Monday, December 18, 2017

Eclipse 2017: Buildup

This is Part 2 of a four-part writeup about the total solar eclipse of August 2017.

Buildup (this post)
Eclipse Day

Annularity 2012

The 2012 annular eclipse was a good dress rehearsal for 2017. Three members of our Lassen group made the pilgrimage to the northern part of California to see it. I stayed with family and observed it from a backyard, while my friends Dan and Casey managed to get a spot at Whiskeytown Lake, doing public outreach. Dan's solar projection box turned out to be a big hit.

I saw the eclipse through a filtered 80mm semi-apochromatic refractor. What really struck me was the appearance of Baily's beads at 2nd and 3rd contacts. They danced and sparkled as the Moon slid fully onto the Sun, and when the Moon started to slide off of it. What an unexpected treat! During annularity, the brightness of the sunlight seemed only slightly diminished, but the Sun seemed incapable of heating us when we were exposed to it. I called it "the heatless Sun".

The gaps between the leaves of trees made for amazing crescent-shaped and ring-shaped images. After seeing all of those rings cast on the side of a house, I'll never be able to look at fancy, ring-shaped automobile headlights the same way 😏  They always remind me of the annular-eclipsed Sun!

Crescent Sun images cast by the gaps between leaves. Shortly before annularity, 2012

The Sun becomes a ring. Northern California, May 2012

Planning the Group's Journey to the 2017 Eclipse

The six of us Lassen-ites knew the eclipse was coming up in 2017, but it took us a long time to plan for it. We were often busy, and one thing or another kept getting in the way. We knew that it would probably be smart to make some kind of reservations in central Oregon, but that always seemed to be a task for another day.

Finally, during the 2016 Lassen trip, we began to get serious. Several ideas were floated for how we might structure our eclipse trip. For a while, I had the naive idea that we could do the Lassen trip as usual, with a "lightning strike" up to central Oregon to see the eclipse. Maybe observe for a night or two at Lassen, then spend the Sunday driving up to Madras, then be back on Lassen Peak Monday night.

A nice dream, but not realistic. Once the eclipse was only a year away, I began to see how unlikely that plan was. We did some preliminary planning, and even made a reservation for a rental in central Oregon, although outside the path.

Calstar 2016 - The Council of El Round

The California Star Party, or `Calstar', is a yearly dark-sky observing event in inland Monterey County, usually taking place around late September. It’s meant to be accessible to SoCallies and Bay Area folks alike. At Calstar 2016, we finally got serious about our plans. Thanks to California's long drought, the event was held at a church camp, instead of the usual venue of Lake San Antonio (which had dried up). The six of us pals gathered around a piece of playground equipment at the camp (a "roundabout", as near as we could tell), debating where to go.

It seemed like the default location would be central Oregon, since it had the best weather prospects. But we had begun to worry about traffic on eclipse morning. Even if we could find a place to stay in or around Bend, OR, would we be stuck in a traffic jam on our way to the path? Miss the eclipse? It was easy to imagine vast numbers of Seattleites, Portlandians, and Californians clogging the roads. We began to feel nervous about central Oregon.

Parts of Idaho had good weather prospects, such as the eastern end of the Snake River Plain around Rexburg and Idaho Falls. But that might have the same problem as central Oregon - it might be TOO popular. Hmmm... where the heck to go? Then someone pointed out that the western end of the Snake River Plain, around Boise, ID and Ontario, OR, also had very good weather prospects. That area seemed a lot less likely to be overrun with crowds than central OR or the Rexburg, ID area, or the Grand Teton area of ID and WY. The main potential for crowding would be if a lot of people in Boise went into the path of totality... hmm, how to avoid that? Then someone else - probably Dan - suggested spending Sunday night NORTH of the path. There are no big population centers to the north, so the road would probably be okay on eclipse morning. James worked on his smartphone, and we had rooms booked at the Rustic Inn in McCall, ID. Three of the group decided they wanted to fly, so after a little more smartphone work, they had tickets on a flight from San Francisco to Boise. The rest of us would drive – two from the Bay Area and one from New Mexico. Boom! Done and done!

It had been a momentous planning session for us, with plans finally made and laid in – and it all took place on a piece of childrens’ playground equipment, using cell phones. I said “You know, if this thing really is called a `roundabout’, you could play around with the name and call this particular piece of equipment `El Round’. Which would make this “The Council of El Round” 😏 (This is, of course, a reference to Andy Weir’s book “The Martian”, and its reference to J.R.R. Tolkein.)  I couldn’t help thinking that we’d crossed a watershed, and now I finally knew what part of the U.S. I’d be in when I saw the great 2017 eclipse.

"El Round", where we planned our eclipse trip


The last classes before the eclipse

I first taught astronomy in 2010, so I spent seven years telling students “Put it on your calendar: August 21, 2017!” Roughly twenty times or so in those seven years, I gave a lecture about eclipses, and showed a map of the 2017 path of totality. I knew that the vast majority of people hearing me wouldn’t go to see it, but maybe a few would. Since returning to campus after the eclipse, I’ve been really heartened to run into a number of faculty and students who made the trip to Oregon and saw totality 😁 That’s so great! Now, during my first quarter of teaching after the eclipse, it feels really weird not to be telling people to plan for August  21, 2017 anymore. But you can bet I’m telling them about 2024 and about other great eclipses in the future.

Student who decided to go to UCSC because of eclipse timing

One student in particular had a great story. He took the geology and astronomy classes, and he was a really enthusiastic student. Very `school-positive’, as I like to say, and really interested in science. As the 2016-2017 school year was ending, he and I were talking, and he said he wanted to go into earth and/or space science teaching. (Sounds good to me!) He had been planning to go to one of the California State University campuses, but had gotten accepted to U.C. Santa Cruz. (UCSC is a real heavy-hitter in disciplines like astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary science, and they have a noted education school, too.) It had been a tough call for him, for various reasons, until he saw when the two schools’ academic years began:

The Cal State school he was planning on? Semester system. First day = August 21, 2017. Eclipse day! Oh no!

U.C. Santa Cruz? Quarter system. First day was sometime in mid to late September. About a month after the eclipse.

Pow! UCSC it would be! 😄  Yeah!!! I thought that was totally cool, and I said “If you do make your dream come true, and become an earth/space science educator, you’ll be able to tell that story FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.” I love it! UCSC will be more expensive, and I hope that’s not too much of a burden, but I just love that story.

I haven’t talked to him since the eclipse, he’s probably busy with school – I hope he saw it!!

Google Earth, Round Valley, and the Cougar Mountain Lodge

My group of `August at Lassen’ buddies and I knew we’d be observing from Idaho’s Payette river valley – or maybe somewhere near Weiser – but we weren’t sure exactly where. Casey and I each spent time on Google Maps and Google Earth. He noticed a parking area for snowmobilers near Smith’s Ferry, in the Payette valley. Then I noticed a roadhouse called the Cougar Mountain Lodge at that same location. After a Facebook message to the CML folks, I was made aware of the eclipse-viewing event being held by Grace Chapel, on the other side of the river. They had a nice website set up, and boom, pow, we all had reserved parking spots for eclipse morning! What a relief that was!

Norm Sperling's 8-second rule and making the recording

Back in 1984, at that Astrofest lecture, Jim Loudon described "Norm Sperling's 8-second rule":
"No matter how long totality is, it seems like 8 seconds."
I had an easy time believing this. Years later, during one of the Lassen trips, a friend brought a copy of Sperling's "What your Astronomy Book Won't Tell You", and it had a copy of the `8-second' article. (Also see HERE for an online copy.) In the article, Norm Sperling described a strategy for forming more memories, and for making the eclipse last longer than (a perceived) 8 seconds. He suggested making a tape recording, which one would listen to starting at C2. In the recording, you'd tell yourself to look at various phenomena. It would make the experience seem like more than a several-seconds-long, single-image stare session.

Naturally, I couldn't wait to put this into practice. With several months to go, I began to think about what should go into the recording. A variety of phenomena seemed worth trying to observe:
  • The narrow filtered crescent
  • Filtered Baily's Beads (especially after having seen the annular eclipse)
  • The narrow unfiltered arc of chromosphere
  • The naked-eye corona
  • The corona through binoculars
  • The corona through a telescope
  • Prominences through a telescope (if there were any)
  • Bright planets (mainly Venus)
  • Bright stars (mainly Sirius)
  • The diamond rings

And, as more and more eclipse-related information began to come out, I realized there might be one more bonus item: The inner corona, seen a minute or two before (and after) totality. This might be visible by holding a piece of welder's glass (or one's thumb) over the bright crescent, shortly before C2 and shortly after C3. I became particularly intrigued by this idea after seeing David Makepeace's video footage of the 2016 total eclipse in Indonesia. In his video, he and Lukas Gornisiewicz can be seen holding their thumbs over the sun right after C3. As the crescent "re-lights the world", they each stick an arm up towards the sun, and hold out a thumb. `Aha', I thought, `they're covering the bright crescent, and getting some extra corona time. Slick!' And there's the remarkable video footage he captured, in which palm fronds waved back and forth over the bright crescent, allowing the corona to be visible for some time after C3.

So, I had this grand idea that I'd use a piece of welder's glass instead of my thumb. Unlike a piece of solar-filter film mounted in a cardboard frame (like in eclipse glasses), the welder's glass has filter material all the way to the edge. I pictured it many times in my head: It would be a minute or two before totality, and I'd hold the glass up, with one eye closed, and carefully place the edge of the glass's shadow over my open eye, so that the bright crescent was seen through the glass, and the majority of the moon's disk protruded beyond the glass. And there, around that exposed black disk, would be the bright inner corona. A magical extension of totality time! Right on!

Rather than keep you in suspense, I'll cut to the punch line... It didn't work, because I was too shaky. I had suspected this might happen, but I gave it a try anyway. As we got within about a minute of totality, I tried holding the welder's glass over just the bright crescent. But my arms and hands were shaking too much from excitement and anticipation, and all I got was an instantaneous eyeful of unfiltered bright crescent. Looking around for a few seconds, to satisfy myself that I could still see normally, I immediately gave up the idea as too dangerous and didn't bother with it again. Executive decision made, time to move on towards C2.

This is another of those points where I need to reiterate that `setbacks' like this didn't take away from the thrill and awe of the eclipse one bit! Yes, it would have been nice if my idea had worked, but everything I did see was mind-boggling. Even that one key image - the first naked-eye sight of the corona - made it all so very, very worthwhile. Man, it was so cool!!

With all this in mind, I figured I had a nice smorgasbord of phenomena to observe! Surely, I thought, with all of these cool things to see, those two minutes of totality will seem like two hours! I'll be looking at so much stuff, and racking up so many memories, I'll beat the 8-second rule for sure! Heck, that time in the Moon's shadow is going to seem like an eternity! 😜

(Oh, foolish man!..)

Prepping filters, and picking a telescope

For my solar filters, I decided that I wanted to have some pieces of #14 welder's glass, as well as some solar-filter film for my telescope and binoculars. I ordered some Thousand Oaks Optical film from Amazon, as well as four 2"x4" pieces of 'shade 14' welder's glass. I went to a local art-supply store (glad there was still at least one of these around!), and procured a few pieces of foamcore, a hobby knife, and a nice cutting mat. It was an interesting project, figuring out how to hold the film in front of my telescope's front aperture and the same for the binoculars. Eventually I figured out some arrangements that worked.

I decided to take my 6" f/10 Maksutov-Cassegrain scope to the eclipse, and to the dark-sky observing that we'd do after the eclipse. In some ways, the best choice for an eclipse scope would have been my Orion ED80 semi-apochromatic refractor. I bought one of the first ED80s that Orion sold when they were introduced in 2005, and I think it's a great small scope. For its size, it's always given sharp, contrasty views. If I'd brought the ED80, I could have gotten a great `overall view' of the corona with a 24mm Panoptic or 31mm Nagler eyepiece, and maybe even swapped in a higher-power eyepiece during totality for a close-up view of the inner corona and prominences.

However, the ED80 is currently part of an imaging rig that lives in my garage, and is set up so that I can roll it out and image from home without much set-up time. The idea of extricating the ED80 from the deep-sky imaging rig, taking off the CCD camera, and removing the RoboFocus unit, was just more than I was prepared to do. Ideal though the ED80 might be, I decided I had to take something else. Thus, the 6” f/10 Mak-Cass, an Intes-Micro Alter M603.

The ED80 as part of an imaging rig

A little calculating showed that if I used my widest-field eyepiece (the 31mm Nagler, a.k.a. the "Terminagler"), I'd get an apparent view that was about 3 moon-diameters wide. That sounded acceptable. On an equatorial mount, with decent tracking, I'd probably get some good views of the inner (and maybe middle) corona.
 And, as it turned out, this worked quite well! Because I managed to camp on the observing field the night before the eclipse, and could thus get my mount polar-aligned with the north star, I had very good tracking during the whole eclipse. From first contact to fourth contact, the Sun stayed nicely centered in the Terminagler's field of view.

Before loading up for my drive, I tested the scope at home with the newly-made filter on. I was pleased at the nice sharp view of the Sun, and I was pleased at the ergonomics of the setup. Because the Sun would be about 45 degrees up in the southeast, I was able to sit at the telescope without the tripod legs being near my legs. I knew I'd be able to stand up during totality and then sit back down again without being afraid of striking a tripod leg. That was really nice to know in advance.

My 6" f/10 Mak-Cass, with the Terminagler and a solar filter. Plenty of room to get in and out from the observing chair during totality.

My binoculars were a gamble, and one that sadly didn't pay off. I have a roughly 10- or 12-year-old pair of Canon 15x50 image-stabilized binoculars that I absolutely love... when the stabilizer is working. For the past few years, it's only worked when we're at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, on our August observing trips!  I have no idea why! Cool air? Low air pressure? Who knows. I'm glad they work at Bumpass; it's great to while away the time looking at the Sagittarius star clouds while my imaging rig is shooting M33 or the Swan nebula. That's one of my favorite astronomical experiences. And on my Australia trips, these binoculars worked great. I spent hours scanning those same star clouds of Sagittarius - while they were directly overhead!  😊  So, overall, I've definitely gotten my money's worth from them over the years.

I love these image-stabilized binos... when the stabilizer works!

But, I knew they were a gamble, what with their wonky stabilizer. However, for some months before the eclipse trip, they worked well! As long as I used a certain type of AA battery, all was well. I decided they were acting reliable enough that I ought to take them along. Thus, I made a filter for them, and it worked well, too. I had a nice, stable image of the filtered Sun while testing them at home. If only they'd worked on eclipse day... or if only I'd been smart enough to bring backup!  😞

August 16th - Alea Jacta Est!

So, with equipment selected and filters prepared, on Tuesday, August 15th, I packed up my Jeep. Just in case I had to alter my plans in a big way, I put a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and backpacker's pillow in my vehicle. (How happy I would end up being that I brought them!)

I hit the road from the Bay Area on Wednesday the 16th. I had decided this was my big Commit Day. If I was going to go someplace radically different from Idaho, I'd have to decide on the morning of the 16th. Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri? The 16th would have been the day to commit and strike out for one of these places.

I could hardly bear to look at any weather forecasts - I just didn't have the emotional energy. But, on the morning of the 16th, one of my friends sent a quick summary of a forecast for Boise or Smith's Ferry for the 21st: Sunny. That knocked it. Idaho it was, with my pals. Alea Jacta Est! Let the die be cast.

I headed for the northern end of California, to stay with family for a couple of nights, and get an oil change, before heading for Boise. If you've ever driven from the S.F. Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest, or even just to the "north state", you'll know the I-505 cutoff, and the truck stop where it joins I-5 coming north out of Sacramento. I suspect that an awful lot of Californians made that drive north in the days leading up to the eclipse! For my part, I was glad to be driving it on Wednesday 8/16, rather than a few days later.

At the Pilot truck stop at Road 8, I had my first reasonably likely `chaser sighting'. I was already wondering: "Who here's a chaser? How many of the cars around me might hold eclipse chasers?” As I stopped at Pilot, I saw a Toyota FJ Cruiser pulling a small trailer, and carrying a couple of gas cans on the roof. They were pulled up next to a pump that had a similar rig on the other side of it, and I heard one of the drivers say "Madras" to the other. Aha! They might be chasers! This really gave me a smile, and I thought "It has begun."
That was quite a sensation, thinking "it has begun". Not only had I dreamed of the eclipse for a long time, but others had too, and now our journeys were beginning. So many weather trends had been analyzed, so many predictions made about traffic and crowds, and now all of those guesses were going to turn into a concrete reality. An enormous set of concrete realities, even! It'll all go from the realm of the imagination to the realm of the real, I mused, and that giant transformation is beginning now.

The more I look back on it, the more this thought strikes me. The eclipse was an event that lived in the minds of thousands (maybe millions) of people for a long time. In our imaginations, we all saw it many times. We played out our journeys in our heads, in advance, more times than we could count. And in those days leading up to August 21st, there was this vast transformation - I want to call it a vast funneling - from a nearly-infinite world of the imagination into a more-limited (but still so vast!) world of lived experience and historical fact. Contemplating that transformation is one of the more memorable recollections of the eclipse experience, for me.

All packed up and ready to head for Idaho!

Weekend in Boise - surprisingly uncrowded

On the 18th, I drove from northern California to Boise, Idaho. It was a longer drive than I figured it would be, but a mostly pleasant one. While stopping for lunch in Alturas, CA, I wondered "are any of these folks around me chasers?" I didn't think so, but the frisson of excitement that I felt at the possibility was increasing.

There are few things in the world better than the Basin and Range geologic province, and it was nice to see another corner of it in SE Oregon. Temperatures weren't too bad - only about 89F - and I had a good time listening to audiobooks and satellite radio. As I got closer to Burns, OR, and then headed east towards Boise along the beautiful Malheur river, the previously-perfect weather got a little more complicated. I think there was a big smoke plume over NE Oregon, and I spent the afternoon and evening skirting around the southeastern edge of it. It was hard to tell if it was smoke or high cloud, but I leaned toward smoke. Please, oh please, don't blow over west-central Idaho on Monday! And leave the rest of the path alone, too, please!

Conditions were pretty good when I got to Boise, though. I could see a bit of high cloud to the north - that was a little worrisome - but overall, we seemed to be in a basically stable, high-pressure weather pattern. Good so far.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding the crowds that might visit the eclipse path, my biggest worry was gasoline. For all anyone knew, cities like Boise might be completely overrun by chasers, and gas might be in short supply. I kept saying to myself "As long as I can gas up at the end of my recon day (Saturday), then I'll be fine. I'll be able to make it to Smith's Ferry." I planned to stop and top off my tank in as many places as possible while making the recon trip.

I was fairly tired on Friday evening, so I just got gasoline, went to a nearby Taco Bell, and then hit the hay. As I was parking at the Taco Bell, a thought hit me: "I am chasing an eclipse. I am near the path of totality, the weather looks decent, and my plans are in place to get to the centerline in time for the eclipse. I am a chaser. I am engaged in the act of chasing!" Maybe it's silly, but that thought gave me a thrill. At long last, I was engaged in an actual eclipse chase!

I'd been looking forward to Saturday for three reasons: 1) I'd get to go for a drive in the uplands of west-central Idaho, 2) It was my birthday, and 3) At the end of the day, two of my astronomy buddies would arrive in Boise. With the weather still fairly good, I set out for a recon drive.

I started by heading NW on I-84 from Boise, towards Weiser, ID. From there, I went north on U.S. 95 towards New Meadows. I'd driven this road in the opposite direction the previous summer, while driving from Golden, BC to Ely, NV. I was curious to see how crowded things were around Weiser and Midvale, 48 hours before the eclipse. As it turned out, they weren't very crowded at all. As I neared the centerline, I saw that a lot of locals had hung out signs advertising places to park and camp. I'd heard that Weiser High School was an observing site, so I drove over there, and saw that some parking lots were roped off for reserved parking but not many people had arrived yet. Overall, it seemed like I could have driven to the Weiser/Midvale area, arrived at midday on Saturday, and found a place to camp without much trouble. So far, the zombie chaser apocalypse didn't seem to be playing out. Fingers crossed!

I made a point of stopping at the Chevron / A&W in New Meadows, mostly because I'd stopped there the previous year, it was a cute little place to eat, and I'm ritualistic about re-visiting places. It was a busy day, and they were short-staffed, but I didn't mind. As I stood there waiting for my burger, I found myself filled with a near-perfect sensation of gratitude and contentment. I had lived to see this day! And was reasonably likely to see the eclipse! Of all the things that could have felled me before August 2017, or have kept me from making the trip, none of them had done it. Life had been long enough to journey to totality with good friends, and that was something to be really grateful for, and happy about. Talk about a nice birthday!

Proceeding on to McCall, where we were slated to spend Sunday night, I stopped off at the Brundage Mtn ski area, where a late uncle of mine had once designed a ski lodge in the 1960s. From what I can tell, my uncle's building was now the back end of a much larger structure, but it was neat to see it all the same.

Brundage Mtn ski area, where my late uncle Gerald Cichanski designed a ski lodge in the 1960s

I think this may be the original building that my uncle designed.
 I saw something else at Brundage that really caught my attention. It was a poster for an eclipse-watching event. Brundage Mountain and McCall were north of the path of totality. Cascade and Smith's Ferry were inside the path. I understood why there would be eclipse events in the latter places, but why at Brundage? The eclipse wouldn't be total there. I assumed everyone would go into the path on Monday morning. Then I began to understand... that's not the most logical thought for people near the path. If I were the owner of Brundage Mtn Resort, and I knew this big celestial event was going to occur, my first thought would probably be "let's hold our own viewing event!" That would seem perfectly sensible. The eclipse would be nearly 100%, so why not hold an event? Simply shutting down for the day and going to some nearby place probably just didn't feel right to many local residents and entrepreneurs. I'll bet it felt much more `right', for lack of a better term, to see one's own eclipse. I'll bet that for people who feel a strong tie to their location - such as by running a ski resort or living in a mountain town - the local, personal nature of their own experience carries more weight than the idea of going to a nearby community and seeing something that was alleged to be better. I had never even considered this, but there it was!

And thus the poster I saw in the ski shop at Brundage, while I was asking about the history of the building: "Brundage Mountain Resort - On the Edge of Totality". It has a nice ring to it, and it depicted a narrow crescent Sun. Truth in advertising.

It was like a headline I'd seen in the Boise paper that morning: "With 99.5% blackout, Boise viewing will still be an awesome show" I will always wonder how much crowding we may have been spared, by the simple existence of that headline in the weekend paper.

There ought to be a term for the strange feeling that this inspires in an eclipse chaser. It's a combination of wanting to tell people "No, you have to go into the path of totality! It will be INFINITELY better!", alongside the feeling of "This will make my own effort to get to an observing site easier and more likely to succeed." I felt so greedy by not proselytizing more, and just letting people go about their affairs as they wished. But to each their own, and I decided to just let things go how they would go, and continue on my journey. The phenomenon of meeting people who would stay near the path would go into my vault of memories from the great eclipse chase.

I stopped at Smith's Ferry on my way back to Boise, and the folks at the Grace Chapel observing site were glad I did - it allowed them to pre-check me in. Everything seemed nice and orderly, and they were very nice people. Now it was really starting to seem real. Smith's Ferry had gone from a place we saw on Google Street View to a real place. If the weather holds, I will be seeing totality from here in less than two days! I could hardly believe I was thinking that thought.

Birthday Pizza with my Buddies

As I drove back to Boise, there was a reasonable amount of traffic, but no more than one might expect on a summer day between the local city and its closest mountain / lake resort town. Gassing up as I rolled into town was no big deal. Just the usual river-rafter traffic.

My friends Carl and Dan arrived at the hotel shortly after I did. I was really glad to see them, and I was particularly glad that Carl had arrived safely. He’d undergone a number of eye surgeries over the past couple of years, and had had a long drive from New Mexico. Since it was my birthday, they took me out to dinner. Being a simple sort of guy, who never really outgrew his childhood food preferences, I asked for pizza.

Now, I'd spent the previous year or so assuming that this Saturday night, the evening of my 49th birthday, would be jam-packed in Boise. Wall-to-wall chaser crowds, packed restaurants, waiting lines stretching out of every door. Cash-only, credit-card networks overwhelmed, the whole nine yards. But, to my great surprise, it wasn't like that at all. We found a local pizza joint with good ratings on the internet, and walked a couple of blocks to get there. Hardly anyone in the place. We just walked right in, ordered a pizza and some salad bar plates, and found ourselves a nice big table out on the expansive deck. Life was good!

And this was quite a fine way to spend my birthday!  A couple of good friends with whom I'd already shared many astro-adventures, an uncrowded environment, some tasty food, and hours of good conversation. True, I felt the constant undercurrent of `I hope the weather holds', but overall it was a great time. Quality time with good friends... one can't ask for much more.


Back at the hotel, Carl and I sat down to work on one last element of his imaging plans. Within our little group of six astro-buddies, Carl and I are the `imaging' contingent. We've both done a lot of visual observing, and have enjoyed it greatly, but for the last several years we've hoisted ourselves on the petard of `imaging'. There isn't enough space on the internet to describe how difficult this can be - oh man is `imaging' finicky! But, we've managed to get some results, and Carl had decided to try and image the eclipse. I had decided just to go visual, although I had a rather ambitious visual-observing plan. (Naked-eye, binoculars, and telescope, although only two of those three actually ended up working.)

Carl was using a DSLR with a 400mm lens on an AstroTrac mount, and he was using Xavier Jubier's remarkable Solar Eclipse Maestro software to run his camera during the eclipse. If all went well, he'd be able to observe the eclipse by eye, without having to attend to his equipment. Xavier Jubier's program is really quite a thing to behold! (I'd used it to work out the timings in my visual plan, in great detail.)

Two things were rather key in Jubier's software, however: Location and timing. If you have GPS-quality data on both of those counts, you're golden. Otherwise, you're going to have to input a set of coordinates manually, and set your computer's clock to some `last known good' timing signal. But the program can take real-time data from a GPS unit, so I had brought along a Garmin GPS 60CSx that I didn't need to use.

To our happy astonishment, we plugged the GPS unit into Carl's MacBook Pro, and boom, it worked! 😃  We could hardly believe how simple it was, but as near as we could tell, Jubier's software was getting the exact position of the computer from the GPS, as well as the exact time, down to probably at least a tenth of a second. And the GPS was getting power through the connection cable, thus obviating the need to worry about batteries. Cool!  That was a good sign for Carl's imaging program. Another little bit of Eclipse Magic kicking in 😄

Carl's last-minute campsite procurement

Then it was Sunday, Eclipse Eve Day. Carl, Dan, and I started the day with a leisurely breakfast at a local Dennys. No more crowded than a Dennys is on a typical Sunday. Some of the people there might have been chasers from out of town, but not obviously. The strangeness of that just got stranger... where is the zombie chaser apocalypse? Still, no complaints!

We decided that Carl should go on and head north to McCall, stopping at Smith's Ferry to check the place out. Dan and I would meet our other friends at the airport.

The Boise airport is pretty simple to navigate, and soon I was parked in the garage, and I headed into the terminal to pace around while our friends got ready for takeoff in San Francisco.  `Pacing around like a caged animal' might describe me pretty well. I'm glad Dan arrived, otherwise I would have descended too far into my own nervous anticipation. Dan soon joined me. Glancing at the Clear Outside app, we saw that high clouds were forecast to pass through during the night, but were supposed to clear around dawn. Let's hope so! (Oh, how I would end up hoping so!)

My next main concern was Monday morning. Everything was set for staying in McCall Sunday night, but I really hoped we didn't have trouble getting to the observing site on Monday morning. Some of the road goes through a whitewater river gorge, and I had visions of a single camper-trailer turning over on that road... and blocking everyone coming south from McCall. Yikes! I was starting to wish I had not just reserved a parking spot at Smith's Ferry, but an actual campsite. That way, I could wake up on the centerline, and if others wanted to drive down from McCall while it was still dark, I could guide them in to their parking spots by red flashlight. If only!... to be continued shortly...

Happily, our friends arrived a bit early, and they said that most of the flight from San Francisco had consisted of chasers. Now the chase had truly begun! There was even an elderly lady who'd seen something like 8 or 9 totalities, including (IIRC) the famous 7-minute-plus totality in Africa in 1973. I think her son was hand-carrying a classic Questar telescope. How cool!

And so off we went, up ID Hwy 55 towards McCall, with a plan to stop in Smith's Ferry. When we got there, a great surprise awaited us! Carl had arrived, had pre-checked in, and in an incredible display of `people skills', he had procured a campsite for us! 😮 😃 😊 We had a big, RV-sized campsite, in addition to our parking spots. Life was good! And, in my typical just-in-case fashion, I had my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow. I would spend the night on the centerline! Wow! Carl had become a walking avatar of Eclipse Magic.

I pitched my tent, and as I pounded the tent stakes into the ground, it felt like Calstar. It might only be for one night, but I couldn't shake the feeling of shared experience and astro-good-vibes that I always get when setting up at Calstar. The smell of the dry grass, the smell of the nylon tent fabric, the sounds of other campers - it was all of a piece. If the (predicted) clouds clear by morning, I thought, then the last piece will fall into place!

I went to McCall to dine with my friends while Carl held down the fort in Smith's Ferry, and then my friend Casey and I headed back there to camp. We were a bit impromptu, but we made the best of it. I had my comfy tent and sleeping bag, and all my cold-weather observing gear. Casey had all of his clothing, plus some extra warm clothing of mine, and he slept in the reclined passenger seat of my Jeep. Carl had a pad and sleeping bag and his recline-way-back observing chair.

I set up my equatorial mount and got it polar-aligned before the clouds rolled in too thickly. If it had been clear all night, that would have been SO epic! Imagine a full night of new-moon, dark-sky observing from a rural site, followed by a total eclipse! Given how things turned out, I'm not complaining at all, but oh my goodness, that would have been the ultimate astro-experience! Still, I have no complaints, in the end!

Clouds, forecast models, and a long dark night of the soul

The clouds did indeed arrive. They thickened and blotted out the stars, and I shuffled off to my tent. “Try to sleep through it”, I told myself. They're supposed to clear by morning. Be cool. Oh man, that was a struggle, trying to stay calm and positive.

In David Makepeace's "Still Hooked" video, he describes the 2016 chase in Indonesia's Maluku Islands. Even after a rapid relocation by water, he and his compatriots had to suffer through a rainy night, which he summarizes by saying "It rains all night. I don't sleep." Although it wasn't raining in Smith's Ferry, I began to learn exactly what he was talking about! I settled into my sleeping bag and tried to drift off. I re-watched part of "Tim's Vermeer" on my iPad, trying to lose myself in the story of one man's truly epic feat of concentration and painstaking craftsmanship. Eventually I drifted off, and probably got as much as 4 or 5 hours of sleep that night, all told. I think I got up to visit the porta-potties around 2, and it was still mostly cloudy. That shouldn't have gotten me down, but it did.
I went into a really pessimistic mode, and started to concentrate on how I was going to cope with the loss of my long-held dream. I said things to myself like "The true test of character is how you respond to adversity. Hey, at least there will be more eclipses! This isn't the last chance in your life. Maybe we'll get lucky and see a little bit of the bright inner corona through a slight thinning in the cloud.”

Such were the thoughts going through my head on that fateful Sunday night, and in the wee hours of Monday morning.


I got up again to answer nature's call about 5:30am. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Carl had gotten up around 4:30am, with frost on his sleeping bag, and had taken the picture shown below. It has become one of my favorite pictures of the whole trip.

Pre-dawn at Smith's Ferry, August 21st, 2017. Casey was asleep in the Jeep, and I was nervously tossing and turning in the yellow tent. How happy I would be when I crawled outside! Photo by Carl Larson.

In the Jeep, Casey was dozing and catching such sleep as he could, and was probably much less worked up than I was. Hopefully he was staying warm enough. In the tent on the right, I was getting such sleep as I could, in between nervous ruminations about how I was going to live the next several years of my life without being consumed by disappointment.

To use one of my favorite phrases (although taken out of context in this case) - "...and the stars wheeled overhead, all unseen". Normally, I say that when people gather for an observing session under a good dark sky, and end up talking and socializing instead of observing. Makes me roll my eyes a bit when that happens (unless it’s me and my pals, of course). In this case, the stars were all unseen because we were fighting our own struggles with cold (Casey) or worry (me). But the stars were right there, waiting for us.

At 5:30, I got up again, and prepared myself mentally as I unzipped the tent door. "Don't get your hopes up, buddy. Be ready to make the best of things. Don't let yourself become angry around your friends on the rest of the trip. Don't expect to see stars on the horizon when you unzip that door." I unzipped the door...

And I saw stars.

Vega. Deneb. Summer stars preparing to set (or nearly so) on the northwestern horizon.

Stars? Could the northern horizon actually be clear? Surely the *rest* of the sky will be cloudy, but if the north is clear, then is there hope that the clearing will come our way? With trepidation, I pushed my way out of the tent and stood up. I lifted my head up and turned around.

Orion. Orion!

Oh my gosh, I'm looking at Orion rising in the southeast! The sky is clear there! And it's clear... pretty much everywhere! Oh wow, I can't believe this! It's a miracle! We might actually get to see this thing!

Short of the eclipse itself, I think that morning's clear sky is the greatest astronomical sight I've ever seen. Of all the non-totality sights I've been lucky enough to see, it's right up there with my first views of the southern hemisphere sky (New Zealand, 1995-96), my first views through large telescopes (2002), and my first serious observing in Australia (2005 & 2006). What a thing to have lived to see! And the eclipse was yet to come!

I can recall standing next to the porta-potties for some time, chatting happily with a fellow from Spokane, marveling at our good luck. The glow of good fortune led to a marvelous good fellowship between everyone during that predawn glow - the *first* twilight of the day! 😊

On to Eclipse Day...