Yesterday I was out the door at 2 am, going to Volcanoes National Park with Mitch and Dianne to see the latest activity in the Halema’uma’u Crater. The crater sits within the Kilauea Caldera here on the Big Island, and is traditionally known as the home of Pele. For the past week, the lava lake in the crater has been rising, now at its highest level since March 2008. Normally you can’t see the lake, because the rim of the crater hides it. The best you could do is see the glow from the lake at night, shining on the volcanic gases. (It’s still darn wonderful, especially on a night of new beginnings.) So this is a big deal.
We were praying for clear skies because the weather at 4005 feet is iffy. Another friend of ours drove to the park on Saturday and Sunday nights but a cloud sat down in the crater. She reported hearing strange sounds like water lapping a shore and sharp cracks like rifles firing. But Pele chose to hide on the weekend.
It rained during some of our 90 minute journey in the dark. Dianne informed us that the weather report predicted high winds with gusts up to 50 mph. But we weren’t discouraged. When we got to the Jaggar Museum, the closest spot to view the Halema’uma’u Crater, the car thermometer read 56 ̊ F and the vehicle rocked with the wind. It was going to be cold, all the more so because of radiant cooling due to the clear sky. But the clear sky was also the good news.
Concern for our creature comforts fell away as we walked to the viewing area. We could see a small crowd of visitors, cameras snapping. And when the view opened to us, I was struck silent with awe. The lake stood out clearly, so bright that nothing else pierced the dark, despite the waxing gibbous moon. We could see breaks in the black-looking crust floating on the surface of the lake. The river-like breaks widened and narrowed as the lake appeared to breath. Perhaps because the wind was behind us, we didn’t catch any of the strange noises our friend heard on the weekend.
There was a bubbling spot in the center that flared higher on occasion. Then we could see the reflection of the light off the back wall of the crater and the rising gas. Was that the shape of Pele forming in the gas? Of course the pictures I can get with my pitiful little phone camera are never as good as what remains imprinted on my mind – the real scene below us.
These flares were invariably followed by collective “ooh-ahhs” from the observers. They otherwise conversed respectful with hushed tones. There was one man who pulled out a noisy video game (how could he be bored?!) but the rest of us told the belligerent guy to turn it off, and he finally did.
We had arrived at 3:30 am and stayed until 5:15 with one coffee break in the heated car to throw the chill off. The sky was already brightening as we walked out for the second observation and we noted with surprise that clouds had moved in overhead. More people showed up, including a group from a hotel that had borrowed the hotel bathrobes to stay warm, and the sacred atmosphere of an hour earlier turned festive.
When it began to sprinkle, we reluctantly headed back to the car, and drove the 90 minutes back home. It was worth it. I am so fortunate to be able to take advantage of opportunities like this. And I am grateful to have friends that will join me on these Big Island adventures at 2 in the morning.
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