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.”

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