Cheating Death inside Halemaumau Crater

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Cheating Death inside Halemaumau Crater

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island
Oct 02, 2012

The hapuu tree fern grows skyward for 50 to 100 years before falling to the ground under its own ponderous weight and sprouting saplings in the fertile remains of its rotting trunk. In this way, the hapuu fern cheats death.

Halemaumau Trail at Volcanoes National Park starts at the historic Volcano House hotel and drops 425 feet to the crater floor in less than one mile. It’s known as the oldest of the park’s many hiking trails and likely the very same one that Mark Twain and Isabella Bird descended in 1866 and 1873, respectively.

That’s all I needed to hear. I’m a bit of a nerd in that way. I like history, especially literary history. And while I like to think I trod the same trail as Twain, maybe even photographed an actual descendant of a hapuu tree fern that Twain brushed up against, I soon learned that change is rampant on this volcanic mountain—roads and trails and, even, Volcano House has come and gone at Pele’s whim—and there’s a good chance neither Twain nor Bird would recognize the place today.

A quick drive down Chain of Craters Road illustrates the point. There’s Kilauea Iki, Puahi, Keanakakoi, and Mauna Ulu craters, to name a few. All thin spots in the walls of the inverted bowl that is the volcano known as Kilauea where lava punched through in recent times. Roadside signs give the dates--1969, 1972, 1974. 

Speaking of roads, I’ve visited the park before and circumnavigated its 10-mile Crater Rim loop road. On this visit, about a third of the road was closed due to high amounts of sulfur dioxide gas emitting from a 2008 vent that opened in a reignited lava lake within Halemaumau Crater. Re-routing and re-paving roads keeps park staff busy caring for this active, voluminous volcano.

The summit crater is Halemaumau, the hero of Twain’s and Bird’s stories the same into which I headed. When I lit out on Twain’s trail, clouds mercifully filtered the sun’s harsh rays and a light mist fell. The climate is decidedly different at 4,000-foot elevation than it is at sea level. I wore hiking pants, Columbia long-sleeved shirt and a Scottevest. A handwritten sign at the visitor center indicated the high the day before was 69 degrees and its low 54. And the moist air, while it hasn’t doused Pele’s handiwork, does give rise to the many steam vents in the area—as well as, encourages plant life.

Recent lava flows aren’t the only reason Twain and Bird might not recognize the place—minus the people and cars and tour buses, of course. Stuff grows on new (as in less than 100 years old) lava like a house afire here. (I couldn’t resist.)

The hapuu tree fern is one of the first plants to colonize new lava. Its long fronds can grow up to 10 feet in length. You’ll also find the ohia, a tree with scraggily branches and delicate blossom made up of red threads. I didn’t make good time on the trail, because I was forever stopping to gawk at a gamut of native plants, which, also included other trees, shrubs, ferns and vines, like iliahi, pukiawe, hoi kuahiwi, uluhe, amau and ilihia.

Now, don’t be too impressed. I didn’t know all these Hawaiian plants. I had signs to rely on. I also had a camera to take pictures of each, so I wouldn’t forget them. See, that’s the thing with writers: We hoard every bit of knowledge imparted by signs, brochures, flyers, pamphlets, books. You name it. That’s why I came home with not one, but two new books on Kilauea volcano; a set of four trail guide pamphlets; two informational flyers. And photos. Plenty of photographs.

It goes without saying that I also packed two related books for the trip. The Burning Island by Pamela Frierson and Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Bird. I never cracked the former. But the latter? Well, it absorbed me, and Isabella Bird herself impressed me—with her adventuresome-ness, as well as, with her writing skills. She didn’t have a camera to take pictures of plants. She didn’t have a digital voice recorder to capture her thoughts. She didn’t have a national park visitor center loaded with park rangers and interpretive dioramas. And, yet, she captured vivid details, names of plants and scientific data that surprised me. How did she do it? About her trek into Halemaumau Crater, she wrote:

“The first descent down the terminal wall of the crater is very precipitous, but it and the slope which extends to the second descent are thickly covered with ohias, ohelos (a species of whortleberry), sadlerias, polypodiums, silver grass, and a great variety of bulbous plants, many of which bore clusters of berries in a brilliant turquoise blue. The ‘beyond’ looked terrible. I could not help clinging to these vestiges of the kindlier mood of nature in which she sought to cover the horrors she had wrought. The next descent is over rough blocks and ridges of broken lava, and appears to form part of a break which extends irregularly round the whole crater, and which probably marks a tremendous subsidence of its floor. Here the last apparent vegetation was left behind, and the familiar earth. We were in a new region of blackness and awful desolation, the accustomed sights and sounds of nature all gone. Terraces, cliffs, lakes, ridges, rivers, mountain sides, whirlpools, chasms of lava surrounded us, solid, black and shining, as if vitrified, or an ashen grey, stained yellow with sulphur here and there, or white with alum. The lava was fissured and upheaved everywhere by earthquakes, hot underneath, and emitting a hot breath.

“After more than an hour of very difficult climbing we reached the lowest level of the crater, pretty nearly a mile across, presenting from above the appearance of a sea at rest, but on crossing it we found it to be an expanse of waves and convolutions of ashy-coloured lava, with great cracks filled up with black, iridescent rolls of lava, only a few weeks old.”

Now, I will admit that Isabella Bird writes with a little more, shall we say, color (or “colour”) than I do. (Maybe she’s just a flat-out better writer.) But I will also concede the point mentioned earlier: Change. The crater I met wasn’t nearly as active as the one Bird confronted. In fact, in 1873, during Bird’s visit, the summit crater of Mauna Loa was going off. (And, Bird, claims honors as the first Western woman to summit it.)


The way I understand it, Isabella Bird wrote long letters to her sister back in England, recapturing just about every move she made and everything she saw in Hawaii. She’d be a voracious blogger these days, wouldn’t she? But, later, after she returned home, she decided to publish her letters, and like any diligent writer, that means, she edited them. She also fine-tuned her facts, and here’s where a bit of the literary mystery is solved. Isabella Bird was, no doubt, an observant and meticulous note-taker, but, like most writers before and since, she also relied on source material. Hers included: History of the Hawaiian Islands by Jackson Jarves; Tour Round Hawaii by William Ellis; and The Hawaiian Volcanoes by William T. Brigham. (I have the first two and have just purchased the last.)

My admiration for Bird’s specificity of detail is still great, and I am now awed by her diligence to fact-checking.

I switchbacked down the shady and tree-lined Halemaumau Trail until the path leveled out onto the summit floor and went from a lush forest filled with life to a barren, lava desert. Ropy pahoehoe lava stretched across the crater floor to create a giant sunken, dance floor. Or hockey rink with 425-foot walls. A few lehua bloomed on dwarf ohia trees. But no ‘apapane flitted from blossom to blossom, curling its honeycreeper tongue in a straw to slurp nectar like I had seen them do in the rain forest. That meant, they didn’t call, either, and the only noise I heard was the crunch of my boots on the pahoehoe. I’d passed two other people on the trail a while back, so here I was, alone, in the bottom of a volcanic crater. Except, if I waited for dark, maybe I’d keep company with the native lava cricket, found nowhere else in the world except young flows of lava on the big island of Hawaii.

But I wasn’t waiting around for the sun to set. Not here, at least. I gazed at the other end of the Halemaumau Crater, where a lava lake emitted billowy clouds of gasses. A few years ago, I walked the entire length of Halemaumau Crater—right down the middle of it. Today, the trail was closed where I stood, where rainforest met lava desert, because in March 2011, the floor of the lava lake some one mile distant had dropped 1,000 feet. And that’s where I wanted to be as the sun slipped below Mauna Loa--watching the lava lake inside Halemaumau radiate against a dark sky. But, I’d have to drive Crater Rim Road to the overlook at Jagger Museum to do so.

From deep within my vest pocket, a song by The Rolling Stones started playing—Sympathy for the Devil. Some might call that a fitting song for the place where I stood, the belly of the inferno, where it turns out, you can get four-bar reception on your cell phone. 

“I was just going to call you,” I said without saying hello. It was my BFF. She has a sixth sense of knowing when to call me—usually at the exact moment when I’m thinking about her and especially when I’m thinking I have an amazing experience to share with someone. Isabella Bird wrote her sister back in England; I text photos to my BFF in Kansas.

“You’ll never guess where I am?” I said. "Mark Twain was here."

And, in a way, I feel like I am helping cheat literary death when I say that and when I quote from Isabella Bird above. Both authors may be dead, but their words and their inspiration live on.

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