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On Saturday, October 26, 1996, my hiking partner Bill Melemai and I took to the hills above Pearl City to find the not-often- traversed Ahern Ditch Trail. The Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club conducts a trek on this trail and calls it "Manana Ditch" because it is an offshoot of the much more popular Manana Ridge Trail that begins at the end of Komo Mai Drive atop Pacific Palisades.
Both Bill and I had hiked Manana before but neither of us had ever trekked on the Ahern Ditch Trail (ADT). For that matter, I only had a hunch where the ADT began, having noticed a path descending to the left off of Manana about 15-20 minutes from its starting point.
My interest in finding the ADT intensified as a consequence of information I had learned of several weeks before the hike. In late September, I had done some exploring in the area of the Mililani Cemetery and Waiawa Prison. After hiking about in the woods and dirt roads around there, I drove to the gatehouse of the Waiawa Prison and talked story with the guard on duty.
I asked him if he knew about trails in the area.
"Get choke trails 'round heah, brah," was his reply.
He proceeded to tell me about the Kipapa Trail, a rugged butt- kicker-of-a-hike that he claims, via hearsay, is doable all the way to the Koolau Summit by dirt bike (I strongly doubt this). He also pointed south in the direction of the Pearl City Industrial Area (PCIA) and said that hunters routinely stalked pigs in the valley that extended mauka from the back of Waihona Street, the main thoroughfare of the PCIA.
That chat set the stage for the great ADT search.
As I mentioned, the hike begins on the Manana Trail. The first quarter mile of Manana proceeds on a paved road that terminates at a graffiti-scarred water tank. About 10 minutes after that, an unmarked but distinct trail veers left and down off of Manana. Bill and I followed this trail and ended up a dead end where the ridge dropped off steeply into a sea of strawberry guava trees.
We backtracked for a few minutes and found the junction that led to a steeply-descending finger ridge topped with towering eucalyptus trees. We gingerly worked our way down the finger, dropping approximately 400 feet from a ridgetop elevation of 1,100 to the valley floor at 700 feet.
A couple minutes before bottoming out, we noticed a couple of pig hunters with a pack of six-or-so tracking and chasing dogs moving down the valley along the near bank of waterless Manana Stream. One of the hunters yelled out, asking if we had any dogs with us (probably to determine if he had to restrain his dogs). We said we didn't, and hearing this, the hunting posse continued their makai-ward track.
The valley bottom was mostly devoid of sunlight because of a canopy of skyscraper-like trees. After a short water break, Bill and I headed upstream for 15 minutes, following a series of ribbons affixed to tree branches at various points along the way. We then reached a dead end and then backtracked until we spotted a ridge that headed north and away from Manana Ridge.
The trail atop the ridge was gentle and distinct at first. However, after a few minutes, the distinguishable finger we were on broadened and steepened. At that point, Bill and I had to abandon an upright hiking posture, resorting to scrambling like crabs and grabbing small koa trees, bushes, and rocks to hoist ourselves to the ridgetop.
Approaching the apex of the uluhe and koa tree-topped ridgeline, I had fully expected to look down on H-2, the multi-lane roadway that connects Pearl City to Mililani and Wahiawa. How wrong I was! Not only was H2 nowhere in sight, but we could see no sign of civilization from that vantage point. If I had brought a topo map with me, I would have known that we had to continue north on a rollercoaster route that had us ascending two more ridges and dropping into two more valleys. Without the map, although not technically lost (we would have been lost if we didn't know where we came from), we decided to abandon our search for the ADT that day.
Bill, recollecting the hunters and dogs heading makai, suggested following the ridge in the same direction, reasoning that it just might bottom out at the Pearl City Industrial Area. Always one for an adventure, I agreed, assuming (wrongly) that we were relatively close to civilization.
We followed the ridge makai for about a quarter mile, battling through strawberry guava for the last eighth-mile of that distance, before it suddenly ended and dropped steeply at our feet. Bill and I share the full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedoes disposition; accordingly, turning back at that point was never considered. Instead, using guava trees as brakes, we slid, swung, and scrambled several hundred feet down the steep ridgeside to Manana Stream.
The point we had descended to was just makai of the point we had initially hiked down to from the Manana Trail. And we could have opted to head upstream a bit then ascend the finger ridge to Manana and return to my car at the end of Komo Mai. But our damn-the-torpedoes mentality won out again, and we agreed to make a go of heading downstream with a goal of coming out at the end of Waihona Street.
Doable? Sure, at least that's what we reckoned.
For the most part, we followed the stream makai, leaving it when we spotted a ribbon marker or a trail. Often, no trail existed and we bashed and picked our way through uluhe ferns, scratchy California grass, and thickets of thorny, rosebush-like plants which I had never encountered on any other trail on Oahu.
After about an hour of hiking down the valley, our confidence heightened when, one, on the ridgetop to our left we heard someone sawing away at trees in a Palisades backyard, and, two, when we spotted a powerline tower looming on a 100-foot hillside on the right bank of the stream.
"Where there's a powerline, there's an access road," I asserted confidently.
A five-minute scramble up the steep slope to the base of the tower landed us face-to-face with an imposing wall of 10-foot high California grass. Instead of descending the slope back to the stream and continuing makai that way, our damn-the-torpedo disposition again prompted us to press forth.
And we paid with pain. If you're not familiar with California grass, it can best be described as combination of razor blades and itching powder. And we bulldozed our way through a gauntlet of that stuff (with a few thickets of that thorny menace thrown in to heighten the effect). Attired only in t-shirt and shorts, I suffered some hurt. My arms and legs still bear scars from that day. In all, we progressed about 100 yards in 20 minutes before we decided enough was enough.
Instead of continuing our suffering, we veered up toward the tree-populated hillside to our right, climbing high enough to get away from the California grass gauntlet. We contoured along the slope until trees and sheer rockfaces stopped our progress. At that point, we could either descend the slope to the gauntlet or ascend it to gain the ridgeline.
Having suffered enough, we opted for the latter, and after of few minutes of steep hand-over-hand climbing, we made our way to an overgrown jeep road cut into ridge about a 100-feet below its crest.
While we rested there for a few minutes, Bill took the opportunity to call his wife Donna to let her know where we were (or at least where we thought we were). It was 3:30, three and half hours after our noon starting time.
After the break, we followed the barely discernible road as it descended makai for a quarter mile to the valley bottom. When we reached Manana Stream again, we followed it, and just as before left it when we spotted a ribbon or trail atop its bank. All the while, we hiked on with the mistaken notion that the Pearl City Industrial Area was around the next bend in the river or over the next hill. It never was.
At around 4:30, we came upon another overgrown jeep road on the Palisades side of the valley and followed it. We hesitated for a moment when we noticed that the road was ascending the ridge up the valley instead of down. But since the amount of daylight was diminishing, we decided to follow the road to see where it led.
As it turned out, the overgrown road climbed up to Palisades and in 20 minutes we were walking along it behind homes on Apoepoe Street. The road ended at a barbed-wire topped gate between two homes on Apoepoe. Both yards adjacent to the gate were also fenced. The fenceline on the yard to the right was also topped by barbed wire so hopping over that fence was out. Fortunately, the fenceline on the left was unbarbed else we'd have had to find another exit point. After a quick check to determine if anyone was watching us, we hopped over the fence into the yard on the left and quickly shuffled through an unlocked driveway gate to the street.
As we strode away, trying to look as inconspicuous as we could given our disheveled, sweat-soaked, scratched-up appearances, a 50-ish local Japanese woman emerged from the garage of the house whose yard we had just tramped through.
"Uhhh, what's going on here?" she asked sternly several times.
Instead of admitting our guilt directly, we smiled, apologized, and kept walking up the street. She must have decided that no harm was done and ceased her interrogation.
Apoepoe merges with Komo Mai Drive in about 100 yards and from there, Bill and I made the one-mile uphill walk to my car at the Manana trailhead.
We never found the Ahern Ditch Trail that day nor did we reach the Pearl City Industrial Area. However, despite being tired and a bit scratched up at day's end, we now had another adventure in Oahu's backcountry we could share with others.
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