Don’t mind me. Just testing some web dev stuff!
This past weekend I hiked from Bear Lake to Grand Lake (18.2 miles) in Rocky Mountain National Park with my friends Jay and Torgun. The hike starts at the Bear Lake trailhead, climbs over the summit of Flattop Mountain (the continental divide) and then gradually descends into the Grand Lake area. We stared at about 6:40 AM and finally made it into the middle of town in Grand Lake at 4:30 PM. Doing this hike in the direction we did (east to west) means that only the first 4 miles are strenuous uphill. The rest of it is mostly gradual downhill. There weren’t any super steep, knee pounding, downhill sections.
We enjoyed seeing wildflowers, numerous pikas and marmots, big horn sheep, a moose, what we think was a ferret, and some droppings that I insist were from a bear (full of berries). Although 18 miles in one day was tough, it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. It wasn’t until the last 4 miles or so that my body really started complaining. Overall, it was a great hike and a good way to see some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that very few people ever see.
On my recent trip to Hawai’i, my brother and I stopped off on The Big Island for a few days to explore Volcanoes National Park. Our goal was to photograph flowing lava up close. Since Kilauea is so unpredictable, it’s impossible to know where lava flows will be during your trip or if there will be any at all. One relatively consistent area for lava viewing is the coast line near Kalapana where lava flows from the Pu`u`O`o vent of Kilauea into the ocean. The reaction of 2000 degree lava with sea water is an impressive sight, creating a huge, glowing steam plume that rises into the air. Unfortunately the designated viewing area for the ocean entry is over 2 miles away. If you were to hike all the way out to the ocean entry, you would not only risk a $10,000 fine, but your life as well. The lava is constantly expanding the coast of the Big Island, but the newly created land is extremely unstable and frequently falls off into the water. Many people have been injured and even killed from walking out on the lava bench.
Another option for getting a front row seat to the lava ocean entry point is to sign up for a lava boat tour. Several companies launch boats from Pahoa and take you to within 20-30 feet of the lava…yes, that’s right, 20-30 feet! It was exactly what my brother and I were looking for, so before we left for Hawaii, we booked a sunrise lava boat tour with Lava Ocean Adventures.
Once we arrived at Volcanoes National Park, we stopped by the visitor center to see what Kilauea was up to. We mentioned to the park ranger on duty that we were doing a lava boat tour the next morning. The look that came over his face immediately made it clear that the lava boat “industry” was a major thorn in the side of the National Park Service. He launched into a diatribe about how insanely dangerous it was to be on a boat near the ocean entry. He carefully outlined all of the dangers, including being gassed by the steam cloud which is made up of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, falling off the boat into near boiling water, and being blown to bits by tephra blasts that are powerful enough to toss boulder-sized rocks 30 feet in the air. Perhaps even more scary than those immediate threats was the possibility we could inhale microscopic glass fragments that are aerosolized in the violent reaction of lava entering water. The long term health risks are similar to breathing asbestos.
Needless to say, I was more than a little worried. I spent much of the evening on my iPhone researching the dangers the park ranger mentioned, but I was unable to find any solid evidence that the situation was as grim as he described. We decided to go through with the boat tour and obviously survived the immediate dangers. To mitigate the glass fragment issue, I tightly tied a folded shirt over my nose and mouth. When the boat went near the steam cloud, I held my breath and closed my eyes. Of course, I was the only person on the boat doing this. The captain and crew who have done these tours multiple times a day for twenty years didn’t bat an eye.
The experience was really quite fun. Being close enough to feel the heat of the lava on my face was thrilling and surreal. Photographically, it was nearly impossible to get any meaningful shots. It was very dark and the boat was constantly being thrown around in the choppy water. The autofocus system on my Nikon D300 was totally confused and most of my shots turned out as abstract blurs–even at f/2.8 and ISO 800. Everyone else on the boat with little point and shoot cameras gave up taking pictures early on. The lava boat crew will tell you to bring a wide-angle lens because they get you so close, but you absolutely need a fast telephoto. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is about as good a lens as you could have for this.
Was it dangerous? Yes, I’m sure it was, although it didn’t seem like it. There were no major explosions during our tour but we did see a partial lava bench collapse (see photo directly above). Unfortunately, it may only be a matter of time until a lava boat tragedy occurs. The collision of lava and sea water is just too unpredictable. Things DO blow up out there. As for the environmental hazards, this report and a few others on the internet suggest that the park ranger we spoke to may have been exaggerating the danger a little. That’s fine, it’s his job to protect people. There’s no doubt that those toxins exist out there, but there is conflicting information about how high the concentrations actually are.
I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to see lava and what level of risk you’re comfortable with. For me, the lava boat tour was at the upper limit of what I’m willing to do for a photo. I’m very glad that I went and I had a great time though. I think what’s most important in these situations is to get all the information you can–carefully weigh the risks, and especially pay attention to your inner voice. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, speak up. You could always go drink Mai Tais on the beach–just don’t forget your sunscreen. UV rays cause skin cancer you know.