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Hawaiian Big Island Adventures, Part II
Volume 76: Sat April 21, 2007
Amanda and Ryan continue their Hawaiian adventures, in search of molten lava and swimming with the dolphins.
Of course, no trip to Hawaii would be complete without a visit to see some volcanoes. Granted, the entire state is made up of volcanoes, but we wanted to see active volcanoes, so it was today—Amanda's birthday, I might add—we decided to drive out to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The park encompasses the world's most active volano: Kilauea. At least that's what they told us, and it sounds impressive to repeat. *nodding*
Most of today's adventures is best told through photos. We stopped at the visitor center to grab maps and take a quick gander around before driving around the Crater Rim road that circles the Kilauea Caldera. There's not actually much to see except a large hole in the ground, with a slightly smaller hole in it (Halema'uma'u Crater) and steam coming out vents, but it's an impressive hole. It's also a living hole. Diagrams showed when various flows in the crater happened, and Mark Twain even wrote an account of a 'lake of lava' bubbling and boiling away. It must have been an amazing site, but our view was much more mundane. Then we followed the Chain of Craters Road down towards the sea.
The Chain of Craters Road stops suddenly, and for good reason—a stream of lava buried it and hardened. In the distance, we could see steam coming out from the ocean where fresh lava poured into it. Amanda and I walked out onto the hardened lava. There aren't many places on earth where one can walk on land that is younger than you are, but this was one of them. The lava flow that poured over this section of road did so in 2003. In all, eight miles of the road is now buried under newly formed earth. About 600 new acres of land has been created since the eruption started in 1983, and the state of Hawaii is the owner of all new land created—just in case you were wondering. And sadly, 182 homes have been destroyed.
Amanda and I found a couple of 'no parking' signs sticking out of the hardened lava where it crossed the road, which we gleefully took pictures of. The molten lava, the park rangers told us, was a couple of miles out beyond the parking area, but we could hike out to it if we wanted to.
I find this rather surprising in our litigious society, but who was I to complain? I wanted to hike out and see honest to goodness lava! Glowing red, oozing down the mountainside.
Amanda wanted to see it to, but she had no desire to hike the 2 1/2 miles over the hardened lava (it's not that easy walking over) in the near 90°F heat. I was on my own. Actually, I wasn't. Almost immediately I started hiking with another adventurous soul named Daina who started telling me all of the details the ranger at the parking lot told her. Follow the reflectors out on the hardened lava, and when those run out follow six white posts sticking out of the ground. I felt very out of my element. I've never walked into a lava field before, there were no marked trails except for the six white posts (why bother—it'll probably be overrun with lava before too long). I read about 'benches' where lava will harden over a pool of molten lava and when people walk across it can plunge into the pool of molten lava. Daina told me that when it rains, the rain has been known to explode violently turning into steam that boils nearly hikers.
And what the heck do I do if I fall or break a leg? There were a lot of other people out there, but without a designated trail, there were scattered all over the place. Who knows how long it would be before my body was discovered?
Okay, perhaps my imagination was playing tricks on me. The dangers couldn't be nearly as bad as I thought. If they were, would the park rangers actually let dumb tourists like me wandering off to a river of lava? But fear is built on ignorance, and I was very ignorant of all things lava. I suspect Daina might have felt the same, and since she was hiking alone, we stuck together for the hike.
The hike out was uncomfortably hot. There was no shade, and the black lava seemed to soak up the heat of the sun like a sponge. I pulled out Amanda's yellow umbrella for shade, which Daina was instantly jealous of. And off we hiked. She's from Phoenix, though, so she probably needed a jacket just to stay warm anyhow. ;o)
The land nearest the ocean is roped off, deemed too dangerous by the authorities, and we headed towards the molten lava. The white posts were separated by rather large distances and we would sometimes hike to the top of a small hill trying to figure out where the next one was—usually just a small speck of white in the distance on the uniformly black surface of hardened lava. After about an hour of walking, we reached the end of the roped off area. The park rangers wouldn't go out any further to put up more rope.
A few people were just on the other side of the rope, and they didn't seem to be in imminent danger of death so Daina and I walked over to see what was up. They told us the lava was all around us. The newest formed was slightly grey in color compared to the jet black of older lava, and we could see waves of heat coming from the ground.
"Those people over there are crazy," one of the guys said, pointing to a few people further out on the lava. "They're gonna get themselves killed."
Daina and I waved goodbye and we walked back to the correct side of the rope, trying to decide what to do. Neither of us seemed entirely sure if it was safe to continue, but we had yet to see any red, oozing lava either. Clearly it was all around us, or rather, under the ground we walked on. We could see and feel the heat coming off the rocks. Mean-looking clouds rolled in as well and we felt a few drops of rain.
What if it seeped into a crack and exploded into a shower of boiling steam? Frankly, I could have been talked into turning around and walking back quite easily. I was scared. Not necessarily because I thought something bad might happen, but rather because I had no idea how to recognize dangers unique to the lava fields. I would have much preferred an experienced guide to get me around without killing me, and Daina wasn't one of those.
But she decided to press on closer to the lava, perhaps under the theory that the group further out on the lava wasn't dead yet and didn't seem in eminent danger of death so it must be safe. I followed along. Better to die with someone you met an hour ago than be branded a chicken forever, that's what I always say. =)
We walked out towards the other group, which was nerve-wracking. More and more of the lava was that slivery grey color, perhaps formed just that afternoon, and I didn't want to put my foot through a thin sheet of freshly hardened rock into a pool of molten lava, so I tried to stick to the dark black lava. Soon we could hear the ground around us crackling.
"We better not make the news today," I told Daina. "I really, really don't want to be a news story today."
We finally made it to the other group, who found a crack in the lava from where we could see a red glow coming from it. Lava! It's lava!
It was rather disappointing since we couldn't see it moving, but it's red, it's glowing, and wow it was hot!
Another person from their group, not far away, called the rest of us over. "Come over here! You can see it oozing!"
We walked to the other two people to see what was up and saw red lava, sitting there on the surface. A few seconds later, it oozed out forming a new lump before quickly turning dark. We were watching the newest land on earth being formed.
It was exhilarating, but kind of scary. We spotted another oozing lump of molten rock about ten feet away from the first and realized that the lava was all around us, under us. The hardening lava crackled, and pieces seemed to jump off the rock like grasshoppers. It was hot, very hot, despite the rain cloud that was blocking out the sun. I hoped it didn't start to rain while I was out walking around on molten rock.
Daina told me that the park ranger said you can walk on lava after it's cooled for 15 minutes.
"You go ahead," I told her. "I'll watch and see how it goes."
But seriously, I'm not sure what surprises me more—that this land we watched forming before our very eyes, molten lava that's probably 2,000°F, could be walked on if we waited around for 15 minutes or that a park ranger would actually tell this to tourists.
The first group that told us the second group was 'crazy' for going out that far walked up to us. "Well you guys didn't die!" they explained. Ha!
Daina and I took our pictures, then pictures of each other standing in front of the lava before deciding to head back to the parking lot. We saw molten rock, we saw it move and ooze, we felt the heat. Perhaps there were even greater sights to be seen ahead, but we felt we pushed our luck enough. It was time to head back.
The hike back went quickly and didn't seem nearly as hot since the sun was behind those clouds now. I found Amanda in the car, waiting patiently and waved goodbye to Daina. She was thinking about staying until dark to see the lava at night. I'm told it can be a spectacular sight to see, but we had a long drive back to Kona and did not want to stay that late. We stopped for lunch in the town of Volcanoes, then headed back to Kona for the day. That lava was so darned awesome to see, though. *nodding*
Our precious guidebook—I'm providing another link to it there on the right in case you missed it the first time—describes one particular hike and is a perfect example of why we love this book. It describes a hike to the Pu'u 'O'o Vent, the source of the current eruption, along the Ka-hau-a-Le'a Trail. Here are some excerpts from the book:
When we revealed this trail to readers in an earlier edition, bureaucrats at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park fumed when they realized that we had pointed out a way to visit Pu'u 'O'o that doesn't go through their park. They even stopped selling this book in the park. Well, that certainly isn't going to stop us. Park bureaucrats may not want you on this trail because you are beyond their control, but they can't keep you off this legal public trail.
All told, it's a 4 2/10-mile hike to the edge of the forest from your car. (3 2/10 miles as the crow flies, but you ain't no crow.)
The guidebook continues on about the dangers of getting too close to the vent, warning that you could fall from the fragile land into a lava lake (a "real bummer" as the author describes it). The trail goes through a rain forest—on one day in 2000, it received a "frog-strangling 32 inches" of rainfall.
And if that's not enough to scare off potential hikers, the guidebook continues:
...we got an e-mail from a reader who had been dissuaded from hiking it by a park ranger who said she and a group of rangers had recently hiked and got lost, requiring a guide to rescue them. If true, it may say more about the quality of some of the rangers at the park than the quality of the trail.
Also, guerrilla gardeners (you know...alternative farmers) sometimes tend their "crops" deep in the forest. They obviously like to stay as far from people as possible. The point is that you shouldn't stray a long distance off the trail for fear of stumbling onto their "farm" (not to mention getting lost in the rain forest).
And almost as an afterthought, the author warns that cars at the trailhead are often broken into so it's best not to leave valuables in the vehicle.
I'd imagine with all those warnings and caveats, it would scare most people away. To me, though, the description screams ADVENTURE! and immediately rises high on my to-do list. And so it was, Amanda and I found ourselves at the trailhead today. Amanda had no interest in an 8.4-mile hike through a rain forest and intended to drop me off before spending the afternoon doing whatever she wanted, then we were to meet up after four hours which is how long I expected it to take me to hike the trail.
The bonus, of course, was that our car would not be left at the trailhead to be broken into. Which is a good thing, because broken glass littered the trailhead. A lot of it, from a lot of cars. The author wasn't kidding when they said break-ins were common. One abandoned car looked particularly bad.
I headed down the trail, and Amanda headed off to do whatever she does when I'm hiking. The trail wasn't steep, but it was annoying uneven. Roots of trees and rocks littered the ground making walking difficult, and the trail was extremely muddy and slick. Walking went quickly, but not easily. At one point I slipped, tried to catch myself but missed, and crashed directly into the mud. Yuck.
I passed a number of people along the way. One group of five or six guys kind of concerned me since they did not seem very friendly and appeared to be locals. Perhaps those 'alternative farmers' tending their crops? I nodded politely but just passed through as quickly as I could.
The map of the trail showed an emergency helipad about halfway down the trail, but somehow I completely missed the side trail to it. I'm not sure how that happened, but at one point the trail came out from a slight rise and seemed to split into two different directions. I stopped to consider which to take. The right fork seemed slightly more traveled than the left fork, then I looked at the ground closer to me and realized someone put small branches across the trail of the left fork. That decided it for me, I was going right.
Near the end, the trail passed over a large crack in the ground. The crack was only a couple of feet wide, but was so deep I could not see the bottom of it. You definitely did not want to fall into it. That would have been very, very bad.
And finally, I came out of the rain forest to a view that extended for miles towards the Pu'u 'O'o Vent. I couldn't see any lava directly, but enormous, noxious clouds of gas could be seen rising beyond the horizon. Very cool.
An older couple from Boise followed me out to the viewpoint a few minutes later. I spent about 40 minutes out there, chatting with them, hiding a letterbox, and trying to find one that I never did find. It rained briefly and heavily so I put on my rain jacket, but it stopped after about five minutes and teased us during the rest of the hike. Two other hikers came out of the forest, one from Texas and the other a local. Cousins. They were planning to hike up the active volcano. I'm not sure they had the required permits for it, but the local seemed to know the area and even carried oxygen tanks 'just in case.' He said we were welcome to come join them, and OH how I would have loved to climb up that volcano, but alas, Amanda expected me back at the trailhead in another two hours and I didn't have the time available. The last I saw of them, they were tiny silhouettes slowly going up the flank of the mountain. I never heard of a rescue operation for them on the news that evening, so I assume they made it back alive well enough.
I started to retrace my steps back to the trailhead but stopped at the crack. I wanted to pee into it. I knew the Boise couple behind me were still eating lunch, and in front of me seemed clear, so I stepped with one foot on each side of the crack, unzipped my pants, and started relieving myself.
I wouldn't mention this except for one thing. Someone walked up on me doing so. Caught red-handed! I zipped up and laughed it off, saying I bet he'd want to pee into the crack as well. The guy seemed like a local, but he had no shoes on. How the heck did he get out here without any shoes? This is not a foot-friendly trail, and mud splattered up as far as his knees. (I did not escape this mud either. My shoes and pants were positively soaked in it from the knee down.)
He walked over the crack, seemingly surprised at its dark depths, and I continued along the trail.
About halfway back, I stopped suddenly. The trail suddenly felt wrong. I couldn't exactly pinpoint the reason. Seconds ago I was walking, carefree and quickly, and in about ten steps, I had that uh-oh feeling. Something was wrong. I looked behind me and the trail was clear as day, and I looked in front of me where the trail continued on. It looked right, but it felt wrong. I retraced my steps back about 20 steps, then continued forward again on the trail trying to figure out why it felt wrong. What exactly it was that got my attention.
But I couldn't figure it out. I continued walking, but a bit slower and paying much more attention to my whereabouts. The trail was marked with orange and blue ribbons tied to trees, which I figured was in case of tree falls to help people through tricky areas, so I paid even closer attention to them.
After a few minutes, I realized I was only seeing orange ribbons. I couldn't be certain, but I thought the trail was marked with a mix of blue and orange ribbons. I didn't remember ever seeing a section of just orange ribbons. But I continued to follow them. I wasn't paying that much attention on my hike out. Maybe I just didn't notice it.
The trail seemed to peter out a bit, then I caught a glimpse of a clearly defined trail a bit further ahead and headed towards it. As long as the ribbons were close, I wasn't too concerned. Then then the trail seemed to disappear again. This worried me since I could not remember having such a problem following the trail on the way out. I shouldn't be having trouble on the way back. And where were the blue ribbons anyhow?
I couldn't figure out how it happened, but I was lost. Not dangerously lost—I had ribbons to guide me, though where they were taking me I had no idea. After about ten minutes since that original uh-oh feeling, I turned back. Something was wrong. I didn't know what, but damn it, I'd hike back to the vent if I had to before turning around and trying the hike out again. Maybe I'd bump into the Boise couple who could tell me where I went wrong.
I checked my water bottle, wishing I had a bit more in it. It was still half full, but it might take a bit longer to get off this trail than I anticipated.
The trail was easy to lose while retracing my steps, and if it wasn't for the orange ribbons I may have lost it completely, but eventually I reached the point where I had the sense that something first went wrong. The trail was clearly defined, and there was a blue ribbon. I was sure this was the correct trail in that direction, and equally sure that the trail in the other direction was wrong. It didn't seem possible.
Then I noticed it. A blue ribbon, just above a rise on the side of the trail, and it all clicked. I remembered the fork in the trail that briefly stumped me on my way out, but coming from this other direction I didn't see the fork. Even when I stopped to retrace my steps I didn't see the fork. It looked like the trail continued straight but the slight rise on the one side hid the turn. I had walked directly over the small sticks placed on the wrong branch that steered me correctly the first time.
I followed the blue (and orange) ribbons up the small incline and made it the rest of the way out without any problems. I even saw the side trail that led to the emergency helipad. "Thank God I don't need that!" I thought.
I arrived back at the trailhead, and Amanda was already there waiting for me. I didn't pass the group of people that worried me while hiking out so I don't know what happened to them. I arrived about 15 minutes later than I told Amanda to expect me (getting lost takes time!) and told Amanda about my adventures. Amanda suggested that I probably made Pele (the Hawaiian volcano goddess) mad when I peed into the crack which is why she led me astray on the way back. There might be something to that.
Amanda and I declared this day was Waterfall Day. We planned to drive out towards Hilo, this time around the north end of the island, for a change in scenery. Turns out, most of Hawaii closes down on Sunday and we had a challenging time finding a place in Hilo to eat for lunch. Even the tsunami museum was closed, but we peeked through the windows to admire as much as we could without getting arrested. Once again, this day's adventures will be presented in the form of photos....
Yep, that was our day in a nutshell. Not especially exciting, huh? The waterfalls around this part of the island are beautiful, but crowded. *shrug*
Amanda, for those of you who don't know it, loves the water. She loves to swim and snorkel, or collect shells on the beach, or listen to the waves crashing on shore. This day, we declared to be Snorkeling Day. The nice thing was the best snorkeling on the island wasn't a very long drive from Kona and we were pretty sick of driving at this point. We should have spent half our week based out of Hilo. But today, at least, we didn't have much driving to do.
Our first stop was to Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook met his demise. We had one set of snorkeling gear, so while I sat on shore guarding our stuff from teenaged hooligans, Amanda was off swimming with the dolphins. That's not a figure of speech, either. Kealakekua Bay is known for spinner dolphins, the only types of dolphins that jump out water and spin without any form of training. They do it—get this—for fun! At least that's one theory. Scientists don't really know why these dolphins spin, but I like the 'for fun' theory. You're supposed to stay at least so many feet away from them, but the thing is, even with flippers, they can out swim pretty much every human known to man including Amanda. They were all around her. From shore, I could see their fins circling around the water (not unlike the fins in a shark movie just before the kill), but I knew they were dolphins because occasionally they'd jump out the water and SPIN! It's a very cool thing to see. Alas, they were much too quick and much too far away for me to get photos of them spinning.
When Amanda tired of swimming, she came back to shore and it was my turn. We actually have the same sized feet. Freaky, really, but convenient for sharing flippers. The coral was supposed to be amazing near the Captain Cook monument, but that's a pretty far distance to swim. Not impossible, but exhausting, but I wanted to see a coral reef so I started swimming direct for the Captain Cook monument.
I had one scare when a dolphin snuck up on me and swam about ten feet in front and below me. I was just focused on swimming towards the monument, hypnotized by the sparkling, sandy bottom that grew deeper the further out I swam. But my feet hurt! The flippers were much too tight and it hurt to kick very much. Halfway to the monument, I stopped and floated around a bit trying to decide what to do. If I swam the rest of the way to the monument, I'd have to swim back. A long, painful swim at the rate I was going. If I went the whole distance, I'd definitely have to get out of the water and rest before swimming back.
But I wondered if there was a reef closer to shore. I knew boats were not supposed to anchor within a set of buoys and I figured that must mean there's really cool stuff in the water they wanted to protect there. I'll do the monument another day. Instead, I'd check out the area that was off limits to boats. I changed direction 90 degrees and aimed for the closest shore.
I was a terrific decision. It was filled with colorful fish, coral that looked like giant brains, and wow! So much to see. I pulled out the waterproof disposable camera we purchased earlier in our trip and started taking photos. Lots of photos.
I'm not sure how long I lost myself among the sea life, but I finally worked my way along near the shoreline back towards Amanda. My feet were in excruciating pain and needed a rest. The going was tough, though, since so close to shore the surge from waves kept bobbing me back and forth and stirring up the sandy bottom limiting visibility. I was quite thankful to finally get out of the water where I conferred with Amanda, pointing out where all the really neat stuff was.
"But don't follow directly along the shoreline," I warned her. "It's much easier if you swim out a little bit first, then parallel to the shore, and back in."
Lest you think my feet were in pain because my feet really are bigger than Amanda's, she was suffering as much as I was from the fins. She would end the day with a genuine blister on the top of her foot from the efforts. I just ended up with a very red line across the top of my foot, but fortunately, no blisters.
Amanda went out, following the directions I gave her, while I sat around writing postcards and killing time. She finally came back, giddy over the sights she found.
Then we left to another snorkeling location by the Place of Refuge. Driving up, I was astounded at the number of people in the water snorkeling. Seemed like a hundred people were there, compared to the solitary experiences we had at the previous location. Amanda took to the water first while I waited around with our gear.
When she returned, I asked about where the coral was. "Everywhere!" she exclaimed. "You can't miss it!"
I slipped into the water and was shocked at how true it was. I was practically standing on the coral the second I entered the water. The views were much the same as we saw in Kealakekua Bay, but with a lot more people. Even a few scuba divers were exploring the area. I decided to follow a route along the coast towards the right, then cross directly across the bay to the left side before following the shore back to where I entered the water.
The one surprise I did find was a message. It said ALOHA, probably a good 30 feet deep in the water. It was spelled out with cinderblocks in a sandy portion on the ocean floor, which I noticed as I swam from the right side of the bay directly across to the left. Alas, just a couple of minutes earlier, I used the last picture of my underwater camera. I had nothing left to photograph this underwater greeting.
Getting out of the water proved a challenge since I did not want to step on the reef while pulling myself out, but it was so near the surface it was nearly impossible to avoid it.
And that was the end of our snorkeling adventures. We headed back to Kona where we cleaned up from all the sea water and dirt, then walked down to Lulu's for dinner.
It was our last day in Hawaii. Our flight didn't leave until late that evening so we still had the whole day available for exploring. We packed our bags, loaded up the rental car, then drove out to explore the northernmost reaches of the Big Island. Once again, today's story will mostly be told in photos. There's just not much to tell that the photos can't.
That's it folks. We caught our flight back to Seattle that evening. Once again, we had exit row seats. It was a red-eye flight, not arriving in Seattle until early the next morning and we slept during most of it. Aloha, Hawaii.
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