.

By Gary Larson

In the summer of 2017 during my two months of recovery and convalescence for a torn and repaired left knee Patella injury, I focused positive thoughts for future hiking endeavors for 2018. 

The year 2018 was a very important year for me in that it would be my 50th year of hiking. I wanted to celebrate this achievement and my recovery by hiking sites that would be memorable. 

The adventure I set my sights on had taken me 10 years of planning and efforts to complete: to hike the Ka’u Mountain Water System. This hike is located in the Ka’u District in the southern part on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

This hike is held only one day a year during the Ka’u Coffee Festival and is limited to 30 participants (cost at $45 each). An additional 10 support staff enables this hike to maintain an aura of exclusivity with the challenges that intimidate each participant.

Incidentally and ironically for those of us in the Wenatchee Valley, this festival is held at the same time each year as our Apple Blossom Festival. You could call it the Anti-Apple Blossom Festival since it encompasses the same two-week period. 

This hike is held high above Pāhala town on the slopes of Mauna Loa and the coffee and cattle farms of the Ka’u District of Hawaii. The hike explores a historical area where many Chinese laborers toiled, working in dangerous conditions at very low wages cutting into the lava rocks on the slopes of Mauna Loa to deliver water held within the mountain reservoirs. 

Water is held in natural lava reservoirs held within the mountain itself. These are similar to basalt bottom lakes holding ground water and runoffs like the lakes around Spokane and the Columbia Basin.

The elevation gain of this hike is about 3,000 feet and thankfully half of this gained by the use of a mini bus, large van and 2-4WD double cab trucks that aid our climb up incredible green and verdantly wet slopes of the Mauna Loa Volcano. 

Climbing this 1,500 feet is no easy task and provides many thrills as our skilled drivers negotiated with slips and slides, ups and downs, sideways and backwards, gaining and losing traction on grass, mud and lava rock protruding from the mountain. 

(Descending from the mountain — which comes later — is also testy and challenging.) 

When we reach our destination in a large meadow, we can begin our final climb of 1,500 feet by foot, covering the final four miles. 

Along this journey we are helped by ranch and support staff who assist us across numerous bridges and structures built from WWII aircraft parts. 

Prior to 1945-46, the Ka’u Mountain Water System was constructed mostly from wood. Because of the humidity and the damp environment the wooden flumes and trestles supporting the water system easily rotted and decomposed.   

After the successful completion of World War II, the ready availability of non-corrosive aluminum from aircraft used in the Pacific Theater was soon melted, milled, extruded and fabricated into the flumes, trestles, supports and bridges. 

This hike is unique not only because it is held once a year but also because no other hike in Hawaii offers the opportunity to access a volcano — Mauna Loa — directly via tunnels built from its hard lava interior.  

Water from the crater of Mauna Loa is transported down to coffee farms and cattle ranches by 12-inch PVC pipe. Hikers are allowed to walk alongside and in some instances straddle the pipe over bridges.

At the end of the hike near the top, there is an extended break for lunch, rest and beverages in a large meadow of herbs located at the mouth of a tunnel cut into the lava rock.

The hike down is also very taxing. I encountered a large elderly man (my age and resident of Hawaii) who was eating a banana and aided by his daughter. I recognized a possible electrolyte impairment and I gave him a salt tablet to enable to complete the hike without assistance. Bananas have potassium but not enough to make much difference.

I can say that after this hike you will be wet from head to shoes. My clothes and boots are still embedded with red and black clay from the slipping and sliding on the mud. 

To register for this hike, contact group leader Louis Daniele at the Ka’u Coffee Mill, 808-936-5550 or at Mill offices at 808-928-0550. The cost of the hike is $45. It is important to register early for this hike since it is limited to only 30 participants.

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