Hāmākua Hawai`i

Battlefield Hamakua

Hamakua is the ancient district of the Island of Hawai`i in which I have lived since arriving in the Islands in 1973. Following is one of a number of articles I wrote for The Hamakua Times, intended to enhance the appreciation of fellow residents of the amazing qualities and history of our home lands.

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The most thorough and inspiring archeological/historical synthesis ever done on data from the Island of Hawai`i  was published in 2000: Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai`i Island, by State archeologist Ross Cordy. One of the most riveting things about the book is the fact that, since it deals with our Island, it has numerous references to our Hamakua lands.

Many battles were fought during what Cordy calls “The Decade of Strife & Tears,” the period between 1782 and 1791. Because western observers were intermittently present during this period, either to witness the events or to hear of them from participants, there is a good deal of written information about the twists and turns of events that eventually led to Kamehameha’s establishment of dominion over all the islands of Hawai`i. Hawaiian historians also were able to document the history of the time with accounts from individuals with direct or second-hand experience. One particular episode in all these conflicts is of particular interest to us as residents of Hamakua and is summarized as follows:

With the death of Kalaniopu`u, three rivals emerged for control of the Island of Hawai`i, after a very brief reign of the old king’s son, Kiwala`o. Keawema`uhili controlled the lands of Hilo, eastern Hamakua and eastern Puna. Keoua held sway over Ka`u and western Puna, while Kamehameha ruled the lands of Kona, Kohala and western Hamakua, including Waipi`o. Warriors from Maui had gotten involved in the fighting among Hawai`i’s chiefs and Kamehameha had invaded to conquer portions of that Island.

After the bloody battle in `Iao Valley on Maui, in which Kamehameha’s lead in the race for western weapons assured his victory, Kamehameha traveled to Moloka`i. His intent was to increase his power by arranging connections with several powerful women. It was at this time, too, that he received the prophecy that a heiau dedicated to Ku and built at Pu`u Kohola at Kawaihae, would assure his success in conquering all the islands. In his absence, Keoua invaded Hilo and slew Keawema`uhili at `Alae, thereby extending into Hamakua the land under his control. With no one to seriously oppose his movements, Keoua continued on up the coast into Kamehameha’s strongholds, including Waipi`o. There, according to accounts put forth by Rev. Stephen Desha (see Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekuhaupi`o), he “…dried up the famous ponds of Lalakea and Muliwai, and also broke down some other fishponds. The kalo patches being cultivated by the men were damaged. The kalo was laid waste, and the banks of the lo`i needlessly broken down. He plundered the maka`ainana and abused the women of Waipi`o.” From the Valley, Keoua’s troops moved on to Waimea – probably along the alanui, or main trail that ran approximately along the route of the current-day “Mud Lane Road” — where the same kind of despoliation continued.

Reports of these terrible activities had reached Kamehameha, and his heart was greatly troubled. Kamakau, in Ruling Chiefs of Hawai`i, quotes Kamehameha as saying, “Alas, while I have been seeking new children my first-born have been abandoned.” He and his troops set out to return to Kawaihae. Their arrival was observed by Keoua’s spies; when he learned of the landing of his rival, Keoua immediately ceased his harassment of the people of Waimea and descended the slope of Mauna Kea toward the windward coast, placing himself and his army directly in Hamakua. John Young and Isaac Davis helped lead Kamehameha’s forces, and they caught Keoua at Pa`auhau, on the shoreline below and toward Hilo from present-day Honoka`a. Their cannon, Lopaka, did great damage to Keoua’s troops, but was for a time captured by one of Keoua’s leading fighters. The battle was indecisive, and Keoua retreated down the coast toward Hilo; another bloody but also indecisive battle was fought at Koapapa in east Hamakua. It, too, was inconclusive. Both armies retreated from the field, Kamehameha to Waipi`o, Keoua to Hilo.

These events, centered in Hamakua, were sandwiched in between the prophecy that led to the building of Pu`u Kohola heiau at Kawaihae, and the destruction of much of Keoua`s army at Kilauea by the violent eruption a short time after in 1790. At least in the temporal sense, and perhaps in even more critical ways, the lands under us here were the stage upon which pivotal events in the unfolding of history in Hawai`i occurred.

Hāmākua Hawai`i

Streams of Hamakua



                     Most of the water that finds its way to the bottom of Waipi`o comes from the Kohala side, down the drainages of Koiawe, Alakahi and Kawainui, beyond the boundary of Hamakua.  Along the Hilo-side pali of Waipi`o, the Hi`ilawe and Waima sections of the Valley, there are springs that send water down to the Valley floor, but not many streams spilling over the rim, especially during times of little rain.  The kahawai (gulches) Waikoekoe and Waiulili run through the village of Kukuihaele, and Kaluahine goes along the edge of the pali, crossing under the road into the Valley just below the lookout, where the road makes a sharp turn at the bridge over the gulch.  Waikoekoe, near the Last Chance Store, seems to run only in heavy rainfalls.  Waiulili runs with water released from Lalakea Reservoir, which is supplied from Lalakea Stream, a mile to the west or the reservoir.  Kaluahine usually only has water when Ditch flow is diverted into it, such as when repairs down the ditch from there must be made.

Waipi`o’s side valley of Hi`ilawe has three main drainages that contribute water to the floor of Waipi`o.  Ipu`u is the first stream (coming from east to west) that actually drops water over the edge into the Valley, since the others mentioned above put their water right into the ocean.  Ipu`u has been dry most of the time for the past several years, though springs on the pali down below put water into its streambed.

Hakaloa, Hi`ilawe Falls’ “twin,” is the next in line.  These days, it ordinarily has such a small trickle that it is not visible from a distance and looks as if it isn’t running at all. Hakalaoa was for years channeled up above into Lalakea.  This latter re-routing occurred late in the sugar plantation time, after flooding  and associated landslides in 1989 damaged the Lower Hamakua Ditch tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls in the head of Hi`ilawe side-valley.  For years water poured out of the opening part-way up the pali.  Repair of the system involved elimination of the falls dropping into the newly exposed tunnel.  Plantation bulldozers cut through a narrow strip of land up top that separated the two streams, so that the water of Hakalaoa pours into Lalakea.  It took three years and about three million dollars to repair the tunnel behind the falls, compared with 14 months and $150,000 to complete the whole nine-mile system in 1910.

Lalakea, the stream that flows over the pali to become Hi`ilawe, is to the west of Hakalaoa.  Hi`ilawe itself has, more often than not over the past few years, been so low that it hasn’t flowed out of the plunge pool some 200 feet down, going instead down the inside of the pali through cracks in the bottom of that first pool.  A major portion of Lalakea, as mentioned above, is diverted upstream into a tunnel system that takes it a mile away to Lalakea reservoir, from which it is sent into fish ponds and to a rancher.  The left-over water taken from Lalakea, rather than becoming Hi`ilawe Falls, dumps into Waiulili stream, as described earlier.

The only other water flowing over the rim of Waipi`o on this side is Kakeha.  It drains a rather small area of land owned by Parker Ranch and it was, a few weeks ago, barely moist.  Kakeha’s water goes into the Waima branch of Waipi`o, the part of the Valley that goes almost straight back from the beach toward Waimea.

When rainfall is heavy, of course, the streambeds fill and rush with runoff.  They often are discolored with soil washing away and we notice the stain in the ocean.  Shortly after the rain ceases, the streams begin to drop, and if the weather stays dry, most of them will stop flowing again.  In the times when the upland forests were intact, changes in stream flow were apparently not so extreme.  The forests caught and held the rain and cloud mist, slowly releasing it over time.  With the destruction of the forests, the sponge-like qualities of the foliage and ground were lost and the effects of heavy rain became noticeably more destructive.  In her book, Sugar Water, Carol Wilcox describes the long-standing concern that the watersheds of Kohala and Hamakua were changing adversely and quotes from a government report prepared in response to a drought in 1902: “Today the land is dry and unable to support life by reason of the lack of water.  Old inhabitants of Kohala and Hamakua … corroborate one another in stating that not many years ago there was a very large native population in those sections, and that the streams which are now dry were once considered unfailing.”  Ms. Wilcox also quotes J. Waldron, a manager for the Hawaiian Irrigation Company, as worrying in 1924 that the forests of upper Hamakua were vanishing rapidly.  He observed that the `ohi`a trees were dying, the ferns were unhealthy, and that the trees below and around Pu`u Alala (the now-forested hill sitting amid cow pastures, toward the Valley from Lakeland) were gone.

Instead of continually flowing streams, we now have streambeds that are mostly dry, but in stormy times become channels for muddy rushing water that carry soil to the sea, adversely impacting life there.  These conditions also obviously challenge the survival of the creatures, such as o`opu, that live in the streams.  The basic human need for water is not just for drinking, but for the support of all life.  Reduplication of wai, the Hawaiian word for fresh water, waiwai, means “wealth.”  We all know it when we think about it, but the subsistence culture of ka po`e kahiko, the people of old, had continuously in mind, Ola i ka wai: Life comes from water.


Copyright 2003 Hugh Montgomery, PhD

Hāmākua Hawai`i, Uncategorized

Notes on the Geology of Waipi`o Valley


Elsewhere we have briefly discussed the role of water in shaping Waipi`o Valley, mentioning the five major drainages that contribute to the Valley’s form and stream flow.  Hi`ilawe, the most famous, is also the closest to the mouth of Waipi`o.  Waima goes nearly straight back from the Valley’s coastline toward Waimea, taking water from the slopes of the old cinder cones called Pu`u Lala (or Alala, on some maps) and Pu`u Ka`ala in a northeasterly direction to the sea.  On the Waimea side of the slopes of  Pu`u Ka`ala are subdivisions, including the one called Pu`u Nani.

The Waima axis of the Valley may have been formed as water flowed down the overlapping lava fields of Kohala and Mauna Kea, but toward the back of Waima the three other drainages — Koiawe, Alakahi, and Kawainui —  have followed a fault zone running on a southwest-northeast axis.  The cracks and zone of weakness from Kohala’s summit provided a path for streams to form that now flow almost at a right angle into the channel carved by Waima.  Before the gulches got too deep (about 1,200 feet above sea level, to judge from topographic maps), Kawainui stream was the headwater of Waimanu.  The faults in the underlying rock, eroding more rapidly, in part because of the erosion of the Alakahi stream, captured Waimanu’s original water, leaving a “wind gap,” a v-shaped notch through which Kawainui used to flow, abandoned now to the breezes.   Waimanu, robbed of the water that used to flush through in powerful quantities, is slowly filling with debris in its rearward regions, since the slides and slumps from its walls are not washed down and out of the Valley.

In times long before humans saw it, Waipi`o (and the other flat-bottomed valleys of the windward coast) was both narrower and deeper.  As water cuts its way into mountain slopes, the stream beds tend to be only as wide as floods will cut them.  Waipi`o Valley is obviously many times wider than its river, but the reason is not at all obvious.  The most recent ice age ended some 10,000 years ago.  As the great glaciers and polar ice caps began to melt at the beginning of the warming trend which we humans are still enjoying (temporary though it is), the ocean began to rise.  The valleys of Hawai`i that had carved the lava down to sea level started to have sea water flooding into their mouths.  The rocks, gravel, sand and dirt carried by stream erosion began to be halted before getting to the former shoreline, filling in the old stream bed and raising it so that the erosion-produced debris began to back up behind it.  Eventually, the wide floor of Waipi`o was filled with this material (what geologists call “alluvium”) to a depth, at the mouth of the Valley, of as much as 300 feet.

Most of the major valleys on the windward side have submarine canyons that extend on into the deep.  Waipi`o does not.  Some suggest that it did at one time have such a feature, created by stream-flow when the shoreline was lower, but that it was filled with alluvium.

In some traditional Hawaiian stories,  it was Kamapua`a, the demigod related to Lono, who, in his form as a giant pig, ripped the valleys out of the mountain slopes in his passionate search for food.  Either way, the story behind the scenery of Waipi`o and its companion valleys on the windward slopes of Hamakua and Kohala is amazing.


Copyright 2003  by Hugh R. Montgomery

Hāmākua Hawai`i

Hi`ilawe, Waipi`o, Hamakua

The most outstanding feature of the windward coast of the Island of Hawai`i is the valley of Waipi`o.  For most visitors and many residents, the magnificent view from the lookout at the end of Hwy. 240 is their image of the Valley.  Some pursue their interest further, getting down to the floor of the Valley.  The beautiful and powerful shoreline leaves a lasting impression, and the vistas toward the back of the Valley make one wonder what happened to create such a dramatic landscape. Waipi`o is geologically complex.  Many forces have come together to produce it, water being foremost.  Five different major stream systems contribute to the water in it, each carving a deep canyon that carries water to the main river, known either as Waipi`o or Wailoa River.

Particularly noticeable from much of the front of the Valley is the famous waterfall, Hi`ilawe. Lalakea Stream winds from the pu`u on the flat Hamakua-side of Waimea to spill over the edge of the Valley as Hi`ilawe Falls.  For much of Lalakea’s course, it follows the boundary of Kohala and Mauna Kea volcanoes.  Other smaller streams have helped Hi`ilawe cut back the rim of the Valley to form the Hi`ilawe side-valley, including Hi`ilawe’s “twin”, Hakalaoa, as well as Ipu`u, further to the east.

Place Names of Hawai`i translates “Hi`ilawe” as, “lift [and] carry.”  The authors comment that this “…highest free-fall waterfall in Hawai`i and one of the highest in the world…is now usually dry, as the stream is diverted for irrigation.”  Lalakea-becoming-Hi`ilawe drops about 200 feet into a plunge pool.  Cracks in the pool drain the falls down the inside of the pali if the volume of the flow is not fairly large.  When the amount of water pouring over is great enough, the stream fills the pool and spills out another 1,000 vertical feet.

As is true of all the significant streams that feed into Waipi`o,  Hakalaoa and Lalakea/Hi`ilawe have water taken from them.  Lalakea Stream is partially diverted through a mile-long tunnel system into Lalakea Reservoir while Hakalaoa is, curiously, channeled into Lalakea.  This latter re-routing occurred late in the sugar plantation time, after flooding  and associated landslides in 1989 damaged the Lower Hamakua Ditch tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls in the head of Hi`ilawe side-valley.  Even today water pours out of the opening part-way up the pali.  Repair of the system involved elimination of the falls dropping into the newly exposed tunnel.  Plantation bulldozers cut through the narrowest strip of land up top that separated the two streams, channeling Hakalaoa into Lalakea.  Last year the State Water Commission ordered the restoration of Hakalaoa to its natural course, but that work has not yet begun.

Mythological and historical figures, including Lono and Umi-a-Liloa, are associated with Hi`ilawe.  In modern times, such artists as Gabby Pahinui and Herb Kawainui Kane have celebrated the beauty and fame of Hi`ilawe.  Its hold is strong on the hearts of many.


Copyright 2003 by Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD