2017 Solar Eclipse

The solar eclipse of August 21st 2017 inspired more conversation, hand wringing, and divided opinion than could reasonably have been expected from a two-minute long event. Here in central Oregon many people feared the massive population influx and worst case scenarios of electrical, water, and fuel shortages. In the months leading up to the eclipse I recall very few truly excited people and it seemed most, including local politicians and the editors of our newspaper, had bought into the doom and gloom scenario. While I don’t think this sentiment was necessarily unique to this area, compared to most of the eclipse path, fewer people live out here and we are not used to hosting large events and dealing with hundreds of thousands of temporary visitors. In addition, dry forest conditions and narrow roads leading in and out of the heart of eclipse territory were real concerns in case of wildfires.

Despite these trepidations, Kyle and I made plans to backpack toward the path of totality and settled on the Strawberry Wilderness near John Day, Oregon as an ideal spot. After lots of research, pouring over maps, and thinking about traffic patterns, it became apparent this area provided a decently long moment of totality, and simple access/egress. Thankfully, our trip went off without incident and although I’m writing many months after the experience, what follows is my best memory of this spectacular celestial event.

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umbraphile

Noun (plural Unbraphiles): One who loves eclipses, often travelling to see them.

 Saturday, August 19th, dawned hot and clear in Bend, a perfect forecast for would-be umbraphiles. Any haze, from cloud cover or forest fire, could obstruct the view of the eclipse, and I was very happy to have a reassuring prediction of stable weather for the next two days. 

Kyle drove down from Seattle and was in Bend by early afternoon, we did some more strategizing, grabbed an eclipse beer from Ecliptic Brewing at Crow’s Feet Commons, made supper at home, and readied ourselves for an early start on Sunday. 

Hitting the road, we made it to Burns in a shade over two hours, despite the many out-of-state plates zipping by us eastbound on highway 20, traffic was not bad and the driving easy. With full backpacks in the trunk and extra gas strapped to the roof, we left Burns and headed north toward Seneca, zipping up the twisty road I was surprised to not encounter many other vehicles. Felt full of cautious optimism that our choice of viewing venue was going to be ideal. 

Following the map toward the Strawberries we soon hit dirt roads, they were well graded and well within the capability of Karen. I did choose to stop and refill the gas tank as soon as it could accept the fuel strapped to the roof rack. We chose to carry extra gas because shortages or extremely long lines were a real possibility in the tiny towns of central Oregon. Thankfully what we brought was plenty and didn’t need to refuel while out on this adventure, however appeared to have not been a problem and I don’t recall seeing any outrageous lines at filling stations on our way home Monday afternoon. 

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Filling up

Seneca, Oregon 

Nearing our chose trailhead, we started seeing cars heading the opposite way and naturally this led us to speculate as to why they were turning around. I am a pessimistic realist in situations like this and started imagining an impending disaster of congestion or closure, of which we were about to play a part. Four miles from our planned entry point, we were indeed stopped by a friendly forest ranger, and informed that no more vehicles were being allowed up the road. Not coming this far to be shut out, I found a small turn out, parked Karen, and prepared to bushwhack cross-country toward High Lake. 

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Starting out

Strawberry Mountains, Oregon

  Armed with the GAIA app on his phone, Kyle set off in a general northerly direction, not following any defined path, but meeting little resistance from the high desert flora. Large ponderosa pines provided shade and didn’t choke the terrain, although we did have to do lots of high stepping over deadfall, making progress slow. 

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old road?

Strawberry Mountains, Oregon 

After navigating a steep downhill slope and crossing a narrow river, we happened upon a very narrow and overgrown trail that evidently didn’t get much use but led directly to High Lake. We began to encounter fellow umbraphiles on the trail, and by the time we arrived at the lake happy campers were all over, setting up tents and enjoying the perfect pre-eclipse weather. 

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High Lake

Strawberry Mountains, Oregon 

We quickly found a tent site and established camp before heading out for a swim and some lounge time before supper. High on a treeless ridge above our camp we watched several mountain goats enjoy the last rays of sunlight and decided to head their way for the eclipse on Monday. 

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tent and bear bag

Strawberry Mountains, Oregon

Stuffing two adults into an ultralight backpacking tent with one door is a recipe for fraught sleep and our evening together was no exception. Emerging bleary-eyed with the early sun, I was excited to see the day had dawned clear, so far so good! After breakfast we started hiking toward where we saw the goats the evening prior, making it to a great vantage point a bit after 9am. Totality was approximately twenty minutes past 10am, so we settled in and took out our eclipse glasses to begin viewing the slowly obscuring sun. 

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opthalamic safety

Above High Lake, Oregon

Folks from all over began arriving atop this ridgeline and we could see various groups scattered in the distance along high points in the Strawberry Wilderness. It was so fun to be around people who were excited for the eclipse, a refreshing change from naysayers and various disaster scenarios omnipresent in my life recently. During the lead up to totality, we met two brothers who took some excellent pictures, made a neat time-lapse, and later shared both with us. 

About twenty minutes before totality the weather started to change, it got noticeably cooler, making me wish I had brought a coat. The light also changed, with the shadows becoming blurred around the edges and the colors appeared filtered and quite soft. Every few minutes I looked at the sun directly through my special glasses and watched the moon slowly overtake the sun one crescent shaped tick at a time. 

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pre-eclipse colors

Above High Lake, Oregon

At 10:15am we started to huddle expectantly on the highest piece of rock we could find, the clouds had held off and we were about to have an unobstructed view of this historic eclipse. By totality the light had diminished to dusky and it was possible to hear screams of joy from westerly peaks of those experiencing the obscured sun moments before us. The 2 minutes of totality flashed by and I remember the sky being quite dark but not black, and the appearance of sunrise for 360 degrees around the horizon. The sun/moon was now one, with an eerie glow of while flame emanating all around. I don’t recall much noise beside the jubilant proclamations of those around me, but even so, I think we were respectful of the moment and mostly overcome by the power of the natural world around us. 

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during totality

Above High Lake, Oregon 

Far too quickly the total eclipse ended, but we were able to enjoy a slow return to normal solar conditions, exchange stories and photos with our fellow unmbraphiles. Kyle and I had made the decision to break camp and hike out that same day as he had to be back in Seattle Tuesday evening and wanted to split the travel into two chunks. Fortunately we were able to hike out on a trail the entire way and ended up at the trailhead 4 miles up the road from Karen. We hitched a ride in the back of a truck and although we ended up covered in road dust it was nice to not have to walk those miles in the direct sun. 

On the drive home we finally hit our first legitimate traffic jam between Seneca and Burns, stop and go for about 2 hours, but once we got to highway 20 it was speed limit cruising back to Bend. Kyle left the next morning and reported a pretty easy drive back to Seattle, but did run into some slow spots around Madras and going over Mt. Hood pass. Overall, the disruption to our area was less than expected and it seemed like most people who made the effort to view the total eclipse found the experience worthwhile. I am so happy and grateful to have made the trip and share the memory with one of the original members of the 5.8 Alpine Mountain Fun Institute.        

Have Fun and Stay Safe, 

Andrew 

 

 

Andrew Kersh