Some Scary Statistics

Some dogs don’t let go.

On this, the day before Halloween, I wanted to write something scary. A ghost story. A campfire story that would give all the kiddies a shiver. Fun scary, not scary scary. You get the idea.

But the very moment I had that thought, an article popped up on my computer screen entitled, 2 Children Killed, Mother Hospitalized After Family Pit Bulls Attack Them Outside Tennessee Home. And I realized that this was a topic that is scary/important.

I know this post will ruffle feathers, so I wanted to start off by saying that I love dogs. I really do. I always have. But love brings with it a certain responsibility, and in order to make responsible decisions, one must have information. And all the information I’m providing below can be found if you read all of the links I provide. So here goes.

There are an estimated 90 million pet dogs in America, and they gift us with 4.5 million bites per year. While it’s true that “only” 40-50 Americans die each year from dog attacks, 26% of those fatalities fall in the 0 to 2-year old age range. These children never had a say in what dangers they would be exposed to. And it’s noteworthy that 77% of all maulings come from the family dog or a dog known to the victim.

Between 1982 and 2021, 931 people have been killed by dogs in the U.S. and Canada.

Still, when you consider that we’re talking 90 million dogs in America today, the odds of getting killed by one are startlingly small, almost to the point of insignificance. Unless, of course, you are a victim.

A responsible pet owner makes sure that her/his/their dog, regardless of its temperament, is not put in a position where harming someone is even a possibility. Dogs should be adequately trained, not allowed to roam free, not neglected or abused, and, whenever possible, kept away from situations that might trigger aggression or any type of startle response.

Now, here’s where I get controversial. Let’s delve into pit bulls specifically. I know several people who absolutely love pit bulls, and swear that their dogs are gentle and loving companions that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Yes, the odds are in their favor that this will remain the case. Statistically, it’s true that we humans are 21 times more likely to be killed by a mosquito than we are to be killed by a dog of any breed.

But.

Choosing a pet should be more than just an emotional decision. Yes, I’m willing to concede that pit bull puppies are about as cute as they come. But you are about to allow a creature into your world who, once large enough, is physically capable of killing you or someone you love. (And bear in mind, two 6-month-old pit bull puppies once killed a 7-year-old boy.) Fortunately, most dogs would never make that choice. But it’s something to think about, especially if you have children or other pets.

When choosing a dog, you should consider the disposition of the breed in question. Pit bulls were not bred to be “nanny dogs” as some would have you believe. This article explains the long and complicated history of pit bulls, but the bottom line is that they were originally bred for bull baiting. When that became illegal, they were used in illegal dog fighting. Aggression is what people were seeking when they bred these dogs, and I guarantee that as you read this, pit bulls are fighting in rings all over the world.

A horrific side effect of the history of the aggressive manipulation of this breed is that pit bulls are still the most abused dogs on earth. That certainly doesn’t do anything to improve their disposition, and given that one survey indicates that 41% percent of animal rescue staff would lie about a pit bull’s personal aggressive history in order to find him or her a home, in this instance I would actively discourage dog rescue with regard to pit bulls. There are so many other rescue dogs out there who need your love and attention. I hope you’ll turn your eyes to them.

Pit bulls have a bite force of 235 PSI (pounds of force per square inch). That is similar to a lot of industrial machines that most parents would never let their children play around. There are actually many breeds with a stronger bite force, but pit bulls combine their bite force with an extreme level of tenacity. Some dogs just don’t let go.

Contrary to the persistent myth, a pit bull’s jaws don’t lock. It isn’t that they can’t let go, it’s that they won’t let go once they’re in frenzied attack mode. And to me, that’s even scarier.

When getting a pet, one’s first concern should be public safety, which, of course, includes the safety of you, your loved ones, your friends, and your neighbors. This is why the vast majority of us don’t have lions or tigers or bears curled up on our living room couches. It’s just a bad idea.

So, set aside emotions when making your choice. Look at cold, hard, statistics. They don’t lie. They don’t have an opinion. And below is some pit bull information that I found extremely easy to obtain. I’ll start with the most incontrovertible truth, and the statistic that would be all I’d need to know, personally, in order to give a pit bull a pass:

In the past 16 years, from 2005 to 2020, pit bulls have been responsible for 67%, or 380 dog bite fatalities, in America.

The next most deadly breed is the rottweiler, and they are responsible for 9%, or 51 bite fatalities. All other breeds pale in comparison to those two.

That, to me, is scary. But I hope it doesn’t scare you off dogs in general. The truth is, you have a 1 in 73 chance of getting bit by a dog in the US, and your odds of dying from a dog bite are 1 in 118,776. That’s not bad at all, actually. But from a logical standpoint, you might want to avoid the possibility of greatly improving your chances of being bitten or killed by avoiding the breed that does most of that biting and killing.

Even the Pitbull Federation of South Africa, an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the American Pit Bull Terrier in South Africa, an organization that always wishes to portray the breed in a positive light, is realistic about these dogs. They strongly encourage sterilization, and in a public statement, they stressed that they feel that, unfortunately, “99% of pit bull terrier owners should not own a pit bull and that these dogs are owned not because the breed is loved by their owners but because of the standing owning this breed gives the owners in society.”

If you want to read a very detailed statistical breakdown of North America’s scariest encounters with man’s best friend, which includes 9 pages of horrific descriptions of some of the more unusual encounters, I urge you to download this report. Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, September 1982 to December 31, 2021.

In an effort to give you balanced information on this subject, I spent hours looking at several sources, but I tend to rely more on those that provide actual statistical evidence. One such source, which spells out the rarity of dog bite fatalities, but also makes clear the risk factors involved, is the National Canine Research Association of America. They also put out a simple flyer that spells out the most salient points: 15 Year U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Chart – 2005 to 2019

If, after reading all the statistics, you’re still on the fence about pit bulls, then I strongly encourage you to read the many articles listed on a page entitled Voices of pit bull experience. And then, if that isn’t gut-wrenching enough for you, check out this article, entitled Pit bull “nanny dogs” kill three children, two adults, in nine days.

You’re probably wondering if I’m saying you should have your pit bull euthanized if you already own one. I know what it’s like to love a dog. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and my answer would be no, but with a few caveats.

If your dog has displayed worrying signs of aggression, then, sorry, yes, it should be put down. If you have small children, even if your dog has displayed no aggression, your dog should not be allowed around those children unless it is completely under your physical control and supervision. If you are unwilling or unable to provide a pit bull with the continual training and socialization it requires, or if you are not doing everything possible to ensure that your dog isn’t running the streets unsupervised, or if you are neglecting or abusing that dog in any way, then at a bare minimum, your dog should be taken in by someone who is willing to step up to the increased responsibilities that this breed demands.

Keeping your pit bull is potentially a life and death decision. I encourage you to check your emotions at the door and ask yourself if you are doing everything you need to do to ensure the safety of those around you. If you can say yes to that without hesitation, then go for it, but please reassess frequently to make sure you are not becoming complacent.

The biggest takeaway from this post, I suppose, it that, when it comes time to adopt your next dog, I hope you’ll consider all the other breeds out there who need your love and care, and choose one of those. Why throw the potential kill factor into the mix? Pit bulls just aren’t worth the risk.

In the interests of full disclosure, I currently have two dogs. Nelly is a mixed breed old couch potato who leaves the room when anyone approaches. Quagmire, the dachshund, can be aggressive. I discovered that when he bit a neighbor. (And I did the right thing and paid her doctors bills. I also make sure that my pets have all the necessary inoculations to prevent the spread of disease.)

Quagmire has also bitten me and Dear Husband more than once. Usually blood isn’t involved, but not always. I’m not going to lie. It does hurt.

Some people have encouraged me to euthanize Quagmire because of this. Instead, I choose to take the occasional risk, knowing that dachshunds have one of the weakest bite forces of any breed. In addition, Quagmire is an old, 15-pound dog who is missing more than half his teeth, and is therefore not capable of killing us.

However, it’s my responsibility to make sure he can never bite a visitor again. We keep him in our house. We don’t take him to public places. Our back yard is completely and utterly dog-proofed. And if we do have visitors, we have a soft muzzle on hand that we can put on him, which basically causes him to stand still and stare balefully at us.

Quagmire will never kill anyone. And he’ll never hurt anyone who hasn’t volunteered for such treatment (and that’s a short list). I feel we’ve done our due diligence.

In contrast, in the course of my life, I’ve been lunged at by several pit bulls whose owners were walking them on leash on busy urban sidewalks, and I’m sure those owners think that their dogs wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s not responsible pet ownership.

But one pit bull encounter, in particular, stands out for me. I was in a convenience store, prepaying for gas. There was a van parked right at the front door, and I had to walk past it to get to the pump. I wasn’t paying much attention. I certainly didn’t hear any barking. There was no one in the driver’s seat, and the window was wide open. As I walked past, a pit bull came through that window and lunged at my face. I saw it all in slow motion. I felt his hot breath on my eyelashes. I was able to jump out of the way in time, but it was a near thing. I could have been disfigured for life.

And here’s the kicker: the pit bull owner came running out of the store and started yelling at me.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

Rest in Play, Eclipse

She was love and kindness, dog-ified.

The citizens of Seattle are a little bit more sad today, because our beloved, internationally known, solo bus riding dog has passed away. According to this article, she had cancer and died in her sleep. She was only 10 years old.

I never met Eclipse personally, but as I note in my post entitled One More Thing to Love About Seattle, she was one of the many things that made me really happy to call this area home when I first got here. And this article in NPR entitled, Eclipse the dog, known for riding the bus alone to the dog park, has died tells you everything you need to know about how beloved she was. It includes a twitter post with hundreds of comments by those who will mourn her loss, as well as a delightful YouTube video that was made by King Country Metro about her, which I’ll post below.

Eclipse showed us all that some things transcend species, require no language, and will always make the world a better place. Those things are love and kindness. Thank you, Eclipse, for teaching us all. Since you always had your bus pass on your collar, I’m sure there was a bus waiting to take you to the Rainbow Bridge in style.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

The Angry Asteroid

Imagine you’re an asteroid, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam!

All things astronomical tend to intrigue me. I find nothing more comforting than looking up at the night sky and realizing that all my cares and concerns don’t even amount to a grain of sand on the celestial beach. I also enjoy the fact that there is still so much to learn about our universe. For me, as long as there is the potential for knowledge, life is worth living.

So imagine my joy when I learned that NASA was once again attempting something that had never been done before, and we’d be able to get an unprecedented view of their efforts. They were experimenting, for the first time, with a type of planetary defense system that, if successful, might one day save us from Armageddon in the form of an asteroid impact.

DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test was, in essence, a suicide mission for this unmanned craft. The scientists wanted to see if crashing DART into an asteroid at the speed of 14,000 miles per hour would alter said asteroid’s trajectory in any significant way.

This was an impressive feat indeed, because at the time of impact the asteroid Dimorphos was roughly 6.8 million miles away from earth. And we managed to pull off a direct hit. Granted, they were able to make a few course corrections along the way, but still, what are the odds of that?

One of the reasons for course corrections is the fact that we couldn’t even see Dimorphos until we were about an hour away from impact. Didymos, the much larger asteroid that Dimorphos orbits, was too bright to allow us to discern its little companion. It was only discovered because of radar echoes and optical light curve analysis.

To make sizes and distances more comprehensible, I asked NASA for a simile back on October 1st (really, I did), but they have yet to get back to me. If they ever do, I’ll be sure to update this post. Meanwhile, I did a little sloppy math and came up with this simile for you:

DART hitting Dimorphos at that distance and speed would be like me standing in Melbourne, Australia and throwing a walnut at a dodgeball in Odessa, Ukraine. And that walnut would have to go 18 miles per hour for a little over three weeks before its fateful crash.

Course corrections notwithstanding, that’s hardly a piece of cake. The fact that I was always last to be picked for any sports activity throughout my years in school will tell you just how improbable my success in that endeavor would be. The idea that anyone could pull off such a caper blows my mind.

I was relieved to see that it was a kinetic impact, not some sort of a bomb, like they would use to save the day in the movies. First of all, since there’d be no atmosphere, the force of an explosion would dissipate into space rather than blowing the thing to smithereens. (Think path of least resistance.) And I’d rather not launch nuclear bombs from earth, for fear that there’d be some malfunction during liftoff that we’d be regretting for centuries. And who knows what impact nuclear waste would have in space.

When I saw this footage, the impact looked like everything Hollywood tries to achieve with nuclear warheads. It was spectacular. I must confess that, while still intact, Dimorphos looked to me like a chocolate ball crusted in chopped nuts. It looked delicious.

There will probably be months of analysis before we know how effective the impact was. Apparently NASA had no idea what Dimorphos was going to look like, and the impact was bigger than they expected. Those unknowns kind of make me nervous. That inspires me to take you on a flight of fancy away from my science-loving brain and crash us right into my fiction-loving brain. Conspiracy theories are bound to follow, but remember, you heard it here first:

If we never actually saw the thing we planned to crash into until an hour previously, and the resulting impact was larger than expected, do we actually know what we have done? Yes, NASA chose an asteroid that has no chance of hitting earth, but, what if it was a living thing, minding its own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam! Or what if the Little Prince was living there? Oh, the humanity!

Either way, somebody would be pretty darned annoyed. I know that if something intentionally crashed into me or into my home, I’d be irritated and want answers. I’d be taking off my earrings, preparing to throw down.

So we better keep an eye on Dimorphos. If it suddenly goes out of orbit and starts making a beeline toward Earth, we might be in trouble, because hell hath no fury like an asteroid scorned. Or maybe its anger would have dissipated before it got here, and it would therefore just drop a shower of chocolate balls on us. You have to admit that both theories are equally plausible.

Sources:

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Climate Change: Are We Finished Being Selfish Yet?

It’s time to wake up.

I started writing posts about climate change back in 2013. I’m sure I would have written about it sooner, but I only started blogging back in December, 2012. All my posts on the subject back then seemed dire and anxious and urgent.

The good news is that I no longer feel like I’m the only one who is concerned. According to this article, the number of Americans who are alarmed about climate change has more than doubled since back then. And this article from Newsweek says that now only 10 percent of us are non-believers. The bad news is that we’re still not doing enough to stop it. In fact, many scientists believe we’re past the point of being able to do so. But we’re not even doing enough to slow it down. Frustration is mounting, yet political inaction still rules the day. There’s just too much profit still to be had from fossil fuels. To hell with the fact that we’re killing our grandchildren.

Today I read an article that broke my heart. Entitled, “The least-visited country in the world may be the first to disappear”, it discusses the tiny country of Tuvalu, nestled halfway between Australia and Hawaii. At this point, it doesn’t really stand a chance. And it’s the fault of humanity. Can you imagine having your country washed away? Can you imagine intentionally making that happen? Well, mission accomplished. We are doing this.

If you really want your heart broken, read this speech that the Prime Minister of Tuvalu gave to the United Nations back in 2007. He is all but begging them to prevent his nation, language, and unique culture from dying. And yet we did nothing. And here we are.

I know that people prefer not to dwell on bad news. I know it is so much easier if this is someone else’s problem to solve. But this is everyone’s problem now. It’s just that some of us will be treading water sooner than others, and the rest of us will be fighting for a foothold on our ever-shrinking, sun-blasted land masses. Shame on us.

For a basic primer on climate change, read my blog post from 2013 entitled Climate Change: Points to Ponder. The most discouraging thing about that post is that every single ponderous point has been proven to be true. Nealy 10 years later, I stand by every word.

It’s time to wake up.

Day Trip to Alpine Land

The next best thing to Switzerland.

One of the things I love most about living in Washington State is that it has such a wide variety of ecosystems. Just a few hours travel from your home in any direction will most certainly take you to a different world entirely. The state boasts prairies, wetlands, estuaries, rainforests, shrubsteppe, marine waters, scablands and grasslands.

On any given day trip you can go from sea level to glaciers, from canyons to mountains, from lowlands to foothills to plateaus. To me it feels like foreign travel without the need for a passport or a frustrating TSA encounter. Sign me up.

This year, on our 4th wedding anniversary, Dear Husband and I decided to go to Switzerland. Unfortunately, we only had a day. So we hopped in the car and headed for Mt. Rainier National Park. You can’t get any more alpine than that without leaving the Pacific Northwest.

En route, we passed through the charming towns of Black Diamond and Enumclaw.

As the name suggests, Black Diamond used to be coal mine central. A real mining and railroad type town. Now it’s becoming the fastest growing bedroom community for the Seattle Metropolitan Area, but it’s still charming. You know you’ve arrived when you see the old coal car on the side of the road.

Enumclaw still hosts lots of farms and lots of cows. (Sadly, the cows weren’t wearing those delightful bells around their necks, but you can’t have everything.) It’s on a flat plateau due to a mudflow from Mt. Rainier that happened about 5,700 years ago. The rest of the area is mountainous. So Enumclaw is a perfect place for farming. Their main crop used to be hops, but now it’s dairy. And a trip down Enumclaw’s main street will transport you back in time.

Dear Husband was kind enough to take us on a little side trip to the Enumclaw Public Library, where my book used to be housed. I went there with the anticipation of visiting that old friend (and perhaps sneaking an autograph in while no one was looking), but sadly, the shelf it would have occupied did not produce results. That’s a pity, because it would have been in good company. A second look at the King County Library System’s online catalog revealed that my book is now only in Renton and Burien. I’ve visited the one in Renton multiple times (to pull it slightly out on the shelf to make it more noticeable), but I have yet to visit the one in Burien.

I know. I’m easily entertained.

Right by the library, Enumclaw also has a gigantic statue of two oxen being led by a man, and the oxen are dragging a gigantic log about the size of a trailer.

The caption in front of it says:

THE LOGGING LEGACY

Tough Courageous and Larger Than Life. This monument is dedicated to the people whose courage and hard work built the foundation for our community, creating economic opportunity for our State and region. With this memorial, we seek to honor the over 8000 dead and the 65000 injured logging this plateau and these mountains. Though rarely glorified in their work, these men embodied the physical toughness and mental resolve that has become synonymous with the pioneers of the West. This is our Logging Legacy.

It’s one of the most impressive statues I’ve seen in many a day.

From there, we went to Greenwater, Washington, and stopped at a store called Wapiti Woolies, and had some ice cream. Two thumbs up. And the building itself really reminds you that you are in an alpine region.

Next Stop was the Mt. Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain. This is a skiing mecca in the wintertime, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves. And the gondola is so much fun! It takes you up 2,400 feet to the summit, where you have a stunning view of Mt. Rainier, and, when the weather’s right, you can also see another Washington Volcano in the distance: that of Mt. Adams. If you do decide to brave the gondola, bring layers of clothing. It was a good 30 degrees colder up there, and I’m sure it is even worse in the winter. And the wind will try to blow you back down into the valley. The gondola’s steep ascent didn’t bother me, oddly enough. But the descent had me digging my fingernails into Dear Husband’s arm. It was still worth it for the views. What an adventure!

Next we went to Paradise. That’s one of the primary gathering places in Mt. Rainier National Park. Sadly, we got there after the visitor center was closed, but we enjoyed walking around outside, soaking up all things alpine, including some amazing wildflowers. And then we went to Sunrise, on (of course) the eastern side of the mountain. We were almost there for sunset, ironically enough, but we decided that we didn’t want to go down that narrow switchback road at night.

We made it out of the switchbacks before dark, and were treated to this awesome sunset.

When we drove back through Enumclaw, we pulled over in a place with no city lights, opened the sun roof, and gazed at the stars. We even saw two satellites speeding by. Then we went home to our dogs. It was the perfect way to end the day, and an amazing anniversary, indeed. I have no idea how I got so lucky, but I assure you that I’ll never take it for granted.

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Hawaii: The End of the Road

I can’t believe I’m only just now writing my last post about a vacation that ended in early May of this year, but Hawaii is amazing and fascinating and intriguing, and there was much to tell. I think, more than any other trip, these islands have transformed me. It’s hard to let go. Saying goodbye is bittersweet. It’s like dropping someone off at the airport whom you love very much, and not knowing when, if ever, you’ll see them again.

Okay, keep it together, Barb. Sniffle.

I’ve mentioned before that Hawaii itself almost feels like a living organism to me. It breathes fire, it grows, it shrinks, it’s alive with creatures that are not found anywhere else. I’ve never felt like that about any other place. I firmly believe that these islands would thrive if only we humans would get out of their way. And yet we can’t resist them.

A recurring theme for us on this trip was arrivals and departures, and beginnings and endings. That experience, too, is unlike any other I’ve had. It was almost as if the islands were trying to speak to me.

One of the things I’ve yet to blog about was the first day of our vacation. That’s because it was not the note I wanted to begin on. It was too surreal and upsetting. I needed time to digest it.

I had been wanting to go to Hawaii my whole life long, so I was really excited about the day we were to fly there. It was a dream come true. I had been anticipating this flight for many months. When I woke up that morning, it felt as though a million Hawaiian butterflies were fluttering inside a me.

We were, of course, late leaving the house. (That, too, is a theme.) But we weren’t so late that it was giving me cause for concern. We live very close to the airport.

We got there and checked our carry on luggage without incident. But the line for TSA screening was obscenely long. We were told to go to the other security gate for faster service, but when we got there, if anything, that line was longer and the staff there were redirecting people to the security gate we had just left. Now I was getting nervous.

At one point, Dear Husband and I clearly heard the customer service agent tell us that we’d be departing from gate 15. DH knows this airport well, so I kind of checked out due to my anxiety, and let him take the lead. This is the first time in my entire life when traveling by plane that I didn’t confirm the gate several times on the flight information screen or at least check out the airport map.

Knowing how late we were, we kind of speed walked to gate A15. I’m sure DH could have moved a lot faster without me in tow. No one has ever accused me of being a cheetah.  Of course, it was to be the furthest gate away on Concourse A. Naturally.

By the time we got to the tail end of that concourse, I was drenched in sweat and could not catch my breath. It felt like my heart was going to explode. And that feeling only got worse when we discovered that there is no gate A15. The last gate is A14.

Another customer service agent looked things up and told us that we were flying out of gate N15, and that they were just about to board. Now, let me explain the full ramifications of this. We were standing at the southernmost gate of the SEATAC airport, and we were told that we needed to be at the northernmost gate of the SEATAC airport. Like… 15 minutes ago. According to Google maps, it was 1.8 miles away. And toward the end, you have to wait for an automated train, because the N terminal isn’t even in the same building.

I tried to run. I really did. I wanted to go to Hawaii so badly. But I was already out of breath.

At this point I pretty much abandoned all hope. And then Cris, who to his credit is never out of breath, had a brilliant idea. He grabbed an abandoned luggage cart, piled all our carry on stuff on it, then said, “Hop on.”

And then he ran like the wind. We were flying through that airport. I was really proud of him. At first I was standing on the cart, but I was blocking his view, so instead I sat down as if I were another piece of luggage. We got several dirty looks from airport staff, but we were moving too fast, and I think they just couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.  On the other hand, fellow travelers where cheering and laughing and waving and taking pictures. I felt like I was Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This was the first adventure on a vacation full of adventures, and every time I think of it, it makes me smile.

But despite all our (his) efforts, we got to the gate 2 minutes late, and watched our plane (and our checked baggage) fly off without us. It’s funny now, but at the time I sat there at gate N15 and had a good cry while DH rebooked our flight for the next day. I’ve had flights delayed, and I’ve missed a connection or two, but this was the first time in my life that I had missed a nonstop flight. I don’t recommend it.

The dogs were sure confused to see us back home. They know what suitcases usually mean, and the dogsitter, a dear friend of ours, was already there. And yet here we were.

So, yeah, late the next day we arrived, both triumphant and chastened, in Hawaii. We checked into our hotel and had a look around and got all settled in. We were headed out to explore Kauai when we met Tony.

Tony was a bit worried, because he had tried to get a taxi to the airport for his flight home to Toronto, and there seemed to be no taxis to be had. After what we’d gone through the day before, we wanted to help. But we’re not the type of people who are prone to giving total strangers a ride.

What we did was go back to the concierge desk and verify that all of us where guests at this establishment. And then the concierge took photos of all our drivers licenses, and we checked back in with her when we got back to the hotel so that she knew that everything had gone smoothly.

We had a pleasant chat with Tony on the drive to the airport about our various travels, and about Toronto and Seattle. He gave us some tips on what to do in Kauai, and we heard about his enviable extended stay in Hawaii. He called his mother from the road and reassured her that he wasn’t going to miss his flight after all.

Just like that, we made our first friend in Hawaii, even though we didn’t get his last name or contact info. We asked if we could take his picture as we waved goodbye. He said that was fine. So Tony, wherever you are, I hope you made it home safe.

My experience on isolated islands had been rather limited up to this point, but I soon discovered that it’s quite easy to run out of island. In fact, on this trip we arrived at the end of the road on multiple occasions. It alters your mindset.

I wanted to see every inch of Kauai. You can circumnavigate much of the island on highway roads, with the glaring exception of the Napali Coast that stretches about 16 miles along its Northwest edge. There, what you encounter are impassible, yet stunningly beautiful jagged blue and emerald cliffs that defiantly face off with the sea.

On day 4, we reached the end of the road on the western shore of Kauai. We stopped next to the charmingly named Barking Sands Airport and saw our first Nenes, which are beautiful Hawaiian geese. They didn’t seem to care that they had reached a dead end. They just went about their goosey business. That was also the day we went to the end of the island’s other major highway, which wends its way through Waimea Canyon.

Day 6 found us on the opposite end of the semicircular road.  On the North shore we visited Maniniholo Dry Cave, had a picnic lunch on the beach, and then drove as far as we could, taking turns with the cars heading the opposite direction, in order to cross the charming one lane bridges. This is a more laid back, isolated part of the island, and it’s where I’d want to live if I could put my home on high enough stilts to cope with the frequent flooding. I weep at the thought that climate change will wipe this area off the map one day.

On the Big Island, we went to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and drove to the end of the road twice on our first full day there, from the Hōlei Sea Arch on the Chain of Craters Road to the end of Crater Rim Drive with its stunning views of Kīlauea’s  Caldera. 

Five days later we went to the Southern tip of the United States, to Ka Lae, or South Point, Hawaii, and gazed out at the vast Pacific Ocean. I find it interesting that we took no pictures from the clifftops that were aimed directly south toward that blue expanse. We took photos of the cliff line, as if we needed a reference point. I think that never-ending blue reminded us how far away we were from any other part of civilization, and how life clings precariously to every possible foothold as this fragile planet spirals through the vacuum of space, chasing the sun. Who could bear to photograph that flimsy feeling?

We woke up the next day knowing we had to head to the airport to catch the plane that would take us home. (Why couldn’t we have missed that one?)  I felt as though I was beginning a mourning process, as I always do at the end of a trip. Perhaps the challenges we faced in getting to this place added to our appreciation of it. I felt as though I were saying goodbye to a loved one.

Then I saw a hand painted sign nailed high up on a tree. We didn’t have time to stop and take a picture, but it will remain forever in my mind. It said, “Lord Jesus, what a rush!” 

If things have to end, as all things do, then that is the way I want to look back on them. Life is full of beginnings and endings, but it’s the middle part that makes all the difference.

I leave you (and Hawaii) now, with the bittersweet yet iconic song, Aloha ‘Oe. It was written by Liliʻuokalani, the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. She wrote many songs in her time, but this one is particularly haunting. It was originally written about a lover’s goodbye.

Twenty years later, she transcribed this song while she was under house arrest. America was in the process of stealing these islands from the Hawaiian people, simply because we had superior firepower. Originally, we sentenced this dignified woman to five years of hard labor for her defiance, but we at least had the good grace to commute that sentence, and later set her free to live another 21 years, fighting our indifferent government in court for lands that they never had any intention of returning.

When you think of Aloha ‘Oe as a lament for the loss of Liliʻuokalani’s beloved country, it takes on a bittersweet flavor, indeed. Flying away from Hawaii forces the traveler to internalize just a tiny shard of her broken heart. Aloha, Hawai’i. Until we meet again.

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Bits and Bobs about Hawaii

Interesting things that didn’t fit into my other Hawaiian posts.

There’s so much that intrigued me about Hawaii that I had to take copious notes during my visit. Not that I’m complaining. These notes will enrich my memories. But some of the tidbits of information didn’t fit naturally into my other posts about the Aloha State, so today I’m going to just throw a bunch of thought noodles at you and see which ones actually stick. There won’t be any particular order or story arc. This will sort of look like Hawaii after it has been in a blender. Here’s hoping it’s still pretty. Thank you for your indulgence.

My first impression of the island of Kauai is… chickens. Chickens everywhere. Here a chicken, there a chicken… Based on some lazy research and even lazier math, I estimate that there are about 6 chickens per capita on this island. That’s a lot of poultry. Most of them looked really healthy, and many of the roosters are absolutely gorgeous, so more power to them, I say. I just wish they had a stricter concept of when dawn is. You could hear them crow at 2 in the morning. Even so, I found it pleasant to share the island with them for a time.

A tour guide demonstrated something to me that I had never contemplated. Most of us know that chickens bob their heads when they walk. But I never noticed that hey don’t bob their heads when they run. It was fun watching the guide chase a chicken across a field to prove his point. I’ll always remember that.

Chickens notwithstanding, I believe that the most destructive invasive species in all of Hawaii are the feral pigs. They cause major damage to property and property values, agriculture, and ecosystems. There are so many pigs on the islands that you won’t find an estimate of how many pigs there are anywhere on the internet. (Believe me, I tried.) In fairness, it would be hard to keep track. A pair of pigs and their offspring can produce 15,000 more pigs over the course of 5 years. Imagine that level of expansion when you’re on an island. (I did find an estimate of the number of feral pigs in the entire US, and it’s over 6 million, and growing. At this rate we won’t be around long enough to see the full impact of global warming.)

In Hawaiian, the word for fire is ahi. So Ahi tuna got its name because of its bright red meat. That means that the fish did not get a name until some Hawaiian first sliced it open. (I’m glad I didn’t get my name that way.) But I’m a little surprised that they didn’t come up with something that describes the creature itself, because it’s beautiful to behold. That says a lot about priorities.

I find waves so hypnotic that I actually slept soundly in Hawaii, which is something that eludes me in most other places. And the unrelenting wind means there’s no need for AC while you sleep, and somehow that makes me happy. There’s nothing quite like fresh air and ocean waves.

There are no lions or tigers or bears in Hawaii, and you could go your whole life without encountering a poisonous snake. You’d think that would mean that hiking in this state is relatively carefree, but no. The island still has plenty of surprises for you.

It’s not a good idea to stray from the established path. For instance, that field of soft, welcoming ferns covering the ground to your left may actually be a dense mat that is more than 20 feet deep. You step into that, you may very well plunge to your death. These mats can also conceal lava tubes and jagged lava rock, so your death won’t be a pretty one.

But falling off hiking trails is fairly common in Hawaii. The terrain is steep, and gets slippery and muddy, and yet the things you would land on if you slip can be as sharp as glass. Never hike alone in Hawaii. Unless you’re really experienced, you might want to avoid hiking on all but the simplest trails.

Another danger that you might not expect is the Guinea Grass. It was first brought to Hawaii to feed the cows, which had also been brought in. Guinea Grass makes great feed as long as it’s kept relatively short as it apparently is in Africa. But, unchecked, this grass can get up to 15 feet high, and when it gets that tall, the cows won’t touch it. The taller it gets, the more tiny razor-like spikes it gets on the edges of its blades, and this can cause a cow’s tongue to bleed. So the Guinea Grass has pretty much taken over, with very little to stop it. And if you walk into this stuff, you’ll leave it feeling as though you’ve rolled naked in fiberglass. That, and it’s a fantastic contributor to wildfires. When not burning, it chokes out native plants.

We went to black sand beaches and “normal” beaches during our trip. But Hawaii also has one of only four green sand beaches in the world. Sadly the hike to get there is 4 miles, round trip and is often strenuous. My hikes are getting shorter and easier these days. You can’t do everything.

There are very few little free libraries found in Hawaii. (Believe me, I looked. And the map of registered ones at littlefreelibrary.org bears me out.) I did try to track down a registered one on a busy tourist street in Hanalei, but it wasn’t where it was said to be, and when we asked around, people looked at us as if we had two heads. I have no idea why, but these wonderful community resources just haven’t seemed to take off in this state yet. I hope they do eventually, because I can think of nothing more delightful and relaxing than reading a good book on a Hawaiian beach. But then, the locals are probably working three jobs just to be able to afford to live there, so they may not have time for reading.

Here are some pictures of a couple of the little libraries we did see. There is a nice big one in front of the Kapa’a Public Library. (Isn’t a little free library in front of a library kind of like gilding the lily?)

I tried something new on this trip. I call it “planned spontaneity.” It worked really well. Yes, we made reservations for the things we really wanted to do if they were required. But we also left some time in there to follow the suggestions we got along the way, check out the things we stumbled upon, and also to just chill out. Many of those times, to be honest, were the best ones for me. I used to plan every trip within an inch of its life, and then I married Dear Husband and saw how much he liked to do that stuff, so I took a back seat for a while. But that’s not really fair. I know I hated it when I had to do all the trip planning and reservations alone. So now I’m trying to make it so we both take part, but that we also leave some things up to fate and happenstance. It’s a delicate dance, but it’s worth it.

It’s “shave” ice, not “shaved”. And it is wonderful. Many places will put shaved ice over a scoop of ice cream for you. We tried that first, and I thought I’d be sick from the sugar. I don’t eat much sugar anymore, so this was quite the shock to the system. But shave ice is nice on a hot day.

If you want to make your kids giggle and your waitress roll her eyes for about the thousandth time this year, order a “pipi pupu”. That’s a beef appetizer in Hawaiian. But please give your waitress a generous tip for forcing her to hear the joke yet again.

In Kauai, two nice little side stops are Kilauea Lighthouse and Christ Memorial Episcopal Church. Both are beautiful in different ways. I highly recommend them.

Flying from one island to another is extremely convenient. We flew from Kauai to the Honolulu Airport, changed planes, and then flew over beautiful Molokai to land in Kona, Hawaii. But on our approach to Honolulu we took a sharp left turn to head landward, and we were hit with the worst turbulence I’ve ever felt my life. It seemed like we dropped 60 feet in less than a second. It’s the first time I’ve ever thought was going to die in an airplane. I even remember thinking, “This is it.” Getting to our destination was worth it, I suppose, but I think I might have a cocktail next time.

The Honolulu Airport is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s wide open to the elements. It feels like a Disney attraction, but with planes. And it is predicted that the Kona Airport will be covered in lava sometime in the next 100 years. They actually had to carve the runways out of lava beds there. Hawaii caused me to view real estate as something that is highly transient for the first time in my life. If Kauai is chickens, then the Big Island is lava. Lots and lots of lava.   

We also stopped at a farmer’s market in Hilo, and saw produce that looked like it came from another planet. We bought an avocado the size of my head. But it wasn’t a Hass, so it actually tasted like nothing. That was a bit disappointing. We also bought white pineapple, which is something I’d never heard of. It was extremely expensive, because they don’t produce many, and that’s probably why I’d never heard of it. There  aren’t really enough to send to the mainland. Think pineapple without the acid. Sweet as spun sugar. Everyone should try it! We also tried an organic mountain apple, which was kind of thick skinned and slightly mushy and therefore meh. And nothing in this farmer’s market had an actual price on it. I’m sure they see the tourists coming a mile away.

We ate at a restaurant called Harbor House in Kona. It had no walls. That gave us a great view of the marina. And it was fun to have the birds flying all around us. Until they pooped. Everywhere. But poop notwithstanding, the food is pretty good (and poop-less), and hey, it’s an experience!

The older I get, the more I look at experiences in terms of the memories they create. Hawaii added so many wonderful memories to my collection. The older you get, the more you accumulate. I’m sitting on a dragonpile (I should copyright that word) of precious memories, brought to me by travel. And I’m not alone in this.

By rights, the well-traveled elderly should be considered the most fascinating people in the world. You just have to ask the right questions and take the time to experience the answers. If you listen closely, you might hear the waves crashing in their words, and maybe the sound of Don Ho singing Tiny Bubbles will drift gently toward you as if on an island breeze.

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The Fauna of Hawaii

There are 26,608 known species on land and sea in the Aloha State.

Animals fascinate me, especially ones I’ve never encountered before. That happened many times during our trip to Hawaii. That’s to be expected. According to this article, 90 percent of all the species that live on land in Hawaii can only be found in Hawaii. (And when you consider the fact that there are 26,608 known species on land and sea combined in Hawaii, that’s even more impressive.) In fact, the Hawaiian Islands have more endemic species than the Galapagos islands do. I was really looking forward to reveling in this diversity of life.

I’ve already written about Our Most Excellent Manta Ray Adventure, and also about The Flowers and Birds of Hawaii, as well as Snorkeling in Hawaii, so I won’t dwell on the amazing creatures we came across that I’ve already discussed. But believe it or not, there is still much to tell.

I think one of our most unique experiences was watching sea turtles come up on Poipu Beach in Kauai. They are fascinating in and of themselves, but to our surprise, they were escorted to shore by a monk seal. That’s two endangered species in one sighting. Check, check!

I was mesmerized. Fortunately, Dear Husband had the presence of mind to take a video of this moment before the monk seal took his leave. Here it is.

And just for fun, DH also did a time lapse video of the turtles coming up on the beach, because, let’s face it: it’s not as if they’re going to break any land speed records. So here’s the turtle equivalent of an action sequence:

As I watched the sun go down on the sea turtles of Poipu Beach, as cliché as this is going sound, I knew without a doubt that this place is paradise. I couldn’t believe my luck, to actually be standing there bearing witness to these miracles of nature. Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest person on earth.

I really hoped that we’d see some turtles in action while we were snorkeling, but no such luck. We would have kept a respectful distance, of course. Hawaii takes its turtles seriously, as well it should.

We also got to see some more sea turtles at the black sand beach of Punalu’u on the Big Island. That beach also had a beautiful plaque that told the story of Kauila and the Sea Turtles of Punalu’u. The artwork was gorgeous, but I knew you’d be interested in the story as well, so I made certain to take a picture of that. (Just for you, Dear Reader. See there? You are never far from my thoughts.)

Although obviously neither wild nor native to Hawaii, it seemed that every resort had some koi, and they were often quite large. I was surprised that they weren’t bothered by birds of prey or racoons or otters or something, as they would be in Florida. It turns out that there aren’t any racoons or otters on these islands, and there are only two birds of prey in the entire state, and ironically, neither of them eat fish.

If we saw a Hawaiian hawk, it was only at a distance. The other bird of prey is the Pueo, a ground nesting owl. One flew right across the highway in front of our car one night. I got a good look at it, but DH was driving so he didn’t see it. And of course, she was long gone before I could raise my camera. What a beautiful bird!

To listen to the different types of calls that Pueo make (and indeed learn more about all things Pueo), check out this page. Sadly, Pueo populations are in great decline because their nests are on the ground, which makes them quite vulnerable to invasive species. That’s particularly true on the Big Island, which has mongoose. I saw three mongoose during our visit, but those suckers are just too fast to photograph.

Mongoose were intentionally introduced to the Big Island in hopes of getting rid of another invasive species, the rats that arrived on the island via the first visiting European ships. (One of their descendants ran across my foot while we were walking through the Thurston Lava Tube, causing me to jump out of my skin.) But it turns out that mongoose are active during the day, whereas rats are nocturnal, so that rat eradication didn’t go to plan. However, a mongoose can wipe out a flock of chickens in the blink of an eye, and that may be one of the reasons that the Big Island isn’t up to its eyeballs in chickens like Kauai is. Sadly, they also have a taste for Pueo.

Hawaii wants tourists to think they have no snakes, and some people mistakenly believe that there once were snakes, but the mongoose took care of them. In fact, there are several invasive species, mainly concentrated in Oahu, but they have never been an issue to human beings. They haven’t been as kind to wildlife. Therefore, it’s actually illegal to have a pet snake in Hawaii.

The state does have one native snake species, the Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake. It is venomous, but it’s also rare. There is no record of a human being killed by this sea snake. All snake sightings in Hawaii are so rare that it’s not unusual for a Hawaiian to go his or her whole life without seeing one.

One of the tour guides we met told us that on Kauai, it was proposed that snakes be introduced to get rid of the irritating chicken situation, but people decided they’d much rather have chickens than snakes, even if they do wake you up at 4 a.m. with their crowing.

There are wild boar/feral pigs in Hawaii, and I got a glimpse of some of those. I’m glad I was inside the car. They looked scary. (Check out this article about a freak encounter that a surfer had with one of them.) They are one of the most destructive invasive species in the islands, along with the wild goats.

Another story our guide told us was that the Hawaiian word for goat is “kau,” and that’s pronounced “cow”. The guide said that one of the Hawaiian monarchs of the 1700’s wanted cows because he had heard about the many benefits of having them. Captain Cook (or one of his contemporaries) had no cows with him, but he had brought goats, and in an effort to impress the king, he gifted a few and said they were cows.

That sounds plausible, and it’s certainly amusing, but I looked all over the internet for confirmation of this story, and could not find it. One thing can’t be denied, though. Now those pesky goats are everywhere.

In fact, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture doesn’t regulate the hunting of goats, but you may want to check with your local game warden before opening fire. Another attempt to reduce the kau population was when the state gave away wild goats on the lottery system. You can practically hear them begging you to take one off their hands, can’t you?

There are also feral sheep, horses and cows, but I’m pretty sure that all the ones we saw were domesticated. (I was really surprised by the amount of farmland on the islands, in a state where land is so expensive that it’s now out of reach of many of the natives.)

I saw several bats fly past us at dusk on both islands, and at one condo where we stayed, an anole visited our patio on multiple occasions, making me homesick for the anoles of Florida. And one day a crab crossed our path on the beach.

Coqui frogs have hitched rides to Hawaii on houseplants shipped from Puerto Rico, and have all but taken over several of the islands. In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to love these frogs, and delighted in being able to record their calls on the Big Island. That’s a sound I hadn’t heard since visiting Puerto Rico, and it brought back wonderful memories. Here’s my recording.

Despite my nostalgia, these frogs have been a disaster for Hawaii. They have no natural predators there, and because of that, in some areas, there are 55,000 coqui per hectare, whereas they max out at 24,000 per hectare in their native habitat.

I may love their vocalizations, but many people find them loud, persistent, and annoying, as they go on from dusk to dawn. These frogs also decimate many bugs, including pollinators, and they’ve impacted tourism and property values.

During our trip, I expected to see lots of spiders, and I wasn’t looking forward to that, but to my relief I saw very few. I was constantly scanning the ocean in the hopes of seeing whales and dolphins. No such luck. I also hoped to see octopus and tiny sharks while snorkeling. Again, nope. But all these creatures were quite prevalent in the many delightful murals throughout the islands, which I wrote about here.

So yes, we saw a lot of fauna during our trip. Many, but not all, are invasive. If you learn only one thing when visiting the Aloha State, let it be this: Humans should never tamper with nature.

Never before have I visited a place that gave me the impression that the land itself was a living entity. Like an animal, it breathes and changes and adapts and grows. It is critically important that we treat it, and its many fragile ecosystems, with respect. Because there’s no place on earth like Hawaii.

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Waimea Canyon in Kauai

The most beautiful place in the state.

I’ve only been to two of the Hawaiian Islands (The Big Island and Kauai), but I’d be rendered speechless if there was any place in this entire state that was more beautiful than Waimea Canyon, especially at its northern end, where you can gaze at the all-but-inaccessible Napali Coast. If you go to Kauai and don’t spend at least half a day here, you are a failure as a traveler as far as I’m concerned.

Seriously. Shame on you. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.

This canyon is a mile wide, 10 miles long, and somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 feet deep, depending on what source you believe. It looks like the Grand Canyon’s little sister. It’s smaller, yes, but it’s lush and green and vibrant with life. I think I’d have a much easier time surviving in Waimea than in that harsh and rugged valley in Arizona, no matter how iconic it may be. Like the rest of Kauai, there are no snakes and there’s plenty of shade and vegetation.

Moot point, though. While there are plenty of hiking opportunities in this area, you might want to remember that if you hike 2000 feet down to see a waterfall, you’ll have to hike 2000 feet back up. Those days, for me, are decades in the past.

Fortunately, the canyon rim is accessible by car, and there are plenty of overlooks that allow you to revel in the beauty without breaking a sweat. We stopped at five of them, and also visited the museum, where you pay the park’s admission fee. (It would probably be easy to sneak past this fee, but we wanted to pay it if it means the canyon will be well taken care of. A ten-dollar contribution to protect something so priceless is a sound investment as far as I’m concerned.)

Below, you’ll see photos that we took on our visit, and after that are some links that you can check out if you want to learn more about Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast. Many of the pictures on those web pages are spectacular. Enjoy!

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waimea_Canyon_State_Park

http://www.destination360.com/north-america/us/hawaii/kauai/waimea-canyon

https://www.gohawaii.com/islands/kauai/regions/north-shore/napali-coast

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Kilauea Iki: Walking on a Lava Lake

“What a great adventure!”

The older I get, the more I take to heart something a friend once told me: “You can’t do everything.”

That applies especially to my travels. Gone are the days when I would be willing to climb mountains and conquer hardscrabble terrain. I’m not quite at the age where I’m in constant fear of breaking a hip, but I am at the age where a rough hike leaves me feeling as though I had broken one. That’s when exploring ceases to be fun.

A younger me would have loved to have joined Dear Husband on his trek across the hardened lava lake of Kilauea Iki. But that’s a 4 mile hike, with a descent and ascent of 400 feet, which is the equivalent of a 40 story building. Discovering that, the current, more pragmatic me declined, rather than force DH to walk more slowly, listen to me complain, and probably carry me back up the side of the crater like a dead moose. (Okay, I know there are no moose in Hawaii, but you get the idea.)

So I had a delightful evening in our room, reading a good book, which is a luxury I rarely have time for these days. Bliss. Meanwhile, DH went on his incredible adventure.

Naturally, I couldn’t write about an experience that I didn’t have, so I asked him to do so. What follows is written by him, unless it’s in italics. Italics are me butting in on the story. But I truly think he did an excellent job of allowing us all to feel as though we’re tagging along.

Thanks, DH! And enjoy, Dear Reader!

_______________________________________________

With just 18 hours left in Hawaii before the flight that would take us home, I still wanted to use every opportunity to fully experience my first visit to the Big Island of Hawaii. The Volcanoes National Park had been a fascinating site to explore, and l decided there was enough time and daylight for one more adventure.

One of the many trails at the park gives you an opportunity to walk across a “once-molten lake of lava” in the Kilauea Iki crater. [In Hawaiian, Kilauea means “much spreading” or “spewing” and Iki means “little”. This is because the crater in question is much smaller than the nearby and still-active main caldera of Kilauea. But it’s still 3000 feet across, which is more than 9 football fields. What is “iki” from a volcano’s perspective is still nui (huge) from a human perspective.]

That sounded like the once-in-a-lifetime adventure I was looking for! Since I would be starting just three hours before sunset, I first stopped at the Visitors Center to talk with staff, to make sure I wasn’t heading for trouble. They assured me there was time enough before sunset to begin that hike and I purchased the $2 trail guide for a better understanding of how to achieve my goal and return unharmed.

Although this national park goes down to sea level, the park entrance and many sections are at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, and in Hawaii, that means it’s a rain forest environment. So, along with comfortable shoes, flashlight, water, camera and fully charged phone, I also brought a rain jacket and was glad for that. When I parked at the trailhead to review the guide, it was already 5 pm with the sunset around 7 pm, so I would need to step lively to complete the hike in the remaining hours of daylight. The printed guide recommended following the trail in a counterclockwise route, along the rim of the crater to the far side, and then down the inside of that rim to the floor. After crossing the once molten lake of lava, the trail would bring me back up the 400 feet to where the trail has easy access to the road.

As I began, I watched for the numbered trail markers, where the guide offered details specific to that location. The clouds were settled just a few hundred feet above me, with a light drizzle falling (much like what frequently happens back home in Seattle) and a comfortable 70° temperature. (Which doesn’t happen nearly enough in Seattle.) The trail was certainly wet but not soggy, and I kept my feet dry as I headed through the lush and very wet forest of tall ferns and dripping trees.

Occasionally I’d reach a break in the growth to my left, where I could peer over the steep rim and down onto the lava lake that was my goal. Frequently there were large puddles across the trail, stretching from four to eight feet across, with muddy soil surrounding each one. They were far too big for jumping across and the footing was way too slippery to even consider a leap. The trail was about five feet in width, and fortunately there were usually fallen branches at one side or the other that provided a stepping place and I could reach for small trees to provide a handhold. This method allowed me to take long, careful strides and avoid soaking my comfortable running shoes. Their thick soles provided protection when my steps took me down to the water level.

As I approached the far side of the crater, I met a family of three coming toward me. They were looking rather tired. My path crossed other trails and I was pleased to find them all well marked with destinations and distances, making me wonder if the printed guide was necessary. (But it’s a really cool, detailed guide which gives you a complete description of the 1959 eruption, complete with diagrams, so I highly recommend it. You can download it from the bottom of this page.)

When I reached the far side of the crater, the trail sloped downhill for a short distance and then headed over the rim, where I looked down onto the treetops below. At this point, a steel handrail had been installed, providing both support and a barrier beside the steep drop off. The entry to the floor of the caldera was at the base of this steep trail, built with switchbacks every 100 to 200 feet and with large (and tall) stone steps to lower oneself down the steep hillside. I was glad to be going downhill and recognized why the family that had just climbed these stairs had looked tired!

Near the last of the switchbacks, I heard hikers through the trees heading in my direction. When we met, I stepped aside so they had access to the handrail beside the narrow trail and they told me it was easy to find the trail, and to watch for the rocks stacked in cairns that mark the route. Those were the last people I saw as I reached the lava lake at the bottom of the rim.

The transition from the lush rain forest to the landscape of hardened lava is both jarring and abrupt. There is only a short distance where a few plants have succeeded in taking root in the harsh environment. Beyond the first dozen paces, the occasional plant was all alone and appeared foreign in the environment of sharp stone. And in those first steps, it was quickly evident that the floor is not at all level, but instead made up of jumbled pieces of sharp and porous rock that would inflict great damage to me if I were to fall. Despite an end to the daylight in just 90 minutes, there was incentive to step cautiously and not rush through this place.

The floor was like walking on the waves of a stormy sea, if they had frozen with the peaks and troughs at their extremes, often much deeper or taller than twice my height. Looking into the distance I saw a half dozen stacks of rocks showing the direction I should travel. There was no visible path or footprints from previous hikers on the hard, stone surface. Further along the trail, the large rocks had been reduced to crumbled gravel and the heavily traveled trail became visible.

I was surrounded by an exceedingly strange environment, and I realized that the sounds of the forest were gone; no birds, no rustling of the leaves or sounds of rain dripping from the trees. Instead all was silent. (Personally, I would have shouted hello to test for an echo, but that’s me.) The low clouds kept the rim of the crater hidden in most directions, so it appeared as though the hills surrounding me simply rose up into the clouds. It was truly an otherworldly feeling, alone in an environment that had been molten rock the year my parents got married.

One of the numbered markers referred me to the trail guide, which invited me to look at the perimeter of the lava lake and recognize the “bathtub ring” where the molten lava had once filled this crater. The pool of lava had risen and dropped several times during the eruptions, and it first cooled and hardened at the edges. When the pool dropped, those edges broke off, falling into the center or onto what had been a forest covered hillside. Looking all around, that ring was unmistakable, and, I thought, named appropriately. Apparently prior to the 1959 eruption, this had been an 800-foot-deep crater, not the 400-foot one that I had just descended.

As I continued my walk, the land became jumbled hills of black lava piled even higher than before, making me feel quite insignificant in comparison. At another of the numbered markers, the trail guide explained that this was the location of a cinder-and-spatter cone that came into existence in 1959. During that eruption, a fountain of lava shot 1,900 feet into the air (one of the highest eruptions ever witnessed by man) and all this jumble of rock was the spatters thrown out during that event.  (Here are some historic pictures of the eruption.)

For most of my life, I’ve seen lava rock that was used in BBQ grills, or as landscaping rock in gardens. In those instances, it was from ½-inch to perhaps 2-inches in diameter. In this crater there were crumbs of that size, but they were dwarfed beneath the hills of rock, with chunks the size of my head and up to three feet across. The piles of these abrasive, black boulders surrounded me in a jumble of debris, often mixed with voids or even small caverns. I recognized that these boulders could easily shred my leg if I stepped into a hole, or perhaps even onto an unstable rock.

After passing through the steep hills of spattered lava, I reached an area that had a much more level surface. This portion of the hardened lava lake reminded me of an old asphalt parking lot where sinkholes or landslides had caused the pavement to shift or break. Except that this parking lot covered acres of land and there was no soil visible where the surfaces sank and broke. This surface provided great examples of the dropping pool of lava, where the support beneath cooled stone had disappeared, causing it to sink or drop, often ten, twenty or even forty feet. This was yet another example of the power of nature, where the land is currently motionless but has not always been so. To keep heading toward the next guidepost cairn, I frequently had to step over large cracks that provided and opportunity to peer down several feet into darkness. The path I walked was often meandering, in order to avoid crossing large gaps between slabs that I could easily fall into.

As I neared the halfway point in crossing the lava lake, the surface once again changed, but for the last time. The hills were behind me, and the relatively level surface finally looked like the lava lake I’d heard about. It was more than a quarter mile to each side and more like a half mile ahead of me, to where the trail leads out of the crater. The surface still had a rolling unevenness and the stone floor reminded me of the crust on a loaf of black, pumpernickel bread. The unevenness of this vast acreage was accented by the puddles from the recent rain and the shadows in the low places, contrasting with the higher spots. It also had a mottled look, due to the smallest of rocks and dust having been washed and blown around, leaving other patches of stone bare. An occasional plant stood about 24 inches tall, proud to be surviving and creating yet another eerie contrast as the daylight began fading.

The final few hundred feet of the lake surface was once again broken pavement, sloping up to the bathtub ring from where I could then look back to see some of the trail I’d just traveled. From a distance, it was evident that many people had crossed the same route and I realized I was fortunate to have had the entire caldera to myself for that hour.

Only a few steps away from the lava, I was immediately into the rain forest again, welcomed by a gigantic puddle that I had to skirt as I entered the canopy of trees that covered the trail. Again, it was a well-worn trail, but the path was a gentle uphill slope with an occasional step, built with a log across the trail as the riser to the next level. Sometimes the steps were twenty feet apart, at other times a hundred feet from the previous, repeated over and over, with an occasional switchback that allowed me  to gently climb the hillside.

This was so much more comfortable than the steep bluff I’d walked down at the far end of this crater. And yet there was still an incline, so I stopped for a rest. This gave me the opportunity to listen to the coqui frogs chirping in the forest. (They are an invasive species which traveled to Hawaii from Puerto Rico on house plants in the 1980’s. I happen to love their sound, but it drives some people crazy.) They truly add to the unique sound of this setting, and I took the opportunity to record their voices as they remained hidden from sight.  I continued up the sloping trail, back and forth across the hillside, as the trees hid all views of the vast openness inside the Kilauea Iki crater.

Sunset was almost upon me, and I considered breaking out a flashlight, but then I heard the sound of cars on the road that goes along the edge of the crater. Moments later, when I reached the road, I found several squirt bottles and a sign with instructions to spray and rinse the soles of my shoes, so I wouldn’t track any seeds or plant life from this location to other parts of the national park (and I did so.)

I checked the time, and I realized it was two hours after I’d started and I had covered just over three miles. In reviewing the trail guide, I discovered the route included crossing the road and continuing the hike to explore the Thurston Lava Tube, however we had visited that just a couple days earlier (read about it here), so instead I took a different part of the trail, back through the trees, that led to the parking lot where I had left the rental car. This turned out to be a great opportunity to peer back into the crater and take a photo of where I’d been. From this vantage point, the last half of the trail across the open lake bed was extremely obvious, however it was impossible to recognize the rolling surface. The many puddles along the way are evident and I took several photos during my hike, including one in which this trail is so visible.

The last half mile hike to the car was at dusk and beneath the trees, so I appreciated having the flashlight. At one point, there appeared to be a slope on the opposite side of the trail, and upon closer inspection I found it to be a large hole, with just a few ferns hiding it from sight. That’s not the kind of thing one should stumble into at any time, let alone twelve hours before any other people would be walking the trail!

This impromptu hike turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Hawaii. (And no, I didn’t take that personally, as I was cuddled up with my good book. We were each in a happy place.) I doubt I’ll ever get the chance for another hike across the caldera of a volcano with no other people in sight or earshot.

“What a great adventure,” I texted to Barb, letting her know I was safely to the car and heading back to her.

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