Sunday, August 15, 2004

Luckiest. Tourists. Ever.

Every Saturday and Sunday, the Visitor Information Station at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy on Mauna Kea offers free guided summit tours. There are, of course, some restrictions for liability purposes - you can't go if you're under 16, pregnant, have a history of heart or respiratory problems, have been scuba-diving in the last 24 hours, or have failed to bring a vehicle with 4 wheel drive and low-range gearing (unless you can talk someone who brought one into giving you a ride, of course).

So, obviously, scuba-diving pregnant teens with heart problems and sports cars are right out.

Folks show up at the Visitor Information Station, watch the "First Light" video about the mountain (which debuted on PBS Hawaii in June), then we all caravan up with a ranger along for safety, tell them about the mountain, the geology, Hawaiian history, culture and religion, and oh, yeah, the telescopes. And, we actually go into two of the observatories, which is, well... two more than most people go into?

Anyway, on some (though not all) Saturdays and Sundays, I'm one of the guides. Earlier this month I finished my training and started working on my presentation, eventually devising a single page that can serve as both my "cheat sheet" and a "take-home" for tourists, covering all the observatories on the summit as well as some cultural and natural sciences bits. And earlier this week, I got my 4WD test out of the way, demonstrating that the 5-mile, 12-percent-grade washboard we call "road" wouldn't kill me or people in my immediate vicinity.

Ordinarily, we talk about geology, culture and stuff like that outside the Keck observatory, go inside the visitor gallery to talk about Keck, briefly go into a viewing area in one of the domes and talk there, come back out, drive over to the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter telescope, talk in the lobby, climb the stairs, talk in the visitor gallery, go into the dome, talk there, go into the control room and talk a little there while people take pictures, then go out onto a balcony sort of thing outside for a really great view and a little more talk, then go back down and give them parting guidance about sunset, getting down the mountain, etc.

Today, a few strange things happened.

First, our senior guide, Jonn Altonn, called in sick. That left me (just barely qualified), my friend Kent (a fairly recent volunteer who'd never been to the summit before, but wanted to learn), our cultural guru Koa in lieu of Jonn, and our senior ranger Kimo (who's also a practitioner in the Hawaiian religion) along for safety. Koa gave everyone printouts of some Hawaiian chants and their translations, and did a half-hour cultural presentation outside Keck, including two audience-participation chants, an introduction of Kimo, Kimo talking about stuff, and Koa and Kimo doing a third chant together. It was... very cool. And I videotaped it, yay.

While I was talking about telescopes, someone decided it'd be a very good time to silently spin Keck 2's dome around, so everyone got to see that. When we went into the Keck 1 dome, technicians were actually working on stuff above us, rolling instruments out to the scope for the night's viewing. Finally, NASA's infrared telescope facility dome was open when we got over to the UH scope, so people were able to get photos of that, too.

All in all, a most excellent adventure. And (scarily?) some tourists somewhere have video of me explaining all manner of silly things. :)

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