The Wailuku is the longest river in Hilo (twenty-six miles.) Its course runs from the mountains to the ocean along the divide between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The Wailuku is the boundary between Hilo Palikū in the north and Hilo One on the south.
There are many vague stories as to why the Wailuku River was so named. Wailuku literally means “destroying water.” Legends connected with the Wailuku tend to confirm the belief that it was named for its violent habits.
In olden times before there were bridges and other safeguards, the river wrought considerable damage to property and during the rainy season it took its toll of human lives. (Hapai)
Waiānuenue Avenue (rainbow (seen in) water) is named for the most famous waterfall, Ka Wailele ʻO Waiānuenue, Rainbow Falls on the Wailuku River. The goddess Hina once lived in the cave beneath and behind the waterfall. Maui was her son.
The stories of Maui are common old tales and speak of a real voyager who traveled throughout the islands of the Pacific, a sailor of great renown deified for his deeds; hence, the commonality of the tale.
He raised the islands the same way sailors have always raised islands, by sailing towards it until the land rises from the sea above the horizon. The story of Maui is a tale of discovery. (Kaulukukui)
In many of the accounts Maui is a mischievous trickster, stealing the secret of fire and helping his mother to dry kapa by lassoing the sun to slow its progression across the sky. (Bishop Museum)
It is on the Wailuku River that we still see the evidence of Maui in Hilo – Ka Waʻa O Maui – the Canoe of Maui.
Far above Rainbow Falls, in the bed of the river, dwelt Kuna. The district through which that portion of the river runs bears to this day the name “Waikuna” or “Kuna’s river.” Kuna was a mo’o (lizard, reptile of any kind, dragon, serpent; water spirit.)
Kuna often tormented Hina in her rocky cave behind Rainbow Falls by sending over great torrents of water or by rolling logs and boulders down the stream. Quite often he would block the stream below the falls to dam the river and drown Hina.
But Hina was well protected. Her cave was large and the misty cloud of spray from the falling waters helped to conceal it. So in spite of the frequent floods and many threats from Kuna, Hina paid him little attention.
On many days Hina was alone, while her son, Maui, was away on one of his numerous expeditions. Even then she did not mind this, for should any danger befall her she had a peculiar cloud servant which she called ao-o-pua (a sharp pointed cloud.)
If Hina were in trouble this ao-o-pua would rise high above the falls, taking an unusual shape. When Maui saw this warning cloud he would hurry home at once to his mother’s side.
One night while Maui was away from home on the Island of Maui, where he had gone to bargain with the Sun, a storm arose. The angry waters roared about the mouth of Hina’s cave.
Kuna, aware of the situation, was quick to take advantage of the situation. Calling upon his powers he lifted an immense boulder and hurled it over the cliffs. It fitted perfectly where it fell between the walls of the gorge and blocked the rush of the hurrying torrent.
Hina slept until the cold waters entered the cave, rapidly creeping higher and higher until they reached her where she slept.
Startled, she sprang to her feet, and her cries of panic resounded against the distant hills. Again and again, her voice went out from the cave. It pierced through the storms and the clouds. It swept along the side of the great mountain. It crossed the channel between the islands of Hawaii and Maui.
Ao-o-pua rose swiftly above the falls when Hina cried for aid and then, assuming a peculiar shape, stood high above the hills that Maui might see it.
Through the darkness Maui could see the strange warning cloud, unusually large and mysterious. With his mother’s cries ringing in his ears he bounded down the mountain to his canoe. Pushing it into the sea, with two mighty strokes of his paddle, he crossed the sea to the mouth of the Wailuku river.
A long, narrow rock in the river, called Ka Waʻa O Maui (The Canoe of Maui), is still just where he ran it aground at the foot of the rapids.
Leaving his canoe, Maui seized the magic club with which he had conquered the sun after lassoing him, and rushed along the dry bed of the river to the place of danger. Swinging the club swiftly around his head, lie struck the dam holding back the water of the rapidly-rising river.
“Ah! Nothing can withstand the magic club. The bank around one end of the dam gives way. The imprisoned waters leap into the new channel. Safe is Hina the goddess.”
Hearing the crash of the club and realizing his attempt on the life of Hina had again failed, Kuna turned and fled up the river. Maui rushed up the river to punish Kuna for the trouble he had caused Hina.
Kuna fled to his different hiding places, but Maui broke up the river bed and drove the dragon out from every one, following him from place to place as he fled down the river.
At last Kuna found what seemed to be a safe hiding place in a series of deep pools, but Maui poured a lava flow into the river. He threw red-hot burning stones into the water until the pools were boiling and the steam was rising in clouds. Kuna uttered incantation after incantation, but the water scalded and burned him.
Dragon as he was, his hard, tough skin was of no avail. The pain was becoming unbearable. With cries to his gods he leaped from the pools and fled down the river. The waters of the pools are no longer scalding, but have never lost the tumbling, tossing, foaming, boiling swirl – today this area is known as ‘The Boiling Pots.’
With joy at the sight of Kuna’s body hurled over the falls, they eagerly watched the dragon as the swift waters swept him against the dam with which he had hoped to destroy Hina. Maui had saved Hina.
Across Polynesia, almost every group has its own versions of the tales of Maui, including Maui’s canoe. For instance, Maori note “Te Waka-a-Maui” (“the Canoe of Maui”) as an ancient name for the South Island of New Zealand.