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An American Adventure

by Perry Pezzolanella

Only four months from now, on Monday, August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the Sun will finally touch the U.S. mainland for the first time since February 26, 1979. A very narrow band of totality, hardly 70 miles wide, will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina. Totality will pass through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Totality will last no more than 2 minutes and 40 seconds at best and that will be in Illinois. For a handful of Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society members including this author, this will be the first total eclipse of the Sun since Aruba on February 26, 1998. Those of us who traveled there caught eclipse fever and have been suffering ever since. Unfortunately, all total eclipses since then have been remote, some as far away as Antarctica! While there is no cure for eclipse fever, there is a chance to seek temporary relief by traveling to one, if one is willing to travel far away. In 2017 we get a break, and even though travel will be required, at least it is within the U.S. and accessible. The only spoiler could be the weather - after nearly a week of beautiful sunny weather in Aruba it came close to being clouded out. The feeling of gloom was so intense that it is best forgotten, although a photo of the gloomy eclipse chasers does exist, but it cleared out just as the first bite of the Sun was taken out, and the rest is history! The following is what might unfold based on this author’s experience in Aruba.

An eerie light will fall over the landscape as the Sun becomes a thin crescent and birds will roost as temperatures drop. The diminishing level of sunlight will be slow as it softens, but will dim dramatically in the final five minutes leading up to totality. The brighter planets and stars will begin to appear. A dark, dusky band will appear on the horizon in the west and rise rapidly moments before totality like a rising storm cloud. This is the Moon’s shadow and at that moment the Sun will look briefly like a diamond ring or a series of bright beads known as Bailey’s Beads (use eye protection!). All too suddenly totality will arrive creating an eerie twilight, not quite night, that bathes the landscape. An eerie orange glow will surround the horizon in every direction through which a few brighter stars may shine. The Moon will be the darkest object in the sky as it blocks the Sun, but will you be able to see the “Man in the Moon” faintly illuminated by earthshine? It is safe to look directly at the delicate white streamers radiating from the totally eclipsed Sun curving like a giant magnetic field along with fiery pinkish prominences poking out from behind the Moon. It is very moving to actually see all of this with your own eyes. Binoculars will help see finer detail and are safe to use during totality only. All too soon a rising orange band will appear in the western sky ending totality. Shadows return, birds start to sing, and it will grow steadily warmer as sunlight brightens slowly back to normal. It will then be time for the favorite ritual of all eclipse chasers, including us when we were in Aruba, and that is to party! It was a fun dinner at a special place on the ocean with drinks, laughter, happiness, and sharing our experiences as how each of us felt at the moment of totality!

You will have done a lot of research, traveled far and spent plenty of hard-earned money to position yourself in the path of totality so here are a few tips with a strong warning or two to help make it a fond memory:

Travel to your destination several days in advance. Since this is a Monday eclipse, it is strongly suggested that you plan to arrive during the weekend. You will need some time to rest, and get adjusted to the people, food, weather, transportation, and terrain. Find your eclipse site no later than the day before the eclipse and plan to arrive at the site several hours before first contact, instead of during the partial phases. You need to be sure that the site is safe from any hazards including plants, animals, insects, traffic, strong winds, and angry owners—be sure that it is not private property!

Once you are set up, stay there regardless of the weather. Eclipse chasers will panic if the weather turns ominous, which could create dangerous driving and congestion. You may not be able to return to your site if the weather improves since local authorities could put up roadblocks. At the very least you will have to lug everything by foot back to your original site. We stayed put at our selected site on the southern tip of Aruba when the weather threatened and it was a smart move as those who bailed out and traveled north where it was clear ended up battling clouds while we cleared out nicely. Weather can change rapidly and the decreasing sunlight of an eclipse can often dissipate clouds as the atmosphere cools off.

Prepare a checklist of what you need to bring with you just like any other vacation as you will probably be away from home for several days. Also bring a checklist of what you hope to see as the eclipse unfolds. A checklist of eclipse events follows this article. Finally, if you cannot resist the urge to photograph and/or video the eclipse, then you must practice using your camera or camcorder in a poorly lit room. Totality is as dim as twilight on a clear day around 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. Practice this at home months before the eclipse, instead of days before. Make sure everything works and you are thoroughly knowledgeable with your equipment. Be sure to have spare batteries. Unlike 1998, this is the era of smart phones, so it may be easier to photograph totality without wasting precious time looking away from the eclipse to adjust settings, but you will be highly excited!

Remember that it is safe to look at the eclipse with your eyes and binoculars (and telescopes) during totality—but ONLY during totality! It is DANGEROUS to look at the Sun when it is partially eclipsed, even a thin crescent, and even during the moment of the diamond ring. Proper solar filters, or a #14 welder’s glass, are fine to use, or project the image of the Sun on paper.

A word of warning: YOU WILL EXPERIENCE AN EMOTIONAL RUSH AS THE SHADOW APPROACHES THAT WILL CAUSE JITTERS AND MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO CONCENTRATE ON ANYTHING! Do you really want to bother trying to take photos of the eclipse in a rush of adrenaline? It will come and go so fast that, if you are fumbling with equipment, you will miss what is going to be the most beautiful astronomical event of your life! Someone else will capture totality for you and post it somewhere for all to savor. This author has been among a crowd that has had tons of equipment and feels that many people miss the beauty of totality viewed with their own eyes. What a moment of awe to just simply relax and look up with your own eyes during those precious few minutes of totality! If this is your first total eclipse of the Sun, then get ready for the ultimate American Adventure!