I started planning for Monday’s total solar eclipse about two years ago. Using a plot of the path of totality on Google Maps, I spent hours studying satellite imagery along the track, in areas where the weather was especially likely to be clear. I particularly was searching for remote places where we could dry camp on public lands, and have a good view to the east, without interfering trees. I ultimately found four spots in national forests in eastern Oregon that seemed the best candidates. My friend at ON Semiconductor, Bob Black, a serious amateur astronomer, then drove up from the Bay Area and checked out each of these locations 13 months in advance of the eclipse, and picked the one he thought best. This spot, about 8 miles southeast of Austin, Oregon, became “Camp Eclipse”.
With about one million visitors expected in Oregon for the eclipse (compared to the resident population of about three million), we had no idea how soon such a site might be occupied by someone else, so we met up with Bob there on Thursday, four days ahead. We were then joined by our friends Rob (also at ON Semiconductor) and Tamara, and their 3-year-old daughter Sierra, on Saturday. Because we occupied all the available suitable camping spots around a small meadow, at the end of a short forest road spur, we placed a sign at the beginning of the road stating that the area was full, and so we had a very peaceful five days. The weather at 5000 feet elevation in Lodgepole Pine forest was nice, with highs in the high 80s and lows in the high 30s. The only minor negative was that cattle were grazing in the area, which did not appear to be the case on Bob’s earlier visit.
Bob used the extra days to set up and align optical and hydrogen-alpha telescopes, and I took a number of test photographs with our Nikon P900. I had ordered a sheet filter with neutral density around 5, and needed to attach that to the camera, which I ultimately did by cutting it down to a circle and taping it into a carefully trimmed Pringles can (jalapeno flavor). Tests showed that 1200 mm equivalent focal length was ideal, giving a large image of the sun, but leaving some room for the solar corona, which would be visible at totality, and for framing imprecision. Exposures of f/8 at 1/60 second worked well with the filter, giving a good histogram, and this exposure was also used, with the neutral density filter removed, during totality. Even with a heavy tripod, vibration from handling and light breezes were issues. So I ended up hanging my tool chest from the tripod center post to dampen movement, and also used a 10-second timer for all shots, allowing time for vibrations to die out after the shutter was triggered.
We had some nice sightings during the days leading up to the eclipse, including great looks at Northern Pocket Gopher (only our second time ever); California Tortoiseshell (a lovely butterfly); both male and female Williamson’s Sapsuckers (the male in the scope for about 20 minutes); Red Crossbills; Vaux’s Swifts; and Great Horned Owl. We also heard Coyotes at extremely close range on three of the nights, and one evening a Northern Pygmy-Owl called.
Eclipse day dawned beautifully, without a single cloud, and with no haze from forest fires or dust. First contact (when the moon first overlaps the sun) was a bit after 9:00 a.m., second contact (the start of totality) around 10:23, third contact (the end of totality) just over 2 minutes later, and fourth contact (last overlap of moon and sun) somewhat before noon. I took photos every ten minutes from slightly before first contact until just after fourth contact, with a few extra around and during totality. We all alternated looking through the two telescopes, a filtered pair of binoculars, and our eclipse glasses, as well as looking at the fold-out display of the Nikon, where we could see the current view and also review the images in movie fashion.
As totality approached, the light level dropped, yet the shadows remained crisp, creating an interesting inconsistency in appearance. It resembled the look of spaghetti westerns, when scenes that were supposed to occur in low light were shot in the middle of the day and then darkened in printing. It also became much cooler; although we did not measure the temperature drop it felt like at least 15°F. Totality itself was truly spectacular, a genuinely otherworldly experience. The entire sky was deep twilight blue, with Venus obvious overhead. There were diamond ring effects both at second and third contact; this is when the very last or first bit of the sun shines through a valley on the moon, producing a pinhole burst of light. The disk of the moon looked astonishingly black, ringed by a brilliant halo produced by the sun’s corona. With our elevation, low humidity, and very clear air, the black disk was uncompromised by flare and to me its utter darkness was the most unexpected aspect of the event. This was the fastest two minutes of our lives, and one of the greatest experiences we have ever had!
The photomontage above shows images taken at 10-minute intervals except in the third row, where only the second image (which is near the middle of totality) is part of the 10-minute sequence. In that row, the first image is shortly before totality; the third image is right at the end of totality, with a diamond ring effect at the 1:30 position; and the fourth image is two minutes later.