There are some things in life you just can’t explain, you have to experience. Words or pictures convey the encounter. I had heard that viewing a solar eclipse is one of those things.
I now know that to be true.
Last year I decided to host a photography workshop based on the eclipse. I wanted to make sure the weather wouldn’t block the view so I researched where the least likely place for cloud cover would be and it was the desert of eastern Oregon. I’d been to Oregon several times, my sister Lynda and her husband Bill live in southern Oregon, but not close to where the eclipse would be in totality. My research showed that Madras was the town where all the serious astronomy folks were going so I thought it would be simple enough to grab some hotel rooms, after all I was more than a year early.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, the hotels had been full for three years. Now I really knew this was the place to be but there wasn’t anyplace to stay and I didn’t think my workshop attendees would want to camp. Bill suggested checking Timberline, a fairly small ski lodge on Mt. Hood, over an hour away from Madras. Sure enough they had rooms and I grabbed a bunch.
To round out the workshop I thought it would be fun to start on the amazing Oregon coast for a couple of days, photograph the massive waterfalls in the Columbia River gorge and then spend the last two nights at Mt. Hood.
It was a perfect plan until earlier this year when Bill pointed out how many people were planning on going to Madras, a town of 6,000 people with the probability of getting 100,000 visitors for the eclipse. There is only a two lane road coming to Madras and tons of people would be pouring out of Portland. Bill had visions of traffic like the Woodstock music festival.
In May I made a trip to Oregon to do scouting and find a good location for my group to experience the celestial show away from the crowd. I found a small site near the little village of Clarno that is part of a National Monument but it is out of the way and one the least visited National Monuments. It had things I was looking for: restrooms, shade and beautiful surroundings. It was 2-½ hours from Timberline, which was far from ideal but I thought it would be worth the drive to avoid the crowds.
So my plan was perfect again until wildfires erupted all over the Northwest U.S. and western Canada a few weeks ago. Nobody mentioned smoke clouding our view so I started looking for a plan B. Staying at the beach wasn’t a good option because morning fog frequently covers the area. Hotels in that area fill up fast normally in August but I tried anyway. Nothing to be found, especially for a group. Maybe Portland and do even more driving. The city was 99% full and only crazy expensive rooms were available. After much consultation with Lynda and Bill, my only real option was to stick to the original plan.
The workshop started on Wednesday and we saw great scenes and made terrific pictures in Portland, on the coast and along the Columbia river but I could tell people were anxious about the eclipse.
Sunday we started the day photographing a beautiful lake reflecting Mt. Hood and headed for Clarno and practice for the big day. We arrived to find quite a few people a couple of park rangers and several volunteers. We got a picnic table and got out our gear. Nine photographs tend to haul around too much stuff and none of packed very light. I had rented a 12 passenger van and took out a row of seats so there would be room for people and gear and we barely all fit in. Since there was no food for many miles, I had cooler with plenty of water and lunch provisions.
I had purchased sheets of solar film and offered to make filters that could be quickly removed during totality when they weren’t needed and quickly put back on after totality. The prototype I made at home worked great but was such a weird shape that there was no way I could travel with a dozen of them. I made the filter part but we had to customize each one to fit the different size lens each photographer would be using. So we had craft time at a picnic table in the Oregon desert. Each person glued and taped and created their filter. They looked funny but worked great in the tests we did.
Suddenly this eclipse thing was feeling real.
Our little park was closed to overnight camping, which was good for us. It opened at 6 a.m. yesterday and I had planned on leaving our hotel at 3:00 a.m. But talking to the rangers made me a bit nervous since they were expecting a big crowd and there was limited parking so I decided to leave at at 2:30 a.m. which would get us there and hour before it would open. I guessed that since this area was so secluded people who were staying nearby wouldn’t bother coming that early and hopefully there weren’t many people as crazy as us and drive that early.
It turns out I was right. When we rolled in there were four cars waiting in line. We started carrying equipment in and got one of the nice picnic tables under a little shelter. After the sun came up I made pancakes featuring Vermont maple syrup on a camp stove and people were getting giddy.
One participant brought a telescope and had a program that tracked the sun’s movement through a laptop computer. It also gave us voice messages when the eclipse started and sure enough we could see it.
The partial phases were cool but I was feeling a bit underwhelmed. As the moon was covering more of the sun, things changed. A unique light surrounded the area, it was like nothing I had experienced before. As the landscape got darker, it was a cool bluish color, not the warm color usually seen at sunset. Shadows from trees showed the sun’s crescent on the ground.
Then the diamond ring appeared, that little sliver of sun still showing before the moon totally covered the sun.
Whoa! This is what everyone had been talking about!
Everything was quiet, the air became cooler, the sky was dark and this amazing disc was hanging in the sky. I was firing my camera as fast as I could and changing exposures to make sure I got it right but we only had a minute and forty-two seconds of totality. I wanted to make sure I experienced this crazy phenomenon and not spend the whole time goofing around with camera settings.
102 seconds never went so fast.
And there are no words or pictures to accurately describe it.