As advertised, I watched the sun climb over the bay from my rented studio while never having to get out of bed. For breakfast, I walked to the infamous Ken’s House of Pancakes. Two army soldiers dressed in work camo went in ahead of me – I knew I was at the right place.
Side note: here is a thing I have noticed for going out for breakfast here, everything can come with rice. I feel like I should be surprised, but I do have that reflexive curious-dog’s-head-cocked-to-one-side kind of reaction. I just as well my starches from po-tate-os, but I do feel like I’m missing out on something.
With the recent heavy rains, I assumed that Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and Wai’ale Falls would be teeming with activity and water. For this, I was not wrong and yet… The sun was blocked by overcast skies, so no rainbows, vegetation had blocked most of the view of any ‘boiling’, and I could find the ‘secret’ trail leading to Wai’ale. Not to mention, it was raining… big surprise in Hilo.
From the moment this trip/vacation/safari came to be, I was ALWAYS planning to go atop Mauna Kea at night for star photography. Simply put, it is one of the best places on the planet to see the night sky; clean air, almost no light pollution, and generally good weather. On the other hand… I invoke the Boromir meme, One simply does not drive to the Maunu Kea summit at midnight. First, it’s a big mountain, nearly 14,000 feet at the summit and that means two things: cold (even in June) and less oxygen. I could deal with the cold and bring all my cold weather gear, which seems just batshit insane to carry when traveling to Hawaii in June. But the extreme elevation meant I would have to face the hazards of Altitude Sickness, especially since I can’t even remember the last time I was that high. Oh and the steep, narrow, gravel road leading to the summit that requires a four wheel drive vehicle. And doing all this in the middle of the night. I had a plan, but it was flimsy.
The most scariest symptom of altitude sickness, at least for me, was impaired judgement. I was concerned. Everything I read seemed to suggest that by spending at least half an hour at the Visitor Information Station, which was at only 9,000’, helped accumulate your body and lessening the effects. And I had just assumed that my body could handle 9k because airplanes are pressurized to nearly that altitude.
They were still too many unknowns. Thus, having a good deal of time before needing to be at the airport of my tour, I headed up Mauna Kea that morning for a ‘dry run’.
I arrived at the Visitor Information Station or VIS about an half an hour before it opened at 11am. The sky was clear as the VIS was clearly above the cloud cover, the sun was bright, the sky was an incredible blue. It wasn’t warm, but if you stood in the sun, it wasn’t cold either. I wanted to stick around until the VIS opened as I was on a fact-finding mission. Across the road from the VIS was a trail that lead up a hill that looked to offer a great view. Where does this trail go? It goes up. I farted around up there for a bit, shooting pics, and made my way back down.
One of the workers at the VIS, a nice lady who had setup a sun telescope outside, explained to me, in so many words, no dummy they don’t let you go up there at night, are you nuts? Sigh. In what I can only assume as her taking pity on me after shattering a boy’s hopes and dream, she told me about the star-gazing event they held at the VIS from 7-10pm. The staff would drag out of few telescopes and let people stargaze. Could I see the Milky Way from here, I asked. Yep.
Feeling a bit dejected, I decided I had spent enough time around the VIS to travel up to the summit. Which I did and hiked a small trail up there to a hill overlooking, well, everything.
Here’s what I’ll say about the drive to and from the summit: it is everything as advertised. Just how in the hell the three idiots in the rental convertible Mustang went up and down, I’ll never know. Most of the eight mile journey is over rough gravel road that is sometimes one-car narrow. The grade is high and there are no guard rails. Total drive time to the top? 30 minutes. Going back down is worse because gravity. This is when a lower gear and four wheel low is used. Like a big dummy I am, I didn’t stop at the VIS on my way back to allow my body to accumulate to lower altitude which made me incredible sleepy behind the wheel.
At the summit was another deal altogether. I experienced some tingly along my right side just before reaching the top, but I took it slow and deep breaths. Once parked, I jumped out and OMG. The temp gauge in the dash said low 50’s, but the wind was gusting to over 30mph. IT. WAS. FREEZING. On went the parka, the hat, and gloves. The climb to the hill wasn’t that bad but I was easily winded. After a few pics, I was ready to leave. I did it!
It was about halfway down the gravel road when I knew for sure there was no way in Hell I was going up there are 11 at night; too dark, too cold, and too dangerous alone.
Back down the mountain, I had time to check in to my AirBnB before I needed to leave for the airport. Question: who runs a Bed-N-Breakfast and then immediately leaves for two days letting two couples and a single, weird guy loose in your house?
At the airport, I discovered there would be five other passengers plus myself. Oh great, I thought. I will be stuck in the middle in the back with no view. During check-in, they want to weigh you and how do they weigh you? By jumping on a luggage scale. During my weigh-in, I was carrying my camera with my telephoto and I’m not sure how to feel about what the results were…
The gods were smiling on me this day. My seat was up front next to the right door of the helicopter. I couldn’t have dreamed of having a better seat.
The total flight time was 45 minutes. The pilot made a couple passes near the erupting fissure #8 and then a back and forth pass over the where the lava was entering the ocean. I snapped away furiously at it all. As the camera was behind the canopy glass, there wasn’t much I could do in a way of reflection. But when I did put my camera down, there was this sensory disconnect between what you were seeing and what the rest of your body was telling you what you should be feeling and here. The huge plumes of lava jetting up from the fissure were stunning to behold, but the headset you wore to deaden the noise of the helicopter fooled your brain into thinking that should be loud. That sight should be a deep, chest vibrating, noise combined with a wash of heat as if you are sitting in front of the world’s biggest campfire.
The river of lava that headed to the sea, plus with the lava that had already flowed, cooled, and harden cut a wide swath over the land. The area of coverage and amount of destruction was overwhelmingly difficult to comprehend, even with an ariel perspective. Not to mention, you are actually watching an island grow right in front of your eyes.
Once back down safely on the ground, I made my way back to home base to prepare for returning to the mountain. At this point in the evening, I was whipped and didn’t want to go as I almost fell asleep. But I rallied and headed back to the VIS.
By the time I made it for the turn and I began to drive up, the continuous stream of cars going in the opposite direction told me this was an incredibly popular event. That meant a lot of dumb tourists which, in turn, meant a lot of dumb kids. Great. Even with all the traffic coming down the mountain, there were still a great deal of people there. On the deck next to the VIS were about three or four telescopes each manned by a Observatory volunteer. The whole area was dark and the only lights were red – even the bathrooms lights were red. Since I am a giant geek, I had my flashlight headset on set to red light. If someone happen to use their cellphone flashlight or some other kind of white light, they were screamed and heckled into shame. (It really does f with the night vision.) It was funny how many people were complaining how cold it was – I had my parka, I was nice and cozy.
I stood in a couple lines to look through the telescopes. I saw Jupiter! Then the event ended, people start to mingle out, and now it was time to get to work. The white light restrictions surrounding the VIS were lifted, so I had to move away from VIS and began walking down the trail I had taken earlier in the dog. I stopped in the middle of an open area, setup, messed with the settings, and boom. I held my breath. I had never really done anything like this before. When the image finally showed up on the camera I was speechless. Not only had I captured the Milky Way (or a piece of it anyway) I also captured the glow of Pele, the same fissure I had flown over earlier that day. I could not belief my luck.
After a few more pics, I made my way back to home base screaming and giggling like an over enthusiastic high school cheerleader. Oh man what a deal! I had all theses high plans once I arrived at my room. I’d break out the memory card and my laptop and see my handiwork in a bigger screen and then’d I…
I fell asleep as soon as I got in.