Geology 196, The Hawaii Volcanoes, is an adventure and it’s not for the faint-of-heart. I learned this on Spring Break during the field trip I took with the Sac State Geology department, led by Professor Brian Hausback. I’m lucky enough to have been able to take this class with my fiancée Ed, a Geology major, who kept me on my toes so I could learn all I could about Hawaii volcanoes and keep up with the fast-paced day-in-the-life of geologists in the field. I learned that people have been living on The Big Island of Hawaii for centuries which predate even written history, and that the five magnificent volcanoes on the island present an element of danger that people on the island respect, but are not fearful of. In fact, they have a deep sense of love and reverence for the landscape which is celebrated in their native oral traditions, Hawaiian singing, and hula dance.
Thanks to the uncle of a student, our class of 15 students was able to stay on top of Mt. Kilauea at The Kilauea Military Camp due to his sponsorship. . .this is a place to stay set aside for military families, so if you have a family member or a friend who is a veteran it may be an option for you. It is quite charming, and dates back to 1916. . .(think quonset huts, wood cabins, and stone cottages) and you can really feel the history there! We were astonished to find on the first night that when you walk across the street from the camp to the trail there, you can see the radiant orange glow in the night sky emanating from the active Halema’uma’u crater. It was simply incredible, as were the rest of our days and nights exploring the many beautiful sights the Big Island has to offer, including steam vents, vast lava fields, and a view of the stars like I have never seen from the Mauna Kea observatory 9,000 feet up.
When traveling with a bunch of geologists, it’s go-go-GO! Up at 6:30, breakfast at 7:30, in the vans at 8, no exceptions. Gear is important too. This wasn’t the kind of vacation where you sit on a beach and someone brings you a mai-tai. . .it was all about khakis, rain gear, gloves, hand-lenses, field notes, hiking boots, sunscreen, and being able to fire off answers to tough questions. At least for me they were tough, because I’m an English major! In other words, when you are looking at a swirling heap of cooled lava which funnels down into the ground about 50 feet or more below where you are standing, and a USGS scientist asks you “What happened here?”, you better be ready to come up with at least a good guess. My answer was “There was a curtain of fire.” “And how do you know?,” they ask. “Because I found Pele’s tears.” I reply. Good enough. In my gloved hand are tiny black-pearl colored beads of volcanic glass which are shaped like teardrops.
Pele, Hawaii’s ancient goddess of fire, isn’t messing around. Her ‘tears’ are evidence of spatter from volcanic lava fountains erupting from fissures, and her ‘hair’ is thin glass, exactly as long as and as fine as strands of human hair, but wear gloves when you pick it up! This stuff will get right into your skin, embed just like splinters, and annoy you for days. In essence, the spirit of eruptions past is everywhere on the island, which makes it feel alive, as if you are walking on a living, breathing being, and word to the wise, don’t bring any volcanic rocks or sand home from Hawaii. It is said that there is a curse on those who do; it is Pele’s punishment for defiling her creations. This is evidenced by the thousands of pounds of rock which are returned to the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory every year by travelers who are trying to get their luck back! A girl in my car took a little sand from green sand beach and her camera broke right after that. Hmmm. And one day, while I was walking on a trail above Kiluaea Iki, my boots, which were double knotted, came untied twice in the space of 20 minutes. Mischievous. . .this Pele. After that I left every speck of volcanic rock I touched right where I found it.
The Big Island of Hawaii is a wild, adventurous, alive place. If it weren’t for those brave wranglers we call Geologists (like USGS Geologists Frank Truesdell and Don Swanson as well as Professor Brian Hausback), I wouldn’t have gained as deep an understanding of the beauty of its five volcanoes. To live there would mean to respect the power of the geologic processes which have created it, and to also heed the warnings of the scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying it. My fiancée and I are having fun talking about how to get back there. . .and who knows, maybe we will. Nothing is more amazing and uplifting than to think that a mountain was created underwater, grew to be an island, and gave birth to a landscape, flora, fauna, numerous birds and wildlife from all over the world, and even a human civilization which celebrates culture of beauty and kindness (the spirit of Aloha) we still enjoy today. Oh yeah, we stayed a couple of extra days after the field trip, so we did finally get a fancy drink, a Kona sunset, and a relaxing afternoon lounging on the beach and swimming in the bluest water I’ve ever seen, along with brilliant tropical fish and a couple of turtles! The Big Island Hawaii: do put it on your bucket list.