A Photo Essay
Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
As we followed the long string of red tail lights winding ahead of us in the predawn darkness, it became apparent just how momentous an occasion everyone was hoping this was going to be. We were all driving to one of the most spectacular solar events to take place in most people’s lifetimes: the total eclipse of the sun, August 21, 2017.
Central Wyoming is a beautiful place and I know we were missing a lot of that beauty traveling down this two-lane highway in the darkness. Although the early light of dawn was just beginning to show in the east, we were only seeing glimpses of the scenery in our headlights and the lighting of farmhouses just waking up. But all of us in this line of vehicles knew we had to get where we were going in sufficient time to find a spot, set-up and be ready for what was to come. In the news media hype that preceded this day, it was reported that an estimated 600,000 people would come to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse, while the state’s population was only 550,000 people.
I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I first saw a dark sky as a young boy in the Sierra Nevada of California, where there was no light pollution, except the gentle glow of our campfire. That was back in the late 1950s and at that time humankind’s knowledge of astronomy was rather rudimentary when compared to what we know today. The myriad planets, stars and galaxies I saw that night and the many other times since then have always fascinated and inspired me. I try to never miss an opportunity to learn how our universe and especially our solar system functions, and a solar eclipse is a phenomenon that highlights the relationships between our Earth, its satellite the Moon and our star the Sun.
Betty and I did view a partial eclipse in Alberta in the 1990s using #14 welder’s glass, necessary to protect the eyes when staring at any part of the sun. But it wasn’t totality. In totality the sky and landscape go dark and nearly turn day into night. As Don Fleming told me in 1991, a total eclipse had to be experienced to be appreciated. Don is a former colleague and umbraphile (eclipse chaser). He was trying to convince me to go with him and others to Mexico to experience totality. I declined but was intrigued.
It turns out total solar eclipses are relatively rare events. Although they occur about once every 18 months somewhere on the Earth’s surface, the chances of one occurring at any particular place on that surface are one in every 300 to 400 years (depending on where you are). So, chances are good that if you really want to experience one, you would need to travel. Having an eclipse occur within a couple of day’s drive was too attractive to ignore.
As the sun crept over the eastern horizon, the road and landscape slowly revealed itself. We travelled through a beautiful gorge that soon opened up on the desert that is eastern Wyoming. On entering the swath of totality that was about to occur from Oregon to South Carolina, the vehicles ahead of us started dispersing down side roads to state parks and wildlife reserves. Some pulled off onto turnouts along the side of the highway.
We kept on our way to Shoshoni, where we turned east on US Highway 26 to a location where we had agreed to meet Don Fleming, his brother Neil and others to view the eclipse (this would be Don’s 12th total solar eclipse).
The following is a photo essay of our solar eclipse experience:
As we waited for First Contact (when the disk of the moon first starts to cross that of the sun), more parties joined us from across the US. The eclipse in our area was to last about 2 hours and 41 minutes, of which only 2 minutes and 17 seconds would be in totality (2nd Contact to 3rd Contact when the sun is totally blocked by the moon).
One of the concerns we had when we first arrived was the amount of wildfire smoke in the air (from forest fires in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) as well as some high clouds that could obscure some of the eclipse. As it turned out, the wildfire smoke was thicker when viewed horizontally than it was above us and the clouds dissipated by the time the eclipse started.
Totality Photo Sequence
After First Contact, I set up my digital Olympus single-lens camera on a tripod to record the event. I decided to use a wide-angle lens (7 mm digital [14 mm film equivalent]) to record the effect of the eclipse on the landscape instead of using my telephoto lens to record the sun and moon. I knew there would be plenty of the latter kind of photographs, and I wanted to capture at least some of what we were experiencing on the ground at our location.
As Don Fleming reminded us, what’s important is to experience the eclipse and not worry too much about recording it. That’s why I set my camera to automatically take pictures at two-second intervals. I placed the camera in aperture priority mode at f2.8 and the ISO at 200 (as advised by Sky News magazine). This allowed the camera to vary the exposure as the light changed.
I started the sequence at about two minutes before totality and ended it about two minutes afterward. This produced over three hundred images, from which I picked six of the best for the following sequence.
A total solar eclipse is indeed a unique experience. There’s much to observe and I found the Solar Eclipse Timer app I downloaded to my smartphone to be especially helpful. The app used my smartphone’s GPS function to locate our position in the eclipse path and then provide the precise times of First (C1), Second (C2), Third (C3) and Fourth Contact (C4, when the eclipse ends). It then proceeded to audibly announce the approach and start of each phase of the eclipse and what to watch for. This was especially helpful prior to totality. As the eclipse begins the light does not change much and it would be easy to miss C1. The Solar Eclipse Timer counted down to C1 and allowed us to view the moon’s black disk just beginning to cut the sun via my 8 x 50 binoculars, shielded with solar filtres. (When not using the binoculars, we wore special certified eclipse glasses to see the sun without magnification.) The timer then proceeded to alert us to different phenomena that might be occurring around us as the moon made its journey across our star.
Light: One of the first things you notice after C1 is the progressive change in the amount of light on the land around you. As the sun turns into a crescent, the nature of the light changes. It is less diffuse and casts sharper-edged shadows. Colors become deeper and slowly you notice dawn or dusk colors appearing on the horizon.
Temperature: As the eclipse progressed from C1 to C2, we felt a drop in air temperature. It was nearly 30º C (86º F) that morning and t-shirts and shorts were comfortable to wear. However, as it got darker many of us felt the need to put on a sweater.
Animals: Unfortunately, there were few wild animals around to observe their response to the eclipse. There were no trees and very few shrubs. As the sky gets darker most animals will assume night is coming and take appropriate action, such as stop feeding and finding a place to roost. We did have a large anthill near us that became active in the early morning as the heat of the day came on. However during the eclipse, as it got darker and cooler, the ants retreated to their hill only to come out after totality had passed.
Shadow Bans are a phenomenon often observed about three minutes prior to totality when the sun is but a sliver of a crescent. This directed sunlight passes through warm and cold sections of the atmosphere to form bans of dark and light shadows on the ground. We looked for these bans but could not find them. Perhaps the atmosphere above us was too uniform in its temperature gradient…?
Eclipse Reflections: Another phenomenon we were unable to detect were reflections of the eclipsed sun on objects around us. This occurs when the light coming from the sun’s crescent passes through the branches of trees, shrubs or other partial obstructions that focus the directed light onto objects, reflecting the eclipsed sun (similar to pin-hole projectors often used by school children to view an eclipse safely). There were no such obstructions where we were. However, when we later visited Marilyn and Rick Harris in Shelton, Washington–where they viewed a 93% eclipse on August 21–Marilyn shared photos she took of reflections of the partial eclipse on her greenhouse and deck. We thank Marilyn for allowing us to share her pictures here.
After the eclipse, we spent a couple of hours chatting with our friends and neighbors. Someone broke out a bottle of champaign that was shared with all in a toast to what we witnessed. We learned that eclipses are best shared with others, whether friends or strangers. It can be a very social event that breaks down barriers.
For me, the eclipse illustrated just how dependent we, and all life on this planet, are on our star, the Sun. The dimming of the light and the darkening of the landscape, accompanied with the sudden chill, elicits a primal feeling of foreboding or even dread. Of course we know intellectually that the sun is coming back, but our bodies do not. A total eclipse definitely has to be experienced to be appreciated.
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