Anatomy of an Eclipse Trip – ECLIPSE DAY – August 21, 2017
Listen here to the live interview given by Peter to Radio New Zealand.
“I think there’s a better chance 27 miles to the northwest.” The voice was our meteorologist Adam Jones, the time was 4:30 AM. I was up anyway corresponding with the Morning Show on Radio New Zealand. We were setting up a live interview on eclipse day. Adam and his group were leaving for Glendo State Park in half an hour. He is correct; 27 miles could make a significant difference. If it’s overcast, 1 mile could make a significant difference if you can find a hole in the clouds. But the sky above me is not overcast, and our forecast although still in the FAIR zone according to Accuweather, hasn’t changed. In my mind there is not enough reason to go into chase mode. I decided to stay. As I laid back in my hammock I watched a meteor shoot across the sky. I smiled. This will be a great day.
There is no more sleep at this point- I had my four hours. Twilight was strong in the predawn sky, and seeing Dean Bauer awake we decided to take a walk to watch the sunrise on eclipse day. If successful, this will be the third total solar eclipse we will have seen together; more importantly the first one for me with my son, and the first for him with his daughter.
Michael would later comment that he was really surprised to see how relaxed Gary and I were on eclipse day. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and although totality was hours away the situation didn’t look like it was going to change. In short, we were going to see the total solar eclipse. There was no rushed setup; we have been ready for days.
Adam called and was situated up at Glendo under perfect skies. The only difference between the sites seemed to be less wind and he gets 7 more seconds of totality. At 10:24 AM the first small bite out of the Sun was called, and the “Great American Eclipse” had officially begun for Guernsey State Park in Wyoming. The next hour and a half would go painfully slow for most, but I was busy taking images of the phases every 5 minutes via the alarm on my smartphone. The Smartphone, a modern convenience for eclipse chasers, and the way life is done. It gives you the path, the timings, reminder alarms, weather forecasts and texts. I received numerous texts from friends across the eclipse zone including an important one from Charlie Takacs and his wife Joan, who just saw totality from Madras, Oregon. “Hey Pete Woweeee Prominences at 3 & 11” I announced it to the group. Look for very bright red gases extending out from the Sun at the 3 and 11 o’clock positions on the Sun. It looks like totality is going to be amazing!
The sky had already taken on a steel blue color to the west when I heard “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played on a sound system and watched a group of the 20 year olds swaying rhythmically to the music. This is indeed an eclipse party. I was in my element, and I couldn’t stop smiling. When I left Pennsylvania, I was talking to Nancy Dennis who would be looking after my house and my dog. We were going over some last minute details when I looked at the aluminum drip pan on the Kuerig coffee maker. I stopped mid-sentence, picked it up and held it up to the light. The design consisted of small holes with a star in the middle. “This would be perfect for the partial phase as a pinhole camera.” She laughed, and said “Take it!”
With Alex holding it against the light colored wall of the yurt, I photographed the design to show small miniature partial eclipses. The star at each point also showed a small eclipse. The sky was decidedly darker to the west as the odd steel blue color increased. You could feel the energy in the group as totality approached. Michael pulled the Astroscan telescope over toward the Yurt and projected a small crescent Sun on the wall. Smart.
When totality arrived he would be ready to view the diamond ring. Old familiar feelings returned as I was about to see my 6th total solar eclipse. I can’t stop smiling. Don’t forget to breathe. I turned on the automatic cameras to record horizon and sky. The thought process is stunned by the beauty of the moment, and once again the words “shadow band” escaped me as I gazed skyward. I removed the solar filter from the optical telescope and waited.
I never saw the shadow of the Moon cross over distant Laramie Peak at about 1,500 miles/ hour. But I heard the cheers and screams of a vast human population at the newly developed tent city. Seconds later I yelled “Remove filters” as the last splash of sunlight revealed the gorgeous diamond ring. The view of the Sun was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. I was looking through a telescope with great optics and noticed bright spots along the rim where the “diamond” disappeared. Bailey’s Beads. The spots are caused by sunlight shining through lunar valleys. I was hypnotized by the wispy coronal streamers reaching outward from the darkened solar disk. The activity of the Sun had increased this past week thanks to a long stretch of sunspots near the solar center, and a new group had emerged on the limb. This activity didn’t allow the sky to get overly dark, but it displayed an extended corona stretching in various directions as delicate as a feather. The temperature dropped 7 degrees, but I didn’t feel it this time. I’m furiously clicking images with the camera, changing exposures and looking through the companion telescope at the sharpest image of a total solar eclipse I’ve ever seen. Hot fluorescent red colored clouds of gas puffing along the solar rim were mesmerizing. They were the prominences Charlie had texted me about earlier. A quick look at the sky showed the gorgeous eclipsed Sun with the planet Venus over to the right. The horizon was aglow in the eastern sky with a yellow orange light as I scanned for Jupiter. I abandoned the search after 2 seconds; there just isn’t enough time. I forgot to look for Mars, Mercury and Sirius as my eye was drawn again to the wide field telescope.
Marja Stauffer heard a coyote howl three times in the darkness. The prominences in the telescope at the three o’clock position began to waver. As my mind contemplated this series of events, the spots of Bailey’s Beads suddenly appeared. “Impossible, too soon!” I thought and the brightness of the diamond ring returned. More screams and shouts of delight as solar filters were replaced, and a quiet by the crowd as everyone tried to fit what had just happened into their frame of experience. Totality was over. The 2 minutes and 22 seconds felt like it lasted under a minute.
For the next hour and a half the Moon would start to evacuate its position over the Sun. Gary was still steadily imaging the regress of the partial phases every 10 minutes, well others started to congregate to share their experiences and images. Traffic was bumper to bumper on the small dirt road leading away from the viewing area. It would take 2 hours to clear the road. Few noticed that the sky was still an odd steel blue color except this time in the eastern sky rather than the west. The Park estimated some 4,500-5,000 people viewed this most treasured astronomical event.
I asked Michael what he thought of his first total solar eclipse experience. I ran a planetarium for 35 years, so he put it in that perspective for me.
“It was like a natural laser light show.”
“I barely looked through the telescope. You have to immerse yourself in everything around you; the dark sky and the 360° sunset. It made me feel truly small in this vast universe.”
I spent the time imaging and viewing the sun up close, but missed the rest of the experience except for a few fleeting moments. I think his way is best for a first time eclipse observer. You do need to get immersed fully in the wonder and splendor of this incredible event. I remember that at my first eclipse some 26 years ago. I think I’ll try that at the next one. We really can learn a lot when we listen to our kids.