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Volcanoes National Park - The Search for Lava

“We want to see liquid hot magma.”

“I think you mean that you want to see molten lava.” The park ranger corrects. “Magma is when it is down inside the earth.”

“Then we want to see molten lava.” I repeat with a smile. “How do we do that?”

Michelle and I are some 3,500 feet higher and several miles inland at the visitor center of Volcanos National Park. Having many of our desired trip activities rained out by this juncture, we are bound and determined to see the bubbling new earth for ourselves. The ranger turns to his map and shows us two possible ways to experience the park’s main attraction. The first, as the web cam on his monitor shows, is currently fogged in. The Halema’uma’u Crater inside the Kilauea Caldera remains a bubbling pot of fire as it has for over three decades now. On clear days, or at least clearer days, park guests can view the glowing molten pond from the crater’s rim. The second option is an area on the East Rift Zone, technically outside of the park’s borders, which has seen off and on lava flows since 1983. With several days in the area to find good viewing, Michelle and I agree on a third option, Volcano Winery just down the street.

After dinner, we take advantage of a break in the weather and head to the park’s Jaggar Museum along the crater rim. Making our way past travelers from around the world, I can already see a soft red glow reflecting off of the low clouds up ahead. The lava levels in the lake are higher than normal on this night and while most of it remains too deep to see, all guests are able to enjoy bursting molten bubbles just on the edge of the crater. Because of hazardous volcanic fumes, closer looks via the Halema’uma’u Trail are not available. In fact, roughly half of the park’s Crater Rim Drive and Crater Rim Trail remain closed for visitor safety.

With more rain in the forecast, Michelle and I decide to explore the city of Hilo and the far eastern edges of the island by car the following morning. Known as the rainy side of the island, many here adapt to the rain and continue on with life. We pass by a soccer game with all participants already soaked before the contest begins. While Kona on the western side is known for more tourists, a cruise ship sits in the harbor shuttling passengers around for the day. We see some of them at a swimming area in Ahalanui Park, past the small town of Pahoa, where ocean water meanders in after large waves batter outer rocks.

By mid-afternoon, we find ourselves in the East Rift Zone where the lava has formed a new black sand beach. This used to be a popular surfing site before the volcano extended the coast. Waves now punish the newly formed jagged formations and launch salt spray high into the air. A small grass roots community has populated the area with art shops, fruit stands and local flavor. The business of the volcano also thrives here. The hike to see the lava begins two miles down the re-established roadway and many bike rental tents await eager visitors. Since vehicular traffic is not permitted, you can equip yourself with helmets, head lamps, food and maps from anywhere between $5 and $40. Operated by the county and not the National Park Service, the road only opens to the public at 3pm to help control the tourist bustle for residents.

With the weather holding and rumors of good lava flows, Michelle and I decide to make the impromptu hike since it is only 4pm. With hiking boots, rain gear, water and snacks on hand, we rent the cheap $5 bikes without the extra accessories and head up the road. Almost immediately, I begin to realize that our hike back might be after dark. “How many flashlights do we have?” I ask as we coast down the first hill.

“Only one, I think.” Michelle calls back on her bike. “The other ones are back at our room.” Further up the road, families who had homes destroyed by the lava flows still own the land and many of them have chosen to rebuild – albeit 30-40 feet above their previous house on black volcanic ground. We pass by the new dwellings; many look to be ‘off grid’ without plumbing or utilities. Avoiding pot holes, we make our way around two different gates before arriving at the bike depot. Without an actual trail marked, we follow the directions from our bike saleswomen. “Head toward the hill at about a ten o’clock angle.” She said. Of course, this was after she had told me that, “If the bike breaks while you’re using it, you aren’t reliable.” I was pretty sure she meant that I wasn’t liable, but in any case, we were now on our own to find our way.

The volcanic landscape is straight out of a science fiction film with shades of black rock reflecting metallic silver skin. The flows take many forms. Some display dozens of folds not more than a few inches thick, like a kitchen rug ruffled up after kids run through the house. Others look like someone squirted a giant tube of toothpaste onto the landscape. Underneath, large pockets created huge bulges the size of a small home before cracking like a massive muffin after baking. Most crevasses open one or two feet, easy enough to walk over, but large enough to fall into if you aren’t paying attention. The cracked edges can be extremely sharp. Half an hour in, we pass a young man who attempted the trek in sandals and was bleeding from a cut on his foot.

The landscape is peppered with others making the trek. They can be seen on lava peaks before disappearing into valleys, just like us. We meet two women, one of whom has decided to turn around. Her friend, Susan, provides some nice perspective as she joins us zigzagging through the peaks. “I’ve tried to see the flows several times.” The retired Army and current Department of Defense civilian employee says. “This is the first time they’ve been close enough to access by foot.” Until November of 2017, many sought views of the lava flowing into the ocean by boat tours out of Hilo. When the tube collapsed in on itself, the channel was backed up until flows spilled out higher on the hill.

The hiking is focused and slow, every step important but time is of the essence. Every 100 yards or so, we stop to course correct as we aim for a steaming area on the hill. While still a mile from the incline, another hiker can be heard, “I see it!” Michelle, Susan and I pause and look up to see a slim glowing orange river in the distance. As we continue onward and the light fades, more speckles of orange can be seen shining in the darkness. Sweaty and thirsty, we arrive at the base of the hill and can see a few dozen people standing alongside the molten river. Surprisingly, the flows are quite sizable and the onlookers seem small in comparison. The bright molten inches along, pressing out like dough being kneaded. Quick sizzles temporarily pierce the air as a short lived rain shower passes by. The heat warms our faces as we get close for pictures, uncomfortably so after more than a minute. Ever aware of the growing darkness, we rush to enjoy every second of the beauty while rehydrating and resting our legs at the same time. The flow is in no such hurry. It plods down the slope, following the path of least resistance at a tortoise pace. One area seems jammed up and ready to burst down a slope when suddenly a small flow opens up on the side, relieving the building pressure and potentially leaving the mound in place permanently as new ground. On the hillside, some brush by a thin tree ignites into flame but somehow spares the tree for now. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark after gazing into the bright fire.

“Michelle, we have to get going.”

The return trip is dark and treacherous as we allow a small look up to search the horizon. “I thought those lights were the trail head, but I don’t see them anymore.” Michelle says. I am forced to follow two steps behind her for an hour and a half, weening a bit of light from her flashlight and judging the terrain by her strides. We’re both physically and mentally exhausted knowing that we’re one bad step from much bigger problems. Subconsciously, we had picked the easiest paths when it was light but now we cannot plan more than the next few steps. Other lights appear and disappear from horizon as other groups experience the same frustrations. “How is there not a big flashing light where we left our bikes?” Michelle asks aloud to no one in particular. In a world with so many manufactured experiences made for Instagram, this is the wild west. No trail. Dangerous terrain. No light. Just four days before, a tour guide died when he inhaled toxic gasses coming from a steam vent. There are public security officers along the road, but their primary concern seems to be for the local residence. We try not to imagine what would happen if someone fell into a void in this darkness. Surely it would be several hours, maybe the next day, until a rescue could come.

With each clumsy step, I am more and more thankful for my boots absorbing the unforgiving terrain. After more stumbles and slips, we join a group of ten hikers appearing on our left like a glow worm inching across the night floor. They don’t seem to know much more than us, but there is safety in numbers – and more light. Ten minutes later, we finally spill out onto the road from which we had left more than four hours earlier. We over shot our bikes by about 100 yards but nobody cares. The worst is over and a few potholes in the dark don’t seem so bad now. Michelle and I look back one last time at the electric hillside. A truly amazing piece of nature. Tomorrow will look different as will the next day. When the flows will stop, nobody can say. That is why we enjoy the volcano while we can.


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