Going with the flow in Hawaii

Toronto Star, Oct 29, 2016: HAWAII ISLAND, HAWAII-We’re walking down a gravel road toward the spot where lava is pouring into the ocean like cake batter into a pan. It’s about seven kilometres away and we’re transfixed by the giant billow of steam caused when lava hits the water.

The ocean is to our left and fields of black lava stretch up the mountain to our right. A few helicopters circle tourists over the 4,100-metre peak, showing off a crater bubbling with lava. A line of smoke runs down the mountain where sparse trees have burst into flames because of the 1,200 C molten rock running in a tunnel underneath.

It’s going to be one heckuva hike.

We’re at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the east side of Hawaii Island and home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Kilauea has been erupting since 1983 and it upped its game last summer with “61g,” a flow that goes right into the ocean. This is how Hawaii was formed in the first place but a few million years ago no one was around to watch “the Big Island” get bigger.

About 1.8 million people come to see the volcano every year, many driving to the lava lake at the top of the mountain. Since 61g started flowing into the ocean, visitors can rent a bike or hop on a boat to see the “ocean entry.” But they can’t get too close. Debris crashes around, lava that looks like solid ground can fall into the ocean and that pretty plume is polluted with toxins, such as hydrochloric acid.

We avoid the ocean entry, taking a hard right off the road to hike the black lava up toward the peak.

“The goal is for us to get really close to moving lava,” says our guide Dominik Stauber, co-owner of Hawaii Outdoor Guides.

We’re well equipped for the task. Stauber has set us up in lightweight packs with all the snacks and equipment we need for the 20-kilometre trek. He’s insisted, with a raised eyebrow, that we each pack six bottles of water.

We put on our black gloves, open up our hiking poles and start walking on the black.

“This is where the hunt happens,” he says. The first few steps are tentative — it feels like you’re walking on a macaron and you might crash through to the gooey part in the middle. But the footing is sure and the shapes beneath our feet are fantastic: spooning blobs, Buddhas, mermaids, massive ropes and a giant blanket dropped by some careless god (geologists describe the lava formations with more technical terms, such as pahoehoe, a’a lava and Pele’s Hair).

We stop now and then to take down a bottle of water, rest and notice the shiny blue flecks in the black rock we’re sitting on. Stauber hauls out his binoculars to look for orange and see where other groups are heading (one of the best ways to hunt lava is to look for the selfie-takers).

We find it, coming around a bend (another Buddha) to spot a “toe” of lava peeking out under a bed of black a couple of metres away. We move back a little to cooler ground so the soles of our shoes stop smoking. The toe bursts and the lava starts creeping toward us.

It sizzles. We gasp.

When it’s really hot, the lava can move about a foot a minute. But after a few metres, the flow stops as suddenly as it starts. It cools down fast when it hits the deep freeze of the 28 C air, Stauber explains. After we take a few (hundred) pictures of boiling rock creeping out of cracks in the earth’s crust, we get our headlamps ready and start hiking out.

The black lights up as the sun fades. The Buddhas and mermaids lie sparkling in a giant treasure chest of silver and gold.Lava contains silica — glass — that reflects the light from our headlamps and the stars (the newer the lava the shinier, because the glass hasn’t been broken down yet). We lie on our backs to enjoy the other light show, the thick blanket of stars, and the plume glowing orange in the dark. There’s a shooting star. And another.

Back on the gravel road, people returning from the ocean entry zoom past us on their bikes. I admit I’m jealous of their wheels as we trudge toward the parking lot, our headlamps bobbing in the dark. But as I take another swig from my fifth water bottle and turn around for a last look at that orange in the distance, I know I wouldn’t trade that hike for anything.

When you go:

Get there: Most people fly to Kona International Airport on Hawaii Island, but Hilo International Airport is an option. Either way, you will likely have a couple of stops along the way, such as Vancouver or Los Angeles and Honolulu.

Stay: I stayed at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel in Hilo and Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay (most of the resorts on the island are around Kona). It’s about 2.5 hours from Kona to Hilo.

Active lava flow hike: The hike with Hawaii Outdoor Guides costs $179 (U.S.) per person, minimum age 18 and maximum 14 guests per group. They’ll pick you up from your hotel in Kona or Hilo, or either airport, for an extra charge. It’s about 45 minutes from Hilo to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Don’t pocket the lava: Hawaiians believe the island is still alive and growing and that the lava contains a special energy (mana). Lily Dudoit, who gives cultural tours of lava artifacts around the Sheraton Kona, says you shouldn’t take any home: “It comes down to one simple fact. It belongs here.”

Do stop for poke: You’ll need some protein before your hike. Try the Suisan Fish Market in Hilo for poke — rice (brown or white) with two types of cubed, flavoured raw fish. I can recommend the mango habanero and spicy ahi.

Snorkel, but not with the dolphins: Searching out dolphins to snorkel with is illegal in the U.S. (but not enforced much). You can see plenty of dolphins on your way to snorkelling with Body Glove in Kona, a certified “Dolphin Smart” outfit.

Do you research:gohawaii.com/hawaii-island

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