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Top Right Solid Corner

Live To Shoot Another Day

Text and photography by Bryan Lowry


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Spattering lava of Pu`u O`o Vent and Mauna Kea
Pu'u O'o vent Large spattering vent and snow covered Mauna Kea in the distance Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Image #: 091434

With strong trade winds blowing in some cold rain as I start my hike to the active lava flows of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, I am reminded of how most of my adventures have begun for the last 16 years. My past experiences have taught me that I like to initiate my hikes around 9pm. Most people who were there for the sunset have gone home and many times I have the place to myself.

The terrain at the lava flows is like no other place you will ever hike. Repeatedly you are going up and down 5-10 foot mounds of old razor sharp lava or making your way around them. Everything looks the same in the dark so it is very easy to lose your direction if you don’t know where you are going. Ocean entries are quite spectacular to view. For me, sunrise offers the best colors for active ocean entries. If you have never seen lava flowing into the ocean either over an old sea cliff or along a black sand beach, it should be on the top of your list for things to do when visiting the Big Island.

On several occasions I have had to cross over more then half a mile of extremely hot fresh lava flows to view some beautiful streams of lava cascading over the sea cliff. Nothing is going to stop you from moving in that situation since the soles of your hiking boots begin to melt off quickly. Often I explore the inland areas in search of skylights. Skylights are basically windows into the active lava tube feeding an ocean entry. Aptly named and easy to find in the dark since skylights project beams of light straight up into the night sky like a beacon beckoning. Extreme caution should always be taken when nearing a skylight! These are unstable areas that can be very dangerous to the inexperienced! My motto is “live to shoot another day”. If it feels dangerous, it probably is so, stay away.

Many times I venture to the higher elevations to map out a current flow and to look for signs of what’s to come. The activity at the higher elevations is always much more dramatic than down on the flats leading to the ocean. The terrain is steep and the tubes are much more developed allowing the lava to travel at far greater speeds. Breakouts occur more often and without warning moving quickly down the steep pali (cliffs). As with the skylights in the lower region, extreme caution should be exercised.

Very few people ever go to the higher elevations and again it is not recommended for the inexperienced. Over the years much of the forest have disappeared leaving a stark landscape. A few Kipuka’s (trees surrounded by lava) remain at the higher elevations. I have been fortunate and maybe even lucky enough to view everything from huge spectacular spattering cones to large rivers of red, hot lava.

When hiking at the lava flows, be sure to carry much more water than you are use to carrying. Multiple flashlights with at least one per person are also recommended. I use quality dive lights, as they are both waterproof and durable.

I moved to the Big Island in 1991 and since my first visit to the volcanoes, I have been hooked

For me the park is a geological wonder that I love to photograph; it is by far my favorite subject. The constant changes that offer only momentarily glimpses of what nature is capable of still fascinates me. For some it is a spiritual experience, for me it is a geological spectacle. I view it as a living art museum and nature is the artist and I am just lucky enough to be able to capture some of its images with my camera.

Please read and obey all posted signs and warnings when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Stay out of closed areas. They are closed for a reason.

Nothing you might see in a closed area is worth your life.