Racing Down the Irrigation Canals – Tubing with Kauai Backcountry

“Stop, let me look at that. That looks amazing! I want to do that!” That was my son’s first reaction when he saw the pictures of the tubing down the irrigation canals in Kauai. It came up on a list of top things to do with kids in Kauai. I wasn’t sure. It looked expensive. It posted a warning that people with bad backs should not participate. Would I be able to do this? But one look at his excited face and I knew I couldn’t say no. This was his trip. So we were locked in.

My husband refused to do the trip, he has a bad back and he can’t swim, so even though I mentioned it’s not deep, he refused. He stayed in the hotel and got a massage. So I booked one adult and two kids, for a 2pm register time, and my husband dropped us off at the Kauai Backcountry, the sole company on the island that has access to the irrigation canals on the island of Kauai.

At registration, you are sized for your gear. Each rider gets a helmet with head lamp, gloves, and if you didn’t bring them, you can rent closed toed water shoes (flip flops are not allowed, but Crocs are). Children 9 and under must wear a life-vest. Adults who can’t swim can get a life vest if they choose. Then you are introduced to our guide, and given a quick briefing on what would happen. Then we all loaded into a large off-road vehicle to head out to toward the irrigation canals.

Geared up and ready to go!

Back in 1870s, Kauai had several large sugar plantations. However, in 2009, the last sugar plantation finally closed, and Steve Case purchased the land to help preserve the natural beauty of Kauai. He rents out the land for different uses, mostly to farmers for grazing their animals or growing crops. Kauai Backcountry rents the use of the irrigation canals for this tubing adventure. The irrigation canals go from the mountain, all the way down to the ocean, and were hand dug by the Chinese immigrants that were brought to the island for this type of work. As we drive to the drop off site, we are told a bit about the history of the plantation, and given a tour of spots included in movies including Tropic Thunder and Jurassic Park! (We drove by the spot where the Jeep breaks down in front of the Tyrannosaurus Rex Cage, and stopped. Super creepy).

Where the T-Rex tried to eat the kids!

Once you get to the drop off spot, we meet the two additional guides who would be on the adventure with us. We go through a very funny presentation on how to use the inner tube, how we play telephone throughout the tour, and when to use the lights on the tour. Then it was one last time to use the bathroom before you get in the water!

My kids we stoked and were the first ones in line to get in the water. I actually had to rush down and get past people to catch up with them. They had a few smaller tubes to fit my son and my daughter. And there were a few other kids on the trip, so I was glad to see we weren’t the only ones. Once everyone is loaded on to the tubes, they dropped the rope, and everyone started moving rapidly down the irrigation canals!

Two things from the safety briefing came clearly into my mind at that exact moment.

  1. You are not allowed to link up because it can cause jams
  2. You can not control or steer the tube. You can try, but it doesn’t actually work.

These came abundantly clear when as soon as the rope dropped I was separated from my kids. I weigh significantly more than them and so physics had me going faster down stream. My daughter, the lightest one in the group, was all the way at the back. My son was somewhere in the middle. Well, great, a minute in and I already lost my children…

One of the rare moments I was even close to my kids all throughout the trip*

This is where I found the guides for the trip amazing. One stayed in the back making sure the little ones didn’t get lost or fall out, and pushing them along when they got too far behind. The other would get out of the canals and run back and forth checking on people, and occasionally giving me updates letting me know that they were doing fine. So I decided to relax and enjoy the ride.

At the beginning of the trip, irrigation canals have a strong down stream current. Not scary fast, but faster than simply floating down a river. I quickly discovered why the shoes and gloves were needed. These canals were dug out of rock, and so as you get pushed to the side, you need to push off the sharp stone, and the shoes and gloves protect your extremities. But the helmet use was the best. You go through 5 tunnels. As you approach the tunnels, you yell “Lights On”, and like a game a telephone, we all yell it down the line. Then you enter into the tunnels. You can see how amazing this is, and appreciate how much back breaking work went into creating these tunnels so the water flowed down the mountain. Plus it gave a fun spooky feeling to flow in the water, down these narrow tunnels, with just your headlamps on. Right before the fourth tunnel, there is a short little “water slide”, a small drop that causes a fun rush for the kids. But for the last and shortest tunnel, we did a special treat. Everyone turned off their lamp, and we did the tunnel in the dark. My daughter was a bit nervous about this, so the guide, took her lamp off, and put it under my daughter’s tube so it “glowed in the dark”.

Everyone individually went down the slide, with the help of our amazing helper guides*

Once you get out the last tunnel, you enter the “lazy river” portion of the tour. The water slows down, and you end up floating the last portion, enjoying a wide, slow ride. Here we could link up, and I was finally reunited with my kids, who kept excitingly telling me how much they loved it. My daughter wanted to take the guide home with her. 😂

She was spoiled by the guides and she lapped it up*

After about an hour in the water, we come to the exit point. The irrigation canals go on, but there is a gate that is a good place to unload all the passengers. We had been in the water about an hour at this point. My daughter managed to talk the guide into being the last one out of the water. Then we all walked over to the picnic area, where a driver had brought our stuff in big plastic bins. We got our towels, and were able to make ourselves some amazing sandwiches for lunch. They had croissants, different meats, lettuce, tomato, olives, and other good toppings for sandwiches. With some Maui Onion Chips and a cookie, we chowed down, realizing how hungry we were after the ride. My neck was a little stiff from the ride, and my knees a little sore from bouncing off the walls, but otherwise I came out of the ride ok. I feel like I was in just enough shape to be able to survive the ride.

Once lunch was done, we loaded back into the truck to take us back to headquarters. At headquarters, we were able to get dressed into dry clothing, and check out the pictures that the professional photographers took throughout the trip. I was worried about my phone, so I didn’t bring it, but some did in water proof cases. The pictures were $20 for 1 or $40, for two or more, so I thought it was worth buying all the pictures that featured us. For $40 I didn’t have to risk my phone. Then we tipped our guide generously for taking good care of my children and allowing me to mostly enjoy this adventure kid free 😀

Back at headquarters and we are all alive and happy!

My husband picked us up, and since he was hungry we all went to dinner. Both kids were basically sleeping at the table from exhaustion. But when we talked about our trip, we all fondly remember the tubing as our favorite part of the vacation. And hope that we get to have an adventure like that soon.

This trip was part of our series The Best Adventure – Milestone Birthdays in Kauai

*Starred photos taken by and purchased from Kauai Backcountry Adventures Photographers

One thought on “Racing Down the Irrigation Canals – Tubing with Kauai Backcountry

  1. Pingback: The Best Adventure – Milestone Birthdays in Kauai | Around the World with Kids

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