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Joanna vs. The Volcano

By Joanna Harper

While I was vacationing on the Big Island of Hawaii, I ran up close to the edge of an active volcano. I didn’t have the experience I was looking for, but I did come away with some cool pictures.

When I visited volcano national park in 2009, I had one of the most spectacular runs I have ever enjoyed. Without really setting out to do anything special, I wound up running up to the edge of Halema’uma’u crater, and enjoyed the thrill of standing beside an active volcano. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera with me that morning, and so I didn’t get any close up shots. It put a small hole in a magical experience, and I vowed things would be different this year. Things were different all right, but not in the way that I intended.

After I finished my hike on Mauna Kea, I drove to the tourist village of Volcano which lies just outside of Volcano National park and about 30 miles west of Hilo. My room was set in a rain forest, and this was the view of the forest from inside the room.

A view from inside Joanna's room at the tourist village.

The park has seen several eruptions over its lifetime, the most recent being the 2008 eruption of Halema’uma’u, which is still extremely active. In addition to the volcanic activity, the area is ecologically diverse; the eastern portion of the park sits in a rain forest, while the western part is in a desert, making it one very interesting geological specimen.

There is a trailhead just outside the eastern border of the park, at the edge of the village. I ran from this trailhead, and enjoyed rain forest views like this, once underway.

A view of the trail near the start.

The flora quickly changes, however, as one runs west. The rainforest becomes sparser within a couple of miles of running, and the trees get decidedly sickly looking.

A couple miles farther along, the influence of the nearby volcano becomes more apparent.

Within another mile, the trees are entirely gone, replaced by a desert of finely crushed volcanic rock.

The close proximity of the volcano quickly becomes obvious.

It is also around this point that one gets to see the famous crater.

Rising "vog" announces the presence of the crater.

You can see the volcanic fog known as vog seeping out of the ground in front of the carter. There are multiple vents in the park where one can witness vog up close, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it just in front of the crater. There’s just one little problem. Since 2008, it’s been illegal to get too close to the thing, and there are barricades on the trail such as this one.

Joanna enters "the restricted zone"!

In 2009, I had blown past a similar barricade on a different trail, but the crater wasn’t in sight, and I actually had no idea that I was entering a restricted zone. This year I couldn’t claim ignorance. Naturally, they haven’t maintained the trails close to the crater since the 2008 eruption. In the winter of 2009, this was no problem, as the trails were still in fine shape. I was soon to discover that things had changed in four years.

As I got closer to the crater, the ground was covered by a layer of burnt material that formed a thin crust over the solid rock below. I had to slow to a walk in this area because the footing was not trustworthy. It was almost like walking through a sea of burnt bark.

Treacherous footing on "a sea of burnt bark".

You can see the vog rising all around me, and the crater in front of me. The footing continued to deteriorate as I got closer to Halema’uma’u. The ground was less and less even, and walking was becoming an adventure.

"Don't try this at home!"

This was about as close to the crater as I got. In 2009, I was actually able to get right up to the edge of the sucker and look in, but I just wasn’t willing to risk the same thing this year with the uncertain footing I was facing. I turned around here, and made my way out of the restricted zone as quickly as I could manage.

It was kind of funny in retrospect. The rangers warn all the visitors not to go near the crater, due to fear of eruption or inhaling the sulfur laden vog, but neither of those things is nearly as risky as the crusty surface conditions.

I probably shouldn’t have tried to get so close, and I’ll never do it again. But I did live to tell the tale, and I have some unworldly pictures to remind me of my adventure. Just don’t try this at home!


3 Responses to “Joanna vs. The Volcano”

  1. Great report Joanna. Arnie and I were on there a few years ago and we hiked out a bit to try and get a closer look at the crater. We got in trouble with the rangers who settled for scolding us. It is an amazing sight! We went at night so the glow was spectacular and we could see the lava spilling into the ocean.

    Posted by Jennifer Teppo | March 5, 2013, 4:28 pm
  2. I did my run at dawn because I knew that there wouldn’t be any rangers around at that time of day.
    But it is cool to see the place at night too.

    Posted by Joanna | March 6, 2013, 7:31 pm

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