The 2017 total solar eclipse over the United States was not, technically, part of my Southern Cone experience. But I’m writing here about it with several justifications:
- We observed a partial solar eclipse in February from Argentina.
- Planning for watching this solar eclipse began well in advance and continued through Southern Cone.
- I had not, strictly speaking, closed the circle, as I flew back to the United States through RDU rather than GSO. Thus, this trip brought me back to GSO for the first time since leaving for South America in January.
- I want to.
Mary and I traveled to Nebraska to get a better chance than the Carolinas offered at clear sky. We met others in the family who joined us in fretting about the very not clear sky we found upon arrival. Not to give anything away, it all worked out. Below is what I wrote about the experience. As usual, photos follow.
August 21, 2017
I first noted the date August 21, 2017 in the late 1970s when I read in an astronomy book that there would be a total eclipse in the United States when I was old. As August 21, 2017 came closer I found myself living in the southeast, less than 100 miles from the path of totality and not yet feeling quite as old as I’d thought I’d be. Having lived in the southeast for some time by this point, I didn’t at all trust the sky to be clear. So, I made plans to be further west and managed several hotel rooms in Grand Island, Nebraska, virtually on the centerline in a place that, historically, has a good shot at clear skies.
My wife and I met family at the airport in Omaha in a rain storm. Throughout our drive to Grand Island the day before the eclipse, the skies were cloudy. At times the clouds were thick and at others thin. But the sky was never clear. We discussed plans to decamp westward where chances for clear sky seemed better. I slept fitfully, my plan for a 4 AM weather check becoming an hourly check. It looked like we needed to drive 7 hours to Wyoming to find clear skies and a big part of me wanted to pull the trigger. But it was 4 AM, I needed to wake a lot of people and then I’d have to drive through fog, rain and, potentially, jammed highways. I’d like to tell you I didn’t think we needed to but, really, it was 4 AM and I was sleepy and I was lazy. Anyway, I tried to sleep but it came in bits as I grappled with the strong chance that an event I’d looked forward to for four decades was going to be a bust.
At breakfast a few short hours later we decided on traveling northwest to a town called Ravenna and then playing it by ear. I’d noted Ravenna as being the nearest place I thought likely to be sufficiently far west and the most experienced eclipse chaser in the group had settled on it as well. We were off. Ravenna is a town of about 1,500 and had put together a wonderful festival. There was a BBQ hut, a really nice concession stand, and lots of vendors of kitsch, all in a peaceful, comfortable setting. We parked, eyeing the clouds uneasily. I remained tense and ready to flee farther northwest if it looked like we needed it.
We enjoyed the festival, heard a song written specifically for Ravenna and the eclipse and passed the time. A few folks had BBQ that looked and smelled fantastic and it is a testament to the state of my nerves and anticipation that I didn’t even think of joining in. At first contact, we whooped with hundreds of others and noted that the sky had improved. Far to the northwest, slowly moving toward us, was a fairly thick band of cloud but the rest of the sky was either clear or sprinkled with high cirrus. It looked good. Between first contact and second – that is, between the start of the partial eclipse and totality – it was an impressive astronomical event. I set up a scope, polar aligned a camera mount, installed filters and generally went about the business of looking at and imaging stuff in the sky. It got colder. We snacked and watched for clouds. Suddenly, the bees disappeared. Crickets chirped. Trees made crescents.
When the sun was at last less than a crescent, just an arc, I realized my automated imaging setup wasn’t going to start on time. I thought of trying to fix it but realized I’d either screw it up, miss the eclipse or both so I let it be. I heard a few gasps and stood, holding my eclipse glasses to my eye in time to see a very tiny arc slip away. I saw that a large section of the cloud bank to the west, extending across a quarter of the horizon, had suddenly disappeared. I removed the glasses and watched as the high clouds around the sun shimmered, finding it hard to hold their form, and then with a spark, the light went out and there was a hole in the sky.
In my memory, there was a sound when totality began but it may have simply been the blood pounding in my ears. The horizon was pink and the sky a beautiful, frightening shade of dark, dark silvery blue. I will never forget the color of that sky. I have yet to see it adequately represented in photographs and I doubt I will come close with words. It was as if a thin slice of the night sky during full moon was peeled away and pasted over the sky of a high mountain dawn an hour before sunrise. The air had stilled and grown cold and ordinary objects developed a hint of threat and promise of magic.
I remembered our video camera and dashed around to turn it on but hit the power button, turning it off instead. I removed the solar filter from the telescope and knocked it far from alignment. I gave up on it instantly, having just enough sense to know that I was no longer functioning correctly.
Turning back to the hole in the sky, I tried to remember my observational techniques and note what I was seeing. I could not. I did see streamers extending on two sides far from the gaping hole and pink ringing that hole, first on one side and then the other but utterly failed to use averted vision to trace the streamers far from the eerie disk. I watched the people around me, mouths hanging open. I saw tears streaming down my wife’s broadly smiling face. We shared binoculars and, I was told later, I kept shouting out locations of prominences loudly enough to be heard dozens of yards away even over the yells of others. I vaguely remember their exclamations and cheers. The prominences, which I’ve often watched in deep red monochromatic light, were an unbelievable striking pink against the brilliant whiteness of the corona.
Suddenly a large arc of the gaping disk bloomed bright pink and I could tell it was nearly over. But it couldn’t be! We were to have 155 seconds of totality and it had just started! But, no, with a snap an impossibly bright star appeared on the edge of the disk and the clouds shimmered back into shape. The Sun was coming back and we would all live. For an instant, a brilliant diamond ring hung impossibly in the sky. As desperately as my rational mind didn’t want it to end, the irrational, instinctive piece buried deep down under modernity felt a bit of relief that it did.
After decades of study, I was completely prepared for what I would see but was in no way prepared for how I would feel. What had been, right up until the first diamond ring, a fascinating astronomical observation became, in that brilliant flash, something other, something much deeper and primal. The world in which we stood was suddenly alien, a different sky, a different terrain, a world without a Sun, a coldly beautiful world in which I was hopelessly, joyously lost. It was a dreamlike world that seems impossible to describe or accurately recall afterwards.
In the few minutes after, as we cheered and cried and hugged, we realized that the very nearly completely eclipsed Sun which had enthralled us five minutes earlier was now fairly uninteresting. Much more meaningful were the presence of others we loved and the realization that the world would continue as we’d known it: A Sun and Moon chasing each other through the sky as they were meant to, as they always before had. But we now knew the one could catch the other and both longed and feared it ever happening again.
The partially eclipsed sun about ten minutes before totality. My images were made with a Canon T2i and 200mm lens riding a Polarie tracker. I used a program called SETnC to automate image capture so I could enjoy the show. It worked flawlessly. However, garbage in, garbage out. I failed to correct our coordinates after we drove northwest to find clear skies and the program started capture of totality about a minute late. As with the rest of the day, I got lucky and managed many images with which I’m pleased. It would only have taken one. Not even that many, really.
We walked through Grand Island the night before the eclipse and got a neat tour of an old renovated theater.
The series of images I recorded spanned a huge (12 stops) range of exposure. Here is a 1/1000s exposure at f/4 (ISO 100). Note the pink prominences on the right.
In front of what we feared would be the only sun we’d see eclipse morning. Marnie made excellent shirts for us which attracted journalists from all over.
The festival in Ravenna had many wares for sale. I jumped on the eclipse koozie bandwagon early. I think Mary was happier about the water.
Working on gear during the partial phase. Neither group was successful with the project shown.
The short tube was great for the partial phases. This is the scope I knocked from alignment right at the beginning of totality. Would’ve been nice to see the prominences through this.
Backup gear that worked.
Duct tape, rubber bands and ingenuity.
A hint of the clouds that hung around and the breeze that went away.
A longer exposure (1/250s) showing both the extent and shape of the corona around the dark lunar disk and the high clouds through which we observed totality.
Jay watching totality with binoculars.
The group watching totality. Note the bright horizon in the dark sky.
Pink fringe as totality draws to a close.
Almost caught some Bailey’s beads.
Diamond ring effect as a tiny sliver of the sun peeks out at the end of totality.
A deeper exposure of the diamond ring showing the high clouds and last glimpse of the lunar disk sliding away from the sun.