WITNESS TO CREATION: When Lava Battles the Sea

Our first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in May 2013 coincided with the awakening of Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. She was sending small rivers of lava down the slopes of Kilauea to the sea, where they sizzled and exploded and steamed and hissed in anger at being awakened.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island ofLava greets the sea in a swirling cloud of elemental forces 

I already knew the answer I’d get, but I decided to ask the ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park anyway:

“Where can we go to see lava flowing into the ocean?”

“You can’t. It’s on private property and it’s unsafe to go out there” she replied.

We went anyway, and had one of the most astounding experiences of our lives.

We were fortunate. Our first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in May 2013 coincided with the awakening of Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire. She was sending small rivers of lava down the slopes of Kilauea to the sea, where they sizzled and exploded and steamed and hissed in anger at being awakened. We just HAD to see it, after reading about the experience and seeing photographs of the frequent eruptions over our lifetimes.

We had intended to walk out on our own, but there were some inter-cultural conflicts brewing at the time, and decided it would be culturally and physically safer to go with a guide. Aside from that, the lava beds we would have to cross were indeed on private property, so it was worth going with someone who had permission to pass. We planned a time when we could hike out in late afternoon so that we could see the lava flowing at twilight, then return in the dark, and signed up for just such a trip led by a guide from Kalapana Cultural Tours, a private company that had access to the area.

Our group gathered at the funky cluster of temporary buildings in Kalapana, which now consists of a bar and places to eat and listen to music out in the open. Kalapana was once a thriving little village, but an eruption starting in 1986 buried most of the town under lava, and eruptions in the area have continued sporadically ever since. Houses and subdivisions are no match for Pahoihoi lava.

Group Hiking to View Hot Lava Entering Sea on Big IslandWe started hiking in late afternoon across a lava plain; here we had our first glimpse of the billowing steam

We took a van to the trailhead, then struck off at a fair hiking pace toward the lava. We walked over hard ropy lava and rounded Pahoehoe lava in fanciful shapes, with the last sun of the afternoon glaring down above the slopes. There was no trail at all, so it was comforting to have a guide to lead us over the clanking plains of loose lava rock, not knowing where a river of melted rock might be lurking just below the surface.

The hike out to the cliffs where lava was flowing was roughly two miles over some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Our guide was a native Hawaiian from Kalapana who had lots of extended family in the area, and had stories of the lava’s impacts on village residents. We dressed in long pants, carried two quarts of water each, wore headlamps, took some energy bars, and carried extra batteries and a jacket in case of rain. Not everyone prepared so well. A lot of people wore shorts and were not well prepared for the rough terrain. Alas, most of them were young and resilient and carefree, so what did it matter? Actually, it does matter for some people; while we were in Hawaii, a photographer had a heart attack and died while walking with a friend on the route to see flowing lava. I think he found it harder than expected.

Hiking on lava was not difficult for us, since we are hikers from ‘way back. But we did have to be careful, since the rock was incredibly sharp. Karen used a hiking stick; I didn’t because I was carrying a tripod. Fortunately I didn’t fall, but one older lady in our group (actually, she was about our age) took a nasty stumble, and needed first aid for bloody scrapes on her arms and legs. Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry her out.

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Toes of Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island

Ropy Pahoehoe Lava at Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii

One aspect of hiking on lava was unexpected, and that was the sound of fragile shreds of lava tinkling underfoot–a sound that reminded me somehow of broken glass.

When we reached the overlook, there was a sensory explosion of lava hitting the sea. There was hissing and arcs of hot orange lava exploding within the steam cloud. Waves crashed into the decending stream of hot and dripping lava and a column of steam billowed up continuously. We wondered how far away from the lava a swimmer would have to be to avoid being cooked. All of us stood mesmerized by the sight, and I took hundreds of photographs, not wanting the experience to stop. It was simply astounding.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

We stayed long enough that we watched early twilight blend into black night with an orange glow. The guide nicely asked me if I had gotten enough pictures, and I replied that I had, so he gathered the group and told us that on the way back he was going to look for a breakout–a place where a small stream of lava comes up through the older, hardened lava and starts oozing out in a bright tongue.

At the first location we stopped, we saw orange lava intermixed with cooled lava, looking like hot coals after a campfire. Then the guide spotted a place where a nature was sticking out a good-sized, Rolling Stones-style lava tongue at us. We walked over to experience the lava from just a few feet away and felt the elemental challenge of Pele. It was extremely hot, of course, and there was the uncertainty of just where it might break out next. At one point, I looked down and saw an orange glow in the narrow cracks just beneath my feet. THAT put me on edge, along with the intense heat of the place. Along with everyone else, I took photographs of Karen standing right in front of an oozing tongue of lava–which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hot Molten Lava at Night on the Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of Hawaii

Karen Rentz with Breakout of Hot Lava at Night on Big Island of

I took photograph after photograph during the hike back, riding on a hot cloud of elation at having experienced this earthly event. At times, I would be taking a photograph and Karen would be next to me, and the group would disappear over a rise. This made us both nervous, because with the danger of the area we really needed to stay with the group. But I needed to photograph. So we were endlessly conflicted. Eventually we would scurry along to catch up with the tag end of the group.

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering Ocea

Hiking Group Returning at Night after Viewing Lava Entering OceaOur group hiking ahead, lit by flashlights and headlamps

Finally, our group’s headlamps found the van, and we boarded for the short ride back to Kalapana. It had been a magnificent experience, reminiscent of the eons of elemental forces that shaped the earth, and which continue to build the planet.

Molten Lava Hissing into the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of

Freshly Hardened Lava Shapes on the Big Island of Hawaii

Volcano Update:  As of this blog post on 19 February 2014, there is no lava entering the sea. The National Park Service advises of the state of the current eruption at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

DUMB QUESTION: Where are the Alabama Hills?

California’s Alabama Hills, located in Owens Valley in the shadow of the high Sierra, is among the most spectacular locations for movies about the old West.

Early light on Lone Pine Peak, viewed from the Alabama Hills

A hint: the Alabama Hills are NOT in Alabama!  Actually, the Alabama Hills are in California’s dry Owens Valley, at the base of the high Sierra.  They were named by local confederate-sympathizing gold miners during the “War of Yankee Aggression.” At that time, the confederate warship CSS Alabama darted about the Atlantic Ocean, sinking ships bound to supply the Yankee states. Alas, the confeds met their match and the Alabama was sunk off the French city of Cherbourg, by the USS Kearsarge. When news of this battle reached the California desert and mountains in 1864, union sympathizers named a peak, a mine, a town, and a mountain pass after the Kearsarge. So the war over naming rights ended in a draw, and the rival names have stuck in a most un-Civil War place.

But enough of ancient History. What everyone really wants to know is the celebrity status of the Alabama Hills, and here they shine like an actress strutting the red carpet in a designer gown during the Oscars. Actually, if they gave a movie location an Oscar, the Alabama Hills would get a shiny statue for “Lifetime Achievement,” because over 150 movies and a dozen TV shows have been filmed there. The location is perfect for westerns, with sagebrush flats and weathered brown boulders for the gunfighting and horse chase action, against a backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada.

Classic old movies were made here, including such chestnuts as How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, and High Sierra. More recently, parts of The Gladiator, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Jane, Star Trek Generations, Dinosaur, and Iron Man were filmed here.  These weathered rocks have watched Humphrey Bogart, Demi Moore, James Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Patrick Stewart, and scores of other Hollywood actors playing their roles with passion.  The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry television shows were filmed in this dramatic location, as have been scores of TV commercials.

Can you imagine a stagecoach careering around the bend, with masked riders chasing it and shooting their Colt 45s and Remingtons at the driver?

Even more exciting than the Hollywood history is the geologic history!  Well, maybe to a nature nerd like me.  Suffice it to say that these round and weathered rocks are NOT sandstone, despite their superficial resemblance to the red rock formations of southern Utah. They are actually spheroidally weathered granite of roughly the same age as the peaks of the high Sierra towering above. Owens Valley, where the Alabama Hills are located, is a graben (a technical geologic term that sounds inspired by Tolkein), which is a fault block basin, in which a valley dropped between two mountain ranges, in this case the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine the West as a giant torture rack, in which California is being pulled away from the Rocky Mountains by the unbelievable tension of tectonic forces.  Giant stretch marks appear because of the tension, which are actually the valleys that dropped between mountain ranges.  That’s my Field Geology 301 lesson for today.  There will be a quiz tomorrow …

Karen and I spent an afternoon, night, and morning in the Alabama Hills, taking a hike to the Alabama Hills Arch, getting yelled at by the campground host because I was driving too fast, and photographing exquisite morning light on the hills and mountains. A road runs through the hills; actually it is more of a road complex, with lots of spur roads and dead ends. The main road is appropriately named “Movie Road,” for reasons referred to above.

Granite showing spheroidal weathering

The Alabama Hills are administered as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area by the Bureau of Land Management, a prior employer of mine that moves with the speed of molasses in January, except when approving mining and grazing leases … but I digress. The recreation area was designated in 1969; the first summer I drove to California to fight forest fires. Now, 41 years later, there are ATV trails everywhere, few amenities, and almost nonexistent interpretation. But BLM says it’s working on a management plan.

If you go, you’ll find that the Alabama Hills have some of the most splendid western scenery in the West, and you can relive the experience by watching scores of movies and TV shows that will take you back to the old West. Can’t you just hear the longhorns mooing as John Wayne waves a dramatic start to the cattle drive?

Alabama Hills Arch

A crescent moon, showing craters, sets over the Sierra

Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Campground

Weathered granite formations reminiscent of a Henry Miller sculpture

Lone Pine Peak and the Alabama Hills

Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney at dawn, from the Alabama Hills

Fire-killed Pinyon Pine, Inyo Mountains distant

Evening shadows creep up the Inyo Mountains

Spheroidal weathered granite in the Alabama Hills

The high Sierra towers above the Alabama Hills

Spheroidal-weathered granite with the Sierra distant

Alabama Hills with Lone Pine Peak (l) and Mount Whitney (r)

For more information about the Alabama Hills, here are some places to start:

Wikipedia

BLM Bishop Field Office

Movies of the Alabama Hills

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


DIAMOND CRATERS: Visions of Hell Quenched

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is a fascinating, geologically recent, volcanic hotspot in eastern Oregon.

 

 

Great Horned Owl at Diamond CratersGreat Horned Owl in Lava Pit Crater

 

 

A time traveler here could see red magma flowing out of deep vents and volcanic bombs tossed through the air as a huge blast forms deep craters.  A version of hell or a terrible war zone.  This is Diamond Craters, a place unexpected in the remoteLava Pit Crater within Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area desert.  Karen and I visited Diamond Craters in late April 2009, in conjunction with our trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which I described in another recent post:  Malheur in April.

 

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to Malheur.  One of the wonderful aspects of the experience here is that we can explore on our own; there is a volcanic cinder road and a few short (but poorly marked) trails.  Other than that, we are free to tramp around the craters and cut our boots on jagged lava and watch for rattlesnakes and enjoy the vast blue desert sky.

 

I’ve been here several times over the years, and the first time was terrific, when I climbed down into Lava Pit Crater and observed a family of Great Horned Owls with three nearly mature young.  Karen and I decided this time that we could try and see if the owls still nested there.  While glassing the sheer walls of the crater from the rim, I spotted a mature Great Horned Owl perched on a ledge along the vertical wall.  We decided at that point that we would make a careful descent into the heart of the crater.

 

Lava Pit Crater is not large or deep, but the path down is tricky.  The first time I climbed down it, about 15 years ago, I fell and conked my long lens against a boulder.  My body is getting more fragile as I age, so I have to be more careful now (he says while nursing an ankle sprained while jogging!).  We took our time on this hike, and made it to the bottom without incident.  The broken volcanic rock is unstable underfoot, making a clanking sound when rock hits rock.

 

Inside the crater, we found the nest, which wasn’t too difficult; we just looked for the places with a lot of “whitewash.”  One adult was sitting on the nest, and eventuallyGreat Horned Owl on nest in Diamond Craters we saw a youngster sticking its fuzzy white head out from beneath the mother.  The nestling was too young to hold its head up for long, and it repeatedly wriggled under its parent’s body for shelter and warmth.

 

We spent the rest of the day investigating the craters and scattered wildflowers of Diamond Craters.  We especially enjoyed the sight of Malheur Maar, which is a crater resulting from a volcanic explosion that later filled with water.  The small desert lake has held water for about 7,000 years, according to scientists, and was home to Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots during our visit.  Its deep sediments have botanical clues to the climate of the geologically recent past.

 

Malheur Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural AreaMalheur Maar is an explosive volcanic crater now filled with water; the tiny, geologically important lake is home to waterfowl and marsh birds

 

The BLM has an outstanding brochure, available online, called the Diamond Craters Tour Brochure that interprets the geological formations of Diamond Craters.  I found this brochure to be among the most informative interpretive guides I’ve ever read; it is endlessly informative and doesn’t “dumb it down” for the general public.  The brochure says that the volcanic activity at Diamond Craters is relatively recent at under 25,000 years.  The hot springs in the region, including the one below Steens Mountain that is such a great place to soak on a cold day, show that geothermal activity is alive and well nearby.

 

Side-blotched Lizard PortraitSide-blotched Lizard in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

 

 

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff

 

 

East Twin Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion

 

 

Western Juniper stands alone in the prairieA Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex

 

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit jawbonesJackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.