Waiau Ridge Trail (1997)

Waiau Ridge Trail (1997)

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This piece is not only about a particular trail, Waiau, but also about the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club trail-clearing gang, a special group of folks who deserve the appreciation of any person who hikes trails on Oahu. Led by feisty and well-respected Mabel Kekina, a 60-plus-year-old grandmother, the trail-clearing gang, usually about a dozen strong, gathers just about every Sunday morning year-round to hack, chop, and dig away at a high mountain mountain ridge or lush valley path somewhere on Oahu.

At 8 a.m. on the first Sunday of 1997, Kekina had dispatched the HTMC trail crew to the top of Hapaki Street at the highest point of Newtown (Pearl City) to work on the not-frequently-traversed Waiau Ridge trail (Kekina, instead opting to work with a couple other club members on the Nuuanu Trail, wasn't with the group this day for Waiau). I was fortunate enough to join the friendly, knowledgeable, and experienced crew, which included current HTMC president Grant Oka, and club vets Bob Silva, Ken Suzuki, Wing Ng, Charlotte Yamane, Jason Sunada, Carole K. Moon, Naomi Nasu, Ralph Valentino, June Miyasato, Thomas Yoza, Will Kawano, among others (apologies for any botched or missing names). Our goal was to clear the rugged ridge trail as far as we had time and energy for.

Silva, retired and a resident of the area, has adopted Waiau as his own, spending hours every week meticulously clearing the trail. Reaching the actual starting point of the hike involves a 30-minute traverse of an overgrown jeep road, and its fairly steep initial section, that begins at the top of Hapaki Street (the entrance of this road no longer exists, having been blocked by a new house). The true trail begins at an elevation of about 1,200 feet right after the jeep road intersects another 4WD road that comes up from Kaahele Street at the highest point of the affluent Royal Summit residential tract. The initial trail is wide and well-manicured, thanks to Silva's labors. Mahalo nui to him.

The ridge stayed fairly broad for the duration of the trail we covered that day. After Silva's improved one-mile "freeway" section ended, the going became more physically demanding because the path was ungraded, which meant it followed the rollercoaster ups and downs of the terrain instead of taking shorter and less- undulating progressions along the sides of ridges. With baby blue skies overhead and temperatures nestled in the upper 70s, the clearing gang was up to task, each member gripping a cutting implement of some kind (most were armed with machetes) and hacking away at the thick uluhe obscuring the trail. And the crew slowly progressed mauka, the first person slashing, then the next, and the next, and so on, until a wide, distinct trail appeared where a nearly invisible one once had been. Truly impressive teamwork.

Equally impressive was the group's knack for sparing trailside native vegetation (save uluhe) from the machete's edge, koa saplings in particular. And just about everyone was well- informed about the array of native flora we passed (although improving, I have much to learn about recognizing plants). Ohi'a lehua, i'e i'e, 'iliahi, kopiko, hapu'u, ho'awa, and maile were among the plantlife pointed out. Charlotte even conducted a brief trailside demonstration on how to strip the outer "bark" of the maile vine to produce the familiar sweet smelling leis we pay top dollar for. Wow!!

By 11:30, after two and half hours of hacking, we had cleared 2.5 miles of trail. We decided to break for lunch at a clearing (elevation approximately 1,500 feet) that overlooked Waimalu Valley to our right and straight ahead, a distinct, fairly broad saddle in the ridge referred to Wing Ng as "the Big Dip."

Wing, by the way, ran into trouble in the dip while attempting to make a solo descent from the summit of Waiau (he reached the top via the Waimano Ridge trail) in late-June '96. At the time, no trail existed from the top down and Wing had hammered his way down the uluhe-smothered ridge to the dip after 20-plus hours, having spent a night in bivouac, losing his wallet, and being drenched by a heavy downpour in the process. Using a cell phone, he eventually summoned fire rescue and was fished out by helicopter, a fact that the trail gang playfully needle him about till this day. For those interested, you can read Wing's account of his Waiau descent.

By noon, having eaten and rested, we pushed on, descending into the dip, working our way through it via a muddy, intermittent water gully, and climbing to its far side (elevation about 1,600 feet) by way of a slick, uluhe-covered ridge. We pushed on upridge, finally climbing to a hilltop at around 1,800 feet where we decided we ought to stop and head back. It was 1:20. From our vantage point, Grant and others pointed out the middle ridge at the back of Waimalu Valley that they had climbed to reach the Koolau summit. Unfortunately, we were still at least a mile away from the summit and would run out of daylight if we tried to push to the top and hike out in the time remaining. A summit try would have to wait for another day.

And so we returned the way we came, everyone storing away his or her cutting tool since our trail clearing efforts were completed. And we made good time on the home leg, ripping along over a much clearer and easier to traverse path. About an hour before finishing, we met two pig hunters looking for a lost dog (we told them about hearing a dog crying in the upper reaches of Waimalu Valley). Twenty minutes further down the trail, we passed a clearing occupied by a half-dozen dog-toting, gun-carrying, pakalolo-smoking pig hunters who were probably celebrating bagging two small (aprox 50 lbs) whitish pua'a.

We reached Hapaki Street at a couple minutes after 4 p.m. (total descent time, minus time outs for water and rest, 3.5 hours) and spent the next hour resting, chatting, and enjoying a mini potluck at the trailhead (Naomi made some superb cheesecake!-- mahalo to her). Mabel, affectionately referred to as "Mom" by the group, after completing her Nuuanu trail clearing, joined us at our post-clearing pa'ina not long after we had returned.

Another Sunday, another trail trimmed and made manageable by a great, hardworking, and under-appreciated group of folks. Mahalo nui to Mabel and crew!

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