Monday, January 30, 2012

Mum's Visit: Around the Big Island by Land

 Maps of the Big Island of Hawai'i’s 9 districts and 5 volcanoes for orientation of our recent adventures 

2012 came roaring in and January got busy quickly when Judy, Shawn’s Mum, landed in Kona on January 5th for a week-long visit. It was her first trip to Hawaii and it was very special for us that she made the journey half way around the world. While she was here, we packed in a ton of visiting and touring in order to catch up and introduce her to the Big Island. We greeted her at the airport with a real flower lei (Shawn had polled the few people she could find that knew about their Hawaiian meaning and the one she had chosen meant “good luck”) as Hawaiian welcome, picked up her rental car, and got her settled into a recently renovated room at the Kona Islander Inn. The Inn was great but had a lack of parking so for the week we became a 2-car family, and Shawn the rental car chauffer. We started off slowly the next morning going out to brunch and then back to Tao to determine if Judy’s new hip would allow her to climb aboard while Med-tied. After finding that she had little problem clambering aboard, we hiked to the nearby Kaloko-Honokohau State Park in search of turtles and petroglyphs and what we found was our first Nene, the worlds rarest goose (sorry no pictures).

Saturday morning we went out for a bittersweet sail; it was Tao’s first outing of 2012, the first time Judy had been out on Tao and the last time for all of us before our January 19th planned haul-out, and possibly Grizzly’s last sail on Tao. It was a typical day on the Kona coast, light breeze under 10-knots and sunny with haze covering most of Hualalai Volcano, towering above Kona but usually hidden in vog from faraway Kilauea. The sail was mellow and idyllic; Mum chased the spots of sun around the cockpit as we changed points of sail, and we had a smooth entry back into the dock just in time to catch a beautiful vog-induced red sunset. Sunday morning Shawn taught a double at Bikram Yoga Kona, so Judy explored the bustling market on her own. That afternoon we all three drove down to the South Kona District to Hookena Beach- our first time via land. Though we were hoping that it might be mellow and were imagining swimming and snorkeling, it turned out to be one of the busy days- the last day of  Holiday break before kids headed back to school. So instead, we enjoyed people watching as families swarmed the beach and skim-boarding youth covered the waves crashing onto the shore. After enjoying lunch in the sun and stopping by to say hello to our friends at Hale Kai, we continued back toward Kona, stopping at Honaunau, a national park known historically as a “place of refuge.” With no patch of sand large enough for Tao to anchor in its bay, this was a site that we had not previously explored and once there, it was easy to imagine the area filled with bustling life of the Ancient Hawaiians.

Monday was a big day of touring and the weather held beautifully. We started early to drive around the south point of the island, and spent all morning in the southeastern Ka'u District. First we stopped in Na’alehu for breakfast at a diner called Hana Hou and found great food in the middle of nowhere- we highly recommend the Dragon’s Brew coffee and a stop here for some local flavor. Next stop was the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, one of the few truly black sand beaches around and though the water looked cold and uninviting for a swim, it was filled with not-so-elusive green sea turtles. We continued on to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and first, watched Kilauea from the Jaggar Museum overlook, then, took a hike through Thurston Lava Tube which culminated with views of the Kilauea Iki Crater, and finally, we stopped at the Volcano Art Museum. Onward still, we continued north along the eastern side of the island to Lava Tree State Park in the Puna District of the island where we saw very obvious vertical hollow lava tubes, the remnants of a fast moving lava flow that had covered a stand of wet 'Ohi'a trees (its red lehua blossoms are the official flower of the Big Island). From here we were quite close to Kalapana, the town the Chain of Craters road connected to before being covered with lava in the early 1980's. To quench our interest, we visited Kalapana, the other side of the “recent” lava field where several structures had been spared by previous flows, and others were not so lucky… Finally, we made it to Hilo, but sunset was drawing near and we hoped to get back to Kona via the infamous Saddle Road. Therefore, we didn’t have time to see much more than the amazing trees along Banyan Drive and Rainbow Falls. It was worth hurrying, however, because the weather was so clear going over the Saddle Road, that we were able to see the summits of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as we crested the saddle at sunset. On our way back down the other side, after breaking through a nerve wracking half hour of fog, we were back in Kona and tired but happy after a very full day of sight-seeing.

On Tuesday we relaxed by enjoying the busy beaches near Kona, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, consuming a delicious dinner at Jackie Rey’s, and sharing a soak in the Islander Inn jacuzzi. Wednesday we motivated for another big car tour, this time covering the north end of the island through the Hamakua, Kohala and North Kona Districts. We took hwy-190, the “high road” to Waimea, gaping at its impressive views of the Kawaihae Bay, Kohala Coast, and across the channel to Maui along the way. From Waimea, we continued on to the Hamakua District and the southern overlook of Waipio Valley, where we happened upon a group of students chanting in Hawaiian while overlooking this amazing area. Listening to their rhythmic sounds was a surreal welcome to the location of the valley that housed the early Hawaiian royalty. After winding our way along the “old highway” back to Waimea, we drove up and over the Kohala Mountains, taking a very nice unplanned coffee stop at Toni and Ty’s old sugar plantation home. We continued on to view Waipio Valley again, this time from the northern overlook just outside of the little town of Hawi. After visiting several artsy stores in the North Kohala District, we drove to the tiny Upolu Airport at the northernmost tip of the island and head of the Alenuihaha Channel (we always listen for NOAA weather data from here). While overlooking the channel toward Maui, we were lucky to spot humpback whale tails flapping far below. Farther south we stopped at Nishimura Bay/Mahukona, then Kawaihae Harbor, and finally Anaehoomalu Bay (called A-Bay even by locals) to watch yet another beautiful sunset.

Overall, we drove more than 650-miles through all 9 districts of the Big Island and enjoyed beautiful sunny conditions for viewing all sorts of natural wonders including each of the 5 volcanoes in their differing geologic stages. It was a lot of car time, but it was fun to have Chris in the back seat playing tour guide by reading interesting information aloud from our “Big Island Revealed” book and we got to share a lot of time together in the beautiful Big Island setting. The next afternoon we saw Mum off on a tiny Go Mukelele! flight that afforded her amazing vistas of the north end of the Big Island and the windward side of Maui (her next destination) from the air, and we reset for the next busy week to come before hauling out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Looking for Lava on Kilauea Volcano and Glimpsing Pele's Glow

Pele and her sister, Namaka
O Kaha'i, goddess of the sea
(painting by Herb Kane)
Pele, goddess of fire, wind and volcanoes in Hawaiian mythology, became active inside the Pu'u'O'o Vent of Kilauea Volcano once again at the end of September, just before we left the Big Island to explore more of the Hawaiian Island chain by boat. By the time we were crossing the Alenuihaha Channel on September 25th, lava was overflowing from the west gap of the crater. Nearly 3-months later, on Wednesday December 14th, we returned to the Big Island and put our anchor down in Kiholo Bay. That same day, popular press reported that Volcanoes National Park was providing access to lava viewing as it was now flowing inside the park boundary for the first time since 2007. Molten rock was actively flowing through a new fissure in Pu'u'O'o’s east flank and draining overland to finally reach the ocean at a site that scientists dubbed the West Ka'ili'ili Ocean Entry. Our excitement about visiting the volcano was again reignited, especially for the geologist in Chris. Our first priority was that we had to get Tao into a safe spot, recover from several months of sailing, and reconnect with family for the holidays.

The drive before dropping into VNP
On Friday night December 30th, we snuggled down early at 7pm to grab 3 hours of rest before the 10pm alarm awoke us for our most recent adventure. By 11pm the quarter moon had set and we were underway in Truck-Truck, the wonderful local-style vehicle that was lent to us by generous Bikram Yoga friends, headed toward Volcanoes National Park via South Point. Truck-Truck’s fuel gage doesn’t work under ¼ tank, so we stuffed another gallon in at the “last” open station just south of Kealakekua and hoped that it would be enough to take us all the way to the town of Volcano and then down the Chain of Craters Road and back (150-miles). In the darkness we hurtled down the windy road along the western flanks of Mauna Loa and finally over the ridge that dropped us once again onto the eastern side of the Big Island, the first time since we rounded the northern tip in Tao from Hilo back in July.

Around 2am, now New Year's Eve, we entered the national park and decided to first visit the Kilauea Overlook of the active Halema'uma'u Crater viewed from the Jaggar Museum. Usually packed with drive-up tourists, we were the only ones there. In the eerie silence, we watched the massive crater continually pump out ash to the glow of its lava lake below. It was mesmerizing, like watching a bon fire and its smoldering coals. Feeling a bit of time pressure with a large unknown night hike ahead of us, we continued on and drove the 23-mile Chain of Craters road to its current terminus. We organized our gear and prepared for the arduous 5-mile hike (one way) in the dark over uneven, jagged, very sharp older lava flows to the current activity. We planned to do this in the dark with hopes of seeing the glow of flowing lava. In the charged stillness of the expansive land concealed by darkness, with stars twinkling above, we each hefted our water filled pack, shock absorbing hiking pole, a bright headlamp, and we started moving quickly over paved road away from our parked truck.

Lava flows of Kilauea's Pu'u O'o Vent from 1983 to today
Soon we came to a darker patch, which turned out to be where lava had previously covered and closed the road. Lengthened in 1959 to connect to the town of Kalapana, the next 8-miles of this road was covered by flows from the Pu'u'O'o Vent between 1986-1991. “No walking and gawking” was stressed by the informative ranger that we spoke to regarding this hike. So, after climbing up onto the flow, we stood still and looked around to get our bearings, noting our first beacon- a flashing light in the appropriate direction. Slowly, we made way toward the beacon, always focusing our headlamp beam and our eyes on our next step. Now getting comfortable with the terrain and moving relatively quickly,Chris’ footing slid  between the 2nd and 3rd beacon, and he grazed his hand on surrounding lava rock- no problem, except that it is so sharp that his hand was immediately cut. Out came the first aid kit and after a patch up first aid session, we donned the work gloves we had been strongly encouraged to bring, and continued on. Each step was upon glittering rock and we continually had to adjust our route away from precipitous drop offs through the old pahoehoe flows.

After nearly 5-miles and the seventh and last blinking beacon, we stopped to decide on our next steps over our thermos of tea, while watching the slight glow coming from the direction of the Pu'u'O'o Vent. Our “directions” went no further than this and we still could not see any obvious flowing lava. Nearing 6am we were about to lose our lava-viewing-from-darkness vantage. Though lava had been flowing at the surface quite close to this spot a mere two days previous, it appeared we were not going to win what the ranger had aptly described as the “lava lottery” today. Still, having come this far, we decided to continue on. As the sun rose, the previously cloaked scene became clear. The steep eastern flank of the Pu'u'O'o Vent was obviously darkened with still-smoking sections from the recent hillside flows down to the relatively flat land, upon which we stood, which gently sloped eastward toward the ocean. Along this “flat land” section we could see steam exiting certain spots and “mirages” caused by areas of super heated gases escaping through fissures in the rock. Always the explorer, Chris excitedly moved around collecting temperature data at each new point with our laser gauge (used on Tao to determine engine temperatures).

Although on this morning we did not see overland flow, lava was flowing in a lava tube directly below us! Through several cracks, we could glimpse the glow. Keeping a safe distance away (i.e. our feet were not hot), we followed the obvious steam and mirages along this underground tube SE toward the ocean, until we reached a view point of the ocean entry. Although in the sunlight it did not appear bright orange as imagined, we were able to see the newly formed bench of land (now looking whitish-grey) and steam plumes as the ocean waves crashed and sizzled along the newly formed shore. A more “normal” hour now (7am or so), we began to hear the hum of helicopters and power boats carrying tourists to view the scene from above and from sea to witness new land being created. Looking around, we marveled at different flows with varying levels of minerals and cooling conditions, each appearing distinct; some as solid gold and all containing shiny substances that had sparkled so in the light of our headlamps. After collecting more temperature data, and probably getting closer to the lava tube entrance than necessary (since the laser gauge topped its peak of 450F), at about 9am we prepared for the grueling return hike to the truck. Three and a half hours later we once again reached the terminus at the Chain of Craters road, in the daylight, marked by a beautiful sea arch.
West Ka'ili'ili Ocean Entry 12/31/2011

Pele's hair = volcanic glass

Quite tired, we enjoyed several accessible view points as we drove out of the park and stopped in the little town of Punalu'u to fuel up the truck and buy some famous Hawaiian sweet bread for the ride back to Honokohau. We got back to Tao just as the sun was setting on the last day of 2011 and celebrated with Grizzly by taking a nice long nap and waking up to a bright and sunny 2012.  Now that we have a better understanding of what the scale is and the capricious nature of the lava flow, we will be able to make decisions to get there more quickly next time we hear of a flow happening this close to us. We were tired but happy to have glimpsed the last of Pele before she went into hiding again. As of January 4th 2012, the ocean entry is officially in “a state of pause.”