To anyone having an interest in astronomy, solar eclipses are the holy grail. Many enthusiasts travel the world just to stand in the moon’s shadow whenever a total eclipse takes place. I have been fortunate enough to see several partial eclipses and one annular but, until this past August, a total eclipse was still on my to-do list. And so, like many other people, my wife Karen and I made plans to travel to the path of totality of what was becoming known as the Great American Eclipse of 2017.
Long range forecasting had predicted that the chances of clear skies were better in eastern Nebraska than in many other areas along the centreline. Our destination was Hastings, Nebraska, and the plan was to rendezvous with a friend, Roger Hill, and some other fellow members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in the Grand Island area, about half an hour from Hastings.
We left a few days early so we could have a leisurely trip that included some sightseeing and a couple of nights in Chicago. And, the weather along the way was ideal. However, as we got closer to Nebraska, we encountered some rain and cloudy conditions that certainly weren’t encouraging. Communication with Roger indicated that their plans were in flux. Grand Island was no longer looking good and some of the group was considering a move to Beatrice, Nebraska, a couple of hours east. But, knowing accommodations anywhere along the line of totality would be scarce, we continued on to our hotel in Hastings where we would determine our next move.
As time went on, we learned that conditions in Beatrice were worsening. We decided to hang in for the night and see how things looked on eclipse day. Meanwhile, Roger and some of our RASC friends had pulled up stakes and headed west, some as far as Wyoming, where weather predictions were much more favourable.
When we woke on eclipse day, there was fairly dense cloud to the east and wispy cloud directly overhead. But there was a large blue patch directly north of us which we watched with interest.
At breakfast we met a delightful English couple who had flown to New York and taken the Amtrak train to Nebraska where they hoped to see their first eclipse. The gentleman had attempted to see the 1999 total eclipse in England but had rain spoiled the day. He was wearing a T-shirt from that eclipse and said this was the first time he had ever worn it: it seemed that he was wearing it for luck. They were both friendly and upbeat but, given the evolving cloud cover outside, you could sense in them a feeling of “here we go again”.
We bid them good luck and headed off to find a suitable spot to set up. People were gathering in a local park close to our hotel and we found a good location there. But, we were feeling uneasy about the wispy clouds undulating overhead and our attention was constantly drawn to that large patch of blue sky to the north. Ultimately, we decided to make a move and head towards it.
However, it turned out to be much further away than it looked and, quickly running out of time, we turned down a meandering, dead-end gravel laneway a little pretentiously called the West Elm Island Road, that paralleled the Platte River. Several other groups had the same idea and were spread out in rough pull-offs along the road.
We found an appropriate spot and got busy setting up the gear in anticipation of first contact, which was just minutes away. There was still a light layer of wispy clouds between us and the sun that continually came and went throughout the duration of the eclipse, but it didn’t seem to matter or have any significant effect on the event.
Ever since I developed an interest in astronomy I have heard time and again, that for one’s first total eclipse it is advisable not to waste precious seconds trying to shoot pictures, but rather just sit back and drink in the experience. Apparently, I’m not smart enough to heed good advice and so I had not one, but two cameras aimed skyward. One was a Nikon D610 shooting at prime focus on a Tele Vue Pronto with a Thousand Oaks glass solar filter. A Pronto has a focal length of 480mm and a focal ratio of f6.8. My other camera, a Nikon D810, was shooting through a Nikkor 200-400mm f4.0 lens with a Kendrick solar filter made with Baader film.
During the early (and late) stages of a solar eclipse things move slowly enough that there’s plenty of time to try different things and record the various stages along the way. But, things get busy around totality. One has to remember to reframe the camera to actually include the sun and moon. One has to remember to take off not one but two filters. And one has to remember to check focus. All these things and more weigh heavily on you when totality is barely 2 minutes and 37 seconds. Next time I’ll be better.
But, those weren’t the only reasons I wasn’t quite prepared for totality. I simply wasn’t quite ready for what a magical experience totality was going to be. As soon as the moon moved over the sun blocking that last tiny sliver of light, everything changed. It got dark – dark enough to see stars and planets that are close to the moon. There was an eerie stillness and the temperature noticeably dropped. All around the horizon it looked like sunset. And then there is the ‘show’ itself. The shimmering of the corona. The diamond ring. Bailies beads.
At one point during totality, Karen and I just looked at each other in total disbelief of what we were witnessing, tears streaming down our faces. And, when totality ended, the two of us, standing alone in an empty field, spontaneously burst into applause. It was, quite simply, the most awe-inspiring thing I have ever seen.
As I texted to Roger – a veteran eclipse-chaser – sometime later, ‘Now I understand’. After all was said and done, I’m glad I took pictures. Every time I look at one of those images all those powerful emotions come rushing back. But, next time, I will try to be a little more prepared, so I can spend more time just looking. And, make no mistake. There will be a next time.
We never did see our English friends again, but I’m sure they’re smiling. And, if that T-shirt did in fact bring them luck, then maybe there were a ton of people in Nebraska that day owe them a debt of thanks.