Total Solar Eclipse- August 21st, 2017- 10:21 am; Lake Billy Chinook, Oregon
We had spent the better part of 11 months planning and discussing this as a family. Some of us would travel over 5,000 miles to bare witness to the event. The lowdown: A total solar eclipse was going to cut through northern Oregon on August 21, 2017 and continue to traverse the United States. Let the planning begin! It all started it our rather simply. We were natives to that region of the world. We already knew exactly where we needed to be when it happened for the best viewing vistas and scenery and longest amount of time in totality- 2 minutes and 6 seconds, to be exact. It seemed simple enough. We would convene as a family at a scar cut into the eastern Oregon landscape. A canyon, cut deeply through the otherwise flatness of Oregon's high deserts. This canyon was etched through time by three rivers (the Crooked, the Deschutes and the Metolius), that flow into the lake. It was named after Billy Chinook of the Wasco tribe. We would spend the hot summer days in the cool of the lake swimming, boating, drinking craft IPA. We would emerge the morning of the eclipse, climb a hill and wait for the majesty of the solar event to happen upon us-- with hopefully only handfuls of other eager humans. It only took us a moment to realise possibly none of this would happen as we'd hoped. It appeared that EVERYONE was clued in about the solar event and ready to capitalise on it. NASA was hosting an event in Madras, Oregon, a Solar Eclipse Festival was happening somewhere in the Ochoco Mountains, campsites all through the path of totality were booking out in seconds. People were going as far as renting out their land to house the potential spectators and even the local airstrip in Madras, Oregon, opened it's gates to campers-- you could rent a 20'x20' space on the airfield for a mere $50. But that was not were we wanted to be. It was November before we could attempt to book a campsite at the lake. On that particular date my father and step mother sat at two separate computers until the wee hours of the morning attempting to make a booking the moment the online system became available. They failed. So many versions of Plan B ensued after that moment. Months later my step sister would save Plan A with news that the county would open up an extra 1,000 campsites at this location and low and behold, the plan was on track again.
Oregon's high desert is nothing if not majestic. Mesas and buttes dot the landscape. Ravines and canyons etched by rivers add geological interest. The air is perfumed with wild sage and juniper. The rocks and earth are red with iron. And in the distance, the Cascade Mountain range stretches out- home to Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, Mt Bachelor, the Newberry Volcano, Crater Lake and Mt. McLoughlin to name a few of our most prominent volcanoes. The Cascade volcanoes define the Pacific Northwest section of the Ring of Fire, an array of volcanoes that rim the Pacific Ocean.
Upon my family's arrival in Oregon, we came to realise several things. The begin, the air was thick with smoke. The wildfire season was especially bad this year- so bad in fact, that from Portland you could not see the mountains or the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in the distance which is a normal, everyday sight from the city. The smoked choked you and made your lungs feel heavy. Also, the state itself was expecting and influx of around 1 million people for the solar eclipse. And the media hype was making everything sound quite scary. Two of us held steady with the plan, my father and my husband, as the rest of us wavered with worry about ridiculous commuting times to east side of the state, wildfires and the heat itself. On a normal day, driving to Lake Billy Chinook would take us around 3 hours. The reports from the media were predicting delayed traffic for days, new wildfires being sparked from the exhaust pipes of too many waiting cars and temperature was in the 100s.
But we gathered nonetheless. Some of us traveled across oceans, others across continents and all of us over a mountain range. We were prepared for the worst and hoping for the best and the day before the eclipse, when we had planned to embark on the last leg of our journey which would place us right in the path of totality, the roads and towns looked abandoned. Had there been some wind, sage brush might have blown across our path. We arrived in the town of Madras to find a party waiting but minimal people to enjoy it. Our campsite which could have been nestled within thousands of other bodies, was instead surrounded by maybe hundreds of other people and the temperatures were happy not scary. Our campsite, an off-shoot of the Crooked River Campground was on the mesa above the lake overlooking the mountains in the distance. A short walk or drive up another hill would land us to one of the most prime eclipse viewing sites in the entire state of Oregon. We had made it with minimal hassle! Our reward, courtesy of the smokey skies and the fading sun that night, was a magnificant sunset with three mountain peaks in the distance.
I'm going to talk about the solar eclipse in just a moment. Before this actual journey began, I had the pleasure of reading Annie Dillard's essay, "Total Eclipse". So, I had some expectations for how this solar event might impact me. In fact, I'm going to quote Dillard below because she simply talks about it more eloquently than I ever could. But to begin, let me show you the conditions we not just woke to but had been living in for weeks up to this point. The skies were so thick with smoke, visibility wasn't awesome. Front the top of the mesa, the canyon itself isn't visible clearly let alone the mountains in the distance. Nevertheless, the people came including us. Spectators, photographers, astronomy buffs with enormous telescopes. The image below on the paper plate is actually showing you sunspots... here's what wikipedia says about them: "Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the Sun's photosphere that appear as spots darker than the surrounding areas. They are regions of reduced surface temperature caused by concentrations of magnetic field flux that inhibit convection."
We found a spot on the ridge away from most of the crowds of people, set up and began to watch the eclipse of our very precious sun. It's funny but many people thought we were crazy to attempt to get to this particular place to view the eclipse when places like Portland and some of the surrounding areas had 98% totality. But as we spoke amongst ourselves we discussed how this is one of the only situations in life where 100% is necessary and where 99% just isn't good enough. Annie Dillard says it quite nicely. She says,
"I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden. Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire. And blackbirds do fly back to their roosts. I had seen a partial eclipse before, and here was another.
What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and 15 years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know. You may read that the moon has something to do with eclipses. I have never seen the moon yet. You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day. What you see before your eyes is the sun going through phases. It gets narrower and narrower, as the waning moon does, and, like the ordinary moon, it travels alone in the simple sky. The sky is of course background. It does not appear to eat the sun; it is far behind the sun. The sun simply shaves away; gradually, you see less sun and more sky."
I didn't photograph the phases of the sun on this day. To begin, I was completely unprepared with the appropriate gear and secondly, I just wanted the experience so much. I didn't want to miss anything. However, the photographer in me had to document so instead, I photographed the scenery around us. An interesting tidbit about a total solar eclipse is that while most people focus on the sun itself, what's happening behind you is almost more interesting. As the eclipse is happening, the sky begins to change but if you turn and look west you can actually see the shadow of the moon coming toward you and darkening everything in its path for a few short moments before moving eastward. The wall of darkness is what brought us to this mesa. I've tried to capture the changing of the light with my camera and without editing the shots or messing with the exposure. Above, the brightness of morning and then this...
What you're looking at above is the change in light without any changes to camera exposure, as the sun is phased out by the moon. In the first image notice how visibility has improved and you can see some of the white caps of snow on Mt. Jefferson in the distance. The second image is everyone facing west with the sun behind them, waiting for the shadow. The third image shows how shadow edges becoming soft and fuzzy. In the fourth image you can actually see the darkness creeping in on the right side of the frame as the western part of Oregon is engulfed in darkness and finally bam!, our view is dark. Here's what Annie Dillard says:
"The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?"
Here is what happened next...
I couldn't really help myself. I shot blindly as I watched what was happening around me, tears were streaming down my cheeks but there was a smile on face. People hooted and hollered around us and we took the moment in and took our solar glasses off. It's hard to describe how truly magnificent and magnetic it actually was. 2 minutes and 6 seconds of awe. 2 minutes and 6 seconds of really realising that we are all made of star dust. I've never felt so small and also so engulfed in the magic and wonder of the Universe and our beautiful planet. And I can't help but think what my life would be like now, if I hadn't experienced this moment in time. PS. in the middle shot, in the upper right corner, that is Venus.
So, 2 minutes and 6 seconds can feel simultaneously long and short at the same time. I put my camera on my tripod and flicked the exposure down and snapped the next shots while I was trying to take it all in with my senses... viewing the totality of the sun and also the surrounding sunset on the mountains, the faces of the people I love staring in awe at the sky. Planets like Mercury and Venus emerged and stars... a feeling of calm and panic consumed me. I don't know why I was weeping but I was and so moved by the experience that I could not control my emotions at all...
After this, the glasses go back on and it all happens in reverse...
Annie said, "Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.
I know that photography and blog cannot truly capture and explain this moment to anyone. Being there is the only way. And while these shots were captured blindly and with a wide angle lens no less (not really suitable for astro-photography), I'm really glad I have some evidence of my own to share with people. Because it was truly the most moving moment of my entire life, childbirth and all. And I intend to experience more of this before my life is over.
So I'll say adieu. So long then...
Sierra, the eclipse chaser