Kevin's and Cindy's Hawai'ian Adventure

Kaapoko Tunnel Hike

Back in the early part of the last centry, someone decided they needed more water in their valley for sugar cane production. So they dug some tunnels through some mountain ridges. After they were abandoned, few people knew about them except for a few hunters following pig trails on the state land up in the hills. The guy who wrote the Ultimate Kaua'i Guidebook learned of them a few years ago and put them in his book. Upon reading about them, I decided I had to go.

The book had them in the "Adventures" section, rather than "Hikes," so that was my first clue to the difficulty. Then I read closely, trying to picture what was between the lines, and decided I could handle it. I was right, but...

Cyn volunteereed to stay back at the cottage and relax all day. I was up at 6:00 and out a little after 7:00. It was about an hour drive down to Kapa'a. Then a drive west into the hills. It was a half hour drive after the pavement ended. It was pretty slow going, and I was glad I had a jeep. The book said it could be done in a two-wheel drive car, but it would have been rough. I started out from the car at a little after 9:00.

The first part of the trail was a dirt/mud road. I was aware of the mud. I didn't want to slog all day in wet hiking boots, and bought hiking sandals. A short way into it, there was a small river to cross. It was the Wailua river, which comes straight down from Mount Wai'ale'ale, one of the wettest spots on earth, with an average of 435 inches of rain a year. Right there, I was about three miles from the mountaintop.

I wasn't sure where to go. The trail is not maintained - it just exists. Some of it is animal trail, some is hunting trail, some of it is mud, some of it is stream. I went up a trail a little way along the river, but it shrank almost to nothing. I checked the map and decided it must cross the river, so I crossed. I found more trails on the other side. They wound through a grove of bamboo, and into the woods. I tried a couple and backtracked, until I happened upon one with a bright orange ribbon hanging on a tree. A miracle! I was saved! I didn't go much further, however, before I was off the trail again. After another little backtrack I found another blaze. This time I was able to keep the trail.

This was about where it started to get strenuous. There was a muddy embankment that I had to pull myself up. Then it started to get hilly. And there was a lot of mud the whole way. The trail climbed into the ridges, and would periodically drop to a stream. There were both mud puddles and muddy banks to climb or cross. As I left the car, I soon found the tracks of the people who arrived at the trailhead before me. That was one reason I knew when I was on the wrong trail - that their tracks weren't there. Though I couldn't trust completely that they knew where they were going. They could have been lost too - you never know.

On and on I slogged. Through ankle deep mud puddles. Around logs. Across rocks, through streams, under overgrowth. Decades ago, there had been a walkway made of ohi'a logs. The decaying logs could still often be seen, but I could seldom walk on them because the bushes and whatnot had overgrown them. I was often crouching, squatting or even crawling through the mud alongside the logs, under the bushes. The book recommended long pants because of the scratchy brush. I couldn't imagine doing that hike in long pants (did I mention the mud and river crossings?), let alone jeans which were the only long pants I had. The two main hazards to my shins were raspberries (the thorny branches, not the berries) and the dried out ferns in the undergrowth. Got scratched up (as you can see below), but nothing too serious.

After what seemed like three hours, I came over a ridge to see a larger ridge in the distance. I thought it must be the one over the tunnel. Some time later, I arrived at that ridge to find that I still had farther to go. I was getting very tired. A couple of days before, Cyn and I had gone on a long, hot hike with two bottles of water and some granola bars. This time I had two bottles of water (just for myself), granola bars, sandwiches and cookies. I was just about half out of water and I hadn't reached the top yet.

At a somewhat high area, I came to a boardwalk. There were low ferns nearby it. I stepped on, and realized that it wasn't a boardwalk over a boggy area, but a bridge over a twelve foot deep ditch! Good thing I didn't trip and try to set foot off of it.

Then I saw people. They were below me in a streambed. I didn't call out, but went down the trail to meet them. I stepped over a pile of boards and a couple of five gallon pails. When I got down to the stream, they were not to be seen. I went up the opposite bank, and they came back downstream. They asked if I knew where the trail went. I did not. They said the tunnel ought to be nearby. We looked around. Then I seemed to recall the book saying something about crossing the ditch and turning by the collapsed ditchman's shack. I went back up the hill and there was a trail to the left (uphill). I walked it a short way and it seemed to be overgrown enough that no one had passed through recently, and I wasn't sure it was the trail. As my new companions came up, I saw the blaze on that trail. I set the boards from the old shack in such a way as to direct hikers to the left and we went up the trail.

It wasn't long before we found the tunnel entrance. Turns out the ditch I had crossed was part of the irrigation system fed by the tunnel, and the pile of boards was the "collapsed ditchman's shack," but the book didn't actually say anything about turning there. Luc, Tram and I took a break by the tunnel opening. Had some snacks, took some pictures. It was a pretty little place, with cool water above the ankles (no dry ground there), and taro and impatiens growing around. There was a pinpoint of light at the other end of the tunnel.

Luc and Tram seemed seasoned adventurers, with full packs, hiking boots and headlamps. I had my little backpack, hiking sandals and a two-double-A-cell green flashlight from the kitchen of the cottage. They let me go first. The tunnel was... long and dark. Duh. I had walked a mile-long tunnel without a flashlight once, but it was an old train tunnel paved with crushed limestone. This was not so wide or smooth. It was about seven feet wide - usually. It was often seven feet tall. Sometimes more, sometimes less. You had to watch your head. I only bumped it a couple of times, never hard. The water was usually ankle deep. The gravelly floor was mostly smooth, with occasional rock outcroppings. About halfway through it, I was thinking, damn, this is a long tunnel. I kept waiting for the other end to be closer than the one behind us. There was really nothing to see, so we didn't stop to rest very much. We just kept walking.

We came out into a narrow valley with a pretty little waterfall. Moss hung from it, and vines of pinkish-purple impatiens hung down beside it. That's the top half of it in the picture. A short break for pictures, and back into the tunnel we went. Just before this end of it, there was a left turn. We continued for a bit, and this part had a few bends, and we came out into a ditch with high, concrete sides. The book said to climb up onto the dike and walk a minute down the river. This didn't make sense, but we tried it and it worked. The wall of the dike was taller than I was, but there was a wooden gate that I was able to get a toehold enough that I could throw my arms over the top of it and pull myself up.

It was only a short walk down to the river, and we sat there for a bit, having a snack, and trying to decide whether to see the second tunnel. We talked about how long we'd been up there, how long we might be in the tunnel and how long it would take to get back. We thought we'd be able to get back before sunset, but weren't sure. In the end, we went for it. It wasn't so much that we decided to go. It was more that we failed to talk ourselves out of it. But really, when you've come that far, you have to go all the way. That was where the big payoff was.

We crossed the river. It was the deepest yet.

The current was moving pretty fast through the rocks, but we made it. We had left most of our gear at the side of the river. Luc had a small pack, and his camera, I had only my camera. I was a little nervous of getting it wet, but I really didn't want to carry any more than I had to.

Across the river, there really wasn't much of a trail. It turns out, the way to the second tunnel is to cross the river, then head upstream not far from the bank, until you see a cement wall. Climb down the metal ladder, and walk a short way up the ditch to the mouth of the tunnel. This is just a bit upstream from the dam. That boulder in the photo is almost ten feet tall.

It was here that I realized that I'd left my flashlight in my pack. In the tunnel, I walked in between Luc and Tram for a while, then Luc gave me his light, and I led. This tunnel, though shorter, was much more difficult. The walls and ceiling were much less even and much more often lower, and the water was much deeper. And mucky, in places. I kept catching sticks and leaves in my toes. The next time you go to the beach, try walking in knee deep water for a ways. Then bend over at the waist and keep walking. For about a quarter mile. Stand up and take a short break, then do that again. That's not too different than what we were up against. Oh, except for the rock over your head. And the darkness. And the rocks under your feet. And the foot-long metal rod protruding from the wall at shoulder height about every fifteen feet. And the trestles. Or timber shorings or whatever you want to call them. In a couple of places, we had to duck and step over these timbers. At one point, the water was at its deepest, and I had to straddle the timber to get over.

This tunnel wound a little bit too. There was more than one curve. I can't remember if we could see light at both ends at any point, or not. At the very end of this tunnel, we had to clamber up a slope. I've very glad it wasn't so slippery that I couldn't make it up it. That would have been extremely disappointing. But we made it out.

At this end of the tunnel was a beautiful waterfall and grotto. First, we saw a low moss-covered dam with a waterfall cut through it. It was under a tall overhanging cliff. The cliff was red rock, covered with moss and ferns. It was, I'd guess, sixty to eighty feet high, and overhung at least thirty feet. There was a constant rain from its sides. We climbed around to the left, and found a beautiful waterfall. It spilled through a narrow gap between the cliff and a huge rock. The upper section came down the rocks, then turned and crashed twenty feet into a pond. We took as many pictures as we could, but we knew we couldn't stay long, since we wanted to make it back to the cars before sunset. As Luc said, we were going to have to speed-hike back down.

The upper half of the falls.

The lower half. It's probably twenty feet high.

Back into the dark...

We slid back down the slope into the tunnel and set off for the long slog. At that point, I really wasn't looking forward to it. Back through the tunnel, down along the river, across it. Retrieve our gear, back up the hill, climb down the dike, and back into the other tunnel. We took another break at the mouth of the first tunnel and it was off down the hill.

It was about there, I think, that Luc asked me how my feet were holding up in the sandals. They were starting to get a bit raw. Did I mention the mud? I think I did. There was mud everywhere on the trail. The problem was that it held volcanic grit. And that grit got under the soles of my feet, and under the straps of the sandals. Actually, I didn't notice the grit under my soles, very much, but I did occasionally get pebbles caught in there, and that got rather painful. Near the end of the upper tunnel, coming back down, I got a rather large, and sharp rock under my right foot. We were nearing the end of the tunnel, so I toughed it out (walked on my toes) until we got out and I could stop. But it was the grit in the straps that caused the worse problem.

When I first met Luc and Tram, I asked what time it was. She said twelve-something, so I had been walking for over three hours, at that point. Shortly after we set out to go down from the first tunnel, I realized what a difficult trek it was going to be. When you do all that climbing, it's quicker to go up than down. Going up is a matter of stepping up. It's strenuous, but you can keep moving. Going down is often a matter of stopping and finding a place to step down to, or sitting down and sliding your butt down. I was certain it was going to take as long to go down, as it did to go up. Fortunately, my pessimism was unfounded. We only took a couple of breaks, but it didn't seem long at all before we were back down to the river. At that point, I was pretty tired, and stumbling a bit, so it was even more of a surprise to make it back so quickly. Or maybe I was delerious and missed a bunch. At one short break, Luc offered me some of his water, and I felt much better after that.


We were back at the cars before sunset. And we were even on the east side of the mountain where it gets dark sooner. We even made it back to the pavement before it got completely dark. I called Cyn then, because she had expected me for supper, and it was already past time. I was sorry about that. I really hadn't expected to be out on the "trail" for ten hours.

I was grateful to have met up with Luc and Tram. Not only was it nice to have someone to share the adventure and the sights with, but it is safer. More importantly, without them, I wouldn't have seen the second tunnel. Not having a watch, I didn't know what time it was, and would have assumed it was later than it was, and not gone on to the second tunnel. I should have brought Cyn's cell phone with me. I assumed I'd have not coverage up there (and I didn't want to lose or break or submerge it), but it turns out that up on some of the hillsides, there is a clear line of sight to the towns, and therefore coverage.

When we got back to the cars, Luc again asked me how my feet were. I told him they were a bit raw. I really had no idea at that point. They stung a little bit, but I think the cool water helped. I washed mud off whenever we crossed a stream, but I was still covered with mud. Oh, and I realied, after coming back through the upper tunnel, that my wallet, which I'd been keeping in my zippered cargo pocket, was underwater at a couple of points. Anyway, it was a couple-hour drive back home, with a stop for drive-though. My feet hurt. I got the sandals off when I stopped for food. Shortly after getting home I hopped in the shower and tried to wash the mud off. I did a poor job, because I got one of the towels dirty. I hope it's not ruined. One of the things Kauai is known for is its red dirt. See that orange-ish shirt I'm wearing? That's a dirt shirt. It's dyed in Kauai mud. Seriously. They use a bucket of dirt to dye five hundered shirts, or so I'm told. The next morning, I took another shower. Lots of soap, and sores all over my feet. And still mud. That was the day we flew home. Man, did my feet hurt. I was stiff too, and the plane rides didn't help. When I got home and took my shoes off, I realised the full extent of the damage. My sores were really raw. They had bled and my socks were stuck to them. Yuck. So after being up for over 24 hours, I took another shower. Used lots of soap, and still got mud stains on the towels. I had band-aids on my feet for a week.

So there it was. My adventure. It was not a hike, it was an adventure. More specifically, it was a walk, hike, ford, crawl, slog. But it was worth it. Why? It was unique. And I tested my limits. Everyone should do that, now and then. The falls were beautiful, though I'm disappointed in my pictures. I'd feel better about the trip if they had turned out better, or if I'd gotten more pictures (we were kind of in a hurry). But either way, I can say I did that.

Later, I learned that there were several more tunnels that weren't mentioned in The Ultimate Kaua'i Guidebook. There is a series of more than five, that lead to the north side of the island, and the Hanalei River headwaters.

Copyright Kevin and/or Cindy Hansen