My Epic Eclipse Adventure

April 13, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

I promised you the story, so here it is. If you are not a reader, I suggest scrolling to the bottom where you will find the photography. I need to write this out mostly for myself, so I don't forget the epic adventure my mom and I had.

First, a few fun facts about the Sun, Moon and eclipse!

  • The solar eclipse can only occur at the new moon phase, when the dark side of the moon faces us
  • The sun is 400 times the diameter of the moon, but at the point of eclipse it is 400 times farther away, making them appear the same size
  • The solar prominence (red flares) can reach up to 93,000 miles high and can last days to weeks and contribute to our Northern Lights
  • The planets Venus and Jupiter, as well as Pons-Brooks comet can be visible during totality of 2024 eclipse
  • The eclipse creates a 360 degree sunset effect in the path of totality
  • Temperatures drop dramatically during totality
  • Einstein's theory of relativity was proven during a 1919 solar eclipse
  • Eventually, Earth will not have total solar eclipses as the Moon moves away from Earth approximately an inch each year, causing only annular eclipses to be visible when that time arrives

And now, the rest of the story...

After getting more exposed to the world of astrophotography, I shot my first eclipse last year, an annular eclipse, but it was really motivating for me. I wanted more. I knew a total eclipse was in the works for this year and I was determined to make it mine. I began studying and planning, learning about all the special techniques and filters and processes I would need to capture the imagery I wanted. I followed this course for the next seven months, digging into books, videos, anything I could consume to learn more about the photography aspect. 

Since the path of totality would not cross where I lived, I eventually determined Texas for my destination for viewing (Austin to be exact) because it would have the best probability for clear skies in April. You see, if you're not in the path, your experience just cannot measure up, and in hindsight now, I cannot stress that enough! I wanted the full experience right within the path.

I then spent the next thirty days pinpointing a good location along the path of totality, before attempting to book (six months out at this point). Thats when I first learned how important this was, how many people were on the same journey as I. You know what that does to the law of supply and demand...  price gouging had already begun, and I was not willing to pay upwards of $700 per night for a hotel.  I found a reasonable Air B&B right in the path, a close enough drive to the centerline. After hearing other stories of how hosts cancel reservations last minute (likely because they got another guest willing to pay more), leaving the guests scrambling to find alternate accommodations, I booked at two different places to have one of them as a backup. Yes, I felt guilty, but you know what? I was investing so much in this, doing so much research and planning, I did not want to get screwed out of a place to stay.

Having my lodging taken care of, I then booked my flights only to find that at six months away, everyone else had already started doing so, leaving no available rental cars to accompany my flight plans. My recourse was with an app and system I was unfamiliar with, Turo. That one made me nervous, renting a car from a total stranger, hoping it all pans out for me and I don't somehow end up damaging the car. I booked it anyhow. Flight, car and accommodations are all set!

For the next two months I continued studying and examining the general Texas landscape for the best opportunities. I learned all state parks were closing access for eclipse day unless you bought a special day pass, so I found three parks that could work, and I got my day passes. When I checked for availability a week later, they were all sold out. I was very happy to have settled on some good locations, and if mother nature was in my favor, the blue bonnets would be in full bloom there!

So I continued studying and practicing my day-of routine, using a special app as a timer so I would know when it would be safe to remove the solar filter from my lens, and when all the various events of the eclipse would occur, practicing quickly changing my camera settings to account for the rapid change in light through those phases that would pass in a matter of seconds. I think the more I practiced, the more nervous I got. 

At the three-month point, the first Air B&B cancelled on me, just as I feared, claiming booking errors. I was glad I booked the fall back because a quick search revealed sparse availability with insanely high prices. I reached out to the host to have her reassure me she would not cancel, and everything was set in stone.

The months fell to weeks as eclipse day approached and my dreams began to be consumed by eclipse photography. 

I was hawking weather apps and charts, following the ever-failing forecast for Texas. Heavy clouds were now expected for almost the entire path of totality from Texas up to Ohio and my heart started sinking. Had all my preparations been for nothing? Had I wasted my money? Would I ever get another chance?

The weeks fell to days and now it was quite evident my sweet spot in Texas had soured, along with my excitement. Mother nature left me scrambling to make alternate plans somewhere else if I wanted any hope of seeing, much less photographing the eclipse. The forecast was showing fairly clear skies for parts of Arkansas and Illinois, and even New York. But how on earth was I going to find accommodations?

I had friends in Illinois offering up a place to stay near the path and their forecast was pretty damn good. The 11-hour drive one way was very tempting. I kept that on my radar.

My sister up in New York also had good weather anticipated and was within a few hours of totality. She mentioned wanting to take her family to view, so there is another possibility. Another very quick search for airfare showed the cost of tickets at that point was $2000. 

Or do I chance it that Texas would ultimately clear just in time? I could possibly drive a bit in Texas if I had to, but I had that weird rental with mileage limitations.

All these things were swirling around in my head now with my eclipse techniques and weather watching. I found myself checking weather apps hourly in the preceding days before finally (with much support and encouragement from some wonderful people) I pulled the trigger on New York. 

What better way to do this than with family? It should make for some good memories! I quickly cancelled all of my Texas reservations and watched as many more began doing the same for that area. The severe storms forecasted even had event hosts cancelling their viewing events. Perhaps I made the right choice after all. Time will tell.

I landed in Albany, New York and it seemed those pesky clouds followed me up there. Again, I was filled with dread as the forecast worsened the day before the eclipse. We made plans to take two cars; one for my sis and her family for their viewing and one for my mom and I for our viewing. Mine would take many hours longer and we didn't think the kiddos could make that long of a commitment.

I was trying like hell to find good spots to set up all my gear and shoot from. A place where my sister's car would not get towed and somewhere that had restrooms close by. A place with a clear open view of the sky and interesting foreground. This was not as easy as you'd think. I used google earth and google maps quite heavily that day. My sister’s husband even picked up an Atlas for me to use because it was highly likely the network would be overwhelmed and my navigation wouldn't work.

That night was a restless one with little sleep. I was so excited. I kept replaying the different sets of images I wanted over and over in my mind. The next morning, my mom and I were up at the crack of dawn. We packed the car with my equipment, a few lawn chairs, and a bunch of snacks for the road and we left at 6:30 am. The general direction was northern Vermont. Traffic and cloud cover would ultimately determine where we ended up.

The roads were surprisingly clear, despite what local radio stations were warning of. They did mention a few times that the city we wanted on Lake Champlain was becoming inundated with visitors, so I quickly scratched that one off my list and we kept going north, around Burlington. The next town on the map was St Albans in Vermont. I had not considered that one at all, but it was at a point where I could quickly turn and go east to further outrun the clouds. We got there around 11:30 and the sky looked great, so we drove in and found a PERFECT spot at a tiny park on the lake. I think we were probably the last of a few cars they allowed in before closing the parking area.

We dragged out all our gear and plunked down on the lawn with hundreds of other viewers. The crowd slowly grew, music was playing, everyone was buzzing around, setting up cameras, telescopes, and cell phones to capture the magic. It felt like a fair. I attempted to recalculate my timing app for our specific geographic location, to also account for the few seconds of difference in lunar limb contacts (important to catch the images I had in mind) but there was no signal available for my phone. So, I resorted to calling my tecch support, my husband back home. I briefly explained what I needed and sent him to the website to look up calculations based on where he could see us on the map, and with success, he was able to provide me with the updates I needed. I finally had all my gear ready and tested a few shots. Now we wait. Mom was all comfy, crocheting while she waited. I was pacing. I did manage to put my drone up in an unoccupied area, I wanted to capture something showing the crowds and the lake area. I knew I wouldn't be able to fly during totality (unless I cloned myself) so these drone images would have to suffice. We tried some of the food from a food truck vendor and waited some more. I impatiently watched a far off front of high clouds begin to approach. I knew they would ultimately arrive with the start of the eclipse, I could only hope they would stay thin enough as to not impair my plans.

First contact was mere minutes away! I was giving Mom the countdown. And then it was time. Like a gentle tap on the door, the moon cautiously presented itself.

"IT STARTED! IT STARTED!" I was exclaiming to her, so she could put her glasses on and watch. Granted, the start of the partial phases is not too exciting unless you've never seen it before (or you're a bit of a geek like me). The tiniest curve of the Moon began to merge into the Sun. It proceeded ever so slowly, almost as if it were shy from all the viewers watching its performance. Yes, it is a very slow progression, and Mom went back to crocheting, looking up on occasion to see how far it had passed. Meanwhile, I was snapping away with my camera, catching all the partial phases for my composites later. Soft thin clouds floated through every now and then, darkening my exposure and dulling a crisp focus, but I carried on. When the Sun was close to a sliver, I was bubbling with excitement. My hands started to shake as darkness began to roll over us, now is when I need to make all my fast adjustments within a matter of seconds for the totality phases.

My brain didn't fail me, and it felt seamless. The bright white light of the sun withered to a hairline curve and eventually disappeared, I immediately took the filter off to let the Diamond Ring and Bailey's Beads present themselves. "Mom, look without your glasses! It’s amazing!" I couldn't believe what I was seeing through the 600mm lens on my camera. Heckin amazing! My mouth was hanging open in awe the whole time. And the crowd agreed, they let forth cheers and screams and applause, music began to play again with all the excitement. I kept snapping away like crazy. I did pause for a moment in the middle of totality to soak it all in. That black dot in the sky felt otherworldly. It was so bizarre and moving. How insignificant I felt at that moment for some reason. The darkness above revealed the bright planets that could normally only be seen at night. A faint glow of yellow and orange was on the horizon. It felt so sublime. Birds had come into land and nest with the darkness falling. Then the faint peeks of light began to creep out from the other side of the Moon as it continued on its journey. I was quickly manipulating my camera for this second set of quickly passing phases. I was shaking so much, I didn't know if I'd slip up and miss the shot. I was glad I had a remote trigger to press for shutter release. The temperature dropped so fast, it was very cold, probably in the low 50s. The warmth from the sun faded as quickly as its light. I was relieved when the light began to reappear on the other edge of the moon. Then just like that, the darkness dissolved and daylight returned, along with quite the clamoring from birds. They were making more noise than the crowd, squawking and chirping. The sky was full of gulls flying to and fro. I would have like to known what they were thinking. It was chaos in the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief and jumped up and down like a kid, squealing to Mom, "I GOT IT, I GOT IT!!", knowing that my one goal for imagery had been captured; Baileys Beads. But I got so much more than that. The sun (moon?) dog that appeared around the sun like a halo during partial phases. The Diamond Ring phases when the light returns, creating a phenomenon that looks like a solitaire diamond engagement ring. Bailey's Beads where the light is totally obscured by the Moon except for where it filters through the craters, causing a string of beads to appear. Solar prominences (which was a complete surprise for me) where the flames of the sun shoot out far enough to be seen from around the Moon. These coronal mass ejections can reach 500,000 miles long, and we were lucky enough to have them occurring during totality. The full corona of the Sun which is the gas-filled outer most edges of the Sun's atmosphere. Some wide angle shots with my back up camera, and a little bit of pre-eclipse aerial imagery with the drone. So much! I was beside myself.

We stayed and continued out the remainder of the partial phases while most others left the park after the main event. At least we wouldn't have to battle that mess of congestion... but wait...

After it ended, I packed up, we started on our journey back. We did see some lovely scenery as we skirted along the Canadian border heading back to the highway. That's when we hit the rest of the masses that had traveled up from NY City and every other place known to God to sit on what seemed like the only road going through Vermont. The highway was literally a parking lot. Barely getting over 20 mph the whole way back, we crawled along into darkness with the river of car lights. What took 2.5 hours getting up took 6 hours getting back. We were exhausted and giddy all at the same time, reflecting back on the whole day's events and it was marvelous.

My takeaway in the end?  

IT WAS ALL WORTH IT. 

But in all seriousness, this was a learning experience, just like the last eclipse, and I'm getting better each time. This time I was prepared with a solid sturdy tripod and a better filter, and used a few more techniques to allow stability and manual tracking. Next time, I will want to try using an auto-tracker for more freedom, and perhaps a more exposed diamond ring and Bailey's Beads phase. I'd like to have a better plan for wide angle timelapse, I don't think I properly exposed for that on this run. I'd also like to have a specific plan for exactly what times I will take partials, so that I have perfectly timed partials without having to cull through hundreds to find matching phases on either end. And of course, a clear sky would be nice. I'm actually eager to give this another try, but that will mean travel to another country for the next eclipse. I guess that would make me an official chaser! 

There's so much beauty out there if you only take the time to look and seek adventure. Stuff your eyes with wonder, and remember, "Ones destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." ~ Henry Miller

I want to give a big shout out of gratitude to my husband for allowing me to follow my dreams and adventures, to my boss for his extreme generosity and encouragement, to my sister and her family for being so gracious with me for the last minute planned trip, to my mom for being my adventure sidekick for many of these events. You are all so very much appreciated, I can't express enough how much it all means to me.

Now, for those of you that scrolled all the way to the bottom without reading my story, here is what you came for...

Click on any photo to see a larger version and to see more in the Astrophotography gallery.

Alignment Solar Luna Chaos

 

 

 


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