Is it possible to make friends with nature? After visiting Hawaii’s Lake Wai’au a few years ago I have to believe it is. I’ve never connected so strongly with a place, making me even sadder to learn that this treasure is almost gone.
In 2012 my husband and I went to Hawaii and visited Mauna Kea on the Big Island, something thousands of tourists do every year. We went up to the summit, another fairly common activity. But we also had a rare experience almost none of those other visitors did because we took the extra step of hiking at the summit to a sacred spot in Hawaiian culture. At the top is an alpine lake just below the summit called Lake Wai’au. The path to it is unmarked, getting there requires a hike over craggy snow-covered volcanic red rocks, but the reward is an incredible experience in an otherworldly landscape that I wrote about for Outdoor Afro in 2012. Sadly, scientists don’t know exactly why yet, but the lake has shrunk to its lowest level EVER.
I was as shocked to hear this news as I would be to learn a close friend was sick. I am all too familiar with losing people, but to consider losing a place I connected with so strongly is a foreign concept. I just knew I would be going back to the lake again and again, taking my daughter there when she is old enough, and showing it to our friends. Perhaps it will recover and I’ll have the opportunity to do that, but for now I am grateful we took the time to just go.
Even though I was only there for an hour, Lake Wai’au became my friend, a part of my ‘ohana (extended family in Hawaiian). It challenged me, it was fun, and it taught me things–all components of a great friendship. The hike to the lake and the time we spent there are experiences I reflect on more than most other vacation memories-the crisp air, the debate over whether we should turn back when it took MUCH longer than the guidebook said it would to get there, the encounter with a French couple that hiked from the bottom who arrived at the lake at the same time we did. I can instantly recall how quiet the lake was–the area was the most silent place I have ever been.
Thinking of how easy it would have been for us to skip this stop is almost comical, because we’re always talking ourselves out of things. It would have been easy for us to allow some commitment or practicality to keep us on the road toward our next stop. The rental was almost out of gas (NOT advisable on a volcano in the middle of nowhere), we had just a few granola bars between us, and it was much colder than we anticipated. If we’d skipped hiking to the lake in 2012, we could have missed its presence on earth entirely. Instead we are left with a memory we’ll always treasure. So in 2014 I’m vowing to talk myself into more things, particularly where nature is concerned. The natural world is a constant source of ebb and flow, and the thing I don’t see today may not be here tomorrow. I don’t want to miss out on making any more awesome new friends!
Lesly Simmons is a San Francisco-based writer and founder of Mamas Guide: Discover Stroller-Friendly San Francisco. She is FINALLY going back to Hawaii in March 2014.
Contributed by Outdoor Afro Lesly Simmons who shares with us her recent, inspiring adventure in Hawaii in words and photos.
The name Hawaii usually conjures images of beautiful beaches, palm trees and thoughts of lounging by a pool, fruity drink in hand. But hiking to a frozen lake at the top of the biggest mountain in the world, which also happens to be a volcano? The thought never entered my mind until I did just that during a recent trip to the big island of Hawaii with my husband Jole.
Before embarking on the trip we did enough research to know there were some amazing hikes on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu, where we planned to visit. We packed our hiking shoes anticipating we would find ourselves in hiking distance of a secluded waterfall only accessible after traversing a tropical rain forest. But instead, our trusty guidebook led us to the seclusion of Lake Wai’au, more than 13,000 feet up Mauna Kea volcano.
On its own Mauna Kea is a sight to behold—it’s the largest mountain in the world, and often has snow at the top in winter. Temperatures can vary wildly between the chilly summit and the coastal towns of Hawaii, less than an hour’s drive away. It’s very possible to hike the volcano in the morning and spend the evening drinking piña coladas on the beach in the afternoon.
We only learned about Lake Wai’au thanks to the guidebook we picked up in the airport before we took off from San Francisco, the Rough Guide to Hawaii (highly recommended, it was worth it for the information on the lake trip alone). The frigid lake, set at just about 13,000 ft., comes from a layer of permafrost beneath the summit of the volcano.
Taking the drive up Mauna Kea requires a stop at a visitors center at an elevation of 9,000 feet to adjust to the altitude, which gave us a chance to explore some of the natural terrain of the volcano above the base layer of vog (fog made of volcanic ash from neighboring volcano Kilauea). After thirty minutes we began our ascent, a bumpy 20-minute drive up mostly unpaved roads through breathtaking vistas that came into view as we rose above the clouds.
The view from the summit of the volcano is like nothing else we’d ever seen—amazing silver and white observatories framed the immediate area around the summit, and in the distance other peaks of the volcano rose up, ringed by fluffy clouds and perfectly blue skies. And we had the entire place to ourselves.
On the way back down we parked off the main road and started off, scrambling over a rocky patch to reach the clearly defined path between two peaks ahead that lead to the lake. It was quickly clear that this lake was going to be more than the ten minutes the guidebook said, but we went for it. When we reached the first ridge and didn’t see the lake or anything looking like it could be one, we had to reassess our plans. But we decided it made most sense to keep going and see what we would find around the hills ahead.
Thank God we did, because within about five minutes later, the lake was in sight. We paused for a second to contemplate that fact that here, at the top of an ancient volcano that few people get to visit, we were seeing a secret lake that even fewer people knew existed. My guess is almost none of the dozens of visitors that go up to the summit every day have any idea that this marvel was close by, and I feel so blessed that I was able to see it. It definitely made my poolside cocktails later on that much sweeter!
Lesly Simmons is a social media strategist and traveler in San Francisco. She’s already planning her next trip to Hawaii for more amazing hikes to secluded treasures.