Life in Hawaii, by Titus Coan
Copyright ©1882, 1997 (electronic edition by Edward J. Coan)

Chapter XIX.

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Eruptions from Mauna Loa The Eruption of 1843 A Visit to it Danger on the Mountain A Perilous Journey and a Narrow Escape.

DURING the night of January 10, 1843, a brilliant light was seen near the summit of Mauna Loa. In a short time a fiery stream was rushing rapidly down the mountain in a northerly direction toward Mauna Kea.

On the 11th, vast columns of steam and smoke arose from the crater. After a few days the orifice on the top of the mountain ceased to eject its burning masses, and the action appeared more vivid upon the slope of the mountain, until the lava reached the valley below, and struck the foot-hills of Mauna Kea.

The Rev. J. D. Paris and his family were our guests at the time, and, our good wives consenting, we prepared to go up to the flow, which shone with a strong glare in the valley between the mountains, and had the appearance of turning toward Hilo. Neither of us had ascended Mauna Loa before, and we started with great enthusiasm. Taking a guide and men to carry our food and sleeping-cloaks, we followed the bed of a mountain stream which empties into the bay of Hilo. The pathway was rocky and full of cascades from ten to 150 feet in height; but the water was low at this time, and by wading, leaping from rock to rock, and crossing and recrossing the stream from ten to twenty times in a mile, and taking advantage of parts of its margins which were dry, we made good progress, sleeping two nights in the forests on its banks, and coming out of the woods into an open, rolling country on the third day. This is a region where thousands of wild cattle roam.

A little before night of this day, we came directly abreast of a stream of liquid fire half a mile wide, and bending its course toward Hilo. Passing along the front of this slowly-moving flood, we flanked another of about the same width, flowing quietly to the west toward Waimea; while far up on the side of the mountain we saw another stream moving toward Kona. This higher stream was a lateral branch of the main trunk, and this trunk was again divided at the base of Mauna Kea. As these lower branches were pushing slowly along upon level ground, and as the feeding flood had ceased to come down upon the surface from the terminal vent, but flowed in a subterranean duct or ducts, most of the flow was solidified above, and we could see the flowing lava only in a belt of a few rods wide across the ends of the streams, and at several points upon the side of the mountain.

Having satisfied ourselves with the days labors, we set about preparing our camp for the night. Besides our guide and burden-bearers, a number of natives had begged the privilege of going with us. Selecting an old wooded crater, about two hundred yards from the lava stream, and elevated some sixty feet above it, we prepared a booth of shrubs and leaves, collected fuel, made a rousing fire, ate our supper, made arrangements for the morrow, and lay down for the night.

But before our eyes were closed by sleep, a dense cloud settled down upon us, covering all the wide upIands between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. We were now at an elevation of about 8,000 feet above the ocean level, and the air was cold. Soon the vivid lightning began to flash from the clouds that covered us, instantly followed by crashing peals of rattling thunder. We found that we were in a sea of electricity, and that the full-charged clouds rested on the ground. It was a flash and a crash simultaneously; the blaze and the roar were nearly coincident. The very heavens seemed ablaze; the hills and trees dropping their veil of darkness as if engaged in a fairy dance, while the thunder roared and reverberated among the mountains.

I had never before seen a tempest of equal grandeur. But the danger was imminent. The storm continued without intermission until near morning, and a great rain fell. The sun rose, and the mountains on both sides of us were crowned with glory. A heavy fall of pure snow covered their summits. Looking down from our lofty watch-tower toward Hilo, we saw the clouds that had blazed around us during the night rolled down and massed along the shore, hiding the sea from our sight, the upper surface shining with light, and alive with dancing and quivering rays. We could also see the flashes of lightning dart among the clouds, followed in measured time by the booming thunder. The scene was of equal grandeur with that of the past night, but without its danger. We were in bright sunshine, thousands of feet above the clouds, while the coast and bay of Hilo were shrouded; and, for the first time in years, a great storm of hail fell upon the northern part of the district.

But to the hills! to the hills! was the summons of the morning. Onward and upward was our motto. We each selected a man who volunteered to go with us to the summit. From our point of view we could trace the stream in all its windings from its source to its fiery terminus before us. The surface was all hardened except the fused belt of some 200 feet wide at the lower end of the flow, pushing slowly out from under its indurated cover. Above this the whole flow was a shining pahoehoe, or field lava, steaming in light puffs from a thousand cracks and holes

We set out at sunrise with our two native guides, carrying a little food, a small supply of water in a gourd, and our camp-cloaks. We flanked the fresh lava stream some part of the way; crossed it occasionally, and walked directly upon it for many miles, making as straight a course as possible. Much of the way we were obliged to walk over fields and ridges, and down into gorges of aa, or clinker lava, as sharp and jagged as slag around an iron furnace.

The work was so severe that our men fell behind, and we were forced to halt often and encourage them to hasten up. At length, weary of this lingering pace, we hurried on, leaving them to follow as well as they could, but before noon we lost sight of them, and saw them no more until our return to camp. Taking with them all our supplies, they had turned back to enjoy rest and shelter with their companions who remained behind.

We passed over hills and through valleys; saw steaming cones and heard their hissings. We came to openings through the crust of twenty to fifty feet in diameter, out of which issued scalding gases, and in looking down these steaming vents, we saw the stream of incandescent lava rushing along a vitrified duct with awful speed, some fifty feet below us. Still pressing up the mountain, we saw through other openings this rushing stream as it hurried down its covered channel to spread itself out on the plains below. We threw large stones into these openings, and saw them strike the lava river, on whose burning bosom they passed out of sight instantly, before sinking into the flood. Far off to the right we heard the crashing and roaring of the lava-roof as it fell into the channel below made by the draining of the stream.

Noon passed, and the summit was not reached. "Hills peeped oer hills," and we were weary. We came to the snow. One, two, and three P.M. made us anxious. We counted the hours, half hours, and minutes, while we plodded some five miles in the snow. We had no food, no wrappers for the night, and no shelter. Our condition was now not only one of suffering, but one of peril. Our strength began to fail. But to fail of the object before us when just within our grasp! Could we bear the disappointment?

We fixed 3:30 P.M. as the latest moment before we must turn our faces down the mountain. To remain later where we were was death. At the last moment we came to the yawning fissures where the crimson flood had first poured out. The rents were terribly jagged, showing the fearful rage of the fires as they burst forth from their caverns into the midnight darkness.

We had seen the object of our quest, and now life depended on our speedy return.

Full twenty-five miles of rugged lava, without guide or trail, lay before us. We had tasted no food nor a drop of water since daylight.

We knelt a moment, and "looked to the hills whence cometh help," and then began the descent. We ran, we stumbled and fell; we rose and ran again amidst scoria and rocks, up and down, until at sunset we reached the point where we had stood at noon. Far off among the foot-hills of Mauna Kea, in the north, we could descry the green cone where our camp was pitched.

Night came on apace. The moon was a little past her first quarter, and her mild light never appeared so precious to us as now. Down, down, we ran, falling amidst the scoriaceous masses, scaling ridges and plunging into rugged ravines, tearing our shoes and garments, and drawing blood from our hands, faces, and feet. Once in about a mile we allowed ourselves a few seconds only to rest. To sit down fifteen minutes would stiffen us with cold, and to fall asleep in our exhausted condition would be to wake no more on earth.

As we grew weaker and weaker, our falls were more frequent, until we could hardly rise or lift a foot from the ground. More than once, when one of us fell, he would say to his companion, "I can not rise again but must give up." The other would reply, "Brother, you must get up," and extending his weary hand, and with encouraging voice he would aid the fallen one to rise. Thus we alternated in falling and rising; while our progress became slower and slower. When about halfway down the descent, we saw clouds rolling up from the sea, and our anxiety was intense lest such a storm as we had felt the preceding night should fall upon us. The clouds covered the moon and stars, and darkened all the volcanic lights of those breathing-holes, which by night shone like lamps on a hill-side. Our camp-hill, and the flood of lava near it, were covered with the cloud, and "darkness which was felt ," came over us. It now seemed as if all was over. But thanks to God the veil was removed, the stars reappeared, and we ceased to wander as we had done under the shadow of the cloud. We had left the snow and the colder heights far behind, and now we felt that we were saved. When within half a mile of camp our natives heard our call, and two came out with torches to meet us. We came in like wounded soldiers who had been battling above the clouds, limping and bleeding. We threw ourselves prostrate upon the ground, and called for water and food, and did not rise until near noon of the next day.

Our providential escape filled us with too much gratitude to allow us to chide severely the guides who had deserted us, and whom we found with the rest of the party, full-fed and happy.

This expedition taught us useful lessons. One of them was never to attempt another enterprise of this kind without completer arrangements for its success. We learned practically the truth, that "Two are better than one, for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow, but woe to him who is alone when he falleth."

When about to leave our mountain camp, our chief guide, a wild-bird catcher and bullock hunter of the highlands, came to me with a sober and thoughtful countenance, and after a little hesitation said: "Mr. Coan, we have guided you up the mountain for so much, and now how much will you give us to guide you back?" Looking him square in the face, I replied, "You need not go down, you can stay up here if you like." The fellow was dumbfounded and stood speechless. His companions, who had gathered around him hoping to share in the double price for services, burst out into a laugh, and called him an ass. He submitted, took up his burden, and gave me no more trouble. But all the way down his comrades kept up the joke until he accepted the title and said: "Yes, I am a jackass."

We reached home after three days of hobbling on lame feet, but thankful to Him who guides the wanderer.

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