Freakin’ Fluminkohala! Paddling the Big Island’s Irie Irrigation Ditch

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While Hawaii’s Big Island might be known for its surf, snorkeling and—most recently—lava flows, Class I paddlers also have an option in the 112-year-old Kohala Ditch, thanks to outfitter Fluminkohala, which has access from private landowners to paddle three of historic irrigation ditch’s 22 miles.

An engineering masterpiece (and explored by the likes of Jack London in 1916), the ditch delivers water from its headwaters in of the Kohala Mountains to its terminus 22 miles away in the lowland sugar cane fields near Hāwī. Built largely by Japanese workers, with 16 miles of tunnels and 2,000 feet of elevated flumes carrying water high over lush jungle valleys, the ditch was finished in 1906, carrying on an irrigation legacy first conceived by King Kamehameha in the late 1700s.

All aboard the Kohala Ditch!

While it still transports water for agriculture, now it also makes a great day-float outing from Kona. On a three-mile float in over-sized (four person) AIRE inflatable kayaks, guests have the rare opportunity to access lush private lands, streams, waterfalls and other wonders that are kapu (forbidden) to the general public.

Our trip begins at the Flumin Kohala office in Hawi, where we shuttle through thick jungle—and a few GMO cows (guava, mango, orange)—to the put-in. There, beneath one of countless waterfalls, we put in AIRE inflatable kayaks, traversing scenery seldom seen by most visitors.

The water carries us past forests of macadamia, wild cinnamon, strawberry guava, mango trees and more. Soon we cross our first flume, causing us to duck to avoid its support crossbars. Above the flume’s three-foot-high wall we glimpse a waterfall from a side creek above, and another after it passes below. In all, we’d float over nine different ravines on top of flumes spanning different creekbeds.

One of 14 flumes you’ll paddle through on the Kohala Ditch.

Just past the first flume we enter our first of 10 tunnels we’ll traverse in our three-mile section. The longest one we’ll pass through is a whopping 1,800 feet long (the longest tunnel on the entire ditch is 2,500 feet long). Halfway through, headlamps on, we try to decipher Japanese inscriptions painted onto the wall.

The tunnel delivers us to another jungle-lined passage and ensuing flume, and yet another tunnel, this one with a waterfall inside that drenches everyone floating by (“You will get wet,” the brochure reads).

At one tranquil stretch our guide, Austin, jumps out to catch a prawn. He used to float this stretch as a kid, he says, catching prawns for dinner. The ditch also harbors one of Hawaii’s five species of indigenous fresh water fish, all of them gobies. 

Before we know it, we reach the take-out, in a field of ginger and white pineapple trees. With a welcome reprieve from the heat, and a glimpse into the island’s historic past behind us, we head back to Kona enamored with Kohala.   

Water Resources: A Brief History

Water resources were important to pre-contact Hawaiians. Wai, the word for fresh water, is the root of such words as waiwai, meaning wealth or goods, and ho‘owaiwai, which means to bring prosperity.

 The Hawaiians’ livelihood was centered in cultivation of the soil. Ancient planters converted flatlands and gentle slopes to terraced areas where water was brought for irrigation by means of ditches (‘auwai) from mountain streams (kahawai), entailing cooperative and communal labor. Kohala, in ancient times, was an extensive taro, sweet potatoes, bananas and cane region. In 1779, Lieutenant J. King of Captain Cook’s ship, Resolution, wrote that,

“…as they passed along, they did not observe a single foot of ground that was capable of improvement, left unplanted and indeed it appeared from their account, hardly possible for the country to be cultivated to greater advantage for the purposes of the inhabitants or made to yield them a larger supply of necessities for their subsistence.”

Commercial crops of the new economy— rice, potato, pineapple and sugar cane—soon replaced historical crops, increasing the need for land, water and manpower.

The fleet of AIRE rafts awaiting your journey.

By the 1880s John Hind, head of the Hāwī Plantation, thought of moving water from the wet mountain valleys to the dry lowland fields using tunnels and stone-lined ditches.

At first early surveys declared the idea impossible economically because of the area’s deep valleys. His dream treaded water until 1901 when Arthur Tuttle, a civil engineer from New York, began investigating it anew.. His analysis concluded that it would be expensive and difficult, but possible.

Hind, meanwhile, found backers in J. T. McGrossen and Samuel Parker, grandson of Parker Ranch founder, John Parker. He then secured the services of civil engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy and field engineer, Jorgen Jorgenser to carry the plan forward, with work beginning in 1905. The ditch first began operating in June 1906, bringing new life and agriculture to the more arid lowlands. Info: www.fluminkohala.com

Kohala Ditch By the Numbers: 

14 miles

45 tunnels (46,000 feet)

20 flumes (2,000 feet) ditching,

2500 feet: longest tunnel