The islands of Hawaii are the result of a crack in the Pacific Plate, a crack that has been slowly spewing molten rock for 25 million years, layer upon layer, volcano after volcano. Some of these mountains of lava have grown so massive that they've broken the surface of the deep Pacific Ocean, their tops rising above sea level where for eons the earth's rains and winds have sculpted them into their present forms.

Like many other places along the "Ring of Fire," the wide circle of volcanoes that surrounds the Pacific—including Alaska—the volcanoes awake from their cool slumber and burst forth, pouring new molten rock and ash on to earth.

On the Big Island of Hawaii, the latest phase of this eruption activity began in 1983. The active volcano, Kilauea, has pumped out billions of tons of lava. At one significant point this activity destroyed a number of homes and roads on the south part of the island, and G. Brad Lewis happened to be there to record it.

G. Brad Lewis, noted volcano photographer,
has been photographing this area since 1983.

Brad is a former Alaskan, born and raised in Utah he moved to the islands to begin his career as a photographer. Pele, goddess of volcanoes, happened to like him it seems, for it wasn't long before his remarkable photos began appearing worldwide.

Most recently one of his photos of Kilauea appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and his photos are featured in art galleries worldwide.

At this time, Brad is the only person on the island with a permit to enter the volcanically active region of the island, and working as his assistant we agreed to visit the most active place, the southwest beaches of Hawaii.

The Big Island once had a road that circled it. Now the road ends abruptly with large warning gates and signs. Past this, from miles away on clear days, you can see a dramatic column of steam rising nearly a mile. At night it glows red and orange.

Molten lava from the earth's core meets the ocean forming new land.

South of the Big Island, 30 miles out to sea the seeds of a new island are sprouting. Already over 3 miles high it has only to grow another 3,000 feet before it will emerge from the surface of the Pacific—a feat that some geologists say could happen anytime in the next two millennia.

We parked on the east side of the flow, donned hard hats and packed emergency breathing apparatus and cameras. A quick check in with the rangers on the day's seismic activity and we were off, crossing the rope barrier that separated the observation area from what could only be described as the "dead zone." For as far as you could see stretched an undulating plain of black. On the far horizon, about 4 miles away was our target, the shifting, dancing column of steam. In between this lifeless zone were marked by cracks, razor-sharp edges and occasional whiffs of foul smelling gasses. Brad told me the locals on the island call the foul smelling haze, "Vog."

We trekked for over an hour, once getting drenched by a burning acid rain that stung our eyes and faces and ate at our clothing. It was late afternoon before we found the remnants of the highway, a short patch of tar with the white line still visible, stretching only a hundred feet between two walls of cold lava. After this we came across the only other man made element we saw, a sign newly pounded into the rock reading, "Danger—Area Closed— Do Not Enter—The land beyond this sign will collapse into the sea without warning." No need to mince words here.

We stopped long enough for me to take a picture of Brad before we moved on--past the sign. I walked trying to make myself as light as a feather, but my attention was recaptured by the scene ahead. The column of steam was much closer, and much more violent and impressive than I had imagined.

We continued to hike as the sun was setting, and soon we were at the edge--literally at the edge. We were on a shelf far out over the sea, a newly created shelf. A fragile and rapidly decomposing shelf. At its very edge a stream of red hot lava was pouring into the sea--the primal elements of fire and water meeting head on. And we were only a few feet away from this awesome spectacle.

Lava poured into the churning sea, and the result was violent explosions that sent molten meteors arcing across the sky, to land on the beach smoldering and hissing. Billows of steam lit day-glow orange inside by the lava fumed and popped, and the whole scene, waves of sea and waves of lava, smelled of hell.

At my feet was the act of creation itself--the first few primal moments of activity on this earth that would lead to life as we know it. Molten earth pushing back the sea to form new land, the sea hitting it head on and creating the steam that would lead to rains to begin eroding that which was being built. A wild perpetual motion machine of fire and water, earth and air. It's no wonder that the ancient Hawaiians understood that the goddess of volcanoes, Pele, was like the Hindu God, Shiva, both a creator and destroyer.

We waited until after dark when the spectacle took on a life of its own. We photographed as much as we could, and marveled as much as we dared. In the dark it was a scene more brilliant and bizarre than the darkest regions of any Hieronomous Bosch painting.

We headed back, the night had merged with the black lava flows to make a darkness as deep as any cave. With our tiny flashlights we picked our way across the featureless expanse. At one point I found a small hillock on which was growing the only plant we'd seen in hours. In the branches was a cricket, chirping away for a mate. Maybe this year it would be a call unanswered, perhaps by next year there might be more hope.

We got lost at one point and had to climb a wall to make our way out. The wall was warm and pulsated, like an artery pumping blood to the body of earth. This was an active lava chimney, and I uttered a prayer to Pele to keep the walls intact while we climbed. When we finally made it to the top we saw in the distance flashlights. Making our way there through the rain we came through the darkness to meet Salli, Samantha and Cassidy. They'd been worried and were signaling us to give us a beacon to guide by. I'm sure we would have made it anyway, but it was comforting after the hellish events to know someone was waiting.

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