Note: Big post. But didn’t really want to split it. Please bear along. It’s a good story.
What do you expect when you go to a National Park?
a) To see breathtaking scenery
b) To learn something new
c) To appreciate the awesomeness of nature
d) To get poisoned
If you answered “All of the Above”, let’s revisit my excursions last week to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
All of the Hawaiian Islands are remarkable in their tropical beauty and biological diversity – but the Big Island alone has something that few other places in the world can offer you (Iceland comes to mind) – a chance to see live volcanoes in action.
The Hawaiian Islands were (and actually are still being) formed as the Pacific plate drifts over a hot-spot in the earth’s crust. This passing has given rise to the volcanic seamounts that form the chain. As the plate is drifting northwest, the islands have been formed oldest-to-newest in a general southeast trending arc. The Big Island is currently over the hot-spot and is home to the island’s active volcanoes (three of the five on the island are considered active).
On one of our days, the entire household piled into the van and made the long-ish (2+ hour) trip to the park wondering if we’d see much activity – we weren’t disappointed. As we neared the park, Mike noticed a plume of bluish-white and correctly identified it as “not a cloud”.
In fact, it was the main crater at Kilauea (Halema`uma`u) – which though silent for many years*, in recent months has begun to emit large amounts of gases (so much so, that some areas of the park are off-limits). A ranger informed us that the lava-level under the crater has recently gone from more than 1000 ft below the opening to just ~300 ft. Hawaiian mythology says that Pele, the goddess of fire, lives there – so clearly she brewing something!
“The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.” Mark Twain, at Kilauea, 1866.
It’s hard to describe how other-worldly this place is. There are steam vents all over the place (some large enough that they are cordoned off, lest some not-so-smart visitor could be lost) that create a veil of “mist”. As in Twain’s day, breezes will often bring the smell of sulfur.
Speaking of sulfur, in a group in which each of the adults (5) has a PhD in chemistry, you can imagine the excitement of being able to see elemental sulfur lying on the ground. So cool!
One of the hikes we were able to get in was a short walk around the rim of the caldera for Kilauea-Iki (meaning “little Kilauea”) – another crater adjacent to the main crater of Kilauea. This caldera was the site of a massive lava eruption in 1959. At one point, jets of lava were shooting 1900 feet into the air. 1900 feet! Holy crap.
The short trail ends in a lava tube that you can walk through. Did I mention this was cool? Though I will say the Beloved didn’t think so much of the dark, damp, enclosed path that “could have lava flowing through it any minute!”
Finally, we had to make a decision: hike the 4 mile trail down to and ONTO the caldera floor of Kilaeua Iki or the shorter and invitingly named “Devastation Trail”. Given the late-ish hour, and the fact that a couple people doubted the sanity of walking on a caldera floor while maybe a mile or so from an adjacent crater that was actively spewing gases, we opted for Devastation.
The Devastation Trail winds through an area that was essentially the “blowback” of the eruption of Kilauea Iki – as such it’s not a lava flow, but more like “lava gravel”. The trail leads along the edge where plants are starting to make inroads back after half a century.
We were treated by not one but TWO rainbows in the late afternoon mist – one of which we could see reach onto the floor of Kilauea Iki. I mean, is that the way to end the day, or what?
So, we returned home happy, but over the next few days something nagged at me. The trail across the floor of Kilauea Iki. I mean, how many opportunities are you gonna get to do that – walk across the floor of an active volcano!?!?
And so, on the last full day of the vacation, I cajoled The Beloved into taking a trip back (oddly enough the remainder of the group thought going to some place voted “most beautiful beach in America” was a better option. Whatever.).
Disappointedly, we arrived in mist and rain, but as we made our way along the rim and began our descent to the caldera floor, the clouds moved off and we were graced with a gorgeous blue-sky day.
The caldera floor was beyond awesome and as we approached the gaping maw of the crater, I desperately tried to remember Frodo’s speech when he finally brings The Ring to Mount Doom**, and would find myself turning to The Beloved and trying to look very doe-eyed saying, “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” Fortunately, few others were about.
We made our way across the rest of the length of the caldera and as we were approaching the far rim, a funny thing happened. I started getting really short of breath – like really short of breath, like almost fish-on-a-beach. And I may not be in race-shape, but I can walk a couple of miles that are all downhill or flat. Then I started sweating. A lot. The Beloved reported the same effects. Hrmmm.
We labored up to the cool mist on the far side and felt a little better. Then my fingers started to go numb. Remember all the things that I said were cool? This wasn’t one of them. We beat a retreat for cool air conditioning and fresh water and we started to feel better and a stop for lunch nearby helped more. Though I will say that I felt sort of lethargic for the rest of the day and even into the next. Oof.
So, did we get an acute whiff of volcanic gases? Certainly, our symptoms suggest it. (Oddly, a flight attendant that told one of our companions the same sort of story during their flight home backed this up.) Surely, that’s it, because otherwise my only other explanation is that Pele didn’t appreciate all the “Lord of the Rings” fun I was having.
Hopefully, that last part won’t keep anyone away from going there – because it really was the highlight of my vacation – something I’ll never forget. I can’t recommend it more. Maybe just keep the jokes to yourself.
*though the volcano has been erupting more or less constantly since 1983, the lava flows have been through side vents, not “out the top”.
**I have come. But I will not do what I came to do. I will not do this thing! The Ring is mine!