Blythe and Andrew's Excellent Eclipse Adventure

Blythe and Andrew's Excellent Eclipse Adventure

An epic 12-day trip of 2930 km., two Canadian provinces, three American states, and a broken refrigerator, all in the pursuit of the Moon's shadow at Madras, Oregon


I saw my first total solar eclipse near Great Falls, Montana on February 26, 1979. It was an incredible experience, and I subsequently observed totality around the world in 1983 (Indonesia), 1984 (Coral Sea), 1988 (Philippines), and 1991 (Mexico). In 2002, my wife Blythe and I travelled to Australia for our first eclipse together (read about the details here). She was hooked, and we looked forward to the 2017 event somewhere in the United States as the Moon's shadow raced from the west coast to the east coast.

We knew that this would be a popular eclipse. August 21 is near the end of the traditional summer vacation, and many families travelled to the path of totality. Hotels and other accomodation were booked up years ago. In the end, we chose Madras, Oregon, due to its excellent weather prospects, and because a large RV and camping area north of the town was opened up for the thousands of people expected to visit.

A lot of things had changed in the fifteen years since my last total solar eclipse in 2002. No longer was Kodachrome slide film available for purchase. My beloved Olympus OM-1 was mothballed and I acquired two Nikon D750 DSLR cameras and a AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens for some wide-angle shots of the eclipse. On June 3, I attended a seminar by my friend Alan Dyer in Carstairs, Alberta, who gave me some valuable tips on photographing the upcoming eclipse.
Shortly after my first total solar eclipse on February 26, 1979, I wrote a program for the University of Alberta's Amdahl 470V/7 mainframe computer to determine the paths of upcoming solar eclipses. Here is my hand-drawn depiction of the 2017 event, showing the centerline and the northern and southern limits of totality. Little did I know 38 years ago that I would be north of Madras, Oregon, on the centerline to see totality.

The idea of camping for nearly two weeks didn't appeal to either of us, so we decided to rent a motorhome, complete with toilet, refrigerator, and cooking and sleeping facilities. The first glitch of the trip occurred on the morning of our departure, when we realized that the refrigerator hadn't cooled down overnight. We hoped that the switch to propane from electricity would fix the problem, but we soon realized that the unit was useless. Fortunately, we could buy ice at each of our stops and during our five-day stay at Madras.
Our route from Calgary to Madras took us through Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. After five days at the eclipse site, we returned home via British Columbia's wine country in and around Oliver.

The RV and camping area north of Madras, called Solartown, opened on August 17, although registrants could show up as late as eclipse morning if they wanted to. We liked the idea of being on-site early, and arrived on the first day. Apparently a lot of other people liked that idea too, and we were bogged down in traffic for hours before proceeding to Solartown. Access roads and RV and camping sites were marked, but anyone could pick their own spot. We selected a site on the northeast corner where there was a clear view of the Sun at eclipse time.

The sites gradually filled up with tents and recreational vehicles over the next few days. Solartown turned into an Eclipse Woodstock. Many eclipse first-timers planned to simply observe and enjoy, while others had a variety of cameras and telescopes to record totality. I finally had an opportunity to test my partial eclipse exposures for the telescope and camera lens, since Calgary was too smoky from forest fires in British Columbia. Skies were clear on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the Monday eclipse. Sunday's skies brought some cirrus clouds and a lot of anxiety.

On eclipse morning, there was some residual cirrus cloud at first contact (start of partial phase), which seemed to dissipate as the eclipse progressed.
Wearing our protective solar glasses, we watch the partially eclipsed Sun prior to totality.

My equipment is set up in the foreground. A Nikon D750 DSLR camera with a AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens is on the left, and my second Nikon D750 is attached to a Meade 4" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on the right.

I had planned and practiced a series of detailed images and videos with the two cameras for the eclipse. But I should have known that using two new DSLR cameras would have been a challenge. As it turned out, the initial partial shots worked well, but I missed the start of totality because I couldn't do a last-minute focus adjustment on the telescope. Then I realized that the Nikon-lens combination wasn't shooting at the proper exposure. By the time I figured out all the problems, I had 44 seconds of totality remaining. I had a quick look through the binoculars and started some photographs through the telescope. I took only a few pictures before the diamond ring signalled the end of totality. Because I couldn't do a final focus adjustment, my telescope pictures were not precisely focused. My images of the diffuse corona, such as the one at the top of this page, still looked pretty good.
For planning purposes prior to the eclipse, individual snapshots of the partial phase generated with SkyMap Pro 9 were merged in Photoshop CC. Compare with the actual results below.

A composite image of totality (without a solar filter) and a series of the partially eclipsed Sun with a solar filter, taken every five minutes. I used a Nikon D750 DSLR camera with a AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens. The individual image files were merged in Photoshop CC.

A video created in Photoshop CC from a series of images taken every second shows the end of totality. Notice how the Moon's shadow moves to the lower left corner of the frame as it continues eastward. This time-lapse sequence is ten times faster than it actually happened.

As the sky brightened, it became clear that there was very faint cirrus around the Sun, but it didn't affect the view of the corona.

Click on the control buttons to replay the video. Choose full-screen if your browser/player supports it.

A gallery of photographs taken with my Meade 4" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and a Nikon D750 DSLR camera. The partial shots were taken every five minutes. The last two photographs show the corona and the diamond ring at the end of totality.

Three short exposures through the telescope near the end of totality reveal the inner corona, the emergence of the chromosphere, and several prominences.

While I was disappointed that I didn't capture all the videos and photographs that I had hoped for, I was happy with what I ended up with. The digital files allowed me to process and combine images to produce some interesting displays.

As soon as an eclipse has ended, plans are already being made for the next one. Total solar eclipses occur fairly frequently somewhere on the earth, but they tend to be in remote areas. Perhaps the next reasonable opportunity to observe totality will occur on April 8, 2024, when an eclipse occurs along a path from Mazatlan, Mexico, through Texas to Maine and extending into southeastern Canada. Weather prospects in Texas are favorable, so with a bit of luck Blythe and I hope to meet up with the Moon's shadow once again.
The April 8, 2024 eclipse will sweep across central Texas. This hand-drawn plot from 1979 also includes the 1994 annular eclipse (upper left) and the 2045 total eclipse (upper right).
A modern recomputation of the April 8, 2024 eclipse has a small west shift compared to the 1979 results, due to an improvement in our understanding of the Earth's irregular rotation.

The umbral shadow is shown at the time of maximum eclipse in Dallas, Texas.