Ehitu Keeling is a photographer, surfer, and high school athletic coach based out of Kona, Hawai‘i. Below is a Q&A with him about photographing the Puna lava flow that may, at this very moment, be reaching Pahoa.
It looks like the world is ablaze. What’s happening here?
This is Pele on September 20, 2014. I went with a few guys from home to the spot. It was over a 2-hour drive from Kona side, from there it was a 10-hour round trip hike to the flow. We went in at sunset, and it was an all-night experience. The forest was thick with guava, so we had to make our own trail, using GPS and marking spots on the way up with colored ribbons if we got lost.
How did you know where to find the flow?
We were watching Civil Defense and the police, who’ve been monitoring it closely, getting ready to evacuate the whole town. We were studying the flow for a while, mapping routes and getting the updates from Civil Defense. We had three possible routes planned. We’ve been going to all the governmental meetings, then checking the USGS website and YouTube posts, figuring out where to find her.
The transfer station/rubbish dump, that’s going to be the first to be taken out. It’s made of concrete and steel, so the lava might make its way over it. The wooden buildings are definitely going to burn down.
Did you run into the authorities?
No. But of course it’s not completely safe. We saw 10-feet-diameter trees, 100 feet tall, dropping like toothpicks. It’s pretty heavy right now. Civil Defense and cops are monitoring it. Some nights the flow is at 15 yards a night, sometimes it’s 400 yards.
The night we went, we saw ethanol explosions and a massive forest fire. But we went at a good time, we only had to move locations every 30 minutes or so. It wasn’t a gnarly flow, I’d say she was making her way slowly, and the lava was glassy and hard, solidified like melted glass.
We took offerings, I took some ho‘okupu up for Pele. I brought lobsters and opihi as a gift that we had caught the day before. The next day, she stopped for a while, as if she was eating and enjoying her food for a moment.
What’s it feel like?
It’s not a fire, it’s a dry oven heat. It was a cool, clear night without wind. It was a blessing to see the stars, then we could feel the heat from about 30 yards away and smell the smoke. We knew we were close. Then we could see the opening through the previous flow, and walk straight up to it.
Is this legal?
Not really. People have been medivac ’d out of there from not paying attention. We researched our appropriate cultural practices to pay honors and respects to Pele. We felt her energy up there.
I needed to be there to document with photographs. These are our modern petroglyphs; the way we document our culture. It’s why I named my business Na Ki‘i Ma‘oli Hawaiian photography.
We thanked her, said that this is your land, thank you for allowing us to be here as long as we have been here. We left it at that, and made our way home.