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Life's A Ditch In North Kohala

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Does this mining light make me look fat?

With a mining light perched on my head and life jacket strapped around my torso, it probably wasn't my best look, but both are required pieces of safety equipment when preparing to traverse a series of tunnels dug into the side of a mountain on the north end of the tropical Island of Hawaii.

It was last October when I found myself on the northern tip of Hawaii to experience a Kohala Ditch Adventure, an eco-tour that includes perching on a sit-a-top kayak while gliding through narrow culverts and tunnels built in the early 1900s as a way to redirect water for irrigation to then-precious sugar cane plantations. The last sugar plantation closed in Kohala in 1975, but today tourists and locals alike can travel parts of the ditch system, which moves millions of gallons of water every day, is 22.5 miles long and boasts 57 tunnels, 19 flumes and six miles of open culverts. The ditch tour itself covers 2.5 miles and takes about 90 minutes. It's a spectacular 90 minutes.

I met my fellow tourists and guides at the attraction's main office in North Kohala early one weekday morning last fall and after donning our safety gear, we climbed into an all-terrain-vehicle and headed for the start of the tour. Passing through groves of mango, banana, macadamia and guava, with a brief sighting of a wild pig thrown in, the ATV ride was a great tour on its own. But then we arrived at the beginning of the real fun at the edge of a rainforest, where I had my first jaw-dropping moments of the tour standing on a flume bridge watching a spectacular waterfall surrounded by jungle. The tour describes the walk as a "hike," but for all of you non-athletes out there like me, it's an easy one.

We then climbed onto our kayaks, three on each, and began floating along a mostly open-air ditch. The water is shallow, so the life jackets really are just for emergency, and we each carried a paddle, though they were simply used to keep our kayaks from getting hung up on the sides of the ditch. The scenery was straight out of a promotional tourism video, with lush greenery, including palm trees, surrounding us as we floated along. But then we hit the first of the 10 tunnels we would eventually travel through and that's when those mining lights really came in handy. The tunnels are between 100 and 1,800 feet long. You have no idea how long an 1,800-foot tunnel is until you're in the middle of one and just for the fun of it, everyone turns their lights out. I literally could not see the hand in front of my face. But with our mining lights back on, our guides drew our attention to points of interest in the tunnels, including markings scratched into the culvert wall.

Turning on the mining light strapped to my head for better illumination, I could clearly see some Japanese characters scratched into the concrete. Our guide explained the permanent "graffiti" was left by one of the hundreds of Japanese workers brought to Hawaii in the early 1900s to build the irrigation system. It really brought home the point the ditch truly is a historic feat of engineering and manpower.

The ditch eco-tour was halted in 2006 after an earthquake damaged the system and it wasn't deemed safe. But the owners hung in there and the ditch re-opened for tours just last year.

Once we arrived at the end of the tour, our guides greeted us with coconut water and macadamia nuts before we again boarded our ATV for the trip back to the main office.

Due to my partner's recent knee surgery, I travelled alone from our hotel, the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, to Kohala for the tour.

Despite often being directionally challenged, I had no problems navigating the island's highways and finding my way around. The guides were also so friendly I was completely comfortable taking part on my own.

For more information, visit kohaladitchadventures.com.

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