Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hawaii Day 3 (Micronesia Day 20): Sea to Sky

Friday, July 19, 2013
1:19 P.M.

First off, let me just say that the time I've spent on this post is absolutely infuriating. I wrote a decently-sized post, then wrote a much larger post, then found out that the larger post got deleted after Firefox crashed, then tried to clear the cache to see if this was just a blogger glitch, but it wasn't, and then I accidentally deleted the original stuff I had written down. Now, I'm left with a blank slate of 0's and 1's. I don't know what's up with autosave.

Note: All pictures were taken with my Nikon Coolpix S6300 Camera on July 10, 2013, which is the day I went on this expedition.

Anyway, third time's a charm, right? Blech... let's get this over with and switch to a new mindset.


Day 3 was a heavenly day. And I mean this very literally. We traveled all the way from sea-level to the peak of Mauna Kea, the premier location in the world for astronomical obvservtion. But it wasn't just about Mauna Kea. We learned about everything from Captain Cook to cattle to Kona coffee. I'm running a risk of spraining my fingers by even trying to blog about an abridged version of this wonderful, wonderful day, but I never liked my fingers anyway... they are short and stubby and bad for playing most musical instruments (thankfully, the saxophone is not one of these). So, without further ado, our feature presentation.

The first leg of our amazing journey brought us to a Tesoro gasoline station at 2:25 P.M. Hawaii Time. Although the Tesoro was the most notable feature there, the headquarters of the charter company we had planned our expedition with, Hawaii Forest & and Trail LTD, were in the same plaza. Finding the place was as hassle-free as can be, for we had conveniently parked right in front of it. We opened the door to find a wide variety of folks and some assorted souvenirs and books throughout the store. We knew we had arrived at the right place.

But this right place was hardly our final destination. There, we found two guides that would be leading us on our trip. One was an older man with white hair who seemed to be a longtime veteran of his position, and the other was an upstart young man who was bursting with joy at the thought of being our guide. There were two buses, and each held ten people. With 14 people at the meeting place, ten hopped onto one bus, while my mom, myself, and two other young men from San Francisco (one, might I add, incredibly buff) hopped onto the other, which was driven by the ambitious and easily excitable young guide. We then traveled to Waikala Village, a very high end resort that was originally built on a lava field. Now, it is filled with flawless paved roads, beautiful flowers, endless golf courses, and towering palms that would reach to the sky in a loving attempt to provide the vacationers more than adequate amounts of shady relief. Most startling, however, was the immediate lava flow surrounding the resort. This lava flow had been heavily manicured to suit the orderliness of the resort as a whole. Regardless of the lava flow plastic surgery, the entire resort was breathtaking.

Here, we picked up six additional people so that our bus was full. Among these were a couple we had never met, but we were both mutual friends with one of my mom's best friends from her graduate work at Columbia in New York. My mom had been in contact with her friend and my mom's friend had mentioned that two of her friends were also going to be in Hawai'i that week. Once we had picked everybody up at Waikala Village, we did a name and introduction activity. The couple said their names, and my mom gasped in amazement. We had come across the people that my mom's friend was mentioning. Talk about a small world.

We had wonderful talks with them throughout the drive, but we also had wonderful talks with everybody else and our tour guide, Nate. The drive to Mauna Kea wasn't the most scenic one, but Nate entertained us with a vast pool of knowledge about the landmarks and history of the land we were crossing as he drove us to Mauna Kea.

This map was retrieved from on 7/19/13. I suggest going to the website and looking up the map there, which is interactive and allows you to look at individual maps of smaller sub-regions.
We drove northeast on Highway 190 and turned right onto Highway 200, which is affectionately known as "Saddle Road." If I tried to describe Saddle Road in an at least somewhat pretty way, I'd be lying to myself, so I'll lay it on the line. Saddle Road, at least until we turned left and headed north to Mauna Kea, was ugly. Here are just a few of the pictures I took on our trek across this desolate land.

As you can see, the primary scenery consisted of old (or in some cases, not-so-old) a'a lava flows. The pictures below show Mauna Loa to the south and Mauna Kea to the north, but these aren't the prettiest mountains either. Call me cynical, but they just look like oversized ant hills to me.

Mauna Loa
Mauna Kea

Nate, however, was not one to be lured into grogginess by the monotony of the landscape, and had some extraordinary stories to tell that piqued my imagination and a vast amount of knowledge to share that awakened my desire to learn. He kept me interested the entire ride up.

I'm sure many of you coffee-drinkers are familiar with Kona coffee. In 1828, Samuel Ruggles brought coffee originating from Brazil into the Kona area. The coffee plants grew like weeds and were a huge success, but seeing as they were primarily cultivated on the slopes of the Hulalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Kona districts, transporting the massive amounts of coffee beans proved to be a hassle. So, who other to bring to the island than... drumroll please...


I retrieved Donkey from Wikipedia, and because he is a copyrighted character, I am committing copyright infringement. Oh well... sue me, Dreamworks.
Donkeys were chosen over horses because they were more size-appropriate for the job. As an added benefit, they have more pound-for-pound strength than horses, but this was not the main stipulation for using donkeys over horses. The Japanese in particular used these donkeys not only for coffee but for sugar cane. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), donkeys became obsolete when the first Jeeps rolled onto the scene, as one jeep could transport as much material as 8-9 typically-sized donkeys and could do so at a much faster rate. The donkeys were then left to roam free throughout the island.

Retrieved 7/19/13 - Photo Credit - Michael F. O'Brien: Uploaded 7/18/11
It wasn't too long before these donkeys became a problem. In the nineties when a resort called the Four Seasons Reasort -Hualalai was being built, feral donkeys, also known as asses, roamed over the golf courses being constructed and dampened construction efficiency. The above group, "Save Our Asses," got these asses off the golf courses and various roads and successfully secured them in a massive fenced-in property. Of course, the asses reproduced and now the ranch is overpopulated. As a farmhand, I could put up with one ass, but I'd lose my cool in a ranch full of asses.

Donkeys weren't the only animals brought over to Hawai'i. George Vancouver brought 5 cows and one bull as a gift to Kamehameha I in 1793, and by 1815, cattle, having no natural predators, numbered an astonishingly 60,000 individuals on the island. The same year, a man named John Parker arrived in Hawaii with a new musket and killed thousands of these cattle for Kamehameha, as him and the king had developed previous relations since Parker's arrival in Hawai'i in 1809 (cool tidbit: he got there by jumping off a ship). To hold all these cattle, he was given two acres and used it to develop his own ranch. The ranch has since expanded to 500,000 acres

The current Saddle Road used to be all but an "impenetrable" forest, as Scottish botanist David Douglas said in 1834. David Douglas may not seem like a recognizable name, but guess who introduced the Douglas Fir for cultivation in 1827? Hint: his first name is 'David.' Much of the forest was cut down to make way for this gigantic ranch, which, according to our tour guide Nate, was once the largest ranch in the world. I do not know the current ranking of the ranch against others worldwide.

Nate told us that there were three principle ways for stuff to get here: Wings, Water, and Wind. Wings refers to objects that were transported by flying organisms, water refers to objects that were washed ashore, and wind refers to objects that were blown to the island. For example, Nate told us that grass had been naturally introduced 100,000 years ago. He later added a fourth W: white people. We've already gone over donkeys and cattle. Whites introduced mongooses to eat rats that were eating sugar cane, but mongooses tend to stay on ground and rats in the trees, so sugar canes continued to get eaten while mongooses killed ground birds. On our Kilauea adventure the next day, we learned about a variety of invasive plants that had been introduced primarily by whites onto the island. Like so many once remote places, travel has made it much easier to introduce species into a certain area. Pohnpei was relatively untouched, which was one of the reasons I enjoyed my time there so much.

Before I move on from biology, I want to address one last animal: the Nene. Also known as the Hawaiian Quail, it is regarded as sacred by Hawaiians, and is an aumakua, or spirit animal. It is an endemic and endangered species because it is extremely tame and often gets clobbered by cars or predators. When James Cook arrived in 1778, it is believed that there were 25,000 nene on the island. Hunting and introduced predators like the aforementioned mongoose reduced the population to 30 birds in 1952, but they were saved from extinction and bred in captivity. As of 2004, there were 800 birds in the wild.

That's the science. Just fair warning: I didn't give the Nene "two thumbs up" on my rather opinionated Volcano National Park post.

Now, let's briefly talk about some volcanoes Nate touched on.

Retrieved from Wikipedia 7/19/13 - Credit: USGS: Uploaded 7/10/10

Mauna Kea

Retrieved 7/19/13 from Wikipedia - Photo Credit - Vadim Kurland: Uploaded 12/16/07
Mauna Kea's last eruption was 4,500 years ago, but it has been pretty quiet since 200,000 years ago. However, it was incredibly active 1,000,000-500,000 years ago when it was in a stage similar to what Kilauea is now. I wouldn't call Mauna Kea extinct, but it is very quiet. The picture above isn't mine, but it is a pretty incredible Creative Commons picture via Flickr that was taken when the mountain had its wintertime snowcap.

Mauna Loa

Looking at Mauna Loa from the top of Mauna Kea. It was windy and cold.
Mauna Loa, on the other hand, is very active. It is 118 feet shorter than Mauna Kea, but with a volume of 75,000 cubic kilometers, it is far and away the most massive mountain on Earth. It has had major eruptions in 1926, 1950, and 1984, with smaller eruptions scattered in between. It started erupting 700,000 years ago, and it could be another 700,000 before it stops.


Another notable volcano is Hualalai, which last erupted in 1801. At 8,271 feet, it is much shorter than its siblings. Despite being the third most active volcano on the island after Kilauea and Mauna Loa, it is perhaps, at this time, the most dangerous. Today, the coast near Hualalai is a haven for vacationers and has many resorts in the area accordingly. An eruption could not only obliterate these resorts but place small villages and both Kailua-Kona and its airport in danger. It is lesser known than Mauna Loa and Kilauea, but it deserves just as much attention.

As we continued our journey up the mountain, we drove through some rolling hills. Nate said these were very uncommon for Hawaii and were actually sand/silt dunes covered with grass. They were formed in the last ice age by wind blowing glacial detritus to the leeward side of small objects, and as more of this material collected on the leeward side, the more the hills grew.

Nate told us so many things that I could write a book. Even more amazing was that he was completely self-taught. But let's get on with the story. Much more awaits us.

At 5:01 P.M., we stopped at 7,000 feet to get some dinner. I, being a very strict vegetarian, had some tofu and some other greens. I can't remember what the exact food was, but it was flavorless.

The place we stopped at was one of the creepiest places I've ever seen, even in broad daylight. Filled with rusty quonset huts and dilapidated sheep shelters, it looked like a scene straight out of Saw.

The cold wind blowing through the creepy compound didn't help at all. Winds must have been blowing at a constant 20 miles per hour, and if one walked far enough uphill, they would be completely enclosed by fog. The only thing I could imagine that would be worse would be if the entire place was silent. Now THAT would be scary.

We left at 6:10 and continued our path up the mountain. As we increased in elevation, we continued to see a variety of interesting things. In particular, we came across some beautiful cinder cones which were once areas of volcanic activity. Unfortunately, the people who have the most experience with it are probably the people who have come to hate it more than anybody else. Soldiers used to run up these to get stronger, which sounds like an exciting way to start a workout regimen, but I imagine it would get pretty old pretty quickly. The clouds you see below are the low clouds that enclosed the Saw location we ate at earlier.

And at last, we reached the summit.

Coming from Micronesia, this felt like Vostok in July
See the picture of Mauna Loa below? Well, it's actually not a picture of Mauna Loa. It's a picture of the shadow cast by Mauna Loa as the sun was setting. I've seen pictures by YouNews contributors on the KOMO website about this same sort of effect happening with Mt. Rainier, but this was the first time I had witnessed it in person.

We even got a video of the sunset. No fireworks, no green flash, no cheering from the crowds; the sun just seemed to gently melt into the horizon.

I had heard of the Mauna Kea telescopes, but I had no idea how large or numerous they are. Below is a list I copied and pasted from Wikipedia (at least I'm honest).
Everybody reading this blog knows of the Hubble Telescope. Well, I should say 99.99% just to be safe in the same manner as a label on a bottle of hand sanitizer. I believed that the Hubble was the premier telescope in the world. Well, it turns out that it's not.

The Hubble and these telescopes, particularly the two Keck telescopes, used to be on roughly the same level as far as usefulness is concerned. Each had their strengths and weakness. But recently, MIT students developed adaptive optics - a technology that, by reducing the distortion of wavelengths by Earth's atmosphere, increases the performance of the telescope. The Hubble and Keck are still relatively equal when it comes to their ability at taking pictures of certain objects. You can find a whole bunch of Hubble images at, and I highly suggest that you check it out.

But when it comes to other aspects (Nate didn't touch on specific ones), practicality, and ease of access (duh), the Keck and many of these other telescopes rip the Hubble to shreds.

Once the sun set and the sky turned dark (it does this quickly at lower latitudes), we could see thousands of stars in the sky and a very distinct outline of the Milky Way. You could even pick out where the center of the Milky Way (and its corresponding supermassive black hole) were located. Because of its subtropical location, one can see many different constellations at the same time. Indeed, we were able the North Star (Polaris) and the Southern Cross at the same time. I don't know of many other locations where you can do that. Large prominent constellations like the Big Dipper were in their full glory, and I was also able to see constellations not visible from Seattle, like Scorpius. Nate eventually popped out an 11-inch reflecting telescope and we saw Omega Centuari (a globular cluster of stars), the Whirlpool Galaxy, The Alberion Binary star system, the Ring Nebula, and to finish things off, the rings of Saturn. It was an amazing night, and one I will never forget.

It's easy to agree with people who say we are but a speck in a vast, expanding universe. But when you are on the top of Mauna Kea and can see stars you've never seen before, it really hits home. It's impossible to explain; it has to be experienced.

But even if I lived in a city whose light pollution was so bad that the only visible objects were Venus and the Moon, I feel as though due to this experience, I have a better grasp on my relationship with the rest of the universe. Now, I grasp that everything I saw is always out there and have realized that I previously only partially comprehended our place in space. I've got some contemplation to do, but with any luck, I'll have plenty of time for that. We joked about the world being small when we saw the mutual friends on the bus, but when you can see galaxies 10 million light-years away with a simple reflecting telescope, you realize that we are just a tiny planet surrounded by sun surrounded by a galaxy surrounded by a cluster of galaxies enclosed in a supercluster of galaxies. And when you realize that we don't even know what 95% of the Universe is (dark matter and dark energy), the millions of superclusters seem small.

And this weather blog? Hah, it hardly even exists.


1 comment:

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