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Destination: Hawaii / Maui

Going With the Flows : Volcanoes gave birth to the island chain, and in one park, the delivery continues

June 16, 1996|MICHAEL C. MILSTEIN | Milstein is a freelance writer based in Cody, Wyo

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii — Since I had been bringing up the rear of our group, plodding over the rough-and-tumble lava landscape along the southern coast of Hawaii's Big Island, I was surprised to hear feet crunching rocks behind me. But when I turned to look, nobody was around.

It was a bit disconcerting to find that the sound, something like the shattering of wine glasses, was actually the tinkling of silvery flakes shed by a tongue of fresh lava as it cooled from flame-orange to metallic-gray.

Cool, in this instance, is a relative term. Molten rock approaches 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (a rough figure, since lava tends to melt thermometers), and even after it solidifies gives off more heat than the Hawaiian sun. Kilauea Iki, a nearby crater we later hiked through, was flooded by molten rock more than three decades ago. It steams on today.

Walking amid new lava flows spewed from the broad flanks of Kilauea, the most active volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was like touring a blast furnace of creation. Nearly all the terrain had been created since the fall of the Roman Empire. Under our feet, still warm to the touch, was the newest earth on Earth.

"Watch your step," said Christina Heliker, a federal geologist leading us. "No one's been this way before."

Wasn't that the truth.

*

Volcanoes gave birth to the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago within the last 5 million years, no more than a tick on the geologic clock. For a close look at their innermost architecture, there are two places to go: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. At these two parks you can warm your toes on fresh lava in the morning and dig them into a sandy beach the same afternoon. Or sleep in a clapboard cabin above the clouds, in the belly of a dormant volcano and then, at dawn, watch the sun burst out of the ocean, 7,000 vertical feet--more than a mile--below you.

My wife, Sue, and I set out last summer to explore this unvarnished side of Hawaii. We headed first to the Big Island, where lava is younger than the blacktop on your driveway, then to Maui, where a sparkling bowl of stars over your head echoes the long-ago fireworks of the sleeping volcano called Haleakala.

We did not realize just how close we would get to the powers that be. One of our first clues was the warning sign among our cluster of cabins at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. "CAUTION," said the sign, fronting a grassy ridge, "Deep earth cracks." We duly selected a cabin at the opposite end of the loop.

Our A-frame cabins were run by the company that also operates Volcano House, a comfortable lodge perched on the lip of Kilauea's crater. Cabin-dwellers get towels, sheets and blankets (even Hawaii turns chilly several thousand feet above sea level), both a double bed and bunk beds, and a $32 price that is a bargain amid the islands' other resorts.

Volcanoes are dynamic places. Steam billowed continually from Kilauea's crater. ("The smell of sulfur is strong," Mark Twain wrote during a visit in 1866, "but not unpleasant to a sinner.")

Kilauea (pronounced: KILL-ah-WAY-ah) has been erupting from a vent on its flanks for a dozen years, its longest eruption in recent centuries, spitting out around 1.5 billion cubic yards of lava--enough to bury nearly 300,000 football fields three feet deep.

Cascading five miles to the sea, the molten rock has slowly added new acreage to the island, precipitating a debate over who owns the freshly baked oceanfront property.

Fountains of lava sometimes shoot thousands of feet into the air, but typical outbursts are more subdued. Most Hawaiian lava is both very hot and fluid like pancake batter. This steady coursing from the deep relieves pressure inside the volcanoes, gases do not build to the point where they cause violent explosions, like the one that in 1980 ripped the top off Mt. St. Helens in Washington state.

Perhaps the relative peacefulness of Hawaiian volcanoes is due to the demeanor of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. It's a testament to indigenous Hawaiians that their legends explain the creation of the islands as well as any geology textbook. Pele first built the oldest of the islands as her home, so it goes, but then fled the goddess of the sea, constructing new islands as she went. Finally, she arrived at Kilauea, where she continues her home-building today.

This story is reinforced by the displays in the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum. Seismographic squiggles show you Pele is stirring. Since the current eruption began in 1983, she has destroyed a residential subdivision and a national park visitor center designed to educate people about volcanoes.

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