Mona and I boarded a Hawaiian Airlines airplane around 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 25 at Honolulu and were in Hilo, Hawaii (the Big Island) before 10 a.m. We were soon in our rental car and headed west on Highway 10 for the Kiluea Military Camp (KMC) about 25 miles away.
KMC is inside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and sits on the north rim of the Kiluea Volcano caldera (crater). Our WWII era cottage at KMC sat about 200 yards from the crater rim trail. While the Kiluea volcano is considered one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the caldera rim east and north sides (where KMC sits) have been stable for more than 100 years.
Inside the four-mile diameter Kiluea caldera, near the west edge is a smaller active caldera called Halemaumau, about 200 yards wide. Halemaumau has a molten lava pool seething atop a vent oozing lava from deep below the surface, and it is emitting large clouds of smoke and hydrogen sulfide gas, which is a potentially toxic brew containing sulfuric acid and glass particles, among other things. As a result of these emissions most of the interior of the Kiluea crater is closed off to hiking, and much of the crater rim highway around the crater is closed to traffic as well, particularly on the western side, where the trade winds (nearly constant winds that blow east to west at what I estimate 10 to 15 mph) carry the smoke, and sometimes ash, or even lava. Signs along the rim trail that is open state that in the 1800s, the Kiluea crater was about 900 feet deep, but Halemaumau has periodically erupted and has gradually filled the crater with lava to its present depth of about 400 feet.
A short distance up Highway 10 from the airport, we spotted a sign pointing left (south) that said, “Macadamia Drive.” We took this road for about three miles to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory. We had been here six years ago, but we couldn’t resist another taste of their wonderful nuts, ice cream and chocolate-covered candy. Our bag of candy lasted almost the whole five days we were there!
We also had several hours to kill because our check-in time wasn’t until 3 p.m. As the Kiluea rim sits at about 4,000 feet above sea level, we were cautioned to bring warm clothing. We found the daytime temperatures there quite comfortably in the 70s most of the time; however, a couple cloudy, misty and windy days and nighttimes were cooler, at times in the lower 50s.
On two cloudy, misty days, we drove the 30 or so miles to the seashore, where every day was around 80 degrees and sunny, save for a few light showers.
We found out that the five-hour time difference between Maine and Hawaii gave us some severe jet lag. We found ourselves going to bed by 7:30 p.m., or so because that was after midnight, Maine time; consequently, we were wide awake and reading by 3:30 a.m., or so! Our second night at KMC, we were in bed by around 8:30 p.m. We were both just about asleep, when the cabin shook with an abrupt bang, like someone was banging on the door, and then the windows rattled! We both jumped up, and then all was quiet; the earthquake lasted about two or three seconds!
Next day we went to the observatory on the Kiluea rim overlooking Halemaumau. The ranger there told us that at 8:45 p.m. the night before there had been a 2.1 earthquake registered, normally not severe enough to be felt. Then he checked the quake epicenter, and it turned out to be directly under the KMC; that’s why we felt it! He explained that numerous minor quakes, most registering less than 2.0 on the Reichter scale, occur every day, with a 2.0 or higher about once per week. That burst our bubble, as we were hoping Halemaumau was going to give us a show, more than the red glow that could be seen in the smoke at night.
We learned that one of Kiluea’s “sub volcanoes” was active and sending hot lava flowing eight or ten miles to the ocean on Hawaii’s southeast coast. This active vent is called Puu O O (Pronounced “pooh ooh oh oh”), and sometimes it can be seen from places on the “chain of craters road” which leads from park HQ southeastward about 20 miles to the coast.
When our second day dawned clear, we decided to drive the chain of craters road in hopes of seeing hot flowing lava. This road has been cut and buried by lava flows several times over the years and has been re-located more than once. We enjoyed our drive through miles of lava fields, sometimes barren black lava and sometimes sprinkled by numerous ferns and ohia trees growing out of cracks in the lava, tributes to nature’s unstoppable urge to support new life. As we approached the shore of the mighty Pacific Ocean, we were stopped by three or four small shacks, some barricades and signs signifying the end of the road, with a loop where we could turn the car around. Just beyond the barricades the road was visible for a way, and then it was covered by several feet of lava. No flowing lava was visible in any direction; only a few wisps of smoke could be seen emanating from the lava on the far slope where Kiluea leads to the ocean; a column of steam rose from the edge of the ocean at the far limit of our vision. When the volume of lava flowing from a vent crack is small, the surface lava cools rapidly, but the molten hot stuff keeps flowing beneath the surface in what are called lava tubes. When we were there the lava was flowing in lava tubes all the way to the ocean, where it has often reacts violently as the molten lava is rapidly cooled by the ocean water. Areas where hot lava is entering the ocean are unstable and dangerous, because large shelves of lava (sometimes several acres in size) break off unpredictably and slide into the ocean, so we were not eager to go near!
On our drive back up the “chain road” we stopped to hike a trail to an observation point on a steep little hill about 100 feet above the surrounding lava, a little more than a mile from the parking lot. This trail led us on a scenic loop of lava that had crossed over the “old chain of craters road” and left a “forest” of lava trees. These are mounds of lava formed when hot lava flowed against live trees, which subsequently burned up and left holes in the middle of the lava which had cooled and solidified around the tree trunks and was left standing when level of the rest of the lava fell as the lava flowed on. From the crest of the steep little hill, a small volcano crater called “Puu Huluhulu” we could see Puu O O steaming on the horizon several miles away. Tourists need special permission to hike the trail that leads in that direction, and we didn’t. No hot lava was visible from there. Only steam and smoke.
The sun was bright that day, and we both gained some tan by the time we had returned to the car, about two hours after beginning.
Nest week: Kalapana Gardens, a subdivision ravaged by lava.