Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Viewing volcanoes from the air on Hawaii's Big Island

I'm an admitted National Park geek, so on a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, that was a must-see destination.

Since we’re staying on the drier western coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, we must drive across the island to Hilo for our tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with Paradise Helicopters. When we leave, the topography along Hwy 19 is barren—a black lava landscape with occasional sprouts of brown fountain grass waving in the breeze.  
Red-hot lava deep in the crater
As the elevation increases from sea level to 2,000 feet, irrigated lawns and blossoming hibiscus are more common, although they look out of place still.  Eventually green hills line the background beyond the lava fields; and the landscape changes to palm trees, verdant valleys, even forested areas as we near the wetter eastern coast of the island.
Steam rises from the churning lava pits
We arrive at the Hilo International Airport and check in for our 11:30 tour. Maybe we’re crazy, but we choose the open door tour—50 minutes of flying above active volcanoes strapped into a whirling helicopter. with no doors to contain our bodies. We’re given waist-pack life jackets (thanks!) and earphones for communicating with the pilot and each other.
Another couple will fly with us, so passengers are loaded according to size. Being the smallest I’m directed to the center seat in front. The views are good, but I’m squished between the pilot and Larry, whose only constraint is a five-point harness. Needless to say, he holds on tightly to his camera.
No obstructions for Larry's photos

As we ascend to 2500 feet, we see fiery red lava spewing out of several holes in the ground. Flying over the countryside we see towns below and tall trees planted for wind protection.

Our pilot tells us that Hilo gets 196 inches of rain a year, while Mountain View—only five miles away—gets 298 inches of rain annually. That’s an incredible 100 inches difference in a very short space, but it explains the lush vegetation of the region.
Waterfalls flow into the river creating beautiful but
dangerous conditions for swimmers.
Around the volcanoes the landscape is steel gray, rocky, and pock-marked from previous explosions. In other places lava on the ground is layered like slabs of slate. After the eruption of 1969 blasted away the remaining road, everyone had to be evacuated from the steamy “shield” volcanoes. We marvel at all this from our bird's eye vantage point.

The helicopter that took us over the lava fields
A helicopter ride is an excellent way to see volcanic action in real time as well as remains from older lava flows. However, the rocky, desolate moon-like landscape changes as the Wailoa River and Wailuku River wind through state parks near Hilo.  From the helicopter, the contrast is vast, but it’s easy to understand the amazing attraction of opposites--fire and water--for visitors and locals.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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