FLUMIN' DA DITCH
by Karl Arnold Belser
I usually never get a chance to be the leader on adventure trips because I have vision so low that I can’t see my feet if I look directly at them. However, I cope well using visual aides. A trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving of 2002 gave me a rare chance to lead.
Our friends Connie and Christine escaped the San Francisco Bay Area to Hawaii’s Big Island. Jackie, my significant other, and I visited them.
The high point of our visit was a trip down an old irrigation ditch, built about 100 years ago on the north side of the Kohala Volcano by the civil engineer who later built the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct for San Francisco. In the past this aqueduct supplied water to the Kolala sugar cane plantation located on the dry side of the volcano. The cane fields are now gone.
The Flumin’ Da Ditch Company gives adventure tours of the ditch. The tour starts near the town of Hawi in a rambling old barn with a small office on one side and lots of orange rain jackets, yellow life preservers and black miner’s headlamps along the barn walls.
We put on the required equipment.
“Look how I’ve attached the miner’s lamp,” I said. I had put the lamp around the band of my floppy wide-brimmed hat.
“You look a sight,” Jackie said, and all the women laughed because we all looked overdressed.
The rain poured down profusely, which I guess only the palm trees and the blue flowered tropical vines enjoyed.
We boarded several four-wheel drive trucks that also carried some narrow yellow rubber boats. The trucks sloshed and skidded through muddy hills, up impossibly steep slopes, across creeks, and through heavy vegetation, all of us screaming like it was a roller coaster ride, until we reached the headwaters of the flume.
“Each boat needs a captain," the guide said. "The captain sits up front and keeps the boat from crashing into the sides of the flume.”
The person had to be strong enough to push with an oar and move four people. The three women pointed at me. I was the only man in our group.
“But I can’t see very well,” I said.
The guide explained that the edge of the flume would be no more than 3 feet away.
“You can see that far, can’t you?” she asked.
The guide was a petite curvy Hawaiian girl, and my pride wouldn’t let me decline.
The guide jumped into the flume behind our raft, the water coming up to her chest, and held the boat for us as we entered. I got in front.
I had the kayak oar that had paddles on both ends, and the guide launched our boat down the flume.
Sure enough guiding the boat across the first water bridge was easy, and Connie said, “See, you can do it. No problem.”
Again everyone laughed when I said, “Maybe I will see.”
The flume was a spectacular water bridge across a wide canyon full of dark foliage and flowers that perfumed the air. At the end of this bridge was a tunnel, but more importantly the tunnel entrance was where the water collected by the hillside cascaded in a huge waterfall into the flume.
I went through the chilly cascade and immediately into the tunnel. The miner’s light was on but I couldn’t see a thing. I was soaked and my glasses were covered with water. I should have been able to see something if the light were pointing in the correct place. I guessed that it wasn’t, but I had both hands on the oar that had paddles on both ends.
Jackie yelled, “The tunnel’s turning. Push on the left."
I pushed vigorously and the boat crashed into the right side of the tunnel with a crunch. Connie, Christine, and Jackie screamed.
I wiped my glasses with my sleeve and found that the brim of my hat blocked both eyes. No wonder I couldn’t see. I managed with great difficulty to push my hat brim back and adjust the headlight between the push left and push right instructions the people behind me yelled. I could now barely see, and I breathed a sigh of relief just as the boat left the tunnel onto the next flume bridge.
Of course, there was another cascade of water at the tunnel’s exit. My glasses got wet again, and my hat brim slapped my face. I still couldn’t see well enough to steer, and my passengers continued giving me ‘push left’ and ‘push right’ instructions, which I admit that I needed, especially in the tunnels. My boat mates screamed with glee every time I came close to crashing.
We went flume-tunneling down the mountain like this for several miles to the disembarkation point. I surrendered to the commands from behind and steered flawlessly. I felt delighted at the teamwork.
This unconditional trust was a new experience. For the first time I thought that I knew how a completely blind person must feel. The adventure, which initially terrified me, ended up being fun once I had let go of being totally in control.
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updated November 14, 2005
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