I was looking for another photo and came across a few I had forgotten about. In 2002 the Collings Foundation flew several WWII aircraft into Tucson International Airport and provided tours.
Each year the foundation took a few aircraft and toured the country, allowing visitors to tour the aircraft and for a more substantial donation provide sightseeing flights. For those who simply toured the aircraft on the ground they allowed something special, allowing guests to climb through the aircraft and see the inside.
As the airport was just a few minutes from work I had to take advantage of this opportunity. Deb met me for lunch and we headed over together to see the aircraft.
We have a lot of fun when the kids come to visit. We regularly offer tours of Keck to local school groups. When they come we lay in a schedule of activities… Solar telescopes, an IR camera demonstration, tours of our remote operations, the activities can vary depending on the grade level.
After the last tour we got a packet of thank you letters from one of the classes. These are just fun to read, it is great to see what the kids remember from their visit. A drawing of telescopes set up in the lawn caught my eye, I was responsible for running the solar telescope activity!
One of the things the recent controversy has starkly revealed is the lack of understanding of what we do on the mountain. Myths and misunderstandings pepper the comment sections of local newspapers and echo on Facebook.
In an effort to change this the obsevatories are introducing a new tour opportunity. The Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience is a free tour of an observatory, with free transportation to the summit for local residents. All that is necessary is a local ID to get a chance to see inside one of the summit facilities.
Rumor has it that Hawaii Forest and Trail will be providing the transport, a comfortable service with knowledgable guides.
Surprisingly this was announced by President Obama at the White House Star Party this week. A rather high profile announcement for a local effort.
I will probably volunteer to help out and be a tour guide when it comes Keck’s turn to host the tour.
With the water conditions remaining poor for diving, it was time to consider some other activity for the Labor Day weekend. Recalling a news release from a few months ago I had an idea… Flumin’ Kohala.
The fun is in using kayaks to explore one of the old irrigation canals that is carved into the mountains above Hawi. Tours of the ditch are available as a tourist excursion. Reserving our trip for a Sunday morning Deb and I were lucky, we got a private tour, the only guests for the trip. The months of September and October are a slow season for businesses that depend on tourists after the start of school and before the holidays begin. Locals know this is the best time to go do many activities as the crowds are sparse.
Flumin’ Kohala offers two tours a day, an 8am tour and another at 12:30pm. I knew that the earlier tour was far more likely to offer clear blue skies and rain free conditions. In the afternoon the clouds often build along this coast, creating the rain that the irrigation canal is designed to collect.
This tourist attraction has been closed several times when the canal was damaged. The 2006 earthquake destroyed one flume and damaged others forcing the kayak tour to close. This was eventually repaired allowing tours to begin again. In early 2015 the canal was again badly damaged, this time by heavy rains and flooding, forcing tours to cease. After repairs the tour was restarted, this time by the ditch operator instead of contracted out. Thus the new company is locally owned and employs local residents. All of our guides were guys that grew up in North Kohala, full of information about the area.
Construction started in 1905 and took 18 months to complete. The fourteen miles of ditch and tunnels were carved into the rock by hand, Japanese laborers working for a dollar a day. Tunnels over a thousand feet long were bored through the ridges, with sections of elevated flumes crossing the gulches. In many places the canal exits a tunnel, crosses a bridge, then immediately enters another tunnel. Completed on schedule the final cost was $694,000 in 1907 dollars, the equivalent to over $18 million today. Seventeen men lost their lives carving this ditch into the mountain.
The water was used to irrigate thousands of acres of sugarcane and to supply the five sugar mills that once operated along the Kohala Coast. While sugar production ceased in the 1970’s the canal system continues to supply water to local ranchers and a nursery.
Today it is the employees of Flumin’ Kohala that maintain the canal system as well as providing tours. Repairing the old stonework, clearing debris and sediment from the ditch and pruning back the rain forest that would quickly overgrow the canal. Water level is maintained through a system of sluice gates that must be adjusted with the rainfall to let water out of the ditch where needed.
It is the tunnels and bridges that make this section of canal so spectacular. The tunnels seem to go on forever, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel disappearing as the channel curves and bends inside the mountain. A headlamp is provided to every guest, but I had my diving video light along providing a flood of bright light that drowned out the small headlamps and lit up the tunnel for photography. Our guides were asking where they could buy something like that!
Midway we stopped an got out to enjoy the view from one of the flumes crossing a pretty gulch and waterfall. Of course there is no trail here, getting out meant we were standing in a couple feet of flowing water wading across a bridge. Usually one wades under bridges, not over them. Everything about this tour was definitely unique!
The laborers who carved and maintained the canal system left marks of their passing. In a few places Japanese Kanji characters can be found along the tunnel walls, preserved underground. Thousands of hand carved blocks of stone line the tunnels and banks of the canal, a testament to the craftsmanship of those who built.
As the website strongly warned us… You will get wet! We wore swimsuits under our shirt and shorts, good choice. I wore a set of hiking sandals, Deb a pair of scuba booties. For cameras I used the GoPro while Deb shot a G11 in the waterproof housing. My sturdy canvas hat was a good choice as well, protecting my scalp from the tunnel ceilings a few times. Wet we got! As recommended we brought towels and the Flumin’ Kohala office has large bathrooms set up for changing into dry clothing when you finish the tour.
I was expecting a fun day, Flumin’ Kohala was more fun than I expected. This was no short trip, the miles of canal and tunnels just kept flowing past. This is an adventure well worth the cost. Great guides and a fascinating experience provided just the thing for an otherwise quiet Sunday.
Over the past few years the West Hawaii Astronomy Club has visited nearly every telescope on Mauna Kea. One glaring exception to this is Subaru, the 8.2 meter telescope belonging to NAOJ.
Subaru is the only telescope with an active tour program. By making reservations ahead of time you can visit the interior of the facility with a guide. This made making the arrangements for a tour quite simple, even when the observatories are worried about events on the mountain. We did quite well for tour guides, Rieko Murai and Josh Walawender made the tour a bit better than the usual tour. Josh is well known to the local amateur community, bringing his own small telescopes to observe at the VIS.
The limit for any group visiting the telescope is eight due to practical considerations such as safety. Thus I had set up two tours, using both the 10:30 and 11:30 slots. This allowed most of the club an opportunity to visit the telescope. This did mean we were unable to enjoy the experience together. While we waited for our later tour I led a short walk to some interesting geologic features and one of the ancient ahu that are near the road.
In past years the club has toured the various optical observatories on Mauna Kea. Telescopes like Keck, Gemini and CFHT represent some of the largest optical telescopes in the world. There are a set of telescopes on the summit that often get overlooked, the submillimeter observatories. CSO, JCMT, and SMA all operate beyond the infrared in the submillimeter wavelengths of 0.3 to 1.4mm. These instruments enable the study of the cold and dark universe. The vast clouds of gas and dust than make up so much of the cold material between the stars and galaxies. The raw material from which everything we know is created, and to which we will return one day when the Sun has exhausted its hydrogen fuel.
Personally I had never visited these facilities, not during my seven years on the mountain. This is something that had to change. I suspected that this was true of most of the West Hawaii Astronomy club membership. It is even more imperative in that one of the facilities, CSO, is to be decommissioned and dismantled in the next few years. Thus the goal of visiting at least a couple of the submillimeter facilities to see the other side of Mauna Kea astronomy.
When arranging the tour I contacted all three submillimeter facilities on the summit. I would have considered getting two out of three a success, I knew that there was no way I would manage to get all three scheduled for a single day. The submillimeter observatories have much smaller staffs than the large optical telescopes like Keck, thus providing a tour to a visiting group is much more difficult. In the end all three observatories were able to provide a tour on the same afternoon, something I am still surprised about. A great deal of gratitude is due to the folks who drove up the mountain on a Saturday to give our group a wonderful tour.
There is one thing about working at Keck, everyone seems to come here.
I have met a few interesting folks working on the mountain… Famous astronomers like Alex Filippenko and Andrea Ghez, one of my favorite SciFi authors David Brin. Politicians of all levels, county through federal, routinely visit the facility. Just wait a bit, they will come.
This proved true again this week with visits from a pair of famous, infamous to some, visitors. Richard Dawkins is a British author and campaigner for science and reason in the public sphere. Sean Faircloth is an ex-politician, lawyer and eloquent speaker who has likewise taken up that torch. Knowing who was coming I had overstayed my usual shift on the summit to be around for an evening tour.
Unfortunately Richard was not in best form, his legendary wit and charm in short supply. I suspect a little too much travel combined with 13,600ft altitude was taking its toll, he was tired, but seemed to make the best of the tour. Sean on the other hand, was in fine form. The party was rounded out by Christopher Amos, Robin Cornwell, executive director for RDF and IfA astronomer Roy Gal. Our guests were full of questions about the facility and the work we were doing.
We toured the telescopes while the operators and astronomers were preparing for the night. It should have been no surprise that there were quite a few fans in this science centered place, even the visiting astronomers were fans, happy to pause and answer a few questions.
Observing this night included the use of the Keck 1 AO laser and everyone was able to see the beam against a beautiful starry sky. I introduced Sniffen, one of our night attendants and laser spotters. Not that they could see his face, Sniffen was bundled to the eyes, comfortable in the spotter’s chair outside in the cold. The fact that we are mandated to use people to watch the sky for aircraft around the laser was an interesting subject of conversation.
It is always a bit odd meeting someone in person that you have known for years through electronic media. Having read their writings, seen the videos, you form a mental image of a person that may, or may not match who you meet. Personal interaction offers a chance to reconcile that mental image.
It was a pleasure to host a tour of Keck for guests such as these. People who tirelessly push back against the efforts of religious demagogues and extremists to control the path of our society.
There are few opportunities to visit most of the telescopes on Mauna Kea. Only two of the thirteen telescopes maintain any sort of regular public access. Keck opens a viewing gallery during business hours on weekdays and to the MKVIS weekend tours. Subaru provides interior tours, but only with advance reservations. Visiting inside any of the other telescopes is normally not open to the general public, but can be arranged with some work.
Thanks to the work of a few individuals the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club arranged tours of both Gemini and CFHT. Marc Baril was kind enough to arrange the CFHT tour, setting up staff and transportation for the visit. This included a pair of CFHT 4WD vehicles taking folks from Waimea to the summit. Many thanks are owed to Joy Pollard who set up the Gemini portion of the tour. Weekend tours are not normally arranged, but Joy managed to put together the needed staff to allow us to visit the telescope on a Saturday. The result was a couple great tours of these facilities.
This marks the second recent summit tour available to members of the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club. Last year we toured the W.M. Keck Observatory. This year CFHT and Gemini allowed us to view a pair of telescope that have helped keep Mauna Kea at the forefront of astronomy for decades.
The weather was pretty awful, winter weather closing in on the summit for the last couple weeks. We arrived at the summit to encounter patchy snow, dense fog and a bitter chill. This would not be an opportunity to enjoy the stunning vistas or sunset that the summit of Mauna Kea is renowned for, we could barely see the next telescope, much less the sunset. At least the road was open to the public and our tour could go on.
We convened in the control room of the Gemini telescope. Here our guides, Joy and Sonny, explained the operation of the telescope and how the operators controlled everything through the night. Our tour of Gemini ran a bit longer than the scheduled hour. During that hour we toured the control room, the coating facility, and the telescope itself.
In contrast to many of the other telescopes on the mountain, Gemini is an almost new facility, having seen first light in 1999 and begun science operations in 2000. It is a beautiful telescope, the 8.1 meter instrument sits in a spacious dome. As someone who’s experience has been that a productive environment is always bit messy, the clean facility of Gemini seems a bit odd.
A few levels below the main dome floor is the coating facility. This is where the telescope mirror receives a new reflective surface very few years. For a single piece eight meter primary, a vacuum chamber slightly larger is required. The large chamber makes it seem as if there is a flying saucer docked in the lower bay of the telescope building. The many viewing ports and vacuum lines simply adding to the impression.
After Gemini it was on the CFHT… The contrasts between the telescopes was dramatic. CFHT is a facility that shows the scars and wear of decades of research. There was an eclectic mix of new equipment intermingled with gear that had been running for over thirty years since the telescope began operations in 1979. This is a facility that started recording observations with photographic plates, along the way making the transition to electronic CCD image sensors. The telescope now boasts one of the world’s largest cameras, the 340 megapixel MegaCam.
Again we visited the coating facility, complete with the massive cranes and the vacuum chamber needed to coat mirrors up to three and a half meters in diameter. This facility is also used by the IRTF and UKIRT observatories to coat the primary mirrors for those telescopes. A treat for me was visiting the OHANA interferometer test lab in the coudé room below the telescope. A project I knew a fair amount about, but had never seen.
The tour finally arrived at the telescope itself. The large equatorial design is such a contrast to the alt-azimuth designs of the more modern designs of Gemini, Subaru and Keck. The enormous steel horseshoe and yoke represent a classic design used for large telescopes throughout the 20th century. We wandered about the dome floor, learning about the details of the telescope, the drives, and the instruments. The AO system was scheduled for the night and was mounted to the telescope. While the massive MegaCam prime focus camera was sitting to the side of the telescope.
The hoped for view of sunset from the upper balcony of the CFHT telescope was nothing to write about. Clouds obscuring all but a hint of sunset’s colors. The final treat was instead an opportunity to ride the rotating dome while the telescope slewed. The show highlighted this big machine, a testament to the people who build and operate these telescopes to push the boundaries of human knowledge deep into the universe.
These tours take a fair amount of work to put together, but are very much worth it. I expect we will do another tour in the spring. Perhaps do a couple of the radio telescopes? CSO, JCMT or SMA? Personally I have never had a chance to properly appreciate the sub-millimeter observatories on the summit. CSO is due to be dismantled in a couple years, it would be a good time to visit this groundbreaking facility.