Chasing the “Great American Eclipse”

 

(Note: all times in this article are local)

On August 21, 2017, a Total Solar Eclipse crossed the continental United States. This was the first time since 1918 that a total eclipse cross the country, and the first time since 1776 that it was exclusively over one country. Millions of people from all over the United States - and the world - traveled to a 70 mile wide swath from Oregon to South Carolina to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

I think I first heard about this eclipse back in the 1980s. A lot of my astronomy friends had the money to chase eclipses around the world, but I was never fortunate enough to see one. I had seen an annular eclipse in May 1994, and it was great, but not as great as a total eclipse I was told. I knew that 2017 would be my first chance to see totality in person, so I bided my time and lived vicariously off my friends’ stories and images until August 21, 2017 came along. That became so important to me, that I always told people I had nothing else on my schedule until then. For the past 15 years or so, when I was asked if I had some time to wait for something or other, I would say “I don't have to be anywhere until August 21, 2017.”

For the eclipse this August, planning started last year, and really got going in March 2017. I was trying to remain fluid in my plans, because I wanted to watch the weather and make sure that I was in the right spot. Historical satellite data showed certain areas of the country more prone to clear skies than others, so I therefore set my primary sights on being somewhere in Nebraska. A back up plan was to go down to Kentucky, because my brother was just going to happen to be in Indianapolis the weekend before the eclipse (the eclipse was on Monday), and I could get a room at the motel he was at. We would both view the eclipse, and then head home.

Now that I had a primary and backup plan, it was time to take stock to see if I have the necessary equipment. Being a photographer, and previously taking photos of the Sun and Moon, I knew that I had all the photography equipment I would need. The only other two things I would really need is a tracking mount to guide on the Sun during totality, and a good solar filter. The solar filter I used for the Venus transit in 2012 was hand made, and I was letting my brother use it for his camera.

The solar filter was going to be an easy decision. I knew by reputation, and previous use of others, that I was going to get a Thousand Oaks solar filter. Since I was planning on using my big zoom lens which is Sigma 150-500mm, I went for the 86mm version of the filter (it works just like a regular lens filter and threads on the front of the lens). As a back up, I was going to use my Canon 70-200mm L zoom lens with a 2X teleconverter, so I bought a step up ring in order to use the 86mm filter on the 77mm filter size of the smaller lens.

The mount was another story altogether. There was a choice between two: the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, and the Sky Watcher Star Adventurer. There are pros and cons to both mounts, and I was really on the fence about it. I had even sent a couple of emails to noted astronomer and astrophotographer Alan Dyer, because I saw that he had used the Star Adventurer. He thought both would be fine, and the Star Adventurer would have an advantage for time lapses. My only concern on my mind was the eclipse and doing some wide-field astrophotography, so time lapses didn’t matter to me. One person in one of my astronomy clubs had the Sky Guider - not the pro model - and I took a look at it in the hopes it would help me make my decision. In the end it came down to the SkyGuider Pro came is a kit, where I would have to buy the Star Adventurer in separate pieces and then assemble it. I was pleasantly surprised that when I ordered the mount from Highpoint Scientific, it was delivered in less than three days.

While this was going on, my astronomy club in Kalamazoo held its annual Astronomy Day observance. This year was all about the solar eclipse. We brought in some heavy hitting speakers: Fred Espenak, Tyler Nordgren, and Jay Anderson.

Now with a little over three months to go, it was time to get a timetable set, and practice, practice and more practice taking pictures. Unfortunately I had an issue at the end of June which stopped me from working with the mount for about a month, but I was able to work around the issue for the most part. I found the mount easy to set up, but the polar aligning and counterbalancing was time-consuming, because it has to be as perfect as possible.

At this time my brother’s plans were canceled, and weather plus anticipated traffic data showed Kentucky as not being a good place if you had to “run” for clear skies (which turned out to be necessary). So Nebraska was it, and I managed to snag one of the remaining motel rooms that were set aside by my local astronomy club in Grand Rapids. We would be staying in Lincoln, and our observing spot would be Fairmont State Airfield, about one hour to the southwest of Lincoln, right on the centerline.

Now was the start of planning travel routes and even backup plans. In addition, my brother and I started listing what we would need to take with us, and buy thing if we needed them. We had all the camera equipment, so it was things like duffel bags for clothes, sunscreen, extra water, a large beach-type umbrella with an auger stand to secure in the sand/dirt, etc. We can contingency plans for the plans, and even contingency contingency plans. We wanted no surprises.

August 19th was departure day. We left around 8.00am with the back of my brother’s vehicle stuffed with gear: camera bags, tripods, cooler, folding canvas chairs, etc. We planned on stopping in Des Moines, Iowa to visit our Aunt Mary and cousins for a short time on the way to Lincoln. After an hour and a half there - where we were treated to a nice freshly-made Italian meal - we headed for our destination in Lincoln, arriving about 8.30pm. We unloaded the car, ordered some food, and relaxed. We did note the the television news was showing tornado warnings to the west of us. Would we have time - or an opportunity - to storm chase? During the night the storms made it to Lincoln - no longer tornadic, but intense enough to wake us up a few times. A nice lightning display played out through the views in our windows.

Sunday morning was mostly cloudy with thunderstorms still in the area. I took a look at the forecast models after breakfast, and thought we would have a decent chance for mostly sunny/clear skies for the eclipse on Monday. We headed out to make a run to the airfield to see just how long it took to get there in normal traffic, but we were sidetracked as we decided to chase some thunderstorms. They weren’t severe, but there was some big hail (which we avoided), and at least we got to say we chased in Nebraska.

After a few hours of chasing, we found ourselves at the airfield. It was going to be a great place to view this historical event, at what turned out to be an historical venue. Turns out the WWII bomber squadrons at this airfield were picked by Col. Paul Tibbetts to be part of the group that would eventually drop the atomic bombs that helped end the war.

We drove back to the motel under sunny skies, and gave our report on the airfield. My brother went back to our room while I stayed and talked to some of my fellow astronomy club members, many whom I had not seen in years. It was a nice reunion, and we were looking forward to experiencing totality together the next day.

I went back to the room to relax, and wait for the professional meteorologist to arrive to help me decipher the updating forecast models (did I mention I studied meteorology along with astronomy and photography?), Ellen Bacca, one of the meteorologists from WOOD-TV was scheduled to join our group in the evening, and there would be a “final weather briefing”. As I poured through the models, I was getting worried about what I was seeing. I told my brother that we might have to make a run for it overnight.

Ellen got there a little bit before 8 o’clock, and I met her in the common room of the motel where most everyone had been gathered. She and I stood off to the side and she was showing me the models and what they were saying and I agree with her that we needed to run for it. Some of the other members of the club had to gather around by now and heard that, and several of them went back to their rooms immediately to pack and get ready to go. Some didn’t know exactly where they were going, and others were going all the way to Wyoming. I told Ellen we were going to run, and we would probably follow her, so we agreed that we would keep in contact via texts to alert each other where our locations were. I went back to my room and told my brother that we had to “run to the hills”. We decided to get a few hours sleep, and then leave in the middle the night.

We got up around three in the morning, quickly showered, loaded the car, and we were on the road by 3.30am. We just started heading west on I-80, hoping to get in the clear skies before the eclipse started. While we were driving, I got a text from Ellen saying they were at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, so we decided we were going to head there. Unfortunately we ran into a big delay, as just east of Gothenburg Nebraska we ran into heavy fog just as dawn was breaking. That slowed us down to under 50 miles an hour for about an hour and a half, until we broke out in the sunshine near Alliance. In the meantime, Ellen had sent me another text saying that they were leaving their location and going to Glendo, Wyoming. My brother and I checked the timetable, and decided we could make it, so I let Ellen know that we would see her there.

The next few hours were just driving through the western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming countryside, as my brother Kendall and I marveled at some of the great landscapes that we were seeing. We also saw corn fields, cows, and very long trains carrying coal. It was getting close to the time for the eclipse to begin, and we weren't at Glendo yet, but we were sure we could make it.

We were going as fast as we could, and I got a text message from my friend Ed who was in Oregon with his family to view the eclipse. He informed me that First Contact had happened. That meant the eclipse has started, and we were not in position. We still thought we could make it in time, but I was getting texts from Ellen telling us to just pull off to the side of the road and set up anywhere, because she didn’t want us to miss it.

Even though we had started to see some heavier traffic and people on the side of the road, it wasn’t until we were getting close to our destination and we just saw people pulling off to the sides of the roads in groups, and even seeing signs that said “Eclipse Parking $25 per car”. But we kept going up US-25 towards Glendo State Park. As we rounded the turn we saw the next exit packed with cars as people were just pulling off the side of the road. As we topped the hill towards the park, we could see cars lined up on the highway trying to get into the park itself. I knew we weren’t going to be able to make it in there in time, so I told my brother to just find a level area on the side of the road and pull over. We find a great spot just on the side of the road just past the entrance to the park. We got out and started getting our equipment ready.

As I had said before, setting up the mount was easy. I’ve done it plenty of times at home. But never under this amount of pressure. Our original plan was to get the observing site about three hours before the eclipse started, so we would have the time to polar align the mount, get it perfectly balanced, and be ready even before the eclipse started. Now, I have to polar align the mount and get everything balanced as quick as I can, because the sun is already over a quarter covered by the moon.

I don’t have the time to do the planned polar alignment with a regular compass and an angle ruler, so I use the compass in my phone and I align to the north as close as I can. I set the mount down, set the correct latitude, and make sure the mount is level. I throw some sandbags on the legs of the tripod, so it won’t move at all during the eclipse, as there is a slight breeze. I put my lens combination on the mount, and slide on the counter weight on the other side along with a mounting bracket with a ball head for the digital video camera that we will be using to get close-up HD video of the eclipse. I attach the video camera to the other end of the mount on the ball head, and quickly and carefully balance them out so it is as perfect as I can get. Now I have to get the sun framed in the center of the camera viewfinder. I get the sun in the center, and do my critical focus to make sure I am ready. I’ll take a couple of quick images to check exposure time is in focus and everything looks fine. I then center the Sun in the video camera, and now I can set up my other camera that is just going to be dedicated for the Widefield photo during totality. That is not an equatorial mount, it is just on a regular tripod, so I don’t have to worry about any aligning. I just frame the scene as I want it, knowing where the sun is going to be in about 35 minutes. I go back to check the image of the Sun in my primary camera: it’s steady right in the center of the frame. I’ve got good enough polar alignment. This is great news, because I have no more time to make any adjustments.

Now I think I’m ready. Bring on Totality!

Well I am doing this, my brother is also setting up his equipment. He puts his camera on a tripod, and his iPhone on another tripod shooting HD video of totality. In addition, he is also getting ready to put his drone up in the air. Yes we are going to fly a drone during totality. A few tests and the drone is ready to go.

We had the solar eclipse timings app going on the iPad, so we would know when it was time to take the filters off the cameras, and also other significant events like looking for shadow bands, Baily's Beads, the Diamond Ring, and Totality. We kept taking photos during the partial phases, waiting for totality. At some point we heard a noise behind us, and a big 18 wheeler truck stopped. The driver walked up to us and asked “what was going on?” We said “there is a total eclipse of the Sun.” He said “is that going to be tonight?” My brother replied “no, it’s going on right now”, and I handed him a pair of eclipse glasses, since that I had some extras. He was fascinated with the view, and stayed near us during the entire event.

We’re getting closer to totality now, as the Moon covers up more more of the Sun there’s a definite difference in the quality of the light as we look around. It becomes eerie, and very contrasty. I point this out to my brother especially because we both understand the reasoning for the change. Shadows become very crisp, and it seems like a twilight is coming upon us quickly. The app on the iPad tells us how long until shadow bands arrive, and then tells us to be prepared to take our filters off the lenses. We are both looking up at the sun with our eclipse glasses, but also taking photos with the remote controls in our hands. A few minutes earlier, my brother put his drone up in the air a couple hundred feet above to hopefully capture shadow bands and other effects. He had also started recording his HD video on his phone.

As it gets darker, closer to the grand event, we can see Venus in the sky to the west. Suddenly the app tells us to take off the filters. We remove our glasses, and there it is, the Diamond Ring! And then what we’ve been waiting for - Totality! The soft glow of the corona around this dark center is mesmerizing. I can hear my brother’s camera clicking away as I press the shutter button on my camera. I tear my gaze away from the spectacle above me to check the alignment of my camera equipment. I look in the viewfinder and I see nothing! The Sun is gone! Oh my God it’s not tracking! Then I look up and realize - I did not take the filter off the lens. I missed Baily's Beads and the Diamond Ring. I quickly and carefully remove the filter and drop it on top of my hat, which is lying on the ground underneath my tripod. I look in the viewfinder in there it is the Sun, right in the center, with the corona glowing in all of its glory. I immediately start running through shutter speeds, taking dozens of images. As we get closer to the midpoint of Totality, I get ready to fire my other camera and my phone. My brother yells out that he can see the star Regulus just to the east of the Sun. I let my gaze wander around the entire area during this brief moment while I’m still taking photos - seeing the twilight glow all around us as we are underneath the shadow of the Moon. In the valley of the park I can see thousands of little points of light, as people are using flashlights to look at their cameras to adjust settings or take pictures, and you can just barely make out people staring up in the air at the wonderful view above them. And it’s not silent, oh no. There has been cheering going on for quite a while, and at the moment of Totality - screams of joy!

Now totality is halfway through. I press the remote shutter for my other camera a couple times to get my widefield image and then I drop that and grab my phone and do a panorama of totality. I pan my phone across the sky and put it back in my pocket because I have to keep looking and shooting. The app is telling us the third contact is approaching. I don’t want to miss this opportunity, so I look down into the viewfinder of the camera to make sure that I press the shutter button at the right time to get the pictures of Baily’s Beads and the Diamond Ring that I missed at the beginning of totality. The app calls out the warning for the Diamond Ring and to put glasses and filters is back on. I press the shutter button while looking up to see that beautiful diamond in the sky as the first part of the Sun crashes through a valley on the moon, beginning to illuminate the ground again. I look down into my camera and keep taking pictures as it gets brighter and brighter, because I want to make sure I do not miss this opportunity. When I gets too bright for me to safely look, I put the filter back on and resume taking pictures of the now partial phases. Totality is over. At that moment there are yells and screams and cheers of joy from the surrounding Valley and the hills behind us. Even my brother and I cannot believe it and were cheering and screaming it is the best event we have I have ever witnessed in my entire life!

Now the Moon is moving away from in front of the Sun, and the deep twilight is giving way to brighter skies overhead. As the shadow of the moon races southeastward toward my companions in Nebraska, I wonder: Will they be able to see anything? I do not know. I pull up my phone to call up the latest satellite images. It takes a while, because there is virtually no cell phone service out here in the wilds of eastern Wyoming. And what cell service exists is being inundated and overwhelmed by the thousands of people that are clogging up the frequencies. I finally get to see a satellite image about 15 minutes later, and it looks cloudy in eastern Nebraska. Did they get clouded out? We won’t know for a while. I don’t really want to call and ask.

A few minutes after totality was over, my brother brought his drone down from the sky and started packing up his equipment. I still wanted to get a few images of the partial faces after totality so I kept shooting but I packed up my other camera and we got ready to leave. Looking across the valley into the park we could see people tearing down and walking to their cars pretty soon the traffic jams that we were all warned about we’re going to happen. After about another half an hour, I got the images I wanted so I quickly took down the cameras and the mount and we headed out. We could see traffic was already lined up for a couple miles heading back the way we came, so my brother and I had the idea to go further north and east into Wyoming and hopefully go around most of the traffic. This worked for a while and then coming into a valley with many winding curves we got stuck in traffic for about two hours. At times we did not even move, and we could see people getting out of cars and stretching. We did the same thing, and grabbed our laptops and started downloading or images onto our computers from our cameras. That’s when I found my second mistake (the first being not taking the filter off at the beginning of Totality) I made - when I did the panorama with my phone, I forgot to press the shutter button. Oh well.

We have been texting our friends to see what their experience was like when we could get a signal, and we sent a few quick images to Ellen so she could use them in her news cut in, and also to my friend Tracy who is a meteorologist in Oregon, but was in Missouri in the rain. The traffic finally moved in we were into Guernsey, Wyoming where we stopped for gas. We also learned that none of the gas stations had any facilities available. They all closed their restrooms to the thousands of people streaming by. I guess they didn’t want to have a back up. :-)

We followed our route back, broke out of most of the traffic and headed back to Lincoln. We were fortunate we were in that bit of a traffic jam, cause I heard later from other friends who were stuck for hours and hours. We headed around Scottsbluff Nebraska, and took some pictures of the bluff, and then stopped at the viewing area for Chimney Rock to take some images. Here is where we found the best sign the entire trip. A van with Colorado license plates was pulling out as we are pulling in and on the back window was written “Totality or Bust!” and on the side window was written “because 97% just won’t do!” We tried to flag them down so we could take a picture but we could not get their attention. We parked and took some pictures of the rock formation there, and my brother also got a picture of the signs that were posted every 10 feet that said “warning rattlesnake area”. We then headed back to the expressway, but I had him turn down a dirt road so I could get a better view of Chimney Rock. He was going to pull off to the side of the road, and I told him just to stop in the middle, as no one else was going to be around there, and there was no way I was going to walk in the tall grass when just a half a mile away were signs warning about rattlesnakes. That’s all I needed was to get bit. :-)

We then got back on the road and headed east as the sun sank lower in the western sky behind us. When we got to Paxton, Nebraska we pulled off I-80 and headed down a dirt road so we could take pictures of the sunset. We had gotten pictures of dawn breaking, the sunrise, the eclipse, and now sunset. We had the whole day on the memory cards in our cameras.

(Important side note: We had been listening to various types of music on our trip, but I insisted that we at least listen to “Eclipse” from “Dark Side of the Moon” once. I mean, how can you not?)

Back on the road, just one more stop for gas, and soon we were approaching Lincoln. About an hour out the skies were clouding up, and we ran into rain and thunderstorms as we got closer to the motel. We finally pulled into the parking lot a little after 12:30am. My brother pulled under the entrance canopy, and we got out and loaded all of our equipment onto a cart, which I pushed to the room as he parked the car. Tomorrow I was going to be another long day so we left the cart in our room with the equipment on it. Kendall then downloaded his videos and looked at them quickly while I quickly processed a couple of images to get them up on social media. That was when we found my third mistake - I never focused the video camera. Oh well, again. Then it was bedtime. Our eclipse adventure was almost complete.

Tuesday morning came early. We wanted to get on the road back home, so we were both up by 6:00am. I packed my stuff up while my brother took a shower and got dressed, and then while I took a shower and got dressed he packed up his stuff and headed down to breakfast. After a bit I joined him, and saw a couple of my astronomy club associates setting at a nearby table. I learned later that they had just gotten in. We finished breakfast, loaded all of our equipment in the car, and we’re on the road back to Michigan by 8:00am. The return home was uneventful, and one thing we did notice was that the rest areas were a lot quieter than they were the previous days, and on Saturday when we were on our way out to Nebraska. At that time all the rest areas were very busy, and some of them were overfilled with no place to park.

We got around Chicago about 4:00 PM, before the real rush-hour started. We had to slow down for some traffic back ups, but my brother and I both commented that from what we experienced out west after the eclipse, these traffic back ups were nothing. I commented that the next time someone complains about being stuck in traffic, I’m just gonna laugh at them and tell them “you want to talk about being stuck in traffic, let me tell you what real traffic is.” I had found out that my friend Ed, who was in Oregon, took nearly 10 hours to go only hundred miles. And my friend Mike, who viewed the eclipse from Cheyenne Wyoming, was in a 120 mile long traffic jam. In fact when we were taking the back way on US-25 away from Glendo State Park and the two hour traffic jam, Ellen and the rest of our club members that were in the park were still there. She told me later it took them over six hours just to get out of the park. Ellen - along with one of the anchors from her station Lindsay, and their cameraman, ended up stopping in Scottsbluff for the night, and headed to Michigan the next day. The rest of the astronomy club members that were in the park kept going to Lincoln, and they got to the motel after 5:00 AM.

We finally got around Chicago and headed into good old Indiana, and in a short time we crossed over into Michigan. We were now in the homestretch. A few hours later, around 8:15pm, we pulled in my driveway. My brother and I pulled all of my stuff out of his car and piled it on my front porch, and he headed home. I brought everything inside to the living room and then basically collapsed. I was exhausted. Kendall told me later that he got home, put his stuff in his living room, and basically did the same thing. Our eclipse adventure was officially over. Four days - three of them over 10 hours of travel - and nearly 3000 miles traveled were complete. All there was to do now was talk about it, relive it in our minds, and process the photos and videos.

I was on vacation from work that whole week, and I’m glad I was, because I was exhausted. I had planned to go out to Lake Michigan just to sit at the beach and photograph the sunset but I was too tired Wednesday to go out. The other reason I wanted to go out was because the Moon, having just passed in front of the Sun on Monday, was coming back around in the evening sky, and would be a thin crescent in the western sky after sundown, right by the pier and light houses in Grand Haven. I managed to make it out there Thursday to get some photos.

The rest of the week was boring, and I took the time to just sit around, relax, and catch up on sleep. My brother had to be back at work Thursday to his new job, and when he got home that first night after work he went right to bed. We were both exhausted, and he did all the driving for our trip.

This was my first total solar eclipse that I had witnessed, and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop talking about it. I’m already making plans for the next one that crosses the country in April 2024. I hope my cousins in Texas will be ready for us.

Now, when someone asks if I have time to wait for something, I say “I have no plans until April 8, 2024” when again, “everything under the Sun is in tune, but the Sun is Eclipsed by the Moon.”


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