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Monday, November 4, 2013

Hot Lava: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The clocks have now been turned back and I am not happy.

I am not a cold weather person, and coming home from work in the dark plunges me into a depression. I need sun and I need outside air and I need said air not to numb my ears and make snot run down my face. Winter is not a glamorous season for me.

So this time of year always has my thoughts turning to Hawaii.

Ahhhh...Hawaii. It's where Mark and I went on our honeymoon, and every fifth anniversary (or more if we can get away with it) we try to make it back around this time of year. I like all the islands but I confess to having a favorite: the big island of Hawaii.

It's the newest island in the chain, so it's not as far along in the foliage department as the older ones. Being a desert person, I kind of like the large expanses of lava and the unobstructed views of the ocean. And being an outdoorsy kind of person, I appreciate being able to get away from the crowds of Mai Tai-swilling sunburned mainlanders out for a drunken week-long party (not that we're above swilling a few Mai Tai's ourselves...)

There's a lot to see on the island, but one of the things that you just can't get at home (well, mine anyway) is an active volcano. To witness the earth being built is an amazing and wonderful thing.



On our trip in 2005 we were staying on the western side of the island near Kona (less rain and clearer water for snorkeling.) We had set aside a day to go to Volcanoes National Park, and since it's on the southeastern side, we had to get up early in the morning to be able to spend some time there.

Being from California, we are used to a network of roads weaving the state together like a loose basket. Want to go east? Choose one of a multitude of roads that head east and go. The Hawaiian islands are different: since they are all relatively newly formed mountains in the sea, roads going up and over are rare. The interior is steep, sparsely populated and sometimes molten--not attractive living arrangements--so most of the activity is around the edges. Getting from one side of the island to the other involves a long circuitous route that follows the edge where lava meets the sea. Volcanoes National Park is 100 miles from Kona, a three and a half hour trip just to get to the entrance (the belt road is not a super-highway--everyone has to use it and it goes through every town on the island--so it's slow going.) Once there, it's quite a drive in, with lots of stops along the way to view the Kilauea crater, lava tubes, and of course the Visitor's Center and museum.

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube
Steaming sulfur fields along the Chain of Craters Rd.
The trail around the Kilauea Crater.
Close up of the crater floor.
The volcanic activity on Hawaii is mild in comparison to other spots around the world. Eruptions are a lot like the Hawaiian culture itself: laid-back and not in a big hurry. Most of the time it's more of an ooze than a flow, and rarely does it actually spew into the air. Sometimes it just stops altogether for a while, only to start up from a different vent. In 2005 it was flowing from the Pu'u O'o vent, slowly spilling a (mostly) underground river of lava into the sea. During the day, you could see the steam rising up from the ocean so you knew there was activity, but looking out over the black lava fields it looked deceivingly calm.

Lava pours into the ocean.

We had read that to truly experience it you had to hike out onto the lava field and stay until after dark, so we had come prepared. We wore sturdy, thick soled shoes and brought flashlights with us; both of these items were really for the same reason. You haven't felt real pain until you've scraped a body part on lava rock. Flip-flops don't cut it when walking a couple miles out onto freshly formed lava beds, and when it gets dark, it gets really dark. The black lava seems to suck any ambient light right into itself leaving you blind and in danger of falling...which leads to painfully scraped body parts.

Pahoehoe Lava-the nice kind.
Ropey lava looking for a knee to scrape.

So armed with our flashlights and actual shoes (which feel really funny to put on after a week of walking around barefoot on the beach) we drove to a large parking area at the end of the park road. It literally is the end of the road; it used to go much further in until Pele the Goddess of Fire decided to stop those pesky cars from coming any closer. Lava flows as recent as 1992 have crept down the mountain and covered the road, melting the pavement and burying it under five feet of lava. It's an impressive sight to see the asphalt disappear under the black lava, and sign posts occasionally poking up through it, still standing and recognizable but for the singed paint.

The end of the road, decided by the Goddess of fire, Pele, herself.
Every once in a while the road would reappear in the lava field.


Road sign left in place, minus the paint.
We parked and joined a crowd of people trouping out from the lot and started out over the lava beds. There aren't any official trails, just a general direction toward the steam rising from the ocean. We walked at least two miles before we came up to a series of poles with rope strung between them. In general, everyone stopped at the rope. A few people climbed over and wandered a little further. There were little signs on the rope here and there that said not to cross, but it wasn't really clear why. Mark wanted to go closer, but being the overly cautious one I vetoed the idea. We sat on the smoothest pile of lava we could find and waited for the sun to set.

There were quite a few people, but it wasn't crowded. It's such an open area that everyone had plenty of room to roam around and settle in. The wind was whipping across the open terrain; that coupled with the sulfur smell coming off the distant steam vents made our eyes water.  We chatted with a guy who had flown in from the East Coast specifically to see the lava. We took his picture for him and he took ours just as the sun was setting.

Waiting for the sun to set. (Photo by Steve, or was it Paul? from somewhere on the East Coast)
Notice the rope behind us.

It didn't take long to realize just why the rope was put in place. Not even 100 yards from where we sat a glow started getting stronger as the sunlight got dimmer. Half an hour later a series of glowing veins lit up the field before us like an illustration of the circulatory system in an animated medical film. Looking up into the hills you could see huge pulsing flows of lava coming down and spreading out into individual veins, all eventually flowing to the edge of the field where you could hear the waves turn to steam in the night. It was an incredible sight. So incredible in fact, that even though there were at least 100 people out there, no one spoke. There aren't many things in the world that make people shut up nowadays, but this was one of them. Aside from the clicking of cameras, only nature was allowed to speak.

Lava leaves Pu'u O'o vent and rolls down the hill.
Lava meets ocean much more dramatically after sunset.

To this day I can taste the salty/sulfur air and feel that warm humid wind. Being out in the dark on the darker lava, with all the stars so bright and the orange glow of the lava was one of those lifetime experiences that get socked away in the memory to be pulled out when in desperate need of amazement. I'm privileged to have witnessed many wonderful things in my life, but seeing the earth as it's being built is one of the top ten.

We sat for a while and pondered what might have happened if we had gone beyond the rope. There are stories about people wandered out too far and breaking through the thin layer of hardened lava into the flow beneath. I can only imagine how quickly your skin, not to mention muscle and bone, would burn in the kind of heat that melts rock. No thanks.

We stayed for about an hour before heading back to the car. We walked much more slowly, carefully picking our way over the undulating lava. You would think lava is lava, but it actually takes on many forms. Within the same area there are rolling, smooth areas (pahoehoe in Hawaiian) that were my favorite; much easier to walk on and mostly solid; then there was the areas of crusty, crumbling blocks that wobbled and tumbled as we walked over them (a'a' in Hawaiian--my theory is that's the sound you make as you walk on it). Those were hard to navigate and had the most potential for pain. While we were smart enough to wear proper footwear, we just couldn't bring ourselves to wear long pants in Hawaii, so every step was a potential for losing the hard-earned tan off our shins.

Some of the older lava takes on a polished look. This looked like a turtle shell to me.

We made it back to the car around 10:30pm. We had packed a lunch and snacks, but didn't realize just how late we would be getting back. It took about 30 minutes to get out of the park, and then we were faced with another three-plus hours to get back to our condo. The towns on that side of the island are few and far between--the resorts are all located on the Hilo (east) side and the Kona (northwestern) side--and most businesses in Hawaii close pretty early. So we made our way back, nervously watching the gas gauge in the rental car get closer to E. We finally found a tiny gas station about halfway back to Kona that not only had gas but a small rack of "food". This is how we found ourselves eating a dinner of Hostess Cupcakes and cokes at midnight, running on a sugar high after our 18 hours of volcano tourism. Sweet.

Mai Tai Mark, post-snorkeling.


It was a great time, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately the last time we went to the Big Island the lava wasn't flowing. Fortunately for us though, there were still fish to be viewed through our dive masks, and just a couple Mai Tai's waiting for our sunburned-mainland-selves every night.

Ahhh...Hawaii.

Snorkeling in Kealakekua (Captain Cook's) Bay