Lonomea Adventure

Back in October, I led a Sierra Club hike to Lonomea, in the Waimea Canyon, and we had quite an unplanned adventure to get home. Lonomea is a hunter’s camp at the end of the maintained trail up Koaie Canyon, which is one of the side canyons of the Waimea River. To get there, we hiked down the Kukui Trail, crossed the Waimea River further upstream, and hiked up the Koaie Canyon trail, for a total of about 6 miles one way.

Shaded topographical map of Waimea and Koaie Canyons showing the trails we took--created by the author with ArcExplorer GIS

It had been raining off and on that week, and while there was rain predicted in Lihue the day of the hike, there was only a chance of showers on the West side. Knowing that it is drier in the Canyon, I did not want to cancel the hike. Sure enough, after some mist and a rainbow at the beginning of the hike, we had sunny blue sky the rest of the day. Crossing the river was easy, some people even made it hopping across with their shoes on. I was actually surprised the river was so low, give it had rained earlier in the week.

Fording the Waime River in shallow water and on exposed rocks
Photo credit: Scott Pierce

As we hiked up Koaie Canyon, I thought I could hear the stream quite loudly, much louder than usual. However, there aren’t any places until Lonomea Camp where the trail gets close enough to the stream to get a good look. We were all hot from hiking and looking forward to the swimming hole there, but we got a surprise instead. The river was obviously running very high with muddy water, far too dangerous for swimming. In this next picture, you’ll notice that the sky is still blue, even looking inland toward the Alaka’i Swamp where the stream originates:

Whirlpool of brown foamy water and submerged rocks at the Lonomea swimming hole

At this point, I knew we would have trouble getting back across the Waimea River, but given it was so low before, I thought it would still be crossable. This was wishful thinking because the river was about 2 feet higher when we got back to the crossing. I waded out into the current to see how strong it was, but I could barely keep my balace once the water went above my hips. It would not have been so deep if I could stand on the rocks again, but they were impossible to find in the muddy water:

Yours Truly up to his stomach in churning water and barely 15ft/5m from the near shore and the far shore looking very far indeed
Photo credit: Scott Pierce

We marked the high water line with a stick and searched for another way across. Where there were larger rocks, there were also rapids that were much more dangerous, and nowhere was the river wide and shallow enough. After about an hour, the water hadn’t even started to go down and we were wondering if we would have to spend the night. Looking again, we found a place right near the confluence of the Koaie Stream where we could swim across. This place was actually deeper so there were less rocks and it was far upstream from the nearest rapids.

We made a plan for the strongest swimmers to go across first and signal to the rest how they felt about it. Then, if the weaker swimmers still preferred to camp overnight and wait for the river to go down, at least somebody could hike out and notify our families. As it turned out, the strong swimmers signalled that it wasn’t difficult, and one by one, we all made it across, with the first ones reaching out to help catch the next ones.

We left half our gear before crossing, and some of us had to hike up the 2,200 feet to the rim in our water shoes. We sent the strong hikers ahead to call our worried families, and the rest of the group made it back to the cars by 8pm, with the help of 2 flashlights. Everyone was still a bit wet, some people got a bit cold hiking out, others did not make it to their concert that night, but everyone got home safely. We even felt that the teamwork needed to get across the river had been an empowering experience.

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