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Mauna Kea's Visitor Information Station

by Louise Good

Eric Rau staffs the First Light Bookstore at the VIS.

Safety, education, and protection of Mauna Kea's environmental and cultural resources are the three missions of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS), which is located at the 9,300-foot level on the Mauna Kea Access Road. The VIS is part of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, which also includes the mid-level facility where astronomers eat and sleep while observing on Mauna Kea. The Onizuka Center is named for astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, who grew up on the Big Island and died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Sign on the Mauna Kea Access Road in front of the VIS warns visitors of the dangers ahead.

The well-being of those visiting Mauna Kea is a paramount concern, according to David A. Byrne, the energetic man with expertise in both science and business who runs the station. Signs on the outside walls of the station explain the dangers of traveling to the 13,796-foot summit. Those under sixteen, pregnant, in poor health, or with a history of heart or respiratory problems should not go to the summit, which has only sixty percent of the oxygen at sea level. People who have been scuba diving should wait at least 24 hours before ascending the mountain. Sunburn, dehydration, and altitude sickness are also dangers at high altitudes.

The road to the summit does not provide easy access. Beyond the Onizuka Center, it is steep, narrow, winding, and mostly unpaved, and requires a four-wheel drive vehicle. The weather on the summit can be unpredictable and harsh. It may suddenly change from sunny and mild to blizzard conditions. Those dressed for the tropics will surely be cold, even in the summer.

The inside of the station's small stone building is packed with information about astronomy, the observatories, and the natural and cultural history of Hawaii and Mauna Kea. The First Light Bookstore and a seating area for viewing Mauna Kea-related videos fill the remaining space. In addition to books, the store sells a full line of educational materials, snacks, stargazing tools such as planispheres (star charts that can be used throughout the year), remedies for altitude-induced headaches, and motor oil. (There are no service stations on the way to the summit.) The VIS also has restrooms.

Built in 1986, the station remained a part-time venture until about three years ago. It is now open daily from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., and offers free stargazing programs nightly from 6 to 10 p.m.

Tours to the summit take place on Saturdays and Sundays. You must arrive at the VIS by 1 p.m. in your four-wheel drive vehicle. The first segment of the program, before departure for the summit, includes safety information, an educational video, a short update on current events related to Mauna Kea, and a question-and-answer opportunity. The tour typically visits the University of Hawaii 2.2-meter telescope and the Keck I 10-meter telescope. These are the only telescopes that accept visitors.

The VIS sponsors special programs on three Saturday evenings each month. "The Universe Tonight" is the program on the first Saturday of the month. Each month a speaker from one of the observatories discusses recent discoveries. On the second Saturday during the fall and spring semesters, members of the Astronomy Club at the University of Hawaii at Hilo put on a special stargazing program. On the third Saturday, a traditional Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner from the community presents "Malalo I Ka Lani Po" (Beneath the Night Sky), a discussion of a cultural aspect of Mauna Kea. The programs begin at 6 p.m., with stargazing afterward.

Except for a few pages on the World Wide Web, the station does nothing to attract visitors. Yet last year, 105,000 visitors from all over the world stopped at the station. The busiest times are during the summer and the winter holidays. Snow falls and meteor showers bring large crowds of Big Island residents. When skiers and snowboarders come to use the mountain, safety is a big concern.

It is clear that the station has outgrown its small building and parking lot. Already the station uses buildings belonging to the construction camp for its Saturday presentations and to house staff who must stay overnight. Mr. Byrne hopes that moving some of the exhibits outdoors will alleviate some of the space problems.

Volunteers at the VIS

Although it is open 91 hours per week, the VIS has only ten full-time and part-time employees, so it depends heavily on a corps of about fifty volunteers. On a typical day, there are two staff members and three to five volunteers at the VIS. The volunteers receive the same training as paid staff to enable them to be interpretive guides. These very dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers travel a long distance to work in the shop, give summit tours, and lead stargazing sessions. Many volunteers are students at UH Hilo, but a wide cross-section of the Big Island community is represented.

VIS volunteers Tyler Woodard, Marc Seigar, and Nikki Prent with VIS Director David Byrne (second from left) in the First Light Bookstore.