Mauna Loa

Sixty miles south of Maui, Hawaii, largest of the island group, contains the two remaining parts of our national park. From every point of view Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, both snow-crowned monsters approaching fourteen thousand feet of altitude, dominate the island. But Mauna Kea is not a part of the national park; Kilauea, of less than a third its height, shares that honor with Mauna Loa. TOf the two, Kilauea is much the older, and doubtless was a conspicuous figure in the old landscape. It has been largely absorbed in the immense swelling bulk of Mauna Loa, which, springing later from the island soil near by, no doubt diverting Kilauea’s vents far below sea-level, has sprawled over many miles. So nearly has the younger absorbed the older, that Kilauea’s famous pit of molten lava seems almost to lie upon Mauna Loa’s slope.

Mauna Loa soars 13,675 feet. Its snowy dome shares with Mauna Kea, which rises even higher, the summit honors of the islands. From Hilo, the principal port of the island of Hawaii, Mauna Loa suggests the back of a leviathan, its body hidden in the mists. The way up, through forests of ancient mahogany and tangles of giant tree-fern, then up many miles of lava slopes, is one of the inspiring tours in the mountain world. The summit crater, Mokuaweoweo, three-quarters of a mile long by a quarter mile wide, is as spectacular in action as that of Kilauea.

This enormous volcanic mass has grown of its own output in comparatively a short time. For many decades it has been extraordinarily frequent in eruption. Every five or ten years it gets into action with violence, sometimes at the summit, oftener of recent years since the central vent has lengthened, at weakened places on its sides. Few volcanoes have been so regularly and systematically studied.

The most spectacular exhibit of the Hawaii National Park is the lake of fire in the crater of Kilauea.

Kilauea is unusual among volcanoes. It follows few of the popular conceptions. Older than the towering Mauna Loa, its height is only four thousand feet.

Its lavas have found vents through its flanks, which they have broadened and flattened. Doubtless its own lavas have helped Mauna Loa’s to merge the two mountains into one. It is no longer explosive like the usual volcano; since 1790, when it destroyed a native army, it has ejected neither rocks nor ashes. Its crater is no longer definitely bowl-shaped. From the middle of a broad flat plain, which really is what is left of the ancient great crater, drops a pit with vertical sides within which boil its lavas.

The pit, the lake of fire, is Halemaumau, commonly translated “The House of Everlasting Fire”; the correct translation is “The House of the Maumau Fern,” whose leaf is twisted and contorted like some forms of lava. Two miles and a little more from Halemaumau, on a part of the ancient crater wall, stands the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, which is under the control of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The observatory was built for the special purpose of studying the pit of fire, the risings and fallings of whose lavas bear a relationship toward the volcanism of Mauna Loa which is scientifically important, but which we need not discuss here.

The traveller enters Hawaii by steamer through Hilo. He reaches the rim of Kilauea by automobile, an inspiring run of thirty-one miles over a road of volcanic glass, bordered with vegetation strange to eyes accustomed only to that of the temperate zone—brilliant hibiscus, native hardwood trees with feathery pompons for blossoms, and the giant ferns which tower overhead. TOn the rim are the hotels and the observatory. Steam-jets emerge at intervals, and hot sulphur banks exhibit rich yellows. From there the way descends to the floor of the crater and unrolls a ribbon of flower-bordered road seven miles long to the pit of fire. By trail, the distance is only two miles and a half across long stretches of hard lava congealed in ropes and ripples and strange contortions. Where else is a spectacle one-tenth as appalling so comfortably and. quickly reached ?

Halemaumau is an irregular pit a thousand feet long with perpendicular sides. Its depth varies. Sometimes one looks hundreds of feet down to the boiling surface; sometimes its lavas overrun the top. The fumes of sulphur are very strong, with the wind in your face. At these times, too, the air is extremely hot. There are cracks in the surrounding lava where you can scorch paper or cook a beefsteak.

Many have been the attempts to describe it. Not having seen it myself, I quote two here; one a careful picture by a close student of the spectacle, Mr. William R. Castle, Jr., of Honolulu; the other a rapid sketch by Mark Twain.

“By daylight,” writes Castle, “the lake of fire is a greenish-yellow, cut with ragged cracks of red that look like pale streaks of stationary lightning across its surface. It is restless, breathing rapidly, bubbling up at one point and sinking down in another; throwing up sudden fountains of scarlet molten lava that play a few minutes and subside, leaving shimmering mounds which gradually settle to the level surface of the lake, turning brown and yellow as they sink.

“But as the daylight fades the fires of the pit shine more brightly. Mauna Loa, behind, becomes a pale, gray-blue, insubstantial dome, and overhead stars begin to appear. As darkness comes the colors on the lake grow so intense that they almost hurt. The fire is not only red; it is blue and purple and orange and green. Blue flames shimmer and dart about the edges of the pit, back and forth across the surface of the restless mass. Sudden fountains paint blood-red the great plume of sulphur smoke that rises constantly, to drift away across the poisoned desert of Kau. Sometimes the spurts of lava are so violent, so exaggerated by the night, that one draws back terrified lest some atom of their molten substance should spatter over the edge of the precipice. Sometimes the whole lake is in motion. Waves of fire toss and battle with each other and dash in clouds of bright vermilion spray against the black sides of the pit. Some-times one of these sides falls in with a roar that echoes back and forth, and mighty rocks are swallowed in the liquid mass of fire that closes over them in a whirl-pool, like water over a sinking ship.

“Again everything is quiet, a thick scum forms over the surface of the lake, dead, like the scum on the surface of a lonely forest pool. Then it shivers. Flashes of fire dart from side to side. The centre bursts open and a huge fountain of lava twenty feet thick and fifty high, streams into the air and plays for several minutes, waves of blinding fire flowing out from it, dashing against the sides until the black rocks are starred all over with bits of scarlet. To the spectator there is, through it all, no sense of fear. So in-tense, so tremendous is the spectacle that silly little human feelings find no place. All sensations are sub-merged in a sense of awe.”

Mark Twain gazed into Halemaumau’s terrifying depths. “It looked,” he writes, “like a colossal railroad-map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it—imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire !

“Here and there were gleaming holes a hundred feet in diameter, broken in the dark crust, and in them the melted lava—the color a dazzling white just tinged with yellow—was boiling and surging furiously; and from these holes branched numberless bright torrents in many directions, like the spokes of a wheel, and kept a tolerably straight course for a while and then swept round in huge rainbow curves, or made a long succession of sharp worm-fence angles, which looked precisely like the fiercest jagged lightning. Those streams met other streams, and they mingled with and crossed and recrossed each other in every conceivable direction, like skate-tracks on a popular skating-ground. Some-times streams twenty or thirty feet wide flowed from the holes to some distance without dividing—and through the opera-glasses we could see that they ran down small, steep hills and were genuine cataracts of fire, white at their source, but soon cooling and turning to the richest red, grained with alternate lines of black and gold. Every now and then masses of the dark crust broke away and floated slowly down these streams like rafts down a river.

“Occasionally, the molten lava flowing under the superincumbent crust broke through—split a dazzling streak, from five hundred to a thousand feet long, like a sudden flash of lightning, and then acre after acre of the cold lava parted into fragments, turned up edge-wise like cakes of ice when a great river breaks up, plunged downward, and were swallowed in the crimson caldron. Then the wide expanse of the `thaw’ maintained a ruddy glow for a while, but shortly cooled and became black and level again. During a `thaw’ every dismembered cake was marked by a glittering white border which was superbly shaded inward by aurora borealis rays, which were a flaming yellow where they joined the white border, and from thence toward their points tapered into glowing crimson, then into a rich, pale carmine, and finally into a faint blush that held its own a moment and then dimmed and turned black. Some of the streams preferred to mingle together in a tangle of fantastic circles, and then they looked something like the confusion of ropes one sees on a ship’s deck when she has just taken in sail and dropped anchor—provided one can imagine those ropes on fire.

“Through the glasses, the little fountains scattered about looked very beautiful. They boiled, and coughed, and spluttered, and discharged sprays of stringy red fire of about the consistency of mush, for instance—from ten to fifteen feet into the air, along with a shower of brilliant white sparks—a quaint and unnatural mingling of gouts of blood and snowflakes.”

One can descend the sides and approach surprisingly close to the flaming surface, the temperature of which, by the way, is 1750 degrees Fahrenheit.

Such is “The House of Everlasting Fire” today. But who can say what it will be a year or a decade hence? A clogging or a shifting of the vents below sea-level, and Kilauea’s lake of fire may become again explosive. Who will deny that Kilauea may not soar even above Mauna Loa? Stranger things have happened before this in the Islands of Surprise.