Red rivers run through it: Lava flows on, under volcano park

Hawaii bureau chief Doug Oakley made the trek to see volcano lava up close at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. His report follows:

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Big Island -- It's hot out here, 2,000 degrees hot, where the lava snakes around in glowing red rivulets, going anywhere it darn well pleases.

It's been moving along at a crawl for about seven miles, ever since it came out of a vent on Kilauea Volcano called Puu Oo. Now it's ready to pour into the sea and die a quick death.

The birth and death of red hot lava at Hawaii Volcanos National Park does not go unnoticed. Hundreds of people come out each day and make the grueling trek over old lava fields to see it.

When you finally reach the area after hiking four miles, there is lava everywhere, oozing along on top of the ground; down in the cracks of new earth, you can see it moving underneath you. If you stay in one place for too long, your shoes may begin to melt.

Ever since I moved to Honolulu a year ago, I wanted to see lava.

So with visiting friends in town, we set off for Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Lava pour's out of a crusty bulge that minutes before appeared to be a fully cooled formation. Hilo has its own airport and is a 45-minute flight from Honolulu.

An hour from Hilo and we were there. We had cameras, two liters of water each, flashlights, extra batteries, food and determination.

Sometimes the lava is just a stone's throw from the parking area at the end of the Chain of Craters Road.

"If you write something on this," park ranger Ruth Levin told me, gesturing to the vast expanse of smoky blackness, "try to emphasize how incredibly dynamic this place is. We like to say the volcano goes where she wants to go."

Levin said the lava has been so close to the end of the road that "we've had wheelchair-accessible lava out here, and sometimes it's five miles away."

Levin urged people to "talk to a ranger at length about what's involved before you set out."

Walking out to see lava is no easy task, although plenty of people were doing it, and the park service does not recommend it, even though rangers will sell you water and flashlights if you are, in fact, determined.

The park service has a small shack at the end of the road where its personnel hand out brochures and warnings.

They will tell you that volcanic fumes containing hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide are a danger, as are steam explosions where the lava hits the sea water; methane gas explosions where the lava flows over plants, and unstable land that falls into the sea.

In 1993, one person was killed when the land abutting the ocean collapsed; 12 others were injured. In 1996, a 27-acre piece of land tumbled into the ocean; no one was hurt.

The best time to see the lava is at night, which is also the time when you have the best chance of hurting yourself on the razor-sharp rocks.

Two in our party fell and cut themselves. They bled, but they lived.

If you set out a couple of hours before dark you will get there at sunset, watch the lava for a couple of hours in the dark, then walk back.

There is no trail to follow, just the coastline and a giant steam plume in the distance where the lava meets the water.

In the day, the lava looks like hot, reddish mud. But when it gets dark, you begin to notice that all around you there are streaks of red in the cracks under your feet.

A half-hour ago, when it was still light out, you thought you were on cooled, hard ground. But now that you realize it's flowing under you, too, you know you're not really on stable ground.

If you are adventurous enough to venture out to the edge of the cliff in the dark, you can see the red fountains streaming into the ocean.

Despite the danger, this is the best place to see lava flowing into the sea. The meeting of lava and sea is a powerful vision, a sort of cataclysmic struggle that the sea eventually wins.

It suggested to me that the earth has an intelligence all its own.

This was one of the best adventures of my life. It ranks right up there with a ride through the Guatemala countryside on the top of a school bus, and surviving a surf down the face of a 30-foot wave on the north shore of Oahu.

After a while, though, standing around next to 2,000-degree lava gets hot, and it's time to go back to the car -- in the dark.

An unexpected pleasure on the way back -- which was a torture test in itself because of the uneven terrain and the length of the walk -- was the stars.

They are so bright they provide their own light despite the moon.

Then we saw it.

I had always heard about the Southern Cross but had never seen it.

There it was, up there with the Big Dipper and the North Star.

After seeing the lava and the Southern Cross and considering it all, I stopped, turned off my flashlight and told myself, "This is it."

For eruption information, call the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at (808) 985-6000.

The Web address is www.nps.gov/havo.

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