What am I doing here?

An excellent question and one that I get asked a lot. Some time ago I was lucky enough to be on a tour of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope with visiting academics from the Peter Wall Institute of University of British Columbia in Vancouver. We were taken up to the ‘stone house’ Hale Puhaku, partway up Mauna Kea, to acclimate to the altitude somewhat before heading up to the observatory which is perched up at 14,000 feet. We hiked in to a sacred lake, just below the site of the observatory and after a half hour of very slow walking, we all felt like we’d run several miles. The oxygen is about 40 percent less than at sea level so the body reacts in interesting ways. My own experience was that I felt increasingly drunk — it was a sort of three martini tour for me. Through the haze of oxygen deprivation, I was astonished at the stark physical beauty of the landscape as it changed from grasslands, to patchy vegetation to no vegetation and exposed brilliantly coloured minerals, some deposited during the last ice age in large morraines.

We continued our tour up to the the telescope itself, which is one of an array of international telescopes up on top of the mountain. Inside, there is a glycol cooled cement floor upon which the telescope rests. There is an internal catwalk which can move as well as the enormous telescope itself. It was quite surreal and I felt like I was in a James Bond movie! Away from the actual telescope in its dome, there is a marvellous control room, with a twin control room down at 2,500 feet at the main offices of CFHT in Waimea. Now the observations, which used to be done from inside the freezing cold telescope itself are done by remote, down in the nice warm offices in Waimea.  Screens are constantly keeping track of weather patterns as well as internal and external views of the observation dome. And just down the hall is a very cozy lounge with a kitchen. The kitchen is stocked with the world’s most unhealthy foods — because the brain runs on sugar and the lack of oxygen is stressful, one craves sugar and salt (the kidneys go into overdrive at altitude and you need to visit the washroom frequently). As well, dehydration is a constant worry and visitors are encouraged to drink at least 16 oz of water or other fluids per hour. So, we gathered around the table and enjoy dried fruit, nuts, corn chips, beef jerky, ramen noodles and sweet pop — very civilized and sort of a funny contrast to the James Bond movie experience.

There is a door to the outer catwalk of the observatory which is like a belt around the middle of the dome. As the telescope is higher than anything else in the neighbourhood, there are excellent views of other domes as well as the surrounding peaks and valleys of the summit area. In addition the views down towards the lower weather means that there is frequently a snowy bed of clouds beneath the peaks. And speaking of snow, we were all wearing parkas, hats, gloves and boots because the temperature up at the top is usually around freezing or lower. There was fresh snow surrounding the dome and on our drive up we encountered hail, snow, rain and sunshine within about ten minutes. Yes, I’m the only person I know who was packing thermal underwear for my trip to Hawaii.

The drive back down to normal civilization was moonlit. Because there is no light pollution allowed on the mountain, we drove down without headlights on a dirt road (with the telescope director driving with 40 percent less oxygen than normal). Although it sounds terrifying, it felt sacred. It made me think of those Hawaiians from long ago, coming up to the lake for their rituals (still practised today).

I could not get the place out of my head. I dreamt about it, continued to think about it and bothered everyone around me with nattering on about it. Finally Martin, my husband suggested that I approach the director with the idea of an artist’s residency. I decided to do so, made a formal proposal and got a green light. I had several months to prepare for the residency and I researched the history of  Mauna Kea, the biology, flora and fauna and also the chequered and fascinating story of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope itself.

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~ by Colleen McLaughlin Barlow on April 20, 2011.

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