August 21, 2017

Great American Eclipse (August 21, 2017)

The sun eclipsed by the moon, with visible corona and sun flares.  Seen from the national forest south of John Day, Oregon (August 21, 2017 Great American Eclipse)
The sun eclipsed by the moon, with visible corona and sun flares. Seen from the national forest south of John Day, Oregon (August 21, 2017 Great American Eclipse)

It’s been almost 100 years since the last solar eclipse swept across the US from coast-to-coast, so I figured it was well worth the drive to try to experience the eclipse totality. That’s the moment when for a few minutes the moon fully covers the sun, minus the visible solar corona.

While planning, I saw that the eclipse passes through a large chunk of Oregon, which borders the north edge of California. Just one state away! Mentally that seems nearby, but I actually ended up driving over 1500 miles before arriving at my eclipse viewing location.

Road Trip

Note that I didn’t exactly take the direct route. Tack on a ton of extra miles thanks to Waze changing my destination mid-drive (and me not realizing it for way too long), a quick visit to Powell’s bookstore in Portland (where I’d get rid of a bunch of books, only to effectively exchange them for a new set of books), and an overnight visit to see my old friend and his wife and relatives.

Leading up to the eclipse, people online were making it sound like some sort of apolcalyptic event, with gas and water shortages, overloaded cell phone towers, gridlock on all highways, and all that other stuff we see in movies and TV. There may well have been people out there mentally preparing themselves to deal with Mad Max and the post-apocalyptic society.

All the worry for nothing really. It ended up being crazy but manageable, thanks in large part to being away from larger events like the Solarfest event in Madras, where there was a massive field of people uncomfortably car camping right next to each other, like some sort of Burning Man event in the barren desert. Not really what I think of when I think of camping in Oregon. But it probably made some publicist rich.

Approaching Madras from the west, the gas stations by the road had queues of cars filling up like their life depended on it. Madras itself was chaotic, but the city looked like it had plenty of gas stations, many with no or minimal car queues. After leaving Madras and heading farther east, things seemed to settle down a bit, though I still continued to see way more cars heading westbound back towards Madras. I squeezed the last few drops of gas out of my car before filling up somewhere east of Madras, thankfully at a gas station with no queues.

In general, each city along the road was busy with hustle and bustle. And John Day was one of the biggest, probably because it’s where a major east-west road meets up with a north-south road, the 395.

John Day is also where I was planning to meet up with a friend. The only problem: I was an hour late.

I used my pocket knife to break open the packaging on my newly bought walkie-talkies, which my friend recommended in the event he didn’t have cell phone reception here. On my second drive through town, he luckily picked up on my walkie talkie transmission, and we met up in a parking lot in town. Rendexvous success!

The odometer read 1529 when we reached the spot where we ended up car camping.

Procrastination

I wasn’t convinced until the very last minute that it was worth getting a pair of solar eclipse glasses. Though in the days leading up to the event, I somehow convinced myself that they were a necessity. I had read online that the local Fred Meyer stores carried them in stock, but I visited one too late - the lady told me they had sold out several days before. Luckily a friend of a friend I was visiting in Portland let me have a pair (thank you!).

A similar thing happened with the camera side of things. I was a bit scared of the thought of pointing my camera straight up into the sun, and I wanted to experience the event through my own eyes, not just through a DSLR or cellphone camera.

Up until the day of the eclipse, I was somehow content just letting other folks try to capture it, while I tried to capture the event with my own eyes. But the friend I met up with in Oregon convinced me that it was no problem to photograph at 100% totality (I’m not sure of this still - I’d use a filter next time!). Ok, at least worth a try. And I was sure to turn the camera away after the sun quickly started emerging from the other side of the moon. I think I got some decent photos, especially for being so unprepared!

The total eclipse of the sun

The eclipse itself was an eerie experience. It brought back memories of an old teacher from middle school describing a total eclipse to the class. I remember, or think I remember, her describing that the birds almost seem to start chirping more, as is their wont before sunset. The sky becomes very dark, and the air becomes cold, like a mini-night during the day.

These things predictably happened just as my old teacher described them, but it’s quite something else to actually be there to experience it.

In the minutes leading up to the total eclipse, the sun slowly dims, as if you just put on a pair of sunglasses, and soon as if you put on a second pair of sunglasses over the previous pair. It’s tough for video cameras to capture this effect on the landscape, since they’ll try to cancel out the effect with exposure compensation (instead, look to doing things in full manual mode if you can).

The landscape gets darker and the air noticeably chillier. It’s amazing how fast that happens, and how quickly the sun can deny us its warmth.

When the moon covers the sun completely, you don’t have to look towards the sun to know it. Apparently that small difference between a 99% eclipse and a 100% is quite noticeable. The entire region goes dark, like an early night. If you’re on a vantage point, you can see the glow of sunlight in the distance, just like an approaching dawn. Eventually you do look up towards the sun to see some alien ring of light - the sun’s corona. It almost seems like you’re in some video game world.

It becomes uncomfortably chilly, and suddenly with the warmth taken away, you become more thankful for that warmth that’s now missing. No worries, as in a few minutes the sun starts peeking and it slowly starts refilling the valley with sunlight and warmth.

After a few more minutes, things are reasonably back to normal and it thankfully starts warming up. Apocalypse averted - for now.

© David Calhoun 2017