Mauna Kea Kona Kanada

Zipping up my parka and rubbing my hands together, I think once again that a Canadian should feel comfortable in this place.

Although the snow, which was piled high around here a few months ago, is now gone, the air is crisp, the sky is clear, temperatures still dip below zero, and this is the 23rd of July (2013).

Everywhere around me, the light bounces off a gleaming surface that I consider the quintessence of Canada.

 “Where’s the Tim Horton’s ?” I ask.
No one answers or even acknowledges my words.  Maybe, this is because we are in Hawaii.

There is only one Canadian in the group of fourteen.  Our local driver still calls himself a Californian and the casual roll call on the way up the mountain revealed passengers from across the Mainland States, a couple of Scots, a few Aussies, a young man from Switzerland, a couple from Belgium, and, staring out the window in the back of the van, me.
“This is a shame,” I think, wishing I could commiserate with someone about why this piece of dusty land should be declared provisionally part of our country. 

“Maybe, we could plot a coup over a few beers.”

The gleaming Canadian surface is not a hockey rink, a discarded Loonie, or Peter C. Newman’s head although it does, in some ways, evoke the latter.  It is a shiny dome enthralled by exploration and discovery. 

I am looking at the giant ball-shaped astronomical observatory on top of  Mauna Kea, the highest mountain on the Hawaiian Islands , technically the tallest seabed-to-sky mountain in the world, and probably the best place on the planet to observe the stars and the action of the physical universe.  We are over 4,200 metres (13,800 feet) closer to the sun than the surfers down at sea level. Above the clouds, astronomers here have a clear view of the sky over 300 days a year.
I was told that the oxygen level in the air would be about 40 per cent less than what is in the stuff I usually breathe back in Ottawa.  The number seems about right as I puff, chest-cold-like up the hill.

“If anyone feels sick - and it happens - you can rest in the van - it will be unlocked,” our young driver-guide says in a last cautionary remark about altitude sickness. “We’ll be up here for about a half hour or more.”
U.S. Keck Twin Domes - Built by Canadians
Over forty years ago, Canadians stepped forward as some of the very first people to recognize the “astronomical” astronomy potential of this high and dry site; Canadian science has excelled in using this place; and Canadian companies, notably Dynamic Structures in Port Coquitlam, B.C., have helped build all of the major structures here. 
It may not look like it to the other people here tonight, but to me, it’s very much a donuts and hockey pucks kind of place.  Given that Canadian astronomers and astrophysicists have often led the world in scientific productivity by drawing on the dozen or so Mauna Kea observatories, a Canuck might expect to feel a bit of a chill here regardless of the ambient temperature.

I’ve wanted to visit the Mauna Kea summit for about a decade and a half.  In the late 1990s, I  helped promote the case for Canadian astronomy and astrophysics and learned about the peculiar success Canadians had realized in both the science and the technology-based business swirling around this field of research.  To me, the shining domes on Mauna Kea are beacons that symbolize the power of pulling together as a country.  I am delighted to get a chance to move among the telescopes and am pleased to see the others on the tour seem to share this feeling despite their lack of a Canadian science bureaucrat background.
The domes look surreal in the dimming light, and I am obliged to verify the reality by walking up and touching one bare-handed.  I hope my fingers don’t stick.  Despite the affection I feel, I sure as Hell will not kiss one with wet lips. It’s already cold, the sun is going down, and the temperature is dropping again. I check my pocket for the wool tuque and Dollar Store mitts I brought with me from home.

The frosty, sinking sun is a good thing.  It means we will be here to witness the spectacle of a Mauna Kea Summit sunset. 

“That’s Maui down there,” one of our group says pointing across the clouds. “It’s about
seventy-five miles away – so we must be seeing hundreds of miles into the distance.”

To me, five miles could be five thousand over the great, amorphous sea of clouds and blue.
Over a hundred thousand people visit the mountain every year, but only about five to six per cent go on all the way up the steep and rutted road to the thin-air peak.  I might have arranged a personal tour of this place through colleagues at the National Research Council (NRC), my organization and the one responsible for Canada’s federal observatories.  But it would have been an imposition, and the observatory staff would not have been able to escort me up the mountain at sunset. 

“They, of course, go to work in the evening,” my friend and intermediary Greg Fahlman pointed out when offering to help. “They study the night sky, remember ?”
A Canadian and the B.C.-based head of astronomy and manage some other stuff at NRC, Greg is a former Executive Director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), which was, back in the 1970s, the first big international facility to be built on Mauna Kea. 
Now, this icon of the summit and another one of those domes built by Canadian engineers  - the bright, white sea-shell shaped CFHT – stands before me on a small ridge.  It seems like it’s sitting on the edge of its own horizon at the frontier of space and earth.

Canada France Hawaii Telescope - the Icon
I opted to make my own arrangements to get up here through an “adventure tour” company with the not-so-difficult to remember name “Mauna Kea Summit Adventures.”  It was fairly easy. 

Evening communication from Ottawa aligns nicely with the six-hour ahead Hawaiian time.  After a couple of tentative email exchanges, I called toll free earlier this month and made the $200 credit card pledge to secure the only tour spot still available on the days I would be on the Island of Hawaii, the active-volcano mass of land usually referenced as “the Big Island.” 

Already, I’m thinking the price was cheap even though the $200 is just part of the cost when you’re like me and the great majority of the millions visiting Hawaii who base their vacation on one of the other islands.  The Mauna Kea summit trip not only requires flights over and back to either Hilo or Kona International, you need to plan on at least a night or two of accommodation as the seven to eight hour sunset tour means you get back down late at night and after the last Hawaiian Airlines flight out.

I picked Kona International because of its proximity to one of the Mauna Kea Summit Adventure pick-up spots. The nearby town is really named Kailua, but the airport is Kona in reference to the surrounding administrative district and to differentiate it from a larger Kailua of the same name over on the O’ahu.  The town is thus semi-officially Kailua-Kona, but to add to the disorder, the locals just call the town Kona.

I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel  , which I took to be Hawaiian for “the average place with a very long name.”   It has clean rooms, the standard supply of food and beverages, a pool, a link to a mini-mall, internet access, and just enough adjacent sandy shore to make legitimate the “Beach” reference. 
The Hawaiian language sure likes the “K” sound.

Kwick - Trying saying:

“Hi, I’m from Kanada – Kan you help me get a Kab to the  Kourtyard King Kamehameha in Kailua-Kona.”

          I Kut my tongue.

If you did not know who King Kamehameha I is before staying at the hotel, you do before leaving because of the art and exhibitory around the ground floors, the reconstruction of his chapel outside and associated local sites. Kailua-Kona was his seat of power from which he launched his historic campaign to unify the islands around two hundred years ago. 

One of the reasons  Mauna Kea is great for astronomy, aside from the pristine upper air in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is the Big Island’s relatively small population, meaning there aren’t a lot of man-made lights around to disrupt observations with what astronomers call light pollution. 

The town of Kona is about ten thousand and, in ways, it felt a bit like my home town in Ontario cottage country with the temperature cranked up and a few big hotels thrown in.  The two days there were great as a break from the heavily populated and paved paradise of Honolulu and Waikiki; I walked along the shore and through the village-like cluster of stores.  Loved the Ukelele-maker’s shop where the guy at the bench proudly showed me a fan letter from George Harrison. 

“Everyone should own a Uke ... it’s the only instrument you can’t play without laughing,” the late Beatle says.

I laughed, took more photos and briefly thought about taking a Uke up to Mauna Kea.
It was about 35 degrees Celsius down in town, making it easy to spot the other Mauna Kea Summit Adventurers around the tour pickup spot at the “Buns in the Sun” Bakery and lunch bar.  We had been told to wear boots, long pants, and long sleeved shirts.  Parkas were to be supplied on the van.  I was sweating just thinking about the clothing on my walk up from the hotel.  The people in the mall looked at us as if we were a family of polar bears dropped from the sky.

I didn’t stop pouring out the perspiration until about ten miles down the road when the air conditioning kicked in.  Our guide-driver is a geologist who worked in the oil and gas industry in other countries before touching down in this place and this cool job.  His knowledge of geology colours his commentary as we pass through the moonscape of lava fields on the way to the mountain.

The island is formed by five volcanoes with a lively history so he has lots to talk about. Mauna Kea is long and firmly dormant. Kilauea, in the national park to the south, is the most active.  Over the last two hundred years, it has erupted dozens and dozens of times.  Fortunately, the fiery lava is currently pointed in the other direction and into the sea.

On this, the western side of the Big Island, very, very little rain falls, and this means that the devastation of a lava flow is not erased for centuries.  We drove through a sea of black, dead looking terrain that was laid to waste in the early 1800s.  On the road across the island, the land morphs into scrub trees, dust, and rock.

I have read lots about Mauna Kea, but most related to the hard technology and what is in the sky above it.  Dimly aware of the peculiar ecosystem around it and the mountain’s status as a sacred place, I was not fully prepared for the desert and dusty ambiance of the ride and was impressed by the reverence of the commentary. 

A new highway is just being completed across the island that will cut down the time to get to the mountain from the major centres and the airports, but it was not finished today, and we spent a lot of time bouncing around, swerving, and ultimately – climbing up.

Part way up the Mountain, the van stopped, at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy.  It’s really the Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea, a bathroom break place, and a shop to buy T-shirts, drinks, and astronomy books.  For us Summit climbers, this spot is most important as the place to lift the hood and cool the engine from the climb and to acclimatize the human cargo to the thinning air.  We spent most of an hour there and ate lasagna from reusable, environmentally-sensitive metal containers.  I walked around the desert taking some pictures, showed the driver the images, and learned that the subject matter has special meaning.

The Visitor’s Centre was named for Ellison Onizuka, the Hawaiian astronaut killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, and his name and photo are reminders that others have given more to space exploration than just a few hours of riding in a buggy up a hillside into the light air.

Stopping on the way up to look out over the clouds, we are reminded that Mauna Kea is not alone.  She has a sister, Mauna Loa, who is a bit shorter and wider.  Cute in her own way, but, to be honest, a bit overweight.  Massive in fact. Loa in the name means “long”  - the long mountain. 
Maua Loa is the largest mountain on earth in terms of volume and area covered. Together these two sisters constitute mammoth chunks of real estate.  If they were priced the same as serviced land on O’ahu, this might be the most valuable bit of land on earth.

Today’s trip has already brought a lot of great visual experiences, but already I know it is the sunset around the observatories that will burn the deepest hole in my mind.

One of the things I really want to see on the summit is something that is not really here. 

It’s the site where a consortium of nations intends to build the next generation optical observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be, for a while at least, the biggest astronomy science facility in the world.  The land staked out for it is just over the hill down from the twin Keck Observatories and the Japanese Subaru telescope.  The structures that are now framing the emerging supernatural sunset.

It may be my imagination, but it looks to me like TMT site preparation work is underway.  It could be, but this surprises me as the go-ahead for the billion dollar project was only granted a couple of months ago by the Hawaiian authorities.

Approval was held up by opposition from environmentalists concerned about the mountain habitat.  Some bugs and plants, like the endangered and rare Silversword that I photographed earlier, are unique to the mountain. 
Another big hurdle is the position of some Native Hawaiian groups that argue that the TMT would defile the summit.  Native Hawaiian tradition holds that high altitudes are sacred and are a gateway to heaven. In the past, only high chiefs and priests were allowed onto the top of Mauna Kea, and the mountain is home to one confirmed regal burial site and perhaps four more.
Near the Visitor Centre, I photographed a rickety wood structure that evidently was an alter honouring these beliefs.
Of course, another issue is the cost of the thing.  At a billion dollars, the TMT is not something a country like Canada could ever contemplate on its own. Lots of countries have to work together and even look to philanthropists with deep pockets like Intel Founder Gordon Moore to split the bill.
In a strange way, the big cost could be positive for Canada because it means lots of construction and engineering work, and we have been so damn good at getting a share of the money-making contracts as well as at squeezing astronomy out the big facilities once they are built.  That’s why I am staring at this indentation on the mountain side and imagining good things for Canada.
I take more photos, record, as I have done for many years, a video message for Becky and Jonathon, my now adult kids, and pile back into the van where a couple of altitude-sickness sufferers have been resting their eyes, rubbing aching heads, and trying to keep rumbling lasagna under control.
On the way back down in the darkness, there is no way to see the drop off at the side of the road so the trip seems strangely safer and more comfortable than the ride up.  Just past the Visitor’s centre, our van is joined by another one, and we drive out into the desert where the guides set up amateur, but substantial telescopes. The fourteen of us and others from the second van line up to look at the stars.
I am told that the powerful green astronomy lasers are common and widely available, but it’s the first time I have seen one used.  It’s like we can touch the stars.  Circling the star systems and planets with the beam of green light, I see the logic of the constellation grouping more clearly than ever before and wish I had had a tool like this when my kids were young.  I might have been compelled to learn more, be a better teacher, and be more honest.
             “Daddy, what are those stars called ?”

               “Oh, that would be Orion’s belt, and over there that’s Orion’s shoe and Orion’s                 top hat  - and those stars are called Libra, “The Book,” like Library, see how it looks like the side of a book.”
A guy who is out in the desert on his own, not part of the tour group, has his own telescope. He tells me that this is not a good night.  The moon is bright and full, and it acts like a kind of light pollution flash bulb blotting out lots of stars. 
“Geeze, it must be incredible on a good night,” I say looking at the sparking, star-filled sky. “To me this is awesome, maybe the best I’ve ever seen.”

Subaru and Twin Keck Observatories
Watching all these child-like adults – real children are not allowed up to the top of the mountain – clamber around for a quick peek at Saturn, stars, and the moon, I wonder about the profound, cross-cultural, multi-national appeal of astronomy and why we are so fascinated by a spark of light that shot out across the sky thousands of years ago from a source that may no longer exist.  

The attraction has to have something to do with being curiously human – and this is attested to by the many, many nations that have plopped down money to have a piece of time on Mauna Kea.  With the TMT, more countries are coming to the mountain.  India and China to name two.

As proud as I am of being a Canadian while standing in this place, I think the fun and fascination of astronomy flows more in being part of the human race and part of something bigger than our country and ourselves.  It is not only a global preoccupation, but one that is as old as humanity.
This thought reminds me that the Hawaiian islands were discovered and populated by great Polynesian explorers and astronomers who navigated by the night sky.  Astronomy is at core of the history of the Islands and makes it fitting that the sacred powers would put the best astronomy place in the world on this spot.  I guess I will forget the coup, let the Hawaiians keep their mountain top, and just be grateful that they let Canadians trod on it once in a while.
Pre-Parka with CFHT and Gemini North
Most people sleep on the bouncy ride back down to Kona.  I read about astronomy on my Kindle (another “K’ word) to try to stretch out the experience of the day.
When the van pulls back up in front of the Buns in the Sun Bakery, the mall parking lot is empty, and no one is around this time to stare at us in our long sleeves, boots, and coats.  In any case, I am zipping off the legs of my convertible pants even before I grab my back pack and the tour company coat from the overhead rack.

I am a bit tired, and it will be good to get back to the hotel - in a way. 
But I confess -  this is the first time in my cold Canadian-based life that I have felt wistful turning in a parka for suntan lotion and shorts.
July 2013