Still Totally Awesome

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, was my fourth complete solar eclipse. I’ve seen two annular eclipses, 1994 and 2012, and two total eclipses, 2001 and 2017. Annular eclipses, or rings of fire, are worthy spectacles but nothing compares to a total solar eclipse. Some things have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Unless you have stood under the Moon’s shadow you don’t really know what it’s like. Pictures and recordings all miss the mark. Maybe one day, when virtual reality directly hooks into all our senses, it may be possible to record totality but until then you have to get under the Moon’s shadow and, this is absolutely crucial, only totality counts!

Here in the Boise Idaho area, many people decided 99% was good enough. This is not even wrong! The August 21st eclipse took place right in the middle of Western Idaho State Fair and like all make a buck opportunists the fair promoted an “enjoy the eclipse with us event.” There was only one problem: Boise wasn’t in the totality zone so advertising dollars were spent reassuring fair-goers that 99% was close enough; that a measly 1% difference was no big deal; that it wasn’t worth refraining from shoveling junk food down your obese pie-hole on the overpriced midway for a few hours. Cosmic spectacles cannot be allowed to suppress the bottom line.

Fortunately, I knew better. The difference between 99% and 100% is vast. Solar eclipse awesomeness is not linear! It’s actually more like a logarithmic step function with a really big step at totality. XKCD accurately summarized this with his with recent eclipse cartoon. He correctly notes that total solar eclipses are off the scale.

XKCD accurately notes that total solar eclipse “coolness” is off the scale. Totality in on an entirely different plane than partial or annular eclipses.

There was no way I was going to miss totality, especially when it was in my backyard, so we got up at 4:00 am on the 21st and headed east to Mackay Idaho. I’d already driven around southern Idaho and Oregon scouting eclipse watching locations. My preferred location was on Sunset Peak in the Lost River mountain range of Idaho. Unfortunately, Sunset Peak required that we climb the mountain the night before, camp out near the summit, and then wait for the eclipse the next morning. It would have been cool. Sunset Peak is slightly over 3,050 meters with nice views to the west and east. It would have been possible to watch the Moon’s shadow race over the Boise and Sawtooth mountains, blacking out one peak after another. I was all ready to pack up and go but my wife no longer camps out in tents. This is a problem I am still working on.

With the mountain summit vetoed we checked out the Snake River Valley near Huntington Oregon and Stanley Idaho. Both locations are very scenic but both required traversing easily congested roads. To ensure totality we would have had to go the night before. So we were right back to camping in tents. My third option Mackay Idaho was a nice mixture of, easily reached on good roads, large enough to find parking on public lands, and far enough out-of-the-way to avoid big crowds.

Mackay is about four hours from Meridian. To make it before first contact, shortly after 10:00 am local time, and to miss projected heavy traffic, we started at 4:00 am. In retrospect, we could have left later. Traffic was light on I84 and almost nonexistent on Idaho highway 20. We hardly saw another car until Highway 20 crossed the road to Sun Valley. Sun Valley was in the totality zone but it was too far from the center line for me. Leaving early paid off when we reached Craters of the Moon: a smoke reddened Sun was creeping over the eastern horizon and illuminating the black volcanic flows.

We left Meridian at 4:00 am and headed east to Mackay Idaho to see the eclipse. On the way we caught the Sun rising over the Craters of the Moon. It was a good start to eclipse day.

Turning north at Arco Idaho we headed north to Mackay. There was more smoke in the air than I would have liked. The further north we went the thicker the smoke got. When we reached Mackay you could smell the smoke. Mackay sits in a valley. Details on mountains to the east and west were obscured by smoke but the sky was completely clear of clouds and at totality the sun would be high overhead. I worried about smoke’s impact on the corona but I cheered myself up with the thought that sunblock cream wouldn’t be necessary.

Getting ready for totality. This shot shows how much forest fire smoke was in the air. The mountains of the Lost River Range are almost completely obscured in the background. The smoke probably reduced our view of the corona at totality but it increased the darkness and helped cast a deep orange red 360-degree dusk.

Being two hours early Mali decided to nap in the car while I walked around Mackay taking pictures. Main Street was blocked off and street vendors were setting up tented stalls and big meat smokers. Others were busy selling souvenirs. Most of the stores were closed. The eclipse was a good excuse for a holiday. I waited in a donut line and chatted with other eclipse tourists. One Maryland couple had just arrived in a rented car from Salt Lake City. A few Italians had come all the way from Naples. I saw lots of Utah, California, Alberta and Nevada license plates. Total solar eclipses gather the multitudes.

Mackay blocked off Main Street for anticipated eclipse crowds. The number of people that showed up underwhelmed. The only eclipse complaints I am aware of were made by businesses hoping to cash in on massive crowds. Crowds were down over the entire country. Too many people were scared away by horror stories about traffic and the rest bought the malarkey that 99% coverage is close enough to 100%. Eclipses are not tests. That last 1% obscures a vast unfathomable difference.

After checking out downtown Mackay I drifted back to the Centennial Rest Stop where Spanish science students were setting up equipment to observe the eclipse. They had come all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in tiny Mackay Idaho. The moon’s shadow turns even the most unlikely places into tourist attractions. The scientific utility of total solar eclipses in the 21st century is not what it used to be but eclipses do offer great excuses for globe trekking and the re-enactment of historical experiments. The Spaniards were busy preparing weather balloons and getting ready to photograph the corona. They were also making objective lens solar filters for people who brought binoculars and telephoto lens. I considered having some made for my 16×70 astronomical binoculars but decided against it. Instead, I went back to our car, woke up Mali, and then started hauling eclipsing paraphernalia to the viewing area. Unlike many present, we didn’t have a lot of gear: just binoculars, three-legged folding stools, cell phones, cameras, and eclipse shades. Shortly after setting up our stools the Spanish students started counting down to first contact. Shortly after 10:00 am the eclipse started.

A group of science students came all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in Mackay Idaho. They brought a collection of telescopes, sun filters, and weather balloons. They released a balloon just before the eclipse, presumably to measure the eclipse induced temperature drop which was considerable. Mackay’s elevation is almost 1800 meters. When the Sun goes down the temperature drops. The wind was blowing from the north and their balloon took off towards the south. They probably had a little road trip to recover it.

At first, people were excited to see the Moon slowly nibble at the Sun’s disk but they quickly quieted down. I got the impression that many were questioning the so-called awesomeness of solar eclipses. It’s just a boring black cookie-bite Sun. What’s the big deal? I think many were also surprised by how long it took for the Moon to cover the sun. I’d seen this phase before so I wandered around the crowd taking pictures while the Moon slowly covered the sun.

Fifteen minutes before totality the changing light was getting hard to ignore. The human eye adapts logarithmically to changing light levels. At this point in the eclipse more than 90% of the sun was covered, dropping light levels by a factor of ten, but it was only in the last five minutes that it became obvious that it was getting dark. I spotted a flock of pigeons gathering on the fences nearby. They were disturbed by the change in routine. As totality approached people started counting down. I peeled off my eclipse shades and glanced directly at the waning light. As the sun squeezed down to a pinhole of brilliant light I saw dazzling rainbow halos around the sun. I’m developing cataracts. When I stare into bright point sources I see rainbow halos. I had never looked at a point source as bright as the Sun and the effect was both beautiful and alarming. I will have to do something about my cataracts in a few years.

At totality, the blasé crowd erupted. Many started squealing, pointing, and yelling. Mali pointed to a flock of pigeons, the same flock I had spotted on the fence before, tearing through the air. I briefly looked all around to see the 360-degree sunset. I was expecting a deep orange dusk all around up but it failed to appear. We were too close to the mountains. Then I pointed my 16×70 binoculars at the eclipsed sun. Three flares were visible and the corona’s filaments were as beautiful as ever. The corona was not as extensive as the 2001 eclipse and the core region near the sun seemed brighter. I looked around for planets and stars. Venus was easy. I was expecting to spot Mercury and Mars but I the only star I saw near the Sun I later identified as Regulus. I didn’t try to photograph my first total solar eclipse but near the end of totality I grabbed my DSLR and fired off a few 300mm telephoto shots just to see what might come up.

I didn’t try and photograph my first total solar eclipse but this time I fired off a few 300mm handheld telephoto shots just to see what might come up. The result was better than I expected.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the Sun burst forth. One bystander yelled, “Do it again!” The small crowd kept buzzing as more of the Sun was exposed. The consensus was, “Yeah, total solar eclipses are freaking awesome and totality is totally worth seeing.” Later, while standing in line to view the Sun and receding Moon through a Hydrogen Alpha filtered telescope, I overheard a fellow in the crowd say, “I’d read about shadow chasers, people who go all over the world to see total eclipses, I thought that was crazy, until today!”

The next total solar eclipse is in 2019. The greatest eclipse is in the Pacific, later the shadow runs over parts of Chile and Argentina. I’ve always wanted to visit the large observatories in Chile and view the southern sky from the super dark high elevation skies of the Atacama. This with totality is close to amateur astronomer heaven.