Pilot story

and photos by

Bill Lundquist

I thought I knew volcanoes.

My earliest memory is of a trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1956. The still-active caldera there will destroy most of the life on earth within a few hundred thousand years.

I was awakened by Mt. St. Helens, 150 miles away, when it exploded one morning in May 1980.

I've visited the lava beds on the McKenzie Pass, around Bend, in Northern California, and at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho many times.

Nothing, however, prepared me for what I experienced when Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, called me to the Big Island of Hawaii not once but twice in 2004.

For people chilled by Brookings' recent cold snaps, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers warm relief, 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact.

Pele is the last Hawaiian deity in whom anyone really believes, probably because her handiwork is so apparent in one of the most active volcanoes on earth: Kilauea.

Most Hawaiians think of Pele the way we think of andquot;Mother Nature,andquot; but some believe she also takes the form of an old woman. There are spooky stories about motorists who have picked up, or failed to pick up, Pele.

Kilauea has been erupting almost continually from one vent or another since 1983, and is still creating new land where molten lava flows into the sea.

In the 1800s, Kilauea on the Big Island was considered the only tourist attraction in all of Hawaii.

It remains the most amazing of all of Hawaii's wonders. It's a lot like Crater Lake without the water.

The first hotel in Hawaii, Volcano House, was built on the rim of Kilauea Crater in 1846.

In it, visitors such as Mark Twain could sit in comfort while watching fountains of lava explode out of a huge lake of molten lava.

The lake has cooled now, but just barely. Steam still hisses from fissures in the lava crust.

Hikers can take trails around the rim, or across the crust, where a few hundred feet of hardened lava separates them from the molten lake beneath their feet.

A drive around the rim offers visitors many wonders, including Halemaumau, a crater within a crater said to be the true home of Pele. It last erupted in 1974.

They can also visit Kilauea Iki, a side crater that blew fountains of lava nearly 2,000 feet high in 1959.

An easy trail through Thurston Lava Tube shows visitors the kind of underground plumbing that carries lava to the sea.

Visitors can actually see lava flowing into the sea from time to time, but the hike varies in length depending on the whims of Pele.

We lucked out when we visited in June. Lava was reaching the sea andquot;onlyandquot; a couple of miles from where the flow had covered Chain of Craters Road.

I say andquot;only,andquot; because two miles of hiking across fresh lava is equivalent to hiking 10 miles anywhere else.

So many people are attracted to the sight that they must also park on the side of the road about a mile from the start of the trail.

It's best to begin a couple of hours before sunset, to see the andquot;trailandquot; on the way out and reach the flowing lava by dark.

I say andquot;trail,andquot; because park rangers have marked the supposedly safest and easiest route across the lava with little road reflectors. The reflectors eventually end, and then hikers are really on their own.

No part of the trail is safe or easy. Despite the heat, wear heavy hiking shoes and pants.

We saw whole families clad in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops running across the lava. We also saw a few bleeding people trying to dress their wounds with T-shirts.

Park rangers leave at sunset; they won't be there to rescue the injured. Carry a small first-aid kit and lots of water. Remember the ground a few feet under you will be 2,000 degrees.

Don't forget sunscreen, a hat, and umbrella or rain cape, and binoculars and a good camera.

Most importantly, a good flashlight is needed to light the trail on the return hike. Make sure the batteries are fresh.

Is it worth it? It took all of my couch-potato strength to make it there and back, but yes, the sight of the earth flowing into the sea is more than worth the effort.

At first our hike was just dangerous, hard work. Then our notions of reality began to go out the door as walls of rock near us started to glow red and bulge outward.

Tank-topped tourists stuck sticks into the glowing globs of molten rock, and encouraged their small children to follow suit, as if this was some sort of Disney special effect.

With lava oozing at us from all directions, my wife retreated to higher ground. I grabbed the camera and binoculars and headed to where people were clustered on a lava cliff above the sea.

Before I got there, I noticed way too many red cracks beneath my feet. The heat had just about forced me to turn back when a local pointed the way and told me viewing conditions were perfect. I trusted her judgement that I wouldn't break through the crust and fall into a lava river.

I crossed over that river somewhere, because when I reached the people on the cliff, we were all looking back at a lava andquot;waterfallandquot; pouring into the sea.

The sight touched off primeval emotions in everyone. Some people cried. Others kissed. Some clicked off frame after frame in the near-darkness, while others just stared and sighed. Most were silent as monks.

No one wanted to leave, but I eventually realized I'd left all the water with my wife.

I made my way back with one tiny flashlight, following the largest flip-flop shod families.

I figured if they could make it across their chosen path, I should have no trouble in my sturdy hiking shoes.

Again, the heat became almost intolerable when we crossed above the main lava river.

I found my wife rested, but I had used up all my reserves. The remaining mile back to the trailhead was torture, but filled with the wonder of red lava flowing 4,000 feet down a dark hillside under billions of stars.

We stayed the night at Volcano House, still a charming little lodge. Its Pele fireplace has been burning continuously since 1874.

We drove out of the park the next day, but Pele called us back in December.

By then, the flowing lava was a six mile hike each way, completely out of couch-potato range.

We hiked instead to a cinder cone overlooking Mauna Ulu, a vent that erupted from 1969 to 1974.

The still-fuming vent is the very mouth of hell. While we were looking at it, Puu Oo (poo-oo oh-oh), the site of the current eruption, belched out a big yellow cloud that soon engulfed us.

The hike was a perfect way to experience the journey of Frodo and Sam across Mordor in andquot;The Lord of the Rings.andquot;

With a five hour flight from San Francisco or Portland, anyone can beat the winter blues with a little molten lava.

Be sure to bring a copy of andquot;Hawaii, The Big Island Revealed,andquot; by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman.

Their Web site also has the most recent updates on where the lava is flowing.