Witness Post: Solar Fest 2017
We have yet to find the right words to describe the grandeur of the total solar eclipse of 2017, much less the inner feelings of our two minutes and two seconds of darkness in the Path of Totality. Some called it spooky which works, others awe-inspiring, eery, otherworldly, majestic, and spectacular. Yet it was also an extraordinary experience of wordlessness, as if no vocabulary seems strong enough or adequate at capturing it all. Utterances like “Wow,” oohh’s and aahh’s, and “Oh, my God” were the only words we heard. In other places, like Jackson, WY, the crowd shouted single syllable expletives, as they too were left wordless. The experience proved too profound for simple expressions.
Our friend, Stanley Fertig, had hatched the idea of seeing and photographing the total solar eclipse in 1973 (44 years ago!), when he saw his “other full solar eclipse” in France. The weather had been cloudy, so he was dissatisfied by the clarity of the light. The primal urge to gaze up at the sky hit Stanley on June 30, 1973, but the deep desire had been borne long before that time. Stanley was first enthralled with all-things-celestial when his dad took him to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That visit, followed by many others, was in the early 1960’s, and the images transported Stanley into another dimension — one preoccupied with earth, sun, moon, planets, and the night sky. He read every book he could put his hands on, exhausting the collection at the local New Jersey public library.
Tracy outside our palatial tent and car at the Madras Airport
We were introduced to the idea of going to see the eclipse by Stanley Fertig, when he and his wife, Isabelle, visited us in Oregon last summer. We were cautiously enthusiastic about the solar eclipse, when Stanley said that he was traveling to central Oregon from August 20 to August 22 to see the eclipse. While I didn’t exactly jump at the chance, I thought about it, checked my calendar and told Stanley I was ALL IN. He could stay with us in Portland and we would drive to see the eclipse early the morning of the 21st. Over the next year Tracy moved from negativity, to reluctance, to enthusiasm. As the date approved she became more and more animated. By August first, when the countdown clamorous louder, she was ecstatic.
In February I made reservations in Bend, swapping out a hotel room with another eclipse fanatic, John Mayer, who had booked the room years before but decided to see the eclipse with friends to Jackson, WY. John said this was his fifth trek to see a total solar eclipse and it was worth globe trotting from his home in Santa Monica to get in the perfect viewing spot.
Tracy and I were along for the ride, and ride we did — on Stanley’s corona coattails that is. After picking him up at the airport, we headed to parts east. In the car on our way to Madras, Stanley explained elliptical orbits, the creation of the moon, the rotation of the solar system, and the gravitational pull/explosive thrust of round celestial masses. I knew some of the basic facts, but lacked in the details. With Stanley’s answers to Tracy’s and my questions, we felt we were getting an insiders view from a NASA scientist. He was full of the insights of Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and Einstein. We grasped the rudimentary fragments of Stanley’s explanation and listened hard. Hearing it again added to the excitement we already had stirring in our minds for months.
We passed up a hotel room at the Wall Street Suites in Bend on Sunday night in favor of getting a prime spot to see the actual event. We drove directly to Madras. And although Tracy lost lots of sleep, it was a good choice. Trying to slog to Madras (100,000 people strong) from Bend in the early AM, would have proven futile. Camping in Madras, we had booked our 20′ x 20′ space in the fields alongside the Erickson Airport in the north side of town. We set up tents, parked our car and prepared for our viewing extravaganza.
We did not want to flush our chances of a good spot, due to lack of sleep, so Stanley Fertig brought along some 5-Hour Energy to keep us primed, but not buzzed, for the glorious event.
We arrived in Madras with very little road congestion until we hit Solar City, a made-for-the-eclipse camping and viewing area just to the north of town. On Sunday night we decided to take the shuttle to the high school and, in the process, had a far-too-circuitous route on the Blue Line to the Yellow Line to the Green Line. We decided to jump off the bus at the half-way point and saved time by walking five blocks to the high school. There we saw some powerful views through telescopes and enjoyed our hors d’ouvres (cheese, fruit and wine). We also watched the white buffalo mascot, while spying circling osprey, crows, and night hawks. The vapor trails of jets were dancing in the sunset.
Sunset over Madras, August 20, 2017
Stanley Fertig had taken a class in solar photography from another Stan, Stan Honda, an award winning professional in New York. As luck would have it, Stan Honda was in Madras the same time we were. Our friend, Stanley F., brought with him a ten-year old Sony A700 camera. Stanley F. originally bought a Sony, because he had lots of Minolta lenses from his film camera days. When Sony Corporation bought Minolta, he was stuck with the lenses. Today, Sony cameras are all essentially Minoltas with a different name.
The lessons Stan Honda taught his class included insights on the use of tripod, lenses, filters, settings, and remote control. These insights were well worth it, as the two Stan’s became friends. Honda is best known for his images of eclipse viewers in unique places around the globe and his work graces the website of NASA and many other Astronomy websites.
Stan Honda eclipse image
Stanley Fertig, Composite of the Solar Eclipse, Madras, OR, 8/21/2017
Generally speaking, Stanley Fertig shot everything at the eclipse using ISO 400 film set at F/8 and he varied the shutter speed via bracketing. Most of the corona shots, which he likes the best, were bracketed from 1/20th of a second to 1/90th. Proof, as you can see from the composite photo above, is in the quality of the result, which we describe as “excelsior” or some other superlative.
We awoke just at sunrise on Monday morning to clear skies. Within the hour those skies were interrupted by forest fire smoke from Mt. Jefferson and high cirrus clouds. Looking off in the direction of the prevailing winds, it appeared that it would be hit-or-miss on the cloud cover for the eclipse. We could not drive our way to clear skies, so we hunkered down, went out in search of coffee, and made the best of it. We had to get prepared for the oncoming darkness no matter the clouds.
Star gazing and finger pointing
Resigned to our weather fate we glanced skyward and prayed for a good outcome. A bit after 9:00 AM, just as the eclipse started, the skies cleared giving us a near-pristine view of the heavens. The sun was hot and blinding, and the smoke minimal. The hang-gliders were getting ready for their descent, as the aerial merriment started in motion. “First contact. It has started,” shouted Stanley. We gazed up with our special glasses and so the first nibble of the sun from the upper right side.
Gradually the dark moon ate away at the golden orb in Pac-Man bites and we put on our glasses to watch the meal unfold. The count-down to Totality was so exciting, we felt our hearts race at a rapid pace, and it was not the 5-Hour Energy talking. The car lectures by Stanley F., the readings from scientific journals, the research on Saros cycles, the buzz on the everyday news cycle, the excitement of those around us … the drum beat was pulsating.
At just the right moment Stanley Fertig called out for everyone in our vicinity to hear, “Second Contact. Filters off!” It was Totality Time! Off came our special shades and we were held in awe of a total solar eclipse. The strange shadows, the temperature drop, the eerie landscape, the brilliant corona, the cheering crowd … there is nothing quite like it in the universe. The only interruption was a firecracker that exploded behind us. There was no singing, no music, only awe. Wow, were those two minutes and two seconds powerful! We wanted time to stand still so we could collect our feelings! Only exclamation points seem to work for punctuation!
Just before and after Totality, we received a call from Leslie Hook, the daughter of close friends. Leslie had asked to call us for a quote or two for her article in San Francisco office of the Financial Times. We got some ink in the media, just for being in Madras and showing up in the Zone! Thanks to Stanley, we had credibility for the star gazer interview.
We called our daughters, Eleanor and Kathleen, in Jackson, Wyoming, and Tracy’s brother, Tom, and his daughters in Nebraska, and our daughter, Margaret, on the East Coast. We even had a cameo from Cat Caplan in Charleston, SC. We were in awe of what we had witnessed and needed to hear the reactions of others to confirm our feelings of disbelief. Our Wyoming daughters were in a crowd of 50 or so who climbed a steep trail in Jackson Hole. One observer, Karsyn Sprague, described the eclipse as “INSANE, surreal, grounding, captivating, emotional, energizing and oh so lovely!”
Video by Kathleen Hooper from Mountaintop in Jackson, Wyoming 8/21/2017
Tracy’s brother, Tom Bagli, watched the event unfold with his daughters, Melissa and Alison. They were beach camping for the weekend at the water’s edge of Lake McConaughey in Lemoyne, Nebraska. Tom gave the following report from the Great Plains states.
“Our camp was at the extreme southern edge of the zone of totality in the Nebraska Sandhills. Western Nebraska, at 3000’ elevation, is high and dry like much of the west. Low humidity, sunny and vast it is like a desert. It’s wide open landscapes and clear skies were a perfect setting for the Eclipse.
“Many lakeside campers headed north for a longer exposure, but we decided to stay put and feel the groove right where we were. And we’re glad we did. The beach cleared out and we had this magical place all to ourselves. We paddle boarded and swam between viewings. We had a signature drink going. I had some weird Pink Floyd playing. The whole vibe was so casual and un-rushed.
“At totality, we walked back into the dead quiet of the wide open sand dunes. An odd flurry of waves suddenly rolled on shore and a huge flock of water birds raced across the shoreline right in front of us. A coincidence? Maybe. It was quiet and eerie as the moon crossed the sun. And, like most, we giggled with excitement.
“The sun was the star of the day. As it finally set at 7:30 or so, we said goodbye with a jump over its glow for a parting expression of joy!
We got word from our niece, Cat Caplan, who is in Charleston, SC, that she was able to see the last rays of the corona from the campus of The College of Charleston. She included a video of her own from the courtyard outside her sorority. Although the weather was mostly cloudy, the impact of the moon covering the sun was still dramatic and breath taking. Take a look as the street lights go on in response to the darkness surrounding the scene.
Cat Caplan and friends at College of Charleston for the Eclipse of 2017
Back at the Wall Street Suites in Bend, OR (after five hours for a 50 mile drive) we drank some local beers and Oregon pinot noir. Beverages in hand, we chatted with three eclipse fiends: a couple from Seattle and an engineer from Brisbane, Australia. The Auzzie was the most talkative. His descriptions of his gear and his years of planning made his back story fascinating. He had been working on this trip for four years. When he got to Bend, he was convinced by a local that a fire tower to the east of Madras was an ideal spot for photography. So he hiked up to a mountain with 60 pounds of gear (40 of those pounds dedicated to photography equipment) and set up his tent on Friday, with a few days to spare. He was one of only five people to ascend that peak. Why would anyone go to the trouble of traveling the globe and torturing themselves for a picture? Now we understand his reasons why.
We also understand why people, like our Stanley Fertig, John Mayer, Stan Honda, and our Auzzie engineer, might be devout solar eclipse chasers. They cannot wait for the next one. We may have just added ourselves to the list of lunatics who join them in the next total solar eclipse, wherever in the world it is slated to be. [Hint: in Chile on July 2, 2019 and back in the States on April 8, 2024.]