Hawaiian Adventures Lesson 1: Never get lost while hiking across an active lava flow.

Do you think this is safe?

The question sounded absurd at first, but to a kindergarten teacher from Southern California it seemed quite reasonable. There was no reason for her not to believe that walking across an active lava flow wasn’t at least a little bit dangerous. This was probably the last thing she thought she’d do on the first day of her Hawaiian vacation.

My mother and her friend Kathy had just arrived at the Hilo Airport, and were ready to start exploring. Twenty minutes later we were driving through sparkling orchid covered fields on our way to the most active lava flow on the planet. The wonderful scenery didn’t give the impression that a giant lake of molten lava laid just beneath the surface.

The best way to enter the Lava flow of the Big Island, at this time, was from the lower road along the ocean. It was called the red road, because it consisted of crushed red cinder and coral. Before the highway went through, this was the only way to explore the area.

The drive was spectacular. The road wound its way through sun soaked orchid fields, water drenched rain forests, otherworldly lava trees, hot ponds, steam vets, black sand beaches and awe-inspiring tropical ocean vistas sprinkled with Noni, coconut and papaya trees.

Upon reaching our destination we stood looking out over the vast spread of a very active lava field. I could sense their uneasiness and uncertainty as they contemplated the chances of navigating such a wasteland, and making it out alive.

Now before continuing on, a little history might help.

Up to this point, I had lived on Hawaii for 5 years, and each year my mom would visit and bring along a friend. For the first few years her friends were older, and I Hawaii Volcanowould take them to all the safe events like sightseeing or shopping, water activkities like snorkeling or swimming and other tourist-type activities. This way they went home with some nice stories to tell in pretty much the same condition as when they arrived.

However this trip would be quite different. This time she was bringing along a new and much younger traveling companion. She informed me her school (my mother taught second grade) had just hired a new kindergarten teacher. To get to know this new teacher better, my mom invited her to come along with her to Hawaii. She then called a few weeks before departure and informed me her new guest was more adventurous than her past guests, and was interested in experiencing new things.

This sounded great to me because I translated the expression ‘more adventurous’ into “willing to do anything” and ‘new experiences’ into “extreme feats of heroism”.
Looking back, I guess it would have been better to tell them, in advance, that I was taking them on a hike across the most active lava flow on the planet. To my adventurous spirit, it seemed that the best way to experience Hawaii was to introduce them to its hottest attraction first.

I love the Big Island because it’s the largest of the island chain. It’s very diverse with 4 out of the 5 major climate zones in the world, and 8 out of 13 of the sub-zones. It’s home to Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain as measured from ocean base to its peak, and Mauna Loa, the worlds most active shield volcano. It is probably the only place in the world where you can – go surfing for breakfast, hike through a rain forest for lunch, ski and view the stars through the largest telescope in the world for dinner, and then drive through a desert to go spear fishing and finally barbecue fish on the beach for a late night snack. And yes this can all be done on a single day.

If you are a volcanologist (studying volcano’s), there is no better place. For the past 30 years, the east side rift has been erupting and forcing lava to flow down the mountain and into the ocean. Since this time it has added some 500 acres of new land to the island as well. This is why I always enjoy bringing visitors along with me.

Hawaiian Adventures Lesson 1Up to the time of my mom and Kathy’s visit, the lava had spread down the hill for about six years, and had already reached the ocean. In its wake it had completely wiped out the small Hawaiian community of Kalapana, destroyed the famous “Queens Bath” and many beautiful homes, parks, farms and black sand beaches.

Yet despite the destruction, it was an enthralling sight. Watching streaks of blazing red-hot lava rolling across the newly cooled jet-black portions of the flow was awe-inspiring. Pockets of steam erupted out of the flow at numerous points. Small islands of coconut trees stood defiantly among the sulfuric steam. A huge pillar of what looked like the largest fog machine in the world flowed out into the blue Pacific Ocean.

This site would be ominous and foreboding to anyone with a shred of reason, but to me it just screamed “come on out and explore”.

As we stood there trapped in our own world of thoughts, it didn’t take long before my mom stated the famous of all motherly advice; “you guys go ahead; I’ll wait here in the car.”

I looked over at Kathy with my usual, “OK ready to risk your life and follow me” expression on my face. She tried to put up a good front, but I could see her struggling with the fear and apprehension of dangerous activities. They probably served her well throughout her life.

I knew it would take a little more nudging so I pointed to the new Nikon camera around her neck and said “you will never get the chance to take a better picture in all your life.” This pushed her past her fear and panic and into the realm of excitement and expectation.

When hot is really hot

pahoehoe lava - hawaii volcano image from httppubs.usgs.govfs2000fs152-00My theory on conquering fear is to dive headlong into the very things that cause your fears in the first place. By doing this, we learn to deal with our fears on our terms. Before fear stop us from doing new and unfamiliar things. For example, I suffered from a dreadful fear of heights as a child. Just thinking about sitting on the roller coaster as it inched its way up the first ramp stopped me before I could get in line. I let this fear inhibit me from enjoying many amusement park rides. It also made me a prime target of ridicule from childhood friends.

“Flame on!” – The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four

However as I got older, I decided to overcome this fear of heights. The best idea I could come up with was to go rock climbing with my friends. It took a while of clinging to the sides of mountains before I finally got over my fear of falling. Yet in the end, the fear of heights no longer had control over my life.

I realize this may not be the best advice for everyone, because it may lead to some rather dangerous activities. You know like asking a mild manner kindergarten teacher to put her life in my hands by traversing a molten field of lava.

Walking across a flow isn’t as hard as it seems. Most of the upper flow cools off, and becomes hard. This makes it fairly easy to navigate if you walk slowly and carefully. Before this point, I had been out many times with friends who were volcanologists and park rangers. They literally walk directly across the molten lava fields, like one walks across a street. It’s quite amazing.

When I first went with them, they explained to me that the real danger is not found in walking across the molten flows. The danger lies when one walks on the cooling layers directly above the flow underneath. This is because much of the lava flows underground in large tubes. It is when a person breaks through one of these layers, and becomes exposed to the flow underneath that the real danger lays. Of course I explained all this to Kathy, but I don’t think it made her feel any better.

At this point of the eruption, one could navigate across the older flows to the ocean by following the pillar of smoke rising in the distance. The beautiful white smoke plume was caused when the flowing lava collided with the tidal currents of the ocean. This caused periodic explosions that sent molten lava cascading into the air with a tremendous boom.

It’s not hard to imagine what happens when molten rock at the temperature of 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1250 degree Celsius) violently meets Hawaii’s ocean at 70 degree Fahrenheit (22 degree Celsius). This extreme temperature differences produces an explosion that looks and sounds eerily like a mixture of thunder and exploding C-4.

Arriving at our destination, the sky was blue, and the lava was putting on quite a show. The lava was flowing out of the tube right into the ocean. It seemed to pulsate as it hit the water. The reaction exploded in a spectacular array of steam, smoke, heat, fire and exploding rock. We stood on the newly formed black sand beach just within a few hundred feet of this spectacle. After 30 minutes, and lots of photos, we decided it was time to head back.

hawaii volcano map image - pubs.usgsAs we began to walk, I noticed that the white fluffy clouds were turning into a large black boiling mass of activity. In a matter of minutes, the wind kicked up and turned our beautiful sunny day into a tropical storm. This is not uncommon; however this storm was accompanied by a vast supply of thunder and lighting.

I am not sure how many of you have tried to “hurry” while attempting to navigate an active lava flow, but the two don’t go well together. We tried our best to travel in the right direction, but the heavy rain limited our visibility. As also did the steam coming from the lava field. It actually felt like walking in a sea of mist as it arose out of the hot lava around us.

We must have walked for an hour when I realized we could have walked in any direction. The flow stretched for miles and we could only see a few feet ahead. We could actually hear water boiling under our feet when we rested.

skylight from hawaii volcano lava flow at - httppubs.usgs.govfs2000fs152-00We walked for what seemed like hours, and the storm only grew stronger. At one point, when the surrounding steam, thunder, and lightening were the heaviest, I realized our greatest threat was not the lava, but the lightning. Being lost on a relatively flat lava field makes you the highest point in many directions. This pretty much turns you into a lightning rod, which is very unnerving. Especially during a tropical lightning storm.

It was in that instant, that I realized that we were possibly in one of the most dangerous situations anyone could find himself or herself in. To top it all off, we were now hopelessly lost, and our daylight hours were dwindling. In my mind I began to picture all the possible scenarios –

  • Falling into a 2,400 degree lava tube and being burned alive.
  • Breaking through the crust and having our legs melted off.
  • Falling and being sliced apart by the broken-glass-sharp lava.
  • Being struck by lightning and feeling some 300,000 volts (according to NASA research) flow through our body.
  • Spending a very exposed night, as we waited for daylight.

Now up to this point in my life, I had been in some pretty dangerous situations. To be honest with you, I began to believe that this “storm on a lava flow” might be the end of all my adventures. Yet in my vanity, I actually dreaded the thought of surviving and then having to endure the humiliation of waiting for someone to rescue us. However, if I thought that being lost on a lava flow in the middle of a storm was bad, I was not ready for the storm that waited me back at the car.

While we were sledging across the flow, I was safe in the thought that my mother was back in the car resting comfortably. However she was not. This was because, in all my excitement of setting out on the hike, I had forgotten to give her the keys.

This left my poor mom trapped outside a locked car experiencing what it’s like to be caught off guard by one of the fast-moving rain storms frequenting Hawaii.

Under normal circumstances it would have been all right if there was a place to wait out the storm or cell phones had been invented. However my mother was now in a completely different situation. Trapped without shelter, miles from a city, in a fierce lightning storm, on the side of an active volcano, in the pouring rain, and all the while envisioning her son and her friend being burned alive by molten lava.

hawaii volcano car in lava image from - a usgsWhen she got to the car, she probably thought she’d just wait outside the car enjoying the view and talking with the other tourists. However, at this point of the volcano’s history, there were not that many people visiting this area during the daylight hours. Yet the few people who did visit had left when they saw the storm approaching.

Later I asked my mom why she didn’t ask someone for help. Her exact words were – because I believed you when you said you would be back in an hour or so!

Eventually an old Midwest couple, brave enough to visit during a storm, rescued my mother. I’m sure when they decided to see the volcano they weren’t expecting to see a 60 year old, soaking wet, and very angry mother locked out of her thoughtless son’s car. It would not be hard to pity someone in this situation, and they drove her all the way back to Hilo.

Being angry, but not vindictive, she did attempt to get a search and rescue effort organized. While she was frantically trying to get the authorities to find us, the storm was beginning to pass.

The storm was subsiding, and by this time we had already walked past the road and were a few miles up into the lava flow. We were now on a small strand of trees and shrubs that stand like little islands in this sea of lava. They are formed as the lava flows down the hillside. They make for a great resting place, if one happens to be lost on a volcano.

Even though we were safe, I didn’t know if we were above or below the road. We couldn’t see due to the steam rising around us. By this time it was getting dark, and we decided to camp out for the night and wait until the morning. As I surveyed the area looking for a place to camp out, I heard the faint sound of air breaks in the distance.
In all the excitement I had forgotten that many of the tourist buses only come out at night. With the sound of the arriving tour buses we were able to navigate our way towards the sound and back to the road.

Let me tell you, I have never felt the compulsion to kiss the ground before. This time I made the exception. It felt great to walk on the smoothness of the road, and we were soon back at the car and ready to go.

When we arrived home one would think that my mother would have been furious. But my mom is very forgiving, because she had to put up with these shenanigans my whole life.

In the end all, was forgiven. Life continued on pretty much the same for me. However this adventure was the highlight story for my mother to tell her friends for years to come. I also found out this one experience had changed the direction of Kathy’s life forever. It had opened up new doors for her as a photographer. It motivated her to explore even more exciting challenges for her life.

It even taught me the valuable lesson – always  remember to give your mom the keys!

Today the county has set up a viewing area, and it is much safer.  Check here for more info.