Posts Tagged With: volcano

Hapuna a me ka Lapakahi

…which is not as complicated as it looks. It simply means “Hapuna and Lapakahi” in Hawaii, those being the names of two places on the Big Island that we visited yesterday.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best known beaches on the island, an achingly photogenic stretch of dun-colored sand caressed by a gentle turquoise surf, and framed by two jagged lava promontories at either end. Here’s a panorama from the drone, taken during yesterday’s visit:

Hapuna Beach drone-001

Besides the obvious beach and surf, there are two other features of note: Kohala mountain bulging gently above the horizon at left, and the luxurious Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel at far left, regally overlooking the scene. The hotel is enormous and beautiful; several years ago we had the privilege of staying there for four or five days on someone else’s dime while attending a boondoggle conference. The mountain is also enormous: a mile-high, 200 square mile (500 square km) extinct volcano that essentially is the entire northwest corner of the Big Island.

Conditions are not always this idyllic at Hapuna. The surf can be rough, although the bottom is sandy — unlike the other, rockier beaches on the island — and so a rough surf is far less dangerous than elsewhere. And if the wind is high you can get sandblasted whilst attempting to enjoy yourself. But these are the exceptions. Most frequently the place looks like a postcard and it is a popular destination for sunning and body surfing. Here’s a 2-minute drone flyover video to give you a sense of the place:

(As you can tell, I’ve gotten heavily into flying my drone on this trip. But I dare you to tell me that this is not seriously cool.)

Neither Alice nor I are sunbather types. For one thing, when I am in strong sunlight my mottled pasty complexion moves the state of my skin almost instantly from “Anemic Vampire” to “Crimson Crispy”. In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke.” And Alice grew up in Oregon, where one’s best opportunity to get a tan requires dodging the raindrops. So we hung out for 45 or minutes or so with our visiting friends, then moved on.

Our next stop, further up the coast in Kohala, was a little more cerebral: Lapakahi State Historical Park. It’s the ruins of an ancient coastal village, about 600 years old. The name means “single ridge” and it is an array of ruins and reconstructed structures spread out along a rough lava coast and threaded by a mile-long interpretive trail. Like so many archaelogical sites it seems to make the most sense when viewed from above, so here are a couple of aerial shots:

Lapakahi drone-002Lapakahi drone-001

In addition to the ruins, the offshore area is a Marine Life Conservation District. The interpretive path takes you past a variety of structures in various stages of deterioration or, in some cases, reconstruction. There are dwellings, canoe storage houses, salt-making pans, and a couple of kōnane games, the latter being a lot like Chinese checkers. It’s played on a lava “board” with a grid of hollowed out pits, with alternating black and white stones placed in the pits and variously moved around per the rules.

The aerial views give you a sense of the layout of the place, but, truth to tell, when you are following the path it mostly feels like you are walking among a random collection of low lava walls of uncertain purpose. Which, I suppose, is why I am not an archaeologist. Nonetheless, the place has an enjoyably eldritch feel to it, the susurration of the surf and the dark rough lava walls invoking a real sense of mystery and age. Or to put it another way, it feels just a bit like being inside the beautiful old computer game Myst. Here’s a video that I took by flying along the coast, so that you can see how large and spread out it is.

The surf has been high and the weather on the windward (eastern) side of the island rainy for the past few days, so we have confined our roamings to the Kona coast and the western side of Kohala to escape it. But things look better for the next few days. Tomorrow we will try and make it to the 13,802′ (4205 m) summit of Mauna Kea where the conditions are expected to be clear, provided one is willing to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so if we are lucky then I will have some “snow in Hawaii” photos to post.

 

 

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Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Crashing Waves

The Big Island is built out of three active volcanoes (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai), one dormant one (Mauna Kea), and one extinct one (Kohala). The Kona coast lies in the shadow of two of the active ones: Mauna Loa and Hualalai. Most of the Kona district, in fact, sits on the slope of Hualalai, which last erupted 200 years ago and is waiting patiently to play serious havoc with the local real estate market at some time in the indefinite future.

So as you would imagine, lava rock is not exactly a scarce commodity around here; as you’ve seen from my previous photos, most of the coastline is lava rock in various degrees of pulverization. One of the most dramatic illustrations of that feature is a locale called “End of the World”, a line of lava cliffs pummeled by high surf that puts one to mind of what the beaches might look like in Mordor. Here are a couple of photos to give you the idea. (The first is from the drone, directly offshore, and the second is taken from a hillside a few hundred meters down the coast.)

End of the World aerial-003End of the World Canon-003

Not your ideal swimming locale, a rather obvious fact that does not prevent the occasional idiot from going mano a mano again Darwin and losing. (Two years ago, just around the time we moved into the house, one of these benighted daredevils jumped into the water from the top of the cliffs and — surprise! — was unable to figure out a way back up.  A helicopter was dispatched but was too late to save him.)

So although I am not even remotely tempted to perform that particular stunt, it is an ideal venue to snag some dramatic aerial footage via drone, so here is a short video of our visit yesterday. (Stick around till the end of it: there was a sightseeing boat about a mile offshore that I was able to catch up to and play peekaboo with.)

We went back again today. The surf was far calmer than yesterday, but we don’t need the drama to have a nice end to the day here: a Hawaiian sunset will do nicely. So here it is:End of the World Canon-002

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Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

Oregon Mts-1

More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

Oregon Mts-2

Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

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Kauai? Because I Said So, That’s Kauai!

(Stop groaning. If our flight here had been canceled then the title of this post would have been “Kauai? Kauai Not!”)

Hawaii is on the move, as you may know. The entire chain sits on a continental plate that is sliding in a northwesterly direction over a “hot spot”, a magma plume in the Earth’s mantle, racing towards Japan at the breakneck speed of about 3″ (8 cm) per year.  (I would suggest that the entire archipelago is fleeing the results of the presidential election, but it has actually been going on for a lot longer than that.) The underlying magma plume is actually the very source of the islands, each in its turn having been born as a volcano over the hot spot. And indeed, the next island in the chain has already been spotted in its expected location, southeast of the Big Island, still in the form of an underwater volcano. It even has a name — Loihi — so if you’re a canny real estate investor you want to get in on the ground floor of some great beachfront property in half a million years or so.

The major Hawaiian islands average roughly 80 miles (130 km) apart. Moving at 3″ a year over the hot spot, do the math and you’d expect each island to be roughly a million and half years older than its neighbor to the southeast. And you’d be right: the Big Island is about a million years old; Kauai, which is four islands and 315 miles (500 km) away, about 5 million.

I mention all this geology because it explains the important differences in appearance between Kauai and the Big Island, i.e. the islands appear to be eroding “in reverse”. Back on the mainland, young mountain ranges like the Rockies are all sharp and craggy; as they age they are eroded down into more gentle slopes like the Appalachians. But the Hawaiian Islands are different: unlike the granite Rockies or Alps, they are made of comparatively soft basaltic lava. Since lava is more or less liquid, the young Hawaiian islands, e.g. the Big Island are smooth with gentle slopes; the wind, rain, and sea gradually chip away at the lava like aeolian parrotfish gnawing on coral, sculpting it into rough craggy shapes. So where the Big Island has the smooth slopes of Mauna Kea, Kauai has the angular, crenelated Na Pali Coast:

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…and vistas like this:

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That’s taro growing in the foreground, by the way, the stuff from which poi, that famous Hawaiian staple, is made. It looks and tastes like library paste. If you visit the islands, eating poi is an experience that is definitely to be missed. And no, I did not unintentionally leave out the word “not” in that last sentence.

For similar reasons, the very sand and soil of Kauai differ markedly from the Big Island. On the Big Island they are basically crushed lava, black and granular. On Kauai the elements and plant life have had more time to do their work: sand and soil are finer, and rather orange in color from the high iron content. And very, very fertile: Kauai is nothing if not green.

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We arrived early yesterday afternoon and will be here for a week. However, I confess that we made something of a tactical error in choosing where to stay. Kauai is small and oval in shape, about 33 miles (53 km) wide by 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. There’s basically only a single main road, one or two lanes in each direction,  encircling the island… except that it doesn’t actually encircle it. There’s a chunk missing in the northwest corner where the Na Pali coast is in the way, so if you’re staying on the north side of the island and you need to get somewhere in the southwest, you basically have to drive 3/4 of the way around. This is happening to us.

The southern and southeastern parts of the island is — with the exception of the Na Pali coast itself — where a large fraction of the island’s activities take place: snorkeling, sailing, and such. That is especially so in the winter, since the surf on the northern shores is especially rough at this time of year. The other times that I have been here have always involved staying near the town of Poipu in the southeast; Alice and I decided to do something different this time and stay up north, near the town of Princeville, a rather more lush and wild area that is closer to Na Pali and home to a lot of the island’s very upscale resorts (i.e., places that are too rich for our taste and bank account). But precisely because the north shore is so rough in winter, a lot of our planned activities are going to involve 1-2 drives. Oh well.

The north does enjoy the most beautiful beaches on the island — pity that we’ll die if we actually use them, since their surf these days is up to nearly 20 ft, which is a damn big wave. At least we can look at them before driving an hour if we want to go snorkeling. One of the most beautiful beaches is at Hanalei Bay, fronted by a tiny town of the same name that consists of 500 residents and a couple of locally-themed strip malls with restaurants and souvenir shops.  A lot of movies have been filmed at Hanalei because of the spectacular beach, and it is a popular legend that the name of the town was the inspiration for “a land called Honalee” in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There is alas no actual evidence for this whatever. (Feel free to pass it on as an “alternative fact”, though.)

As you can tell from the above photos, the weather today was mostly overcast, though we did get sun in the afternoon. As you might expect on a small tropical islands, conditions can change dramatically with very little notice, though only up to a point: the north shore is relaiably rough in the winter, and the sailing and diving tour operators shut down their operations on this part of the island during the winter months. But the Na Pali coast is still accessible on foot and can be viewed from the sea; we hiked about a half mile into it (and up it) this afternoon to get the topmost photo and this one:

na-pali-coast-kauai-025-edit

The white surf in that image tells you everything you need to know about the desirability of going into the water. The hike up to this point was real work, a steep and treacherous stone, mud, and tangled-root path whose reward was these vistas and a gale-force wind at the top. How windy was it? While I was taking these photos the wind blew every hair clip out of Alice’s hair. That’s how windy it was. Oh, and here are the signs at the trailhead welcoming you to this particular undertaking. “Have fun! You’re going to die!”

na-pali-coast-kauai-001

Roads on this part of the island are scenic and a little too exciting, being narrow and frequently punctuated with hairpin turns overlooking green cliffs. (This is especially fun at night, there being no street lights or towns to provide even a ghost of illumination.) There are a number of one-lane bridges over small rivers; the local convention, when there is a line of traffic in both directions, is for about a half dozen cars from one side to go, then switch to the other. I accidentally transgressed this tradition at a somewhat confusing juncture that had two consecutive bridges separated by a tight turn: two consecutive drivers coming from the oncoming direction informed me of my error in terms that very definitely lacked the Aloha Spirit.

But what northern Kauai lacks in infrastructure it makes up in local charm in a glorious setting, e.g, this farmer’s market where we bought local fruit, nuts, and other goodies:

hanalei-kauai-farmers-mkt-001

Our B&B certainly has its own share of atmosphere. It is called “Asia House”, a rather incongruous pagoda-like residence in the midst of a spectacularly-manicured upscale golf resort community. It is the residence of a cheery unconventional couple who I’d guess to be in their 60’s: short and portly Coral, an artist who makes jewelry, and her husband Ian, a tall and lanky Scot who designed the place. They have quarters for two sets of guests but most of the house is their residence. I’ll post some photos of the place later if I get a chance.

We are hoping that the changeable weather is not too changeable, since we are scheduled for a helicopter tour of the island tomorrow afternoon. If that comes off, you’ll see the pictures here.

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Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

volcano-005

That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

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Fujiyama

It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of  Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

fujiyama-002 fujiyama-001

Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.

fujiyama-007

Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).

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You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.

 

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The Tallest Mountain on Earth

…is not Mount Everest. Though it is a bit of a cheat: Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft (8848 m) is indeed the highest mountain on Earth above sea level, but it sits on a plateau that is itself at an elevation of a  good 15,000 ft (4500 m) or. So measured from its base to its summit, Mount Everest is a surprisingly second-rate 14,000′ (4300 m) tall. That statistic, of course, is rather cold comfort — emphasis on the “cold” — if you are actually standing atop Mount Everest trying to breathe.

No, the tallest mountain on the planet, as measured from its base to its summit, is Mauna Kea here on the Big Island. Again, you’ve got to be a little flexible with your definitions, because the base of Mauna Kea is the ocean floor itself, a good 15,000 ft (4600 m) below my feet as I type this. Mauna Kea’s summit is at an altitude of 13,796 ft (4205 m), which means that measured from base to summit it is roughly 29,000 ft (8800 m) tall.

Mauna Kea also has the more personal distinction of being the most important geographical feature in my life because of the many observatories at its summit and the many nights (~200) I spent using them early in my career. At that time, in the early 1980’s, there were four major observatories plus a couple of much smaller telescopes. Today, there are a dozen major observatories and a whole lot of controversy about whether building any more constitutes a desecration of the summit, which has Hawaiian religious significance. But the current controversy aside, the mountain holds a lot of history and emotional resonance for me, and so it was important that we make the pilgrimage to the top.

Getting to the summit is a lot easier than it was 30+ years ago because more (though not all) of the summit access road is paved. Even so, at that altitude you’re breathing only about 60% of the oxygen that you’ve got at sea level, so you’ve got to be very careful. Most of the car rental companies on the island forbid you from taking their vehicles to the top, a restriction that is frequently ignored by tourists, often without consequence, but sometimes to their extreme detriment when either their oxygen-starved engine conks out or their wheels lose traction on the unpaved lava gravel. (I should add that at that altitude your oxygen-starved brain and cardiopulmonary systems also lose traction; many people feel woozy and headachy and have difficulty concentrating; a few experience much more serious health consequences.)

You first ascend via paved road to Hale Pohaku, the mid-level facility that serves as a visitor center and dormitory for the observatory engineers and astronomers. Hale Pohaku sits at 9000 ft (2700 m) which, given the weather patterns of the island, is typically where the cloud layer lives that traps the island’s heat and moisture below. It’s cold and dry above that point, which is why the site is the best astronomy observing locale in the world. But that also means that you drive up through the clouds to get there.

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That makes for a nasty and dangerous drive, especially on the unpaved portion of the road, but also serves up a (literally) breathtaking panorama when you break through the clouds at the top and find yourself on a sunlit Martian dessert. As you approach the very summit the road is paved again; this is to prevent vehicles from kicking up dust that could get onto the telescope mirrors. (Which, needless to say, are exquisitely precise.)

Mauna Kea Summit-018That’s Mauna Loa sticking out of the clouds at the center of the frame. It’s the same height as Mauna Kea, about 25 miles ( 40 km) to the south. It does not host any telescopes for the very sensible reason that it is an active volcano. The dome at the right side of the frame is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), where I worked for three years. It houses a 3.8 m diameter telescope.

I’ll close with a few more scenes from our visit to the summit.

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The white dome at left in bottom picture is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the older observatories on the mountain. The silver dome is the more recent Gemini telescope, so named because it has an identical twin sibling on an Andean mountaintop in Chile.

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Lava, Actually

Kilauea is rightly famous for being both the most active and the safest volcano in the world. It is a so-called shield volcano for its gentle convex shape, formed that way both because of the composition of the lava and its more or less continuous flow. This nonetheless does not prevent the active regions from looking like a post-apocalyptic hellscape, or a parking lot the size of San Francisco after a nuclear bomb has gone off. Yesterday it looked like this:

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If you look carefully you can see the zombies eating the tourists in the distance.

This is essentially a broad, flat crater, technically called a caldera. It’s about 3 miles (5 km) across and is dotted with number of craters-within-the-crater. The largest of these is Halema’uma’u, a good half mile across and 300 ft (90 m) deep. You’ve got a glimpse of it on the horizon in the picture above, where the steam is rising. said steam being the vapor cloud from the molten lava lake sitting at the bottom. You used to be able to hike across the caldera up to the edge of Halema’uma’u, a practice that the National Park Service strongly discourages today because of the likelihood that you will die. So access is closed off. It is nonetheless possible to get closer from a different vantage point along the caldera rim, from where it looks like this:

Volcano-012 That’s still not close enough to see the lava lake, unfortunately, but if you stick around till after sunset you can see still see the orange glow from it. Or at least you can if the vantage point is not completely socked in with fog, which it was when we tried. Speaking of which, you will notice that both of the above photos seem a little hazy. That phenomenon is the aptly-named “vog”, which is short for “volcanic fog”, a witch’s brew of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, and assorted volcanic particulates, and which on a bad day can blanket the entire island. You need an occasional healthy rainstorm to clear the crud out of the atmosphere and get you those beautiful views that you see on postcards.

A good fraction of the southeast corner of the Big Island is taken up by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and a good part of that is taken up by one or another lava field. The fields are marked as having been laid down by one or another eruption, e.g., “November 1979 Lava Flow”. So you can collect all your favorites — “Ah, March 1972, that was a good one!” — though they pretty much all look like this:

Volcano-029Some of the lava fields are blacker than others — you can see that this one is kind of brownish — depending on the exact location and thus the gas content and mineral composition of a particular flow. There is not currently an active lava flow running down to the ocean, which when it happens affords the spectacular sight of the glowing 2000-degree stream falling into the sea and raising one hell of a steam cloud. When that does happen you can join up with a boat tour that sails along the coast and gets close enough to let the passengers see the show.   But alas, we won’t have that on this trip.

The caldera is at the summit of the mountain, at an elevation of 4000 ft (1200 m). It’s noticeably cooler there than at the coast, and much rainier than Kona as well. For those reasons, the vegetation at the higher elevations in the park is very different than elsewhere on the island. It is, in fact, very Jurassic World-y, with lots of ferns and cooler-weather plants.

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Plant and wildlife in the vicinity of Kilauea can be unique to an astonishing degree because of a combination of topography and evolution. As a wide river of lava flows down to the sea, the terrain may cause the flow to split and then rejoin further downhill, resulting in a small “island” of untouched land in the midst of the molten flow. The plants and small ground-dwelling fauna (mostly insects) are thus temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, and so they do what Charles Darwin told them to do: continue to adapt to their local environment, which may be as small  as a couple of football fields. Such a region is called a kipuka, and the Big Island is home to a number of them. Kipukas can be the home to species and sub-species that are found, not only nowhere outside of Hawaii, but nowhere outside the kipuka. How’s that for specialization?

I mentioned earlier that Kilauea is known as the safest volcano in the world, because its pattern of long-duration eruptions and the nature of its magma vents prevent explosive pressures from building up. However, Pele — the Hawaiian volcano goddess, not the soccer player — is not real big on predictability and although there have been no Mt-Saint-Helens- or Pinatubo-style eruptions, there have been some pretty violent events that have altered the landscape. One, in late 1959, wiped out a heavily forested area with 16 explosions and a rain of volcanic ash, lava, and related stuff that you do not want to be standing under.  The result is an area called Devastation Trail, which is, indeed, um, devastated.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that there are several types of lava, the two most common being a’a, which is the rough clinkery stuff, and pahohoe, which is ropy and relatively smooth. During an eruption a’a advances very slowly, at about a walking pace, a very, very hot wall that moves like an advancing glacier. Those glowing rivers that flow down to the sea are pahoehoe, and if the terrain is right then the top layer can cool and start to harden while the stuff underneath continues to flow. In that case you can end up with a hollow channel: a lava tube. The park has a famous one, Thurston Lava Tube, big enough for a crowd of people to walk through, as you can see below. The first image is the fern-lined entrance to the tube.

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Those things hanging down from the ceiling are not stalactites; this is not a limestone caved formed by water laying down mineral deposits. They are tree roots, o’hia lehua trees to be exact. The o’hia lehua trees with their bottle-brush red flowers are one of the first forms of life to reestablish itself after a lava flow scours the land, and as you can see they are more than a little tenacious. As indeed, you would have to be if your ambition is to thrive on lava.

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Comin’ Round the (Volcanic) Mountain

One of the enjoyments of the Big Island is the number of semi-rustic, idiosyncratic enclaves that harken, if not exactly “old Hawaii”, certainly off-the-beaten-path Hawaii. The small towns in Kohala are good examples of this, but another good place to experience it is in the southern reaches of the island. And those southern reaches are very southern indeed from an American geographical perspective: the southernmost point of the Big Island, accurately if unimaginatively named South Point, is at 18°55′ latitude the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida also likes to boast this distinction, conveniently neglecting to include the important qualification that it is only the southernmost point in the continental U.S. It is in fact a good 5° further north than South Point.)

South Point is a pretty isolated, windswept point with little to recommend it except its geographical distinction. It is accessible by car by a road that branches south from the highway that circles the island. Not far from that branch point is the funky little town of Naalehu, which at 19°4′ latitude enjoys the distinction of being the southernmost town in the U.S. It is a sleepy, friendly village of 900 people that boasts the Hona Hau restaurant (“the southernmost restaurant in the US”), Shaka’s (“the southernmost bar in the U.S.”), and the Punalu’u Bakery (guess what). In fact, pretty much everything there — and there isn’t a lot — is the southernmost something in the U.S.

But it’s fun precisely because of its isolation. It enjoys its share of eccentric characters, like so many Hawaiian enclaves.

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This guy proudly informed me that he had suffered five traumatic head injuries.

The Punulu’u Bakery in particular is worth a visit, specializing as it does in one of the joys of Hawaiian cuisine: the malasada. Hawaii has a large ethnic Portuguese population, and the malasada is a traditional Portuguese treat whose description I will crib from Wikipedia for you:

A malasada (or malassada, from Portuguesemalassada” = “under-cooked”) (similar to filhós) is a Portuguese confection, made of egg-sized balls of yeast dough that are deep-fried in oil and coated with granulated sugar….  Traditional malasadas contain neither holes nor fillings, but some varieties of malasadas are filled with flavored cream or other fillings. Malasadas are eaten especially on Mardi Gras – the day before Ash Wednesday.

Punaluu-003It all sounds very exotic but I suppose that if I told you it was a jelly doughnut it would seem much less exciting. No matter. The Hawaiian version departs from the above description in two important ways: (1) the Hawaiians like them with fillings and icings, though the plain kind (just sugar) are also common. And (2) screw Mardi Gras, everybody eats them all the time, a genuine local tradition.

We pigged out on them: vanilla filling, chocolate filling, lilikoi (passion fruit) icing, etc., etc. Eight million empty calories and we loved every minute of it.

We continued our counterclockwise drive, rounding South Point and Naalehu and turning northeast towards Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ll make another, more extensive trip there later that I will write about in due course, but our purpose yesterday had a narrow focus. As it happens, our son Gabriel is an atmospheric science postdoc at MIT and has been on the island for about three weeks with a research group, placing air sensors around the island to measure sulfur dioxide (SO2), and those sensors now needed to be picked up.

A number of the sensors were in a large lava field, many miles across, known as the Kau Desert. This lava has all been exuded by Kilauea Volcano, the centerpiece of the national park. It takes a number of forms depending on the temperature, gas content, and circumstances under which it was formed, but the two most common forms are a’a (pronounced ah-ah), which is sharp-edged, clinkery stuff, and pahoehoe (“pa-hoy-hoy”), which is ropy and relatively smooth and clearly evinces its original liquid form. The combination make for dramatic, seemingly extraterrestrial landscapes.

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But the desolation notwithstanding, life always finds a way. You can see some yellow flowers in the top picture, but the reigning champion of post-eruption hardiness is the ohi’a lehua plant, which is actually an evergreen related to the myrtle. Its bottlebrush-like red flowers are the first to gain a foothold in a new lava flow, hopeful little outposts of color in a sea of black and gray.

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O’hia flowers are very common sights on lava fields, especially at elevations above 1000′ (300 m) or so. They are only found in Hawaii, yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this place.

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