A Dash Of Darkness, An Eternity Of Memories: My Eclipse Story

I sit among the grasses dry
Deceptively the time goes by
My cameras set, remotes in hand
As darkness creeps upon the land
My glasses sit upon my face
Gaze millions of miles out to space
There the sun does weakly shine
As the moon it slips behind
Smaller now, merely a slit
Yet quietly there I sit
The bulge of darkness from the west
I feel a pressure on my chest
Because the show’s about to start
I cannot still my racing heart
The light goes weird, the shadows sharp
A tongue of moon made shadow dark
Across the silver orb does glide
And in merely instants hides
And yet reveals its secret heart
Coronal jets stream their depart
A silver circle filled in jet
But the show’s not over yet
Pearlescent glister in the sky
All darkened, a dusk that is a lie
For dawn on the westward side portends
From eyes to brain the signal sends
I sit and gape my frantic thumbs
On the shutter buttons plumb
I’m unaware of this subconscious act
So taken in by this, the fact
This is the moment long awaited
And often in dreams anticipated
I hang on tight to every tick
Because sunrise is approaching quick
And before I have a chance to sing
The onset of the diamond ring
The moon withdraws, abruptly ends
The thing on which my life depends
And smithing pictures here with words
Memory shatters like earthen sherds
The moment quick to come has passed
The sky as bright as smoky glass
My breath goes silent, my heart goes still
With the passing of this astral thrill
But then I take a bitter pill
There are seven years to go until
I can sit once more in the silver chill.

When I was eight years old, I made a list of the four things I wanted to see in my lifetime. The first, a comet, was the easiest. Halley flew by in 1986 and, as unimpressive as it was, ticked the box. Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake were dazzling but since then no major comet has graced the northern hemisphere with its presence.

The second item on the list was the northern lights or Aurora Borealis. I’d seen videos or the dancing ribbons of light but this one took me until 2004 to witness, in the Catskill Mountains, as green pillars stretched forth from the horizon to kiss the zenith and a reddish glow connected them with a worm of neon green writhing on the horizon. Then, in 2013, I witnessed a dazzling outburst 200 miles north of the US border into Saskatchewan. Spindles of green light dancing in the sky, unable to get the shutter speed fast enough to both reveal them and stop their whirling madness.

The third item was a tornado. I started going on storm chasing tours in 2003, led by legendary storm chaser Roger Hill. I saw a brief spin up from fifteen miles away in 2006 in New Mexico, a bona fide cone tornado in Patricia, Texas, in 2008, a white swirl of cotton clouds in Northfield, MN in 2010 and, finally, a gorgeous series of tornadoes from a cyclic supercell in 2011, including one that was on the ground for 15 minutes and went through several stages of tornadic development unobstructed a mile away.

But the fourth, a total solar eclipse, was still in the future.

I knew the next eclipse through the United States would not occur until 2017 and I counted the decades, then the years, then the months.  Six months before the eclipse I settled on Madras, Oregon as my target for viewing the eclipse.  Why Madras?  It sits in the lee of the Cascade range of volcanic mountains and as such is in the rain shadow created by the orographic features.  When you drive through the Cascades, you are rewarded with extreme green lushness.

As you drive east, within a mile that verdant abundance gives way to to the yellow dry grasses and sagebrush of the arid high plains.

There was the best chance of clear skies anywhere along the path of totality in Madras and surrounding areas.  So I secured lodging in Portland, as the meager pickings of available rooms in Madras had been ravaged long before I decided upon it as my target.

I planned a grand tour of Oregon to precede the eclipse, with photo opportunities along the Columbia River Gorge (including Multnomah Falls), John Day Cottonwood Canyon, Smith Rock, Crater Lake:

Lava Beds National Monument:

Oregon Caves National Monument:

and all of the coastlines and lighthouses along the rugged basalt-lined Oregon Pacific Coast.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse:


Secret Beach in the Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor:

Thor’s Well, Cape Perpetua:

Sunset on the beach in Bandon:

Mount Saint Helens at sunset:

I executed this plan without a hitch, with the notable exception of taking a fall along Cape Perpetua and tearing open my knee, necessitating a visit to the local emergency room to stanch the considerable bleeding as well as an unfortunate accident while stopped at a red light in Astoria, as the gentleman in the SUV in front of my stopped too far into the intersection and backed up…right into my rental car, pushing the front driver’s side headlight back into the body of the car and leading to a brilliant emergency swap of rental vehicle at the only rental agency within 60 miles in any direction, which was only 0.2 miles from the site of the accident and having the only available rental car anywhere in the Pacific Northwest with the eclipse only two days away.  To his credit, the driver of the SUV took full responsibility for the accident and even called me up after my trip to make sure my trip had not been compromised by the accident.

So it was Sunday, August 20th.  I had left my hotel in Castle Rock, Washington after an evening photographing Mount Saint Helens.  I made my way back to Portland and waited in the lobby to check in early to my hotel room.  When I finally got in, I did a laundry, took a shower and then grabbed a pillow and blanket from the room and headed out to Madras in the late afternoon.

The drive to Madras was uneventful, the traffic light.  I was expecting a crush of traffic, which is why I left early.  Oh, well.  I had reserved a spot at the airport in Madras, where they had set up 10’X20′ spots for people to set up and view the eclipse.  This was my backup plan.  My real target was a little gravel road off of Pelton Dam Road between Warm Springs and Madras, right on the center line of totality.  I had reconnoitered this location the week before, finding the precise location from which I wanted to get the shot.  When I got there, there was a young man in a van who was waiting right where I had planned to set up.  We discussed how we could share the spot.  It was a narrow strip of dirt off of the narrow strip of gravel road that led to private, fenced and gated land.  As we discussed our arrangements, the owner of the land came up the road and stopped to talk with us.  He explained that our cars would likely block the stream of family and friends he had invited to view the eclipse from his land.  He invited us to join his family and friends (and a few other wanderers like us) on his land.  He had cleared a strip of land for camping and gave us instructions on how to find it.  The generosity of this family and their open friendliness was on display throughout the evening as I mingled with them in the fading light of the last day of my life before the eclipse.

I slept in my car that night.  I had parked it on the side of the hill at the edge of the field so that the front of the car was higher than the rear.  This put me in a more natural sleeping position.  It was warm, so I left the windows open.  When I woke up at 2 AM it was bitterly cold and the stars were hard points of light in a cloudless sky.  I rolled up the windows and went back to sleep.

I woke up at 5:15 AM on eclipse morning.  I was the only one awake.  I quietly made my way down to the portable toilet that the family had installed for our use and then spent the next couple of hours reading until groggy, coffee-seeking life was evident around me.  I got out of the car and engaged in conversation as the morning began in earnest.

What had started out as clear skies were starting to overspread with thickening cirrus clouds.  A smoky haze was starting to work its way into our area as well.  My heart started to fall at the sight.  It was still clear to the north, should I blow this pop stand and make a run for clearer skies?  I felt it would be rude to my hosts to do that and I was told that this is very common for early morning in the area.  8:00 came and I moved my car over to where the family had an old barn set up at the edge of another field.  It was the barn I had envisioned in my shot when I had visited the week before to line up my shot but now I was going to be able to photograph it close-up and make it the primary element in the wide-angle shot I had in mind.

My rig was fairly complex.  I had sold off some of my astronomy equipment to purchase a second camera body.  If I had damaged my one and only camera and been left bereft on the day of the eclipse, it would have been devastating, so I invested in a backup body.  I also fashioned a dual-camera rig.  It was a crossbar with mounts for two heads, one on either side.  For the camera with the telephoto lens (a Fuji X-T2 with a 100-400mm lens), I had a slow-motion head meant for small refracting telescopes that I had modified for use with the camera.  For the other camera (a Fuji X-T2 with a 10-24mm lens), I had a Sirui compact ball head.  In between the two cameras, I had taped my settings for each camera with a reminder to switch off image stabilization.  For fun, I had a Canon G7X Mark II on a Platypod on the ground to record 1080P video of the event.

I scrambled to position my camera even as the partial phase of the eclipse began.  There was no outward evidence that anything had changed, the brightness and shadows were still normal.  The high cirrus was starting to clear out but was still not gone.  We had 70 minutes or so between the first contact and when totality hit, so that gave me time to set up and adjust positioning and composition and check the partial phase through my eclipse glasses from time to time.

Focusing on the X-T2 is a dream with the depth of field indicator.  However, zooming in on the sun required a subtlety of focus that made it quite difficult.  Fortunately, there was a string of small sunspots I could focus on and, with my jacket as a light block, I was able to get the camera with the long lens positioned and focused and slapped a solar filter on the front.  The filter was outfitted with magnetic attachment rings so I would not have to fiddle with unscrewing it at the crucial moment, I’d just have to reach over and pull it off.  I got some photos of the partial phase, I ended up not processing them in the week after the eclipse.

Time moved quickly towards 10:19 AM, which is when totality was to hit.  Little by little the sun disappeared and by the time it was 50% covered, you could start to detect the difference in the light.  It had gone a little weak, though it was still daylight it was somehow diluted.  You might think that it would be the same as viewing a sunny day through high clouds, but it wasn’t.  The shadows on the ground were sharpening perceptibly.  The light grew inexorably weaker and the atmosphere grew weirder.

Seven minutes before totality, my phone’s alarm went off, reminding me to change my settings to capture totality.  So I set my cameras to their respective bracketing settings, the one with the long lens 9 exposures bracketed at 1 2/3 stops apart centered on 1/25 of a second and the one with the wide angle lens 9 exposures at 2 stops apart centered on 1/60 of a second.  I had tested these settings over and over and over in the field on the moon and 30-40 minutes after sunset to test the results.  I had practiced this over and over and over.  I tested them now, with mere minutes left and the sky rapidly darkening.  90% of the sun gone, the temperature dropped and perceptible darkening in the western sky.  When I hit the cable remote button, my wide-angle camera shot its 9 shots but the tele camera only shot one.  I looked at the settings, it was set for a single shot so I moved the drive lever over to bracket.  I tested it again, it worked.

The sky continued to darken.  It was dim but still brilliant full daylight, which made the world look like a faded image of itself.  The world looked seriously wrong.  The shadows were dim but even sharper than before as the sun became essentially a point source of light.  I looked on the ground for shadow bands as we entered the final thirty seconds before my life’s dream became a reality but did not see them.  I returned attention to the sun.

Then it happened, out of nowhere.  Out of the dim brilliance of the sun, a tongue of black extended down and to the left.  Outlined in harsh light, it slid down, revealing the starts of the filaments of the solar corona.  My thumbs started their work, mashing the remote trigger buttons as I stared in amazement through the final moment when the last gasp of sunlight passed through one last valley between lunar mountains and formed the famed diamond ring effect before the tongue slammed down once and for all and plunged the world into darkness.

My Eclipse Story

The corona is not white.  All photos show it as being white, but it’s not.  It’s not a thin, wispy circle around the sun, either.  It’s a pearlescent silver in the dark sky with a black circle of the moon in the middle.  The corona is visible out to more than one solar diameter, to the eye’s excellent dynamic range.  Faint pink nubs which prove to be prominences viewed through my pocket monocular extend out from the black disk.  It sits in a sky the darkness of twilight 40 minutes old with brightening towards all horizons.  Bright stars like Regulus stand out in the sky, as do Mars and Venus.

My Eclipse Story

The temperature has dropped quite a bit but I am too entranced to care.  Time stands still.  Time ceases to have meaning.  All there is is the silver corona, the blackness in the middle, the indigo skies, the absolute stillness and quiet of the air, the sound of my breathing and the clack clack clack clack of the camera shutters slamming home and rising up to slam home again and again and again.

My Eclipse Story

Then a faint brightness appears to tint the western sky, it creeps towards the sun imperceptibly but inexorably.  The sky is darker to the east and the brightness to the west slowly reaches out for the sun…and the diamond ring breaks through, signaling the end of the eclipse as the sky rapidly brightens, though only to a diluted version of daylight.  Cheers go up from all humans nearby and a sigh escapes my throat.  It is the most anticlimactic moment of my life.

I turned off the video, disassembled my dual camera rig.  The spare battery for my camera was missing and I was not going to leave it in their field so I searched around for it.  I found it in the sea of grass that surrounded me.  I packed up my gear and lugged it back to my car.  The eclipse is three minutes gone and I am ready to head back to Portland.

The highway was already packed with people as I scooted into the queue and inched my way along back northwest, the image of the eclipse still throbbing in my skull.  I checked the cameras before I left, I knew I had gotten the shots I wanted.  I observed my first eclipse. photographed the heck out of it and still was able to experience it fully.  Preparation and research paid off in a huge way.  It took five hours to drive the two-hour drive back to my hotel.  I turned in my rental car and, while eating what was perhaps the worst steak dinner of my life at the hotel restaurant, I edited one of the photos.

I simply imported the seven exposures that best bracketed the shot and imported them into MacPhun Aurora HDR.  I selected a straight-up merge, no tone-mapping or enhancements.  I tweaked the contrast, brightness, and highlights brought up the shadows a little.  I sent it back to Lightroom where I tweaked it a little more, sharpened it and sent it out.  I was flabbergasted.  I had set out to capture the eclipse as it actually appeared in the sky and that is what was on my MacBook’s screen in front of me.  An exact replica of what I had seen.  I wanted to do the edit while the image was still clear in my mind.

Today, nearly two weeks after the eclipse, I received prints of my photos.  I selected Fuji Pearl paper.  It was perfect, even better than what was on my screen to reproduce the ghostly image of the corona in the sky.  I will have on my wall a reminder of what so entranced me in the sky.  The last item on my life’s to-do list has been ticked off in the best possible fashion.  Now all I have to do is wait until April 8th, 2024, when I will be sitting deep in south Texas on the center line, awaiting a 4 1/2 minute totality, a chance to once again sit in the dark in the silvery glow of the sun’s hidden atmosphere.

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