In May 2017, we hiked over Kilauea’s eastern slopes to intercept the 61G lava flow. The flow, which issued from the Pu’u O’o vent, had been showing stunning displays of activity for several months. Out of my many visits to Kilauea, this would be the first time that we would get to experience an active lava flow, and all the sights, sounds, and smells that came with it. I knew what molten lava looked and sounded like from the thousands of videos I had watched over the years. But I was curious— what does molten lava smell like?
We met a group of friends at the bottom of Chain of Craters Road before the sun had risen. The ocean crashed against the lava cliffs to our east and a swath of stars stretched out in a band overhead. Making sure we each had plenty of water, food, and sunscreen in our packs, we set out in the dark. Only our headlamps and the red rivers of lava cascading down the pali, six miles away, lit our path.
A low mist hovered over the calm waters of Lake Florissant. The sun rose higher in the sky, bathing the world in gold light. Shorebirds crooned as they stretched their wings and splashed in the reeds. Fish bobbed to the lake’s surface, snatching water bugs off of the surface for breakfast. An opossum scurried through the underbrush. Redwood trees towered over two hundred feet into the air; their green leaves seemed to scrape the turquoise sky. Steam curled from the volcanic peaks that rimmed the valley. But the early morning calm would be shattered when the earth exploded with volcanic chaos. Thick ash blanketed Lake Florissant and raging lahars finished the job. This eruption—one of many in central Colorado—would create and preserve the monument we now know as Florissant Fossil Beds.
There is something inspiring about a sunrise. The golden rays herald in a new day full of hopes and adventures. No two sunrises are ever the same. Watching the golden sunrise over Haleakala’s expansive crater was a sight unlike any other. As the sun rose higher into the eastern sky and began to burn off the clouds that had settled in the crater, the spirit of adventure set in and we were anxious to explore more of Maui’s biggest volcano: Haleakala.
The night is as black as pitch as we tiptoe out of our condo and start the car. Stars glitter in the darkness overhead and the arm of the Milky Way stretches from one side of the island of Maui to the other. The silhouette of Haleakala volcano, a shadow in the night, towers 10,000 feet above us.
We navigate through towns that are dark and still at two in the morning. Catching Route 378, we begin the slow drive up the side of the volcano. A cow, roaming free, appears in the headlights and then vanishes just as quickly. A pu’eo swoops down and snatches something off of the highway and flies away into the dark. The narrow beam of our headlights gives us hints at our surroundings, but we can see nothing.
Since it’s Nothing to Fear Day, I’ll answer one of my most frequently asked questions: “What is the most scared you’ve ever been while out volcano hopping?” 😱
While there’s always a risk with volcanoes, I’m constantly keeping my eyes and ears open. And I never turn my back on the lava. To this point, I’ve never been really afraid on a volcano. Do I have a healthy respect for them? Absolutely! And nothing gets your heart pounding more than looking down and seeing a river of lava running a couple feet beneath your boots when you didn’t exactly expect it to be there.
Mount St. Helens is one of the most fiesty volcanoes on the planet. It is certainly one of the most active volcanoes in the United States. Situated in Washington’s Cascade Range, this stratovolcano is known for its explosive and frequent eruptions. Mount St. Helens has produced lava flows, towering lava domes, and erupted roiling ash clouds and pyroclastic density currents. Out of all of Mount St. Helens’ eruptions, one event in particular has branded itself into our memories: the eruption on May 18, 1980.
May 18, 1980
It was a quiet and sunny Sunday morning in Washington. Birds were singing in the thick forest and trout were splashing in the Toutle River. Elk roamed through the underbrush. And Mount St. Helens conical peak dominated the landscape.
Since March 1980, frequent earthquakes had rattled the volcano and surrounding landscape. Several small eruptions of gas and ash had occurred at the summit in recent weeks. More startling was the way Mount St. Helens had begun to deform. A tremendous bulge had formed under the north slope of the mountain in a matter of weeks.
Scientists and local government officials had never seen anything quiet like it. They understood that Mount St. Helens was active, but the last eruption had been in 1857. No one alive had witnessed the potential power behind the volcano. They frantically studied the mountain and try to predict what type of eruption the volcano would produce – and when.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the May 18, 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens. Just a few months shy of the anniversary, we climbed the volcano to check out the views from Mount St. Helens’ summit. We could clearly see and smell the steaming lava dome, witnessed rockfalls…