Koaie Stream, Hawaii, US
Koai Camp to Waimea Canyon
||IV-V(V+) (for normal flows)
Hawaiian First Descent
by Sam Drevo
After 14 days of sunshine, and only five days left on this whitewater mission to Kauai, I
wondered if it ever rained here (despite the fact that it's supposedly the rainiest place on
earth). With all the riverbeds dry, finally, the Weather Channel showed a winter storm on the
horizon. Calling for up to six inches of snow at high elevations on the Big Island, Paul (the
Team Leader) ordered us to pack up and at least go through the motions of preparing for a remote
exploratory river trip.
Although I couldn't imagine anything "remote" about this tiny island, I complied and
loaded six kayaks on top of our Astro Van. We drove all the way to far side of the island Waimea.
Within three hours of leaving the North shore we started driving up Waimea Canyon, and picking up
elevation quickly--1,000, 2000, 3000, 4000 feet above sea level. A thin cloud layer appeared and
it started raining. Our spirits rose as we drove to the end of the paved road, and hit mud
puddles on the rutted dirt road. Within an hour it was pouring, and to my surprise all the side
streams were reacting to the localized storm.
Our plan was to hike into the Koaie Stream (the largest tributary of the Waimea), run five miles
of uncharted Class V whitewater dropping close to 400ft/ mile (you do the math), and then hit the
confluence of the Waimea River, and paddle the remaining 10 miles and 1,000 vertical feet down to
the ocean (to the exact spot where Captain Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands). The only
problem was figuring how to penetrate the forbidding tropical gorge.
There is only one trail that accesses the stream so high up, but it would be more fitting to call
it a route--a climbing route. After a four-hour scout on foot (trying to find this
"secret" trail) Friday afternoon in 30 mph winds and a torrential downpour, we got a
view of the river from about 1,500 feet above. Looking through a zoom lens we could see that the
river was low, but runnable. We immediately turned around, and put a plan of action together to
camp out for the night and start hiking with our boats Saturday morning at dawn.
There were four paddlers--Pauly Tefft, Scotty Young, Johnny Placek and myself. After a very cold,
and wet night we were up at 5am and headed down the trail before dawn. Our first stream crossing
affirmed my speculation that the rivers were going to rise fast; there was twice as much water in
this stream and what had been a rock jump yesterday, was now a Class II rapid.
Headed farther down the trail, the weather was in full gale. The gusts almost knocked us over,
and the sheeting rain was moving more horizontal than vertical. It was hard not to take this as a
sign to retreat, but I dismissed it as, "the rain and wind gods must sure be excited that we
are here to visit them"--a stretch, but it worked for my psyche. Soon we were on
super-exposed 40-50 degree trail and the weather was unrelenting. Roping our boats down the sheer
mountainside 150 feet at a time (with two throw ropes tied together) we made slow progress. Five
hours after we had started our hike, we reached the last committing pitch down to the riverbed (A
forty foot cliff). I shimmied down to receive the tethered boats, and met a brown river twisting
through the boulders. Only 10 miles as the crow flies was the beach, but just the first stage of
our river trip consisted of 500+ cfs, 2,000 vertical feet and five miles... with no way of hiking
out for the first three. I looked in Paul's eyes, and said, "This is marginal at best. We
don't know what is downstream, and the river is rising fast. This is dangerous."
Paul, having scouted everything but the first two miles we were going to run (the steepest)
responded by saying, "Shaka bro. We're going big!" Scotty's words of wisdom consisted
of, "Nothing in life worth anything is attainable without commitment and hard work!"
Johnny just smiled contentedly as if there wasn't anything he'd rather be doing, and after
considering the alternative (for only a moment), I said, "Lets get going, we're going to
have to move fast."
Seal launching into the river ten strokes from hitting the water, we launched off an eight-foot
waterfall. Just downstream the river gorged out and careened off of a 30-foot waterfall, and then
a 20-foot, twisting ugly drop with no eddy in between. The portage was heinous bushwacking
through tropical vegetation, and left us bloody. Around the next corner the runnable Class V
started with an eight-foot waterfall into a clean 20-foot drop right at the confluence of a
tributary that dropped out of the mountains (off a 500+ foot waterfall). This was one of the most
intrinsically beautiful places I've ever experienced. Drop after drop, we paddled and filmed in
the pouring rain until it got dark. Pitch dark.
We hadn't reached the campground three miles down, and Pauly and Scotty didn't recognize any
landmarks. With no choice but to drag our boats up on shore, we found a slanted thorn-bush strewn
riparian zone high enough that the river wouldn't wash us away. It was cold, and I couldn't
imagine spending the next 12 hours here. But that is precisely what was going to happen.
Two hours after dark, it was still raining; 45 degrees, and we had all our wet gear on.
Collectively we had one space blanket, one Goretex bivy sack, two hats, two long-sleeved
wind-stopper Salomon jackets (that absorb water), two short-sleeved polypro tops which John and I
used for hats, two apples, 10 Clif bars, four cliff shots, and 10 macadamia nuts. Scott only had
shorts on his bottom, and we all had short-sleeved paddle jackets on. By 11pm. my cramps started,
and I was immediately joined by moans from Paul. My quads were rebelling because of the
punishment I had put them through during the day, and then being kept cold all night. We had
turned our skirts around so as to sit on neoprene and not the ground to conserve heat, but my
legs were not satisfied, and the cramps continued for the next several hours. By 1am, I had both
of my arms wrapped around John, and was trying to keep from uncontrollably shaking. My lower back
was cramped and wanted to be horizontal so bad that I had to lie down. We saw the moon briefly,
and then it started pouring again. We moved the bivy sack from over our shoulders, to over our
faces, as each raindrop felt like a frozen bullet piercing my skin. This meant that the brisk
wind had an open entrance to our torsos, and every time I moved my legs, I was reminded of the
prickle bushes underneath us. In and out of consciousness, I could do nothing but concentrate on
not moving to conserve heat. And finally, light slowly entered the canyon. At first I thought I
was hallucinating, but then I was certain, another day had come.
I immediately got up and went for a walk to get my blood flowing. It was quite obvious that the
river had risen overnight, and doubled in volume once again. After filling our water bottles, our
breakfast consisted of a quarter Clif bar and Class V. The river was now very pushy, the holes
were much larger, and it was quite fun. About an hour later, we arrived at the campground. We
were halfway down the steep tributary. We paddled another mile and a half of relentless Class V
before we took out and started hiking our boats to the confluence. Somewhere in there was an
agricultural grate that diverted a significant amount of water for irrigation (and there weren't
any eddies for several hundred yards upstream according to Scotty).
We hiked for a mile and a half with our 60-pound boats to the confluence of the Waimea, safely
bypassing the hazard, and put in for the remaining ten miles to the ocean. Praying that there
weren't any huge unrunnable drops ahead, I was relieved to see the river's character in the first
mile was that of a high-volume Class IV run with big holes, fun waves, and incredible scenery.
The canyon towered above us while the vegetation turned from lush with tropical ferns and vines,
to arid red clay with prickly pear cactus hanging off the basalt walls. Reaching the conclusion
of this epic trip was cathartic. Bruised, scraped, and pruned, the sun shone brightly next to the
ocean. With the mountains behind us, we had made it from the most remote place in Kauai to the
ocean in 36 hours of effort. It was worth every last ounce.
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Last Updated: 2011-07-19 20:16:29