Halawa Ridge Trail (1997)

Halawa Ridge Trail (1997)

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Anyone who's ever been a Boy Scout or knows about Boy Scouts knows that their motto is "Be Prepared." After reading this, one thing will be clear: I was never a Boy Scout.

I had never hiked on Halawa Ridge before, and my knowledge of the trail atop it was limited to info gleaned from maps and a couple of people who had hiked the trail previously. On a couple of prior occasions, I had meant to accompany either the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club or the Sierra Club for scheduled treks on Halawa Ridge but other commitments, mostly work-related, took precedence on those occasions.

So when I spotted a Sierra Club trail-clearing expedition slotted for Sunday, January 19, 1997, I hoped time and schedule would permit me to tag along.

As it turned out, it did. So that day, I joined the Sierra Club gang, but in a round-about, it-would-have-been-smoother-if-I- had-been-prepared way. Let me explain.

The Sierra Club, by tradition, meets at 8am at Church of the Crossroads (across from Puck's Alley on University Avenue) prior to setting out for a scheduled hike. So, not knowing where the starting point for the trail was (since I live in Kaneohe, I would have gone directly to the trailhead if I had known its location), I drove to the church.

Not a soul in sight.

What to do? Well, I knew where Halawa Valley was, and I had a general idea where the trail might begin, so off I rocketed, Halawa-bound on H-1. By 8:15, I was cruising over Red Hill hoping that my hunch about the trail's origin was correct.

And it was. Sort of.

After passing the Animal Quarantine Station and turning mauka on Halawa Valley access road, the one construction crews have been using to drive up the valley to build that monstrosity called H-3, I found myself, after about half a mile, approaching a security check station. Adjacent to the station (actually a shack-like structure), I noticed a dozen plus passenger cars, sans people, parked on what will eventually become the mauka bound fast lane of H-3. Could these vehicles belong to the Sierra Club gang?

My question was answered by a state deputy sheriff, a no-nonsense looking chap, who told me that, yes, the cars did belong to the gang, and yes, I could park my car amongst theirs and hike after them. They had headed mauka up the road at about 8am said Mr. Serious. I didn't ask him where the trail began, figuring he might not allow me to hike if I appeared uninformed (little did he know) and surmising that I'd easily spot a path ascending the Koko-head-side slope of the valley. So after signing a waiver form, off I went.

Turns out the ascent route began just a couple minutes down the road right before the first bridge. It was even marked by a pink ribbon.

But, I walked right by it, even after seeing the ribbon. I kept going, telling myself, "Nah, can't be. No obvious trail there."

So up the valley on the access the road I hiked, my eyes scanning the right slope for any sign of trail or marker. At about the 30 minute mark, I found a sign-marked ancient Hawaiian site in the forest, which I explored for a couple minutes. Many stone terraces and foundation structures stood on the gently-sloped hillside. No sign of any path ascending the ridge. Back to the road I went.

At around the 45-minute mark, I finally determined I had missed the trail when I questioned a trio of workmen (yes, they were working on a Sunday) who told me they hadn't seen any hikers pass by that morning. It was about 9:15.

Disappointed, I turned back, thinking I'd have to retreat to my car and head home. As luck would have it, after about five minutes, I spotted a ribbon affixed to a tree on a broad, ascendable-appearing slope. To get to the slope, I dropped down into a semi-muddy Halawa Stream and commenced what would be a 75- minute uphill hack-and-grunt session.

A lack of footprints and other ribbons told me the ridge I climbed obviously wasn't the one the others had ascended that morning, but it looked do-able (not impossibly steep, plenty of trees), so up I went.

The early going was quite good, for the slope was fairly open and easy to negotiate. Higher up, brush, branches, and rockfaces forced me to slow down and determine the route of least resistance and peril. Luckily, I had a machete and a pair of hand shears to lop clear any vegetation that blocked my progress. While ascending, I found two small caves (no bones or artifacts) at the base of rock outcroppings; then again, I wasn't about to linger or mess with these caves anyway. For the most part, I followed what appeared to be pig trails up the mountainside, stopping on three or four occasions to rest and soak in the solitude of the hillside forest.

At 10:30, I reached the ridgetop, in-construction H-3 1,000 feet below and the valley's north wall (the Aiea Loop and Ridge trails sit atop it) a half-mile across the way. I figured since I was so far behind the group, I'd rest for about 15 minutes and then head makai down the ridge and go back to my car via the ridge route the others had used.

What I didn't realize was that the Halawa Ridge trail is of the graded variety, which means it's cut into the mountainside and maintains a fairly constant elevation (ungraded trails follow the tops of ridges). I later recalled reading that the trail was built in the Depression-era by work crews from FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.

From my ridgetop rest spot, revitalized after gulping down a liter of water, I slid down a 20-foot slope to the wide, graded trail. Curious, I decided to head mauka for a spell. I'd turn back at 11:15, I told myself.

For much of the way, the trail is cut in the Koko-Head facing side of the ridge. I'm not sure if CCC crews did this intentionally, but constructing the trail in such a manner kept it from being overly exposed over the years to the prevailing wind and rain that sweeps down Halawa Valley; hence minimal erosion and slippage had occurred. At several points, the trail passed notches in the ridge where views into Halawa Valley were possible. Otherwise, I found myself in the company of a pristine valley to my right, its bottom the abode of the south fork of Halawa Stream. On the trail itself, many large trees, mostly huge eucalyptus, had fallen victim to wind, erosion, and age. Passers-by have to duck (or crawl) under or hop over these obstructions.

Eventually, the forest canopy gave way to uluhe, guava, and a host of native species--kopiko, ohia lehua, maile lauli'i, to name several. And the trail remained graded.

As I hiked along alone, I'd stop every few minutes to listen and look for the trail clearing gang. At times I'd think I'd hear a voice or laughter, but it would only be the wind or the song of a forest bird. Then I'd think I'd spotted someone in a white shirt on a ridgeline in the distance, but it'd only be a white-barked tree.

My appointed turning-back time--11:15--arrived but I decided to continue on since I was making such good time along the graded route. At about 11:45, I reached a point where the trail switched to the Halawa-Valley side of the ridge, and minutes later, I finally caught up to the Sierra Club group, busily hacking away at uluhe and brush along the path.

I was greeted by Mabel Kekina, the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club trail-clearing honcho, who promptly suggested that everyone in the immediate vicinity stop for lunch break (the group was spread out over the final mile of the trail--some proceeding to the section near the summit, others working further down the mountainside).

From our trailside lunch spot, we had a commanding view of the final segment of the trail as it unobtrusively contoured around the undulating ridge before ascending to a summit spine saddle that overlooked Haiku Valley. To our left, almost directly below us was the H-3's Trans-Koolau tunnel entrance, its retaining walls and maintenance building staining an otherwise pristine Oahu valley. Along the summit line to the north was the easily recognizable powerline tower that stood near the terminal point of the Aiea Ridge Trail.

I spent the time enjoying the view since I had forgotten to bring along lunch (see what I mean about being unprepared?). At least I had plenty of water (4 liters), and one day without lunch wouldn't hurt at all, even if I had burned ton of calories as a consequence of my pig trail ascent.

After a 30-minute lunch break, Mabel suggested that we begin working our way back down the trail, hacking as we went (the group had only done light clearing prior to the final mile of trail on the way up). I was only slightly disappointed that I wouldn't have a chance to reach the summit that day. I'll have other chances, no doubt.

The HTMC's John Hall and the SC's Randy Ching set out ahead of the group with fold-up hand saws to attack smaller trees and branches blocking the trail. Meanwhile, the rest of us, about 20 in all, began a slow progression down the graded trail, machetes and sickles a-swinging. I was the lead person in the chopping group (by choice, since I was lunchless and had no reason to linger) and hiked-and-hacked for about an hour before I decided I had done enough. Thereafter, I packed away my machete and marched down the trail at a normal hiking pace, hand shears a-clipping at small branches and intrusive uluhe crowding the path.

After 10-15 minutes, I caught up to John and Randy (hey, wasn't there a local musical group by that name?) doing their sawing thing. I left them to their work and continued down the trail, my shears and I.

At around three, I passed the point where I had first made contact with the graded ridge trail (I marked this point with an orange ribbon) and instead of descending by way of the ridge I had earlier climbed, I proceeded along the graded trail to see what its lower portion was like and where it led.

By setting off alone ahead of everyone else, I was basing my ability to return to my vehicle on a couple assumptions: that someone in the group had marked the junction where I would have to leave the main trail and descend a ridge to the floor of Halawa Valley, and, if my first assumption was wrong, I'd be able to find my way out otherwise.

Sorry, folks. No big drama this time.

The trail remained pleasantly graded, again mostly cut into the Koko-Head facing side of the ridge but near the end on the Halawa Valley side. Right before the trail ended, I passed a couple of powerline towers, a stone platform topped by a bullet-riddled sign, and a benchmark (elevation 1,157 feet). Thereafter, the descent continued on a four-wheel drive road for about 15 minutes. At one point, near the base of another powerline tower, the road veers left drastically before continuing its downslope progression. Clear views of the valley below and beyond, Aliamanu and Makalapa Craters to name a couple, were available there. On the slope across the valley, an orange windsock, most likely at a helicopter landing zone, puffed fully in the wind at Camp Smith.

About 10 minutes later, after passing several side trails on the right that I explored but were dead ends, I reached a junction marked by a pink ribbon. A fairly distinct trail veered right off the road and into the brush at that point. Ribbons of several colors marked the way to the ridge's edge and then down its slope to the valley floor. I took my time descending, hoping that the darkening skies overhead would hold back the precipitation until I had reached the bottom. In all, the descent took about 20-25 minutes, and in five more minutes I was passing the guard station and at my car at 4pm.

So I suppose if I had been better prepared, I would have phoned one of the expedition leaders to find out where the meeting place for the hike was so I would have spared myself the 45-minute jaunt up the road and the 75-minute pig trail ascent to the ridgetop. If I had been better prepared, I would have packed a lunch so I wouldn't have eyed the other hikers' meals enviously and later gorged myself at dinner that night.

You know what, though? Tired and hungry though I was (and a Boy Scout I'll never be), my day turned out just fine.

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