A Search for the Bowman Shortcut Trail

A Search for the Bowman Shortcut Trail

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Two ridges form the walls of Kalihi Valley. The southeastern (Kokohead-side) ridge leads to Lanihuli, a pinnacle point referred to in a number of Hawaiian songs (Kahauanu Lake's version of "Pua Ahihi" comes to mind, for one).

The northwestern (ewa-side) ridge ascends to a peak called Kahuauli (elevation 2,740 feet). The usual access route to Kahuauli is on the Bowman Trail, which begins in the foothills above Fort Shafter and the low income Kalihi Valley Homes housing project, continuing on for a rugged six-miles.

The Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club sponsors hikes to Kahuauli on Bowman, and a couple weeks prior to its scheduled expedition date, a HTMC trail maintenance crew is dispatched to clear the path of fallen trees and overgrown vegetation. The HTMC trail clearing gang uses a little-known shortcut trail up a ridge to Bowman to facilitate its work. According to Wing Ng, a club trail gang regular, the shortcut path begins in the forest off the ewa side of Likelike Highway about a half-mile town-side of the Wilson Tunnel.

My friend Bill Melemai (a Honolulu fireman who I've mentioned in several past hike narratives) and I went looking for this shortcut route on Saturday, December 8, 1996, experiencing a bit of an adventure in the process.

Bill and I met at the parking lot just outside the tunnel. From there, we dashed quickly across the roadway and headed makai along the ewa-side shoulder. Several hundred yards from tunnel is a gated access road that leads to a building above the tunnel (this structure, clearly visible many years ago, is now obscured by a wall of trees).

In the forest immediately makai of the road is a concrete culvert where the upper reaches of Kalihi Streams flows. Having traversed Likelike Highway thousands of times to get to town from Kaneohe where I live, I didn't realize Kalihi Stream, or any stream for that matter, was there. An even more surprising sight to Bill and I was a brown-hued greyhound-like dog trotting about in the culvert. No other vehicles were parked in the vicinity so we ruled out the possibility that the canine belonged to a hunter in the area. A wild dog? Perhaps.

We continued down the highway, hoping the pooch wouldn't come-a-stalking when we took to the forest in search of the trail. Our discussion of the dog ended when we noticed that the townbound cars on the highway were coming to a gridlocked standstill. Soon, instead of vehicles zooming by us, we were striding by them. Apparently, a downed tree, felled by 30-40 MPH winds gusts that huffed and puffed and made like the big, bad wolf in Kalihi and most of Oahu that day, was blocking the highway at some point beyond our line of sight. Almost as if on cue, on our heels on the road's shoulder was a City and County road crew pickup truck, its driver honking at us to get out of the way so he could get by.

Bill and I smiled and waved at the marooned drivers as we hiked on. At the same time, we scanned the forest to the right, looking for any sign of a trail. At one point, perhaps a quarter mile makai of the access road, we ascended a gentle slope and entered the forest. After about 10 minutes of high stepping through knee-level weed meadows and seeing no trail, we retreated to the highway.

I recalled Wing telling me to look in the forest for an old paved road, now covered for the most part with a thick carpet of vegetation, and once finding that road, to follow it for a quarter-mile or so as it paralleled Likelike. Apparently, this old segment was part of the access route to Wilson Tunnel in the years before Likelike Highway was constructed. My mom told me she recalls driving along the twisting, narrow byway (in the early 60s?).

Although we tried, Bill and I never found the old road in the forest. About a mile from the tunnel, we left the shoulder of Likelike once again and descended into a drainage ditch below it. The ditch contoured below the highway for a 100 yards before intersecting with a small stream which continued through a small tunnel under the highway. We explored an ascending finger above the stream's right bank, turning back when it veered up the valley instead of toward the ewa-side ridge.

Disappointed, we retraced our steps toward the highway, crossed the stream in front of the under-the-highway tunnel, ascended a drainage ditch on the stream's left bank, and veered ewa and up on a broad, peaceful, tree-covered ridge. About a quarter-mile upslope, the ceiling of trees disappeared and we were standing at the base of a 40-foot powerline tower. A 50-yard wide swath extended makai to mauka along the slope through the forest to provide clearance for electric wires. Bill and I, unprotected by a wall of trees at that point, were pummelled by fierce gusts of makai-bound winds.

The climb was gentle at first but the ascent angle increased further upridge. A faint trail was stamped out atop the finger we were on, and seeing it, we decided to press on.

At 10 a.m., we reached a point along the ridge where the steepness of the trail and a profusion of scratchy uluhe ferns slowed our progress considerably. While we rested, we noticed anothe ridge about 50 yards to our left which appeared to be just as steep but less vegetation-choked than the one we were on. Not wanting to battle unnecessarily, we switched over to the left ridge and recommenced the climb.

While I maintained some hope that this was the shortcut trail the HTMC used to access Bowman, doubt entered my mind for two reasons: a lack of trail-marking ribbons (we saw none) and very few signs of human-made cuts and hack marks on shrubs and tree limbs along the ridge. If this were the shortcut trail, I expected the route to be ribbon-marked and fairly well-cleared. While the ridge Bill and I were on met neither criteria, we crept, scrambled, and crawled ever higher, spurred on by a combination of our hard-headedness, our sense of adventure, and the gnarliness of descending the steep ridge under such wind- blown circumstances.

While small ohia and koa trees lined the finger most of the way up, assisting our ascent, we also had to negotiate short stretches of exposed ridge by crawling on all fours because of a lack of hand- and footholds and because of the ever-present bellowing of ka makani. A post-hike topo map review indicated that from the point where we switched over to the left ridge to the topping out point on the Bowman trail, we had climbed about 700 feet, covered a quarter mile, and did so in an hour and fifteen minutes.

Before we even reached the top, Bill and I agreed that the wind would make continuing to Kahuauli too risky and that we'd hike down Bowman to Fort Shafter where Bill would ask his wife Donna to pick us up (he had a cellular phone) and drive us to our cars by the tunnel.

At 11:15, we reached Bowman at a point about 1,700-feet in elevation and about a mile from Kahuauli and the Koolau summit spine (I calculated the distance on a post-hike topo map review). Our position was just makai of the junction where the Bowman ridge merges with Kahauiki ridge which also originates in the hills above Fort Shafter. Our position was a half-mile down the Bowman ridge from where the shortcut trail topped out; obviously, we had trekked down Likelike too far before heading upslope. Fortunately, we had climbed to Bowman without injury and on a route very few folks had ever negotiated.

Admittedly, the sight of the clearly discernible Bowman trail was a welcome one after the 75-minute upslope bear-crawl scramble Bill and I had just completed. The wind continued its rip-and- wane pattern, and after finding a semi-sheltered spot in a clutch of trees a few yards down the trail, we plopped down to gulp some water, nibble on some pretzels Bill had brought along, and enjoy sparkling clear views of the entire panorama of ridges surrounding Kalihi Valley.

Bowman is an ungraded ridge trail, the most difficult one in the Leeward Koolau Range according to noted local hiker Stuart Ball. Accordingly, the path follows the rollercoaster topography of the mountaintop instead of maintaining a fairly constant elevation by contouring along the side of the ridge as a graded trail would (Poamoho and Waimano Ridge are examples of graded ridge trails). Fortunately, Bill and I were heading downslope and were cooled by temperatures in the 70s; hence we moved quickly.

Wind gusts played havoc with my balance at times and we had to negotiate a couple of narrow sections along the trail; otherwise, without incident, we hiked down the ridge, Kalihi Valley proper to our left, little known Kahauiki Valley to our right, and the greater portion of Honolulu's metropolitan sprawl spilled out before us.

At 1:00, we strided through an ironwood grove and past a graffiti-adorned concrete bunker that marked the official starting point of the Bowman trail. From there, we veered left following a steep, rutted jeep road to Simpson Road in Fort Shafter where Bill's wife would meet us at 1:30.

We arrived at Simpson Road ten minutes after our estimated landing time. Donna (much mahalo to her) was there with some cold drinks and sushi which we guzzled and wolfed down without hesitation. On the drive up Likelike Highway to our cars, we pointed out the route we had taken and sights we had seen in the previous hours on the trail. Granted, Bill and I had not found the actual shortcut trail. We had an enjoyable and memorable adventure nonetheless.

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