1841 - Charles Erskine
The US Exploring Expedition on Mauna Loa
On arrival, our observatory was established at Point Waiakea. An expedition to the mountains was fitted out, consisting of the commodore, ten officers, Mr. Brinsmade, Dr. Judd, a number of seamen, and two hundred natives to carry the portable houses, instruments, tents, and provisions. The natives were separated into parties, numbered, and loaded. It was three o'clock when we started with our two hundred bearers of burdens; forty hogs; a bullock and a bullock hunter; fifty bearers of poi; twenty-five with calabashes, large and small; others]with iron pots, kettles, frying pans, etc. Some were lightly and others heavily loaded, their burden being lashed to their backs or carried on each end of sticks balanced across their shoulders, which is their usual mode of carrying burdens.
We encamped for supper about six o'clock at a village called Ola'a, having traveled about eight miles. Here we waited until the moon arose, which was at midnight, when we again got under way, making Kapuauhi, or Flea Village, about ten a.m. Here they had some of the largest as well as some of the smallest and spryest fleas I have ever seen. I have been in a number of flea regions but never found them so numerous nor knew them bite so spitefully as here. Here we made quite a stop for breakfast and for rest, but the fleas gave us no rest. Besides these tormentors, there were mosqoitoes of enormous size, scorpions, and centipedes. But the fleas took the cake. The natives told us that the mosquitoes and fleas were brought to their island by the first ships years and years before and that they had been "biting, flying, and hopping about" ever since.
On leaving Kapuauhi, we found the road very hard to travel. The next village was Kappaohee. Here we refreshed ourselves, took a siesta, and then got under way again, heading for the summit of Mauna Loa. In about a couple of days we arrived at a plain on the side of the mountain, where is situated the volcanic crater called Kilauea, eight thousand feet above the sea level. We pitched our camp in full view of one of the largest volcanoes in the known world. The crater of Kilauea is seven times is large as Boston Common. Imagine yourself, kind reader, standing at its edge, looking down into this huge pit one thousand feet deep and beholding, at its bottom, lakes of liquid fire boiling over into each other; dashing their fiery waves against the dark sides; and throwing up fiery jets sixty to eighty feet into the air. The view at night is sublime in the extreme. While a dog watch of us were seated on its edge with our feet hanging over, another pool burst forth with a hissing, rushing roar. As it boiled over, the cherry-red liquid lava ran in streams to another pool. In less than an hour, it formed a lake a mile in circumference, as large as Boston Common. It kept on hissing, roaring, boiling, and sending up its fiery-red liquid lava jets sixty to eighty feet. A vast cloud of silvery brightness hung overhead, more glorious than anything we had ever beheld. This scene was well worth a voyage around the world.
While sitting here, Bill Richmond, one of our boatswain's mates, began to spin a yarn about a kind of a purchase he could rig in order to hoist one of the big icebergs we had seen in the Antarctic seas so as to drop it into this volcano. What a sizzling it would make!
Just then the commodore, with other officers, hove in sight a short distance off. He called us a pack of foolish virgins and said, "I don't believe you could find half a dozen landlubbers so silly as to perch themselves there," and ordered us to go and turn in. The camp was about two hundred yards off, and when we made it, it was two bells - one oclock.
At daylight the mortar was fired, when all hands turned out, raising a great hubbub. All were grumbling and complaining about their burdens. Shaking their heads, they pointed to their loads and growled out, "Ouri miti," and, to cap the climax, they even struck for higher wages. The commodore acceded to their demand and, seeing that they were all tired out and the shoulders of many were sore, sent down for fifty more natives without their "fraus," and concluded to lay to until the next day in order to give the natives a rest.
There were a large number of hangers-on, in the shape of wives and relatives. Some had two wives, and some had their sisters-in-law. These young ladies greeted the rising of the sun with their native dance. When they had become somewhat excited in it, the bullock, which was half wild, got loose, and such a rush in all directions to get beyond die reach of his horns. It was really a very amusing scene. The bullock was soon secured by the hunter and driven on in advance of the party. During the day, the burdens were more equally divided among the natives.
While here, a party of us descended to the bottom of the crater and poked sticks into a small pool of lava. The sticks immediately took fire. There are many caves on this mountain. We ventured into several of them. Some of them are of unknown extent. In one that we entered, we found it so carved and finished as to resemble a work of art. A projection, some three feet high, ran along on either side far down into the passage, very eleganty molded and making splendid seats. The floor was smooth. Overhead were hanging lava "icicles," two to three feet long, from which was slowly dripping very sweet but extremely cold water. We penetrated this cave for more than half a mile. Once, there flowed through it a stream of boiling lava which has so completely inundated the whole island.
In another cave, we found the remains of bink l and the skeleton of a human being. On the plain were many chasms and crevices from which steam issued. In these, we scalded our hogs and cooked our food.
The next morning, we resumed our journey up the mountain. The hangers-on, in the shape of wives and sweethearts, were so much in our way and such consumers of our food that all of them were forbidden following us; and so they went back to their wigwams.
As we advanced, the air grew cooler and the way rougher. In two days, after much hard traveling, we had left all shrubbery behind us and had ascended above the clouds and could look down upon them. After leaving here, we had no path to follow, the whole surface being a mass of lava.
The next day was Sunday, and a day of rest to our weary limbs. In the afternoon of Monday, finding it impossible to drive the bullock any farther, he was killed. Water had become very scarce, and the natives were hawking it about the camp at half a dollar a quart. They did not sell much.
One of our shipmates, William Longley, was missing for several days. When last seen he complained of being sick. Many of us had the mountain fever - that is, a shortness of breath, sore eyes, with much headache, and a dryness of the skin.
The next morning after we had got fairly under way, we were overtaken and enveloped in a snow cloud. The natives became much frightened and shouted out, "Ouri miti," "No good," and nearly all of them left and ran down the mountain. They had nothing on but a narrow strip of tapa tied around die loins and a scanty blanket over the shoulders, leaving the body, arms, and legs exposed to the weather. The thermometer was at thirty degrees, and they had been accustomed from childhood to temperature of seventy to eighty degrees. Fortunately, the commodore had previously sent down to the ship for a hundred or more men.
It cleared away in the afternoon, leaving the snow a foot deep. We could not make much progress through the snow with our heavy loads, so we sought shelter in one of the caves, where we passed rather an uncomfortable night. In this cave we found a small pond of water frozen over. The ice was about eight inches thick. At sunrise we came forth from the lava cave to behold a sublime scene. The lofty dome of Mauna Loa was covered with a mantle of snow. The effect of the rising sun upon it gave it the appearance of a fairy dome. It would quickly change from a blush-rose color to a bright scarlet, then light purple. Finally, it assumed its pure white mantle.
Looking down on the valleys and the plain below us, we could see the waving of the lofty palms in the morning breeze. Looking farther down into the bay, we could see Old Ocean's waves rolling in and throwing the silvery spray high in the air over the coral reefs. We could but admire the wonderful contrast. By ten o'clock nearly all the snow had disappeared.
About eleven, fifty of our ship's company arrived, bringing the glad tidings that our lost ship-mate, Longley, had been found near one of the caves, though in a very feeble condition. He said he had seen people pass and repass but had not had the strength to attract their attention. He had been exposed to the cold and rain three days and nights. The best of care was taken of him, and he soon recovered. The day proved fine, and we got everything in readiness for an early start in the morning; and, after a hearty supper of hardtack, boiled fresh beef, and boiled tea without sugar, we made for the cave, rolled ourselves up in our blankets, turned in on our lava beds, and tried to go to sleep. At daylight the next morning, we turned out and breakfasted on a most delicious scouse and Scotch coffee, after which we made a move for the summit, arriving there the next day noon with weary limbs and sore feet. The ascent for the last five or six miles was very rough. The whole surface was covered with lava clinkers, much resembling those from a blacksmith's forge. We were provided with green rawhide sandals to travel over this steep, rough road; and it was no boy's play to travel it for five or six miles carrying heavy boxes of instruments, pieces of the portable house, and provisions. But Jack before the mast carried the whole lot to the summit, singing, laughing, and joking as if on a picnic party. Place the sailor in any situation you will, you cannot deprive him of his mirth and gayety.
The commodore having selected a suitable place, we pitched our camp, satisfied the inner man the best we could, spun several yarns, then turned in.
The next morning the sun rose clear and bright. and everything was tranquil. After an early breakfast we erected the portable houses, and the instruments were put up and the pendulum set in motion. We then commenced to build a wall as high as we could reach, with the lava clinkers around the whole camp to protect the houses from the force of the wind, the commodore and officers working with us and as hard as the best of us.
A number of stations had been established on the route down to the ship, so we heard from her every few days.
The summit of this mountain is nearly fifteen thousand feet above the level of the sea. Old Tom Piner used to tell us that we were then as near to heaven as we ever would be unless we mended our ways. My prospects of a berth in that port are much brighter today than they were then.
There are four craters on the summit of Mauna Loa, but they are nearly or quite inactive. We descended into one of them and traveled over it for a distance of two miles. As we had looked into it from the brim, the bottom had appeared smooth and even, but after having descended, we found it filled with heaps of clinkers and massive blocks of lava. Little patches of beautiful snow, which had drifted into the crevices, formed a striking contrast to the dark lava. One crevasse sent forth hot dust or ashes. From others hot steam rushed, sometimes with a loud and hissing sound, like that of a locomotive. After collecting many specimens, we about ship and stood for the camp. The east side of the mountain was one vast plain of unbroken lava which had at some time flowed from one of the craters. It was dazzling to the eyes to behold it, resembling, as it were, a limitless sheet of bronze radiating all the colors of the rainbow from its burnished surface. The vast dome, which is the summit of Mauna Loa, is about twenty miles broad.
We made the camp at two bells - five o'clock; at six o'clock had our usual supper of hardtack and boiled tea, our dessert consisting of bananas. The dog watch was spent in smoking, mending our sandals, singing, and spinning yarns.
Standing on the summit of this mountain and viewing the scene before me, I was reminded of the expression of an old lady when carried for the first time to the top of a mountain. Looking all around and seeing hill and valley, village and river beneath her, the good old lady raised her hands and exclaimed, "Good Lord a massy, wall I declare to gracious what a big world it is, after all!"
During our stay of three weeks above the clouds, we were exposed to many hardships, the weather being as changeable as off Cape Horn. At times the winds were cold and boisterous, and the thermometer often dropped to eighteen below. The pelting rain, the driving snowstorms, and the furious blasts laden with hail and sleet would come howling and whistling over the frightful chasms and craggy peaks so suddenly and with such force that it reminded us of our sojourn in the frozen regions of the Antarctic. Jack before the mast did not expect to fall in with such weather within the tropics.
It was interesting to watch the various movements of the clouds floating below us, with the horizon above them. At times they would be seen, as it were, resting on the sides of the mountain, some looking a dark indigo color, others white as the purest snow, others resembling huge bunches of fleecy wool, while the sky above was of the deepest blue. Some, floating by, would graze the base of the mountain and leave traces of snow. The stars looked very near and large. As the sun arose, it seemed as if it were rolling over towards us.
This night was like most of the nights we experienced while on the mountain: very stormy and cold, the temperature being down to sixteen below. I will not say that I never saw it blow so hard, but I never saw it blow any harder. For fear of some damage to the Instruments, we were ordered to turn out and take them down. We had no sooner got them stowed away snug in their cases than our camp was struck by a terrific hurricane which raised the roof of the pendulum house high into the air and scattered its fragments on the sides of the mountain. The other house was demolished and several valuable Instruments badly injured. Pieces of canvas from our tents, spread out as big as tablecloths, might be seen floating in the air. The wind was so violent that it was impossible to keep our footing, l so we laid down and clung closely to the side of the mountain. Amidst all this Jack had his jokes, you may be sure. You might hear one sing out, "I say old gruffy, my lad, did you ever fall in with anything like this off Cape Cod?" "No, my hearty. It even beats Cape Horn." Another would shout, "I’ve seen it blowing like blue blazes, but this is a regular old blowhard, hard enough to blow Yankee Doodle on a frying pan."
"Silence fore and aft!" sings out old Tom Pines. "You never knew anything about its blowing abovs the mastheads. Just heave to until all hands are called up higher; then you will find that you cannotl weather the gale even by lying down to it."
At two o'clock the gale abated; at daylight everything was as serene as a morning in the tropics.
At sunrise we were astonished to behold the Star-Spangled Banner still proudly waving far above this scene of desolation, on the brim of one of the craters.
I feel proud to know that my country's flag, the broad stripes and bright stars, has been borne by brave men, north, south, east, and west, and waved to the breeze in as high an altitude as the flag of any other nation.
Pendulum Peak, January, 1841, U.S. Ex. Ex. having been cut in the lava within our village, we picked up the remnants of the camp and were all glad to bid adieu to the bleak and dreary summit of Mauna Loa.
Twenty Years before the Mast
Boston 1890; Reprint 2006