There has been one thing on my bucket list that thought I never witness, a total eclipse of the Sun. I have only attempted one viewing and that was in Totnes, Devon on August the 11th 1999. Typically for the UK, I witnessed clouds going dark! This wasn’t knocked off my bucket list then (Did bucket lists actually exist then?), so I had to do it soon.
It was many years later before another chance to view an eclipse finally came on August the 21st 2017. The central line passed within a two hour drive from Yellowstone National park, a fantastic volcanic geological wonder. This is a place I have always wanted to visit, so this was an opportunity to tick off two from my bucket list in one holiday. The urge to go was also bolstered by discussions with a few other members of Northampton Natural History Society, Astronomy Section who also suggested they would be going. We decided to book our holiday and meet in up in Jackson Wyoming for the eclipse and then onto Yellowstone.
Our accommodation and flights were booked as soon as possible, the rooms more than a year in advance.
Sue and I flew out on Saturday the 19th, the eclipse was on the Monday (21st) and was visible from the western coast of The USA, right the way across to the east coast, along a narrow strip of totality. Of course, you only get a total along a very narrow strip, which lies within the Moons umbra.
Meeting up with everyone, which was extremely sociable, and unexpectedly bumping into a couple of other familiar astronomy faces while we were there. Nick Hewitt had found a suitable spot, just north of Jackson alongside the road.
We eventually settled on a grassy area, just down from there, within walking distance from our hotels, right beside Flat Creek.
This was a few miles south of the central line, and we lost just over 2 seconds of totality. But that saved the hassles of getting stuck in possible traffic jams. These never materialised around the Jackson area. We got talking to a couple from Yorkshire in Yellowstone after the eclipse. They had travelled down and got 30 seconds of totality as they were a bit further north. Surely if you’ve gone all that way, you’d go a little bit further south to get a bit more?
There were no vacancies in Jackson at all the hotels we passed.
Some people had driven down the night before and could be seen sleeping in their cars.
On the morning of the eclipse a few of us arrived at our chosen viewing site a few hours before the eclipse started, to bag our spot.
We thought the field would be heaving for the eclipse, but although a few people joined us, it didn’t get very crowded at all.
There was some light cloud which looked like it might spoil the view.
These rapidly moved southwards and disappeared behind the mountains, leaving a clear blue sky well before 10am.
With the mountains south of Jackson in view, it was almost the perfect spot, with what now looked like perfect conditions.
The excitement was definitely building.
The cold 250,000 mile long finger of darkness had already touched the earth out in the Pacific Ocean and was now racing towards the west coast of America, and was making its way towards us.
By this time, the rest of our group had joined us, we set up our cameras with filters and safety specs and awaited first contact.
A nervous tension set up within our group as time ticked by and kept checking our settings.
Bang on time, a small bite was seen to be taken out of the edge of the Sun as the Moons penumbral shadow reached us.
Our long awaited event was now starting to unfold before our very eyes, and we watched with eager anticipation.
It was then a slow progression as the Moon gradually hid the Sun, we were now well in the Moons penumbra, first half and then three quarters of the Sun was hidden. I’d seen this many a time, but I knew now that the grandest of events was ahead of us.
By this time, you could see the dimming in the ambient light and the cold could now be felt as the Moons ice-cold dark shadowy finger raced towards us from the west-north-west at well over 1,700 mph. People started to go very quiet as the tension built up further.
A few minutes before totality, I started a GoPro to record video of people’s reactions and my mobile phone to record a time-lapse of the event.
These can be viewed at the bottom of this page.
The bright crescent Sun slowly got slimmer and thinner, Venus was spotted very high up in the darkening sky. As the Suns crescent now rapidly thinned, someone pointed out the dancing shadow bands on a piece of paper. It was totally memorising.
Suddenly, as quick as a flash, totality hit as the umbra finally caught up with us and the last direct rays of the Sun were obliterated from reaching Earth. The Suns light was gone. Claps, cheers and gasps went up as the light dropped.
With the sky as dark as it was going to get, the Suns outer atmosphere, the corona, came brightly into view, showing three distinct spikes and so much fine beautiful detail, it was absolutely gorgeous.
Nothing, but nothing, had prepared me for what I was viewing. It was completely surreal.
The bright star Regulus was easily visible towards the 8 o’clock position close to the darkened Sun.
The brighter inner corona formed a bright ring around the Moons dark silhouette. Mars could also be faintly seen.
Long exposure showing the outer corona.
We quickly took the solar filters off the front of the lenses to capture the moment as best we could. Varying the exposure to bring out different features. The two minutes and 15 seconds that we had ticked away extremely quickly.
Nick Hewitt, an old hand at eclipses pointed out the eerie glow around the horizon where sunlight filtered in beyond the umbras reach.
I didn’t want to spend my first eclipse viewing through the camera, I wanted to experience it, not just view it through a camera viewfinder.
So I stopped taking photographs, grabbed my binoculars and removed the filters to grab a direct view of the eclipse.
It was totally worth it, absolutely breathtaking. The fine detail in the corona was incredible.
Three beautiful pink prominences, of which I have viewed a few through Ha filters, were amazingly detailed, looping out and superimposed onto the bright inner corona. The view at home using Ha filters will never be quite the same.
Short exposure showing the inner corona and the prominences.
After catching this fleeting view, the main event was very close to finishing.
I moved back to the camera to adjust the exposure to try and capture the end of the eclipse and the fabulous diamond ring.
But I’d left it far too late!
Before I could change the camera settings, the sudden appearance of an extremely bright shaft of light flooded through the Moons valleys, creating the beautiful diamond ring, signalling the end of the eclipse as the umbra swept away and onward across the US. We were all completely awestruck and totally dazed.
I dithered and gasped as the Suns crescent thickened, before re-composing myself to get my photographs back on track.
We took a quick glimpse of crescent Suns dancing under the trees and then a progression of photographs showing the gradual withdrawal of the Moon from off the Suns face to finish off the sequence.
The whole thing was absolutely incredible. It was also fabulous sharing it with some very good friends.
That makes it even more amazing.
We will reminisce and talk about this fabulous experience for a very long time to come.
The build up to the event, the emotional experience and the come down from the huge adrenaline rush meant I felt completely drained.
I made a few mistakes in the imaging as I just got caught up in the moment. But what I did get was better than I expected, so I’m not upset I didn’t get a good diamond ring image. (Maybe at the next one?).
I can see why people become addicted and follow eclipses around the globe. I would definitely love to see another (or more!).
If you fancy seeing an eclipse, get planning for the next one now. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that you will not regret it.
You’ll only regret it if you don’t.
We broke open some locally brewed Eclipse beer and a bottle of Celeste wine to celebrate a very successful eclipse, before packing all our kit up and retiring to the local hostelry for further celebrations.
What a day that was.
Oh, and Yellowstone? That also surpassed our wildest expectations, as did Grand Teton.
So that was two very big ticks on what now seems to be an ever increasing bucket list…
If you want to see some more of my pictures, astronomy, wildlife and landscapes, visit my Flickr page: