Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Total Solar Eclipse Experience- Eastern Wyoming, August 21, 2017

August 21, 2017, 3 a.m., Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was time to wake up. I really don’t know how much sleep I got the night before, but I do know that I was still awake at midnight. I should have been tired with less than 3 hours of sleep, but I was too excited about what was going to happen that day: I had traveled to Eastern Wyoming with my wife, Katie, and my parents. We had visited there to witness a truly incredible event- a total solar eclipse.

After getting dressed and taking our things to the car, we gathered our breakfast bags (graciously prepared for us by the hotel staff, complete with juice and a breakfast sandwich!) and headed to another hotel in town to pick up a couple of Katie’s friends, who had come up from Denver to join us. We were not planning to stay in Cheyenne for the eclipse, because only part of the Sun was going to be covered from there. A partial eclipse is impressive- but there is NOTHING like seeing the sun COMPLETELY blocked by the moon. We had to drive to the north to get into the 70-mile-wide path of totality.

Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, www.EclipseWise.com
I had been looking forward to this eclipse for almost 25 years, since I first learned about it in an issue of Astronomy Magazine. I had chosen eastern Wyoming as my viewing location several years ago- climate data suggested that skies were typically clear there in mid to late August. But as one person said once and many have repeated “Climate is what you expect, but weather is what you get!” I had been watching the weather forecasts in the 10 days leading up to the eclipse. The forecasts were all over the place- clear, partly cloudy, overcast. One of the other reasons I had chosen eastern Wyoming was because it had a good road network going east and west along the totality path- I was prepared to travel a few hours to escape from the clouds.

Fortunately, the forecast issued on the morning of the eclipse itself called for clear skies in the area. We headed north towards the town of Torrington. Traffic was heavy but steady.

In the months leading up to the eclipse, I had been trying to decide exactly where in Eastern Wyoming to go for it. My goals for the viewing location were: 1. in the path of totality 2. as flat of a horizon as possible 3.  Away from the large crowds 4. Minimum 2 minutes 10 seconds of totality (the maximum in the area was 2 minutes 30 seconds).

I have been a member of an eclipse chasers’ discussion group for almost 20 years. A few weeks before the eclipse, one of the members of that group emailed me and said that he was planning to be in the same general area with a small group, and he had the same goals. He asked if my group and I would be interested in joining him and his group. We exchanged a few more emails to make sure we were all on the same page, and I discussed the plans with my group. Once we had the details worked out, we were happy to accept his invitation.

We arrived in Torrington around 7 a.m., and started looking for the other people we were planning to meet. After a short time, we found each other, waited for them to gathered their items, and we then headed toward the observing site, about 20 miles north of Torrington. The traffic was heavy but steady along the way, and we saw many people parked in the fields along the side of the road, all ready to experience the incredible eclipse. Eventually, we arrived at our site: a ranch, located amidst the light green rolling hills of Eastern Wyoming. We could see for miles in every direction. What a fantastic location to experience an eclipse! Most importantly, we had clear skies!

The open Wyoming landscape
Over the next several hours, we spent our time setting up equipment and visiting with each other. Time progressed steadily.We could look through my telescope- with the solar filter on- and see several sunspot regions on the Sun! The sun had been at its minimum activity level for months before the eclipse, with very little sunspot activity. Just in time for the eclipse, these sunspots were making an appearance!

I didn’t quite have all my equipment set up when the time for the start of the eclipse approached. I did have quite a bit to set up- a telescope, 5 cameras, an observing table, and some chairs. But the Universe wasn’t going to wait for me- or for anyone! It didn't really matter to me that I didn't have everything ready when the partial eclipse began. I had seen several partial eclipses before. Besides, I was enjoying talking with the people around me. I was ready well before totality- and that's all that I really wanted.

At 10:25, I took a look at the sun through my solar filter, and could see that the moon had started to cover it! I yelled out “First Contact!”- and soon after, everyone could look through their filters and see that the eclipse had indeed started! The moon started to slowly advance across the face of the sun. 
The eclipse in its early partial stage.
The eclipse progressed- 10%- 20%- 30%. We passed the time by talking with each other, and taking occasional glances at the eclipse through our filters. 

Enjoying the partial phases, while protecting our eyes
We found creative ways to view the eclipse- including projecting images of it through a hat.

Projecting the partial phases of the eclipse through a hat.

We could even see the sunspots being covered by the moon through my telescope! Things started to change. We noticed that the sky- and the surrounding landscape- was becoming dimmer. It was subtle at first- but soon it became more noticeable. The lighting was different than that of a sunset; everything had a metallic look to it. The sky and the sun were still bright- but the sun’s glare had faded. We didn’t have to squint as we looked around.

The partial phase creeps closer to totality.
The cicadas started making noise. The temperature dropped. The air felt still and strange.

Getting close to totality!
The western horizon quickly turned a deep shade of blue, like a storm was coming. A pink glow became visible on the western horizon. Some cirrus clouds in the west turned dark gray. The light level, which had been dropping gradually over the past few minutes, started dropping with each passing second.
From this.....

To this..... in 90 seconds.
Everyone started shouting excitedly! We were being enveloped by the shadow of the moon! I made a final adjustment to one of my cameras, then took a quick glance upward to see the last rays of sunlight disappear behind the moon. Screams and cheers erupted all around as we all removed our solar filters and looked at this incredible sight above us. 

The sun had been completely blacked out in the middle of the day. It had been replaced by a black hole in the sky. Surrounding it was a gorgeous, pearly white glow: the solar corona. It was unlike any glow I had ever seen. It was bright but not harsh. It was soft and delicate. It was ethereal.

Three main streamers stretched out: 2 on one side and one on the other. The streamers at the 1 and 2 o’clock position each reached out to 3 ½ times the diameter of the sun. The one at the 7 o’clock position reached out to 4 solar diameters! 

The corona only took up a small percentage of the sky; yet it seemed huge. It was an imposing sight; yet it seemed peaceful. 

I looked through my telescope. The corona filled the field of view. Lustrous streamers could be seen stretching to the edge of the eyepiece. I could see strands of detail in the corona. I could see brushes of light extending from the polar regions of the sun.

It was entrancing.

The corona and the star Regulus, to its lower left.
I stepped away from the telescope to get a view through my binoculars. My hands were shaking too much. I put the binoculars down and stared at the stunning corona with just my eyes for a moment. I wanted to photograph the eclipse- but I vowed not to spend too much time on that. A couple of quick shots of the corona; a few wide-angle shots to capture the scene.

My wife and parents stare up, awestruck at the beauty of the corona.
The air was still. An eerie calm. There was a 360-degree sunset. I didn’t see it, because I forgot to look for it. Venus should have been easily visible. I didn’t see it, because I forgot to look for it. Others in the group saw them, because I heard them call the sights out. I went back to viewing the eclipse. I had planned to spend the final moments of totality just staring up with the naked eye. But the view through the telescope earlier had been so spellbinding, I completely forgot those plans and went back to the telescope.

Through the telescope, I could see some prominences- reddish flares of hydrogen gas- including one that was almost a complete arch. I could see the chromosphere- a thin, reddish layer of hydrogen gas at the edge of the sun. I stepped away from the telescope to view the final few seconds of totality with just my eyes, my arm around my wife.

A single point of sunlight emerged. For a moment, I could see this single, bright bead of sunlight on one side, the corona on the other, and the black disk of the moon in the middle- all set in a deep blue mid-day twilight. One second of pure, delicate magic: the diamond ring effect.

It was now not safe to look at the sun anymore- we watched as the world grew brighter all around us. The brightening was rapid; the world was flooded with light within moments. We cheered, we hugged, we celebrated. We met other eclipse chasers at a nearby restaurant to have lunch and share stories.

Dr. Donald and I

My parents and I
My wife, Katie, myself, and Katie's friends Alisha and Paul
Then- the traffic back to Cheyenne. A drive that would have normally taken 90 minutes with no traffic took 7 hours that day. It was tempting to leave the road we were on, and escape from the gridlock, but there were very few alternate routes, and internet traffic programs were overwhelmed that day. We didn't know if trying another route would actually get us into worse traffic!

The path of totality was a 67-mile-wide swath that ran from Oregon to South Carolina. Many people who went to the total eclipse path faced very heavy traffic getting to their destination for that evening. It was a badge of honor for all of us! 

I would like to take a moment to express some thanks. To my wife, Katie; to my parents; and to Katie's friends Alisha and Paul for joining me for this profound experience. 

A big thank you is due to Dr. Donald Kennerly for organizing the event for all of us. He actually organized a very large group- he was able to secure several locations so that the group was split into smaller groups, so that each little group had a more intimate experience.

Another thank you goes out to the owners of the ranch that graciously opened up their land to let us experience the eclipse that day. 

And a final thank you to my fellow members of the Solar Eclipse Mailing list- their guidance and knowledge about eclipses is out of this world!

To everyone who has read this: I hope that this story has not only given you a glimpse into our experience that day, but I hope that it has inspired you. Even if astronomy is not one of your hobbies, experiencing a total eclipse of the sun should ABSOLUTELY be on your life list. It is a truly AWESOME natural event- and a great excuse to travel!

A total solar eclipse takes place somewhere in the world about every 1 1/2 to 2 years. The next total solar eclipse in North America is on April 8, 2024. I now have an email address and a blog dedicated to that eclipse: 

eclipseapril82024@gmail.com and eclipseapril82024.blogspot.com

I will be posting on that blog as we get closer to that date. 

Please see my eclipse videos at:  
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-WAQyVdflY (short version; emphasizes eclipse)
(long version; includes 5 min slide show of Colorado pics, if you are interested)

Thank you for reading this!