Business Monday: Big Island tour company provides epic volcano adventures, lava or not
September 25, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
The first time John Tarson saw lava up close, it was the first experience in his life he felt deserved to be called epic.
During an eruption of Kīlauea from 2011 to 2013, the 43-year-old California native, who moved to the Big Island with his wife in 2005, was able to see the night sky glow red from his home while lava flowed from Pu‘u‘ō‘ō down the volcano’s East Rift Zone.
“Hearing things from other people about how their experiences had gone over time and they had seen lava, I was like, I gotta see this stuff,” Tarson said.
Then, during one of his 4-mile hikes through the forest in his backyard on a trail previously cleared by a lava tour company to the edge of the lava field on the vent’s northeast flank, where the Kahauale‘a 1 and 2 flows were advancing in 2013, he found what he was after.
“I walked past this ridge and I got that really creepy feeling or interesting feeling that all humans have felt over time where, like, someone was staring at you,” Tarson said. “As I turned around to see what was going on, it was the lava.”
Tarson spent about the next year going out to the lava field, observing and recording the phenomenon to better understand it. In 2016, he shared a similar experience with guests on a tour with his company EpicLava.
They experienced the 61g lava flow on the east flank of Pu‘u‘ō‘ō as it crested over the Pulama pali (hill) at sunrise on a day in late May 2016.
“We were actually the first people in the world to see the 61g flow by foot that morning,” Tarson said. “Perfect timing.”
Since 2013, despite a few breaks for various reasons including the 2018 Lower East Rift Zone eruption and COVID-19 pandemic, EpicLava has taught guests about one of Earth’s most active volcanoes.
The Big Island eco-tour company based in Volcano, offers a once-in-a-lifetime guided interpretive adventure — lava or not — to past and present eruptive activity of Kīlauea volcano and the greatest attractions at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, focusing on the volcano’s summit region and including discussions about endemic species and the Hawaiian culture.
Tarson uses boots-on-the-ground knowledge he’s gained through years of hiking lava fields and the summit and his own research to provide guests with an understanding of the area and the basics of how the island’s volcanoes work.
With help from Tarson’s mentor, friend and fellow guide Jeffrey Judd, EpicLava’s goal is to bring a level of knowledge and interpretation to Kīlauea that sticks with people long after their tour so they want to have more similar adventures.
Judd, who famously survived after falling into a lava flow while he was a technician with the U.S. Geological Survey during the Maunaulu eruption on Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone, which lasted from 1969 to 1974, and was the federal agent in charge of the rescue of a Paramount Studios crew in November 1992 after the helicopter they were in crashed on the crater floor of the Pu‘u‘ō‘ō vent also in the volcano’s East Rift Zone, also brings a fount of top-level information because of his experience.
Right now, the only tour available is the Epic Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park tour, which is two to three hours depending on whether you go at 5 a.m., 2 p.m. or 8 p.m. Guests hike through areas of the 505-square-mile park to learn about its history and the best features it has to offer. Tarson’s favorite spot to take people is the Keanakākoʻi and Devastation Trail areas.
Tours range from 5 to 10 miles. EpicLava provides a backpack with water, snacks, gloves, rain poncho and flashlight. Guests should bring closed-toed shoes, a hat, sunglasses and sunblock.
Smaller tour groups of 10 are the norm now with just Tarson and Judd guiding hikes, but Tarson has taken groups of up to about 100 people in the past.
“To put it succinctly: the guides (John and Jeff) are THE people you want escorting you through the volcanoes,” a past guest wrote in a review on Tripadvisor. “I would recommend these guys to anyone who has a real interest in experiencing the history, not just looking at the land.”
EpicLava doesn’t sit around and watch the live webcams on Kīlauea. Tarson pays close attention to the deformation charts provided by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and seismicity levels, watching the volcano breathe as it inflates and deflates, to determine when lava might erupt next and where.
When lava does spew forth, tour or not, he goes. He and his family now live about 5 miles away from Kīlauea’s summit.
“Every time that there’s a breakout, I get really excited,” he said. “Like, it’s no joke. … In the first 20, 30 minutes, I’m pumped.”
More fulfilling for him is the reaction of tour guests when they see the molten magma flowing, their eyes glistening in awe. Tarson said it’s like watching his children on Christmas morning.
“Their eyes light up in the most wonderful way that swells your heart and makes you want to cry,” he said. “It just makes you be in love with life and everything to do with it. That’s the same look I would see in people’s eyes every morning when they see that lava, just fascination.”