Like Phoenix from Ashes | Back to Hawai’i (Day 6: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park)

I’m not one for comparing people, and everybody in our crew was certainly looking forward to visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, but I feel safe claiming in this instance that I was the most excited about this day. After all, I was the geologist of the group, and ready to live up to every single (*non-harmful) stereotype that came with it.

We headed out in the morning, all teams at the same time. Once again, our team enjoyed this because it meant an extra half-hour of sleep for us. In the car, I shared my soft running flask filled to the brim with ice with Koa, each of us hugging it in the hot morning. After a stop in the southern-most bakery in the United States, we were welcomed on top of Kīlauea by a downpour.

Punalu’u Bake Shop sign

Rain or no, we headed out, kept semi-dry by rainproof jackets and visitor-center rain ponchos, depending on each individual’s level of preparedness. The trail took us past the rim of the Halema‘uma‘u crater, the star of the most recent eruption. I remembered what it looked like only three years prior and could help but be filled with wonder.

Halema‘uma‘u crater

The sides of the crater broke off in giant slabs and slid into the caldera. Having remembered the crater from before, I had a sense of scale for the sight—and oh boy, was it massive. My brain had trouble understanding. It might not have been so had I not seen the crater before. For example, when I visited Crater Lake, I knew it was huge but my brain couldn’t really grasp it. Here, I had a comparison in the form of memory and it was causing a glitch in my brain.

We started the descent into Kīlauea Iki, a smaller pit crater located right next to Halema‘uma‘u crater, Kīlauea’s main summit caldera. Focusing on my feet so I wouldn’t fall on the rocky, rooty trail, I thought about how I couldn’t find walk half a mile only a few years ago. And there I was, on a Hiking team, descending into a crater in a place I wouldn’t even dare to dream of visiting. For a few moments, I felt like a phoenix that has risen from its ashes, given my past.

Maybe I had something in common with Kīlauea Iki, maybe with the whole planet. Before Kīlauea Iki turned into this fascinating place filled with wonder, it was burned down, torn apart, and destroyed by fire. The islands themselves were born from fire. There’s violence and destruction whenever a volcano erupts, but this process creates new earth for life to thrive on. Just look at Waipi’o Valley.

Kilauea Iki and Pu’u Pua’i

Before I had the time to expand on my little private metaphor, the trail spat us all on the bottom of the crater, releasing us onto the flat plain made of the youngest rock I’ve ever laid my eyes, feet, and hands on. (Yes, my hands. Yes, I ended up crawling on the ground.)

We hiked through the crater, guided by the ahu, or cairns — trail markers built from stacked rock. For the first half (okay, maybe only a quarter) of the hike, I managed to act like a normal human being and stay on or near the trail. (You’re allowed to go off-trail in the crater, as the surface is very durable, and not at all delicate like many other places.) I stuck with the group as we walked past and stopped near Puʻu Puaʻi a cinder cone that formed during Kīlauea Iki’s last eruption.

“Why is it orange?” they asked me when we observed a big red-colored scar on its side.

“Oxidization,” I answered, and then the excitement of understanding how thins came to be there overpowered me and I ended up running all around the crater, looking at features that wouldn’t make any sense and wouldn’t mean anything to me only a year ago. After all, what was there to see besides a flat plain of black rock and a few mounds of more black rock?

A lot. Very much a lot—and it all meant something thanks to knowledge. In fact, it was beyond fascinating thanks to knowledge. My only wish was to know even more, seeing how blown my mind was with the most basic information.

I started running from one side of the crater to the other, crawling on my knees to take a look at the layers visible where the surface was broken up that suggested how it cooled, seeing different rates of oxidization, and even finding a steam vent. It took me a bit to realize that the rest of the group had made it to the end of the crater and everyone was now sitting on rocks and waiting for me.

Broken-up slabs of the crater floor with visibly different layers from cooling

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” I said when I ran to them, not wanting to make them wait any longer.

“No, no, take your time, we’re having a lot of fun,” said Ihi, sending me back out.

“There’s a steam vent!” I said enthusiastically before running off again. It wasn’t until our group chat started to flood with photos and videos that I understood what she meant by saying they were having a lot of fun; a wild geologist spotted in its natural habitat read one inscription. A blurry close-up of me running in the distance accompanied the message.

Steam vent in Kīlauea Iki

I didn’t know much about Kīlauea Iki but, observing the place, I took a guess and said it was most likely a lava lake in the past, seeing the flat plain and the broken slabs that ringed the crater; a lava lake that drained at least partially after its surface started to solidify. Later on, when we got back to our base and I went to USGS’s website to learn more, I learned that I wasn’t that far off the truth with my hypothesis. (Yes, I was very proud of myself. Yes, I might be bragging, slightly. But knowing that I understood the place with only a basic knowledge of geology was exhilarating!)

Kīlauea Iki’s last eruption, which changed it beyond recognition, happened in 1959. Before it was a black flat plain of solidified lava, Kīlauea Iki was a V-shaped crater filled with green trees. One day, a long fissure opened in one violent event and started to spew lava. Several other vents opened and within 24 hours, joined their forces.

Fountains of lava were visible from afar, the tallest one reaching 1,900 feet (source).

A new cinder cone, Puʻu Puaʻi, was formed, and when the surface of the lava lake that formed in the crater submerged the fissure, the fountains stopped. Eventually, the lake drained back into the vents, leaving behind its crust.

As I mentioned before, signs of the drainage can be beautifully seen all around the crater’s edges in the slabs of rock that lay at the bottom of the sloping walls.

The floor of the Kilauea Iki crater

We headed back out of the crater, climbing a muddy trail overgrown with plants and fungi. On the top, we stopped to take a rest and I, ravenous, downed my lunch. Noticing nobody else was eating, I asked if they planned to stop somewhere else for lunch and if I should wait.

Brown shiny fungi grow on a decaying piece of wood

“We already had our lunch when we watched you in the crater. It was like eating popcorn at the movies, you were totally nerding-out,” was the answer I got. Oh boy… (For those of you who need a definition of that phrase, just like I did, according to Urban Dictionary, it means 1. Getting overly excited about something that isn’t generally “cool”.)

Walking through the Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube), we eventually made our way back to the visitor center. I remembered seeing a steam vent nearby there three years prior and, having talked about it with Mao and Loulu, I got the permission to stray away from our planned route and take them there. Ki and Ihi trusted me at that point that I wouldn’t get lost.

Ocean from Punalu’u Beach

On our way back to the base, we stopped at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. The Marine Team was headed there, too, while the Culture Team went to a small local coffee farm. It was so strange to be back, given that last time, I thought I’d never see the place again, Life works in mysterious ways but if this is the outcome, I’m here for it.

Another stop, this time at Hawaii’s Local Buzz, brought us to a small farm with ducks and coffee. Okay, they have much more than ducks and coffee but this was the highlight. It was also there that I saw, for the first time in my life, that pineapples don’t grow on trees but instead, each one of them grows on its own stick from the ground like a tulip. Now that was a life-changing observation, I can never look at pineapples the same way ever again.

A pineapple on its stem

Seriously tho, Hawaii’s Local Buzz is a small business with amazing chocolate and macadamia nuts, too, and they deliver everywhere in the US. This is not sponsored, I just really, really liked their coffee and chocolate. (And their newsletter is like getting a letter from my grandma. It’s one of the few newsletters I always read.)


Previous posts from Hawai’i:

2021 research trip:

2018 solo trip:

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