By Arlington James

When the news reached the office on the morning of Friday 15 April 1988, it came to me as no big surprise. The news was that the Boiling Lake had “dried up”, but sixteen years before, I had heard of the lake “misbehaving” . This time, I told myself that I had to grab the opportunity to witness this phenomenon of the Boiling Lake mysteriously drying up.

 

At about 8:00 a.m. on Sunday 17th April 1988, my friends Martin and Ronnie accompanied me on this expedition, which some thought was gutsy. We wanted to satisfy our curiosity, and for my two buddies, neither of them had ever heard of Dominica’s Boiling Lake going dry before.

As we left Titou Gorge, we maintained a brisk and steady pace, pausing only to listen to the melancholy song of the Mountain Whistler, a small shy bird that behaves like a ventriloquist.

Before long, we were at the Trois Bitons (Breakfast) River, refreshing ourselves and preparing mentally for the steep, tough climb up the slopes of Morne Nicholls. And once at the highest point on the trail, we took time out to enjoy the breath-taking scenery… and of course, to clear our lungs. We still had 30-40 minutes more hiking before we could get to our destination.

Our descent through the Valley of Desolation was uneventful, but interesting. Our minds were all focused on one thing - our final destination. As we approached the final one hundred metres of the hike, we noticed that the usual cloud of vapour rising from the Boiling Lake area was absent! Our curiosity sharpened, and as we made the final approach, Ronnie asked, “Could the lake really be dry?” It would not be long before we would be all treated to a first-time experience for the three of us.

When we arrived at the edge of the lake, the scene which greeted us was astonishing. The lake, as I knew it before (from as far back as 1976), was now totally different. It was not dry in the true sense, but the water level had dropped by about 30ft, and we could clearly see the ring on the inside of the lake which indicates the normal high water level. The water was bubbling only timidly, there was no vapour, we could feel no heat, and the colour of the water in the lake had changed from light grey to cream. And although the Dry Season was on, the small stream and spring which empty directly into the lake were still flowing at near normal strength. I then recalled seeing some photographs taken in 1972, of a group of school boys actually bathing in the Boiling Lake during one of the lake’s “cool down” periods.

We soon decided to venture down into what would normally be a cauldron of grey boiling water. Martin was the first to descend, while Ronnie sat and pondered, and I photographed what I had longed to see in sixteen years. I later joined Martin, and while we were stepping cautiously on the soft grey mud, on a sort of ledge above the water, my attention was attracted to a large orange-coloured butterfly which fluttered past, only a few yards away from us. How ironic, I thought. Two men .... and a butterfly, more than twenty feet below the normal level of the Boiling Lake. A lake which, in normal times, would be boiling vigorously.

The silence was then broken by the drone of an aircraft which must have been travelling thousands of feet above. “Wha-wha-what doin’ dat?” Martin stammered. “Man de lake dat doin’ dat?” he asked, fear in his eyes and ready to take off like a sprinter. As the aircraft drew nearer, the sound grew louder. Martin then whirled around, and, “making dust” in the soft mud, scrambled up the forty-five degree slope to safety. Of course, I had a big laugh which echoed across the walls of the lake. “That was only a small ‘plane, man” I explained.

After his confidence returned, Martin came back down and together we were able to coax Ronnie into joining us. We had great fun setting up the camera on the steep, gravely slope, to photograph us with the self-timer activated. We later wrote our names and the date on the mud.

Following our photo-session, we made our way back to the top and prepared for the return journey. As we walked along the narrow, tortuous trail, we joked about Martin’s experience with the airplane. But, seriously though, what if the sound had really been a rumble coming from the depths of the Boiling Lake, signaling that the lake was about to get back to its normal state?

Many years ago, an old man from Laudat had told me that if I ever reached Boiling Lake and found it to be not boiling, that I should only remain for a short peek and get out of the area as fast as I could. But it was not until two days after our trip that I really appreciated the old man’s warning.

I returned to the Boiling Lake on Tuesday 19th April, this time equipped with instruments to measure the slope and the extent of the drop, and with a thermometer to record the water temperature. This time, I was even more astonished than on the Sunday trip. Though the level of the Lake had not changed, the water was once again boiling vigorously, its colour had turned dark grey and a small cloud of water vapour rose from its surface.

Many questions have been asked about Boiling Lake during its “cool-down/dried up” states. Where does all of the water disappear to? Apparently, the lake has the ability to refill in very quick time, as can be seen in a set of 1900 photos taken during one of those occurrences. Is there a link between the lake’s “misbehaviour” and significant volcanic and seismic activity in the region?

The 1900 incident was followed by the Mount Pélé eruption in Martinique in 1902! In 1972, school boys swam in Boiling Lake. Two years later, an earthquake caused some damage in Antigua, and in 1976 La Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe threatened all and sundry with an eruption. In 1979, Soufrière in St. Vincent had a major eruption. And now, four years after our notorious visit….and the lake mysteriously emptying out, Boiling Lake is back to normal and still attracting many physically fit hikers wanting to experience the world’s largest boiling lake.

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