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.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me 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 PhotoShelter Website.