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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Big Island: The Lava Fields

Several years ago, we drove to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, went to the end of Chain of Craters Road, and walked on the lava fields, half-hoping to see running red lava. We didn't make it to the lava, but it was a fun trip. But I'd always wanted to go back and see some active geology...

This time, we were better prepared: we brought hiking boots, walking sticks, and several liters of water for each of us. We drove to the lava field at the end of the road, and set out, even though the signs indicated that it was a five mile walk across the lava field to see the "red lava". This lava field is extremely new, with new flows added daily. Much of it is ten years old or less.

Walking on lava is quite a challenge. Imagine the worst parking lot you've ever seen, make the blacktop chunks about 20 times bigger, have it rain beer bottles on it for awhile, and heat them until they all melt, and you'll have an idea of what a lava field looks like. You have to pick your steps very carefully, even without worrying about hot lava itself as there are lots of slippery and slick areas, and occasionally things move without warning when you put your weight on them.

But it is oddly beautiful in a way: the colors are very elemental, and there are lots of hidden rainbows and colors in what seems at first glance to be a uniform field of black. In cracks, you'll see yellows, reds, and greens, and even occasional rich blues, and the pahoehoe has a very cool ropy look. The land is clearly brand-new, with only scattered vegetation, and the only sound you'll hear is the wind and the nearby ocean.

We started walking at about 2:30, and after a couple of hours of steady walking, we started to see steam and smelled brimstone. It was getting near 5:00 PM, in an area where the sun sets by 6:00, but we had brought flashlights, so we pressed on. At about 5:30, we got to an area with lots of steaming and venting, experienced hot blasts from cracks and felt occasional squishiness under our feet. Rock isn't usually squishy, so we decided to watch our step. Unfortunately, we didn't see any "red lava" breakouts, but we figured we were definitely in "serious geology" here. I figured we were standing on active lava tubes with running lava only a few feet under us. At that point, discretion overcame valor, and we decided to turn back, although I carefully looked in some cracks to see if I could see Red.

The walk back was one of the more challenging walks we've ever done. We were already tired, and the sun was setting fast. But as it was getting dark, the darkening world revealed a cliff-face lit up with a vast area of red flows that must have been a mile wide. We could also see the glow from Pu'u O'o in the distance. This view made the strenuous hike worth it. One other thing: the lava was visibly moving and changing as you watched it - flashes would appear, and flows would brighten and darken over time.

But things got even tougher here. By 7:00 PM, it was completely dark, and we started to get rain showers. We broke out the flashlights, and tiptoed our way through the lava, trying to not get completely lost and trying to not break our necks. We did many "crack dances" where we teetered and flailed about on the verge of falling, but managed to avoid falling (except once). Fortunately, the rangers have set up flashing beacons along a "trail" to the parking area, which we followed back, slowly, step by step.

Out here, it is _very_ dark. The only light was the flashlights, the very faint flashes of the beacons, the glow of the lava cliff, and the glow of the lava falling into the sea at the other end of the lava tubes. There are no towns here, and since it was rather cloudy, little starlight and no moonlight.

After two more hours of lava walking, with a few heavy showers soaking us, we finally reached the road, which made a blessed change of "ordinary" walking. We finally got back to the car after 10:00PM, having been on our feet nearly eight hours, and drove back up Chain of Craters Road. The price for the trip: a nasty scrape on my right leg, and a big blister on my left foot. I figured this was a small price for this adventure in Pele's home.

POSTSCRIPT: It turns out that we were among the last people likely to do this walk for awhile. Two hours after we left Kilauea, a magmetic earthquake swarm damaged the road and forced closure of that area of the park. As of this posting, an active eruption is pumping out significant new lava flows in the area.

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