In Search of the Ring of Fire: A Modern-Day Eclipse Expedition

“All of the Eclipse Expedition having arrived on board, and a large supply of provisions having already been stowed away, preparations were made to start on a long voyage. … We started out on our long trip to the West Coast of Africa to bring back information which has so long been looked forward for by the Scientific Department of the United States.

A drawing of the 1858 total solar eclipse, visible from Peru. Before the advent of specialized telescopes and satellites, eclipses were the only time the solar corona could be observed. (Image credit: Exploratorium)

That blue box was seductively close. Just a few hundred miles, I thought. That’s nothing in astronomical terms. And that bright red line that marked totality; for once it wasn’t out in the middle of the ocean, or a hemisphere away. It was in the same continent, the same country – hell, the same state. So close.

It would require my weekend. It would require seven hours of driving each way and at least two tanks of gas. It would probably require – ugh – camping. But I could finally see a solar eclipse.

Eclipses are, as Iain M. Banks eloquently points out in his novel Transitions, one of the few novelties the Earth has to offer. An otherwise ordinary planet around an otherwise ordinary star, our Earth just happens to have a satellite and a sun that appear the same size in our sky.  There’s no reason for this alignment of circumstance; it’s one of the rare times astronomers can shrug and say, “We lucked out.”  Every so often our Moon crosses in front of our Sun and casts its shadow over the Earth. And on Sunday, May 20th, one of those shadows would cross the Western seaboard.  The track of totality went through Northern California, just a few hundred miles away from my home base in Santa Cruz. And that was why I was staring at a map and calculating mileage in my head.

Eclipses fascinate and frighten us. Throughout history they have been harbingers, portents, and grand scientific opportunities. Thales of Miletus used an eclipse to stop a war. Two astronomers in ancient China were hanged for failing to warn the emperor of one. A special immunity agreement was negotiated in the midst of the Revolutionary War to allow Harvard astronomers to observe one – the path of totality fell within British territory. Sir Arthur Eddington used observations of stars at totality to prove general relativity. Eclipses are a rare chance to look for objects that would normally be lost in the sun’s glare; as recently as fifty years ago, eclipses were the only chance to observe solar phenomena such as the elusive corona (the halo of intensely hot gas extending millions of miles out from the solar surface), or look for planets inward of Mercury or sungrazing comets.

A total solar eclipse happens on average somewhere on Earth every 18 months, with totality lasting only a few minutes.  Partial and annular (ring-shaped) eclipses happen slightly more often. But most eclipse tracks are out over the ocean, or at one of the poles, or in some distant land. Hence eclipse expeditions, when intrepid scientists would load up their instruments, charter a ship, and set off for year-long journeys in search of five minutes of shadow.  Eclipse expeditions were highly orchestrated scientific enterprises, with lengthly drills for preparation and dozens of observers and assistants on hand to make sketches, expose photographic plates, and time the length of totality.

The 1900 British eclipse expedition to Elche, Spain, with their instruments. (Image credit: Exploratorium)

These days such dedication is unnecessary. Solar observatory satellites and specialized telescopes let us observe most solar phenomena whenever we want. And modern methods of travel have made distant corners of the globe more accessible, letting astronomy buffs or the just plain curious hop on a jet to follow one.

But one was coming to California. No expensive cruises or trips to Australia required. Just a roadtrip. And I wasn’t the only astronomer in my department with the idea to chase the eclipse. A couple days out the group managed to coalesce around a rough plan: drive up Friday afternoon/evening to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and camp out of our cars for the night; head up the next day to Redwoods National Park and backpack into the woods; and finally stake out a spot Sunday to see the eclipse.

“August 3d. Only five more working days before the day that must bring us the Corona or bitter disappointment.

We were going out there for fun, but we were still astronomers. No pinhole cameras for us. One of the cars carried an 8-inch Dobsonian telescope with a neutral density filter that would cut down the sun’s light to a safe observing level, plus a special H-alpha telescope designed for observing the sun in only that wavelength. A number of people packed high-end digital cameras with special lenses and filters for photographing the eclipse.

I spent the days before the trip scrounging around for camping equipment. In the normal course of things, I don’t like camping. I’m aware of the supposed grandeur and beauty of the outdoors. I’m also aware – very aware – that nature is cold, dirty, and contains an unreasonable number of bears (an unreasonable number defined as anything greater than zero). I am a creature designed by evolution to stay indoors interacting with a computer screen. Nature on nature’s terms is not something I often encounter.

But eventually I managed to scare up a tent, sleeping bag, and hiking backpack. I packed a pile of granola bars and as much warm clothing as I could find, put gas in the tank of the car, and made excuses for the homework I knew wouldn’t get done by Monday. I was ready.

The 1901 Dutch eclipse expedition to Sumatra. (Image credit: Exploratorium)

“Ten voluntary marines were sent on shore to guard the camp from wild beasts and savages. The latter were found to be plenty. … A scientific game of base-ball was played on shore, and was witnessed by a number of savages, upon whom it made a very amusing impression.

Our departure came late Friday afternoon, chiefly because several of the expedition members had a softball game to play. My carload set out first and hit traffic around Oakland, stopped at In-N-Out for dinner. We got back on the road. The traffic thinned out. Dusk fell down on us and San Francisco fell behind us. We headed up into wine country, up past wine country. We stopped for coffee and gas in a town called Ukiah. No one could figure out how to pronounce it. I asked the gas station attendant while my passengers shopped for snacks.  “You-ky-ah,” he told me helpfully. I would not have guessed that.

We knew we were getting close when the trees got bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Working on the UCSC campus, I was somewhat used to redwoods. The parking garage is in a grove of six-story-tall trees. But these were another order of magnitude entirely. All I could see in the car headlights were massive trunks thicker than marble columns, disappearing far out of range of sight.

But it was too dark to appreciate anything other than the dwindling number of miles left to drive. It was nearly 1 AM before we pulled into the campsite, met up with the rest of the expedition, and pitched camp. Pitching camp, by the way, introduced me to what was going to be a running theme of the expedition: hiding our food from bears. I’m a native East Coaster, where bears are not really a problem. But California has enough of them to put them on their darn flag, and they can and will steal food from hikers. The solution to this was to put all our food in a designated “bear-box” that was essentially an outdoor cupboard. I wasn’t certain how this was going to stop a bear, but it was late enough at night that I didn’t give a damn. By 3 AM we were in bed. The next day, we were heading into the redwoods.

“Most of the crew were in high spirits, notwithstanding the consciousness that they were about to depart from their homes and those who were dear to them to undergo the hardships of the briny deep.

Some of the redwoods in Tall Trees Grove are bigger than the Statue of Liberty, and about the same height as the Saturn V moon rocket.

I barely slept. Every complaint I had ever had about camping came true. It was so cold that I couldn’t get any rest. When the others tried to get me out of the tent a handful of hours after we had made camp the night before, I greeted the dawn with an awful lot of profanity.

After several strips of bacon – it is known that all food eaten while camping is healthy – I felt like I could drive without intentionally plowing off the road into a ditch. The morning revealed the place we’d been driving through the night before: the Avenue of Giants, the same forest of redwoods where they shot the speeder bike scenes for Return of the Jedi. We made the appropriate sound effects. It was only right.

We got to Redwoods National Park around noon. While other, more awake members of the expedition negotiated backcountry permits and more bear-proof containers, I contemplated a stack of eclipse-viewing filters on sale at the desk. Despite all the gear we carried, it couldn’t hurt to have extras on hand. I bought two. I figured I’d find a use for the second one.

We drove into the backcountry, then parked and left the cars at the trailhead of Tall Trees Grove. After that it was a few miles into the wilderness before we pitched camp on a gravel bar, left our heavy gear (and food – bear-proofed) and went for a hike through the Tall Trees Grove itself.

I will tell you this: it is not misnamed.

It was early evening when we returned to camp. The Sun shone down out of a cloudless sky. It was perfect weather for an eclipse, just one day early.

The forecast called for clouds on Sunday near the coast. We were going to be driving again. After some discussion we settled on the town of Arcata as a good place to stop, get our bearings, and assess the weather. We needed to hit it around noon in order to have enough time to move in response to the clouds. A weekend of travel and patience might come down to a single dash.

Just after sunset we spotted Venus low in the western sky. It seemed so far from the Sun that we knew it would transit in a few weeks’ time. We built a fire on the gravel bar and went to bed before midnight. After hiding our food from bears.

By the riverside in Redwoods National Park.

“Our first concern at Elche was to find a suitable observing station . . . almost opposite [our] hotel was a Café Restaurant, with a large flat roof, and this we at once engaged, with a stipulation that no one else should be allowed thereon. This eventually proved to be a wise precaution, as several strangers on Eclipse day tried to gain access to it.

Morning meant oatmeal with too much water in it. In the normal course of things I will have nothing to do with oatmeal. There is no reason to eat oatmeal when Frosted Miniwheats are available. But they weren’t. So today I devoured it. We broke down camp and hiked it all back up the mountain, then drove it all out of the backcountry, then turned south.

In Arcata we devoured food that had been cooked on an actual stove and checked the aviation weather forecast on smartphones. Clouds at 25,000 feet shouldn’t be much of a problem. Thunderstorms weren’t on the way, so they would probably be high, icy cirrus – not ideal, but easy to see the eclipse through. What worried me was the prediction of broken clouds descending to 800 feet sometime in the afternoon. I checked the forecast for the nearest other airport – Weaverville, a hundred miles to the east. Weaverville was expecting clear skies all day. Therefore, if we moved eastwards, we should be able to avoid the clouds.

A member of the 1900 British eclipse expedition observes in style. (Image credit: Exploratorium)

We moved out, heading east up into the mountains along Route 299. That took us into national forest. There were precious few stops between here and Weaverville. We ended up on a “vista point,” a parking lot with a fantastic view of the sky, that came with its own soundtrack. A family had driven inland from the coast and brought their extensive DJ/speaker setup (like you do). They were currently sharing The Gift of Dubstep with the mountains. That was less than ideal. Fifteen minutes later they changed to sharing The Gift of House, and I was more content.

“Are we staying here?” I asked another member of the expedition.

“Of course we are,” he said. “It comes with its own rave party.”

“Sunday morning, the 22nd of December, heavy clouds were sweeping over the sun to the disappointment of our scientists, and the hours of the eclipse approaching rapidly.

Once we had set up our telescopes, I indulged in a silly hobby of mine: cell phone astronomy. I have a collection of all the outer planets photographed with my cell phone, and I wanted to add the eclipse. There’s something hilarious about setting up a telescope and then taking a photo of whatever you’re looking at with your cameraphone. It’s not easy to get lined up correctly – yes, I’m aware there are mounts for it – so I practiced before the main event. But setting up our telescopes attracted immediate attention. By 4 in the afternoon the vista point was starting to fill up, and a number of people wandered over to have a look. I switched over to outreach mode: explaining the telescopes and the eclipse, lifting kids up to have a look, realigning the scopes every few minutes as the Sun persisted in moving across the sky.

Pitching camp.

The predicted cirrus didn’t seem too bad. But there was a ridge of thicker clouds moving in to the coast, covering the western sky – exactly where the Sun would be at the big moment.

At 4:30 we had to break camp. We were going to be clouded out if we didn’t move. We took down the telescopes in record time and peeled out of the rave party. It was going to come down to the wire after all. The chase was on.

“The Astronomer had arranged the programme of each person with exactness long before. He still kept calmly at work, giving final directions, the multitude of details resolutely kept in mind with a philosophy as imperturbable as if skies were clear, and cloudless totality a celestial certainty.

The road to Weaverville was no interstate. It was sixty miles from here to there, where I had taken the precaution of locating a municipal airstrip to pitch our equipment. Partiality started at 5:30 PM. In theory we could make it in an hour, before the eclipse began. In practice, we were heading into the mountains, and the road twisted and swerved. Doing sixty was a dicey proposition. Speeder bikes, I thought. Wait, no. All of those blew up. We hurtled through the mountains. All our planning came down to a matter of minutes.

“5m before totality: every man at his post and ready.

In the end we didn’t make it to Weaverville.  We pulled off the road at a put-in site on the river, a spot for kayakers and rafters to get out on the water. We were in a valley, but the western sky was visible and the site was flat and open. We had beaten much of the cloud cover, but the high, icy cirrus smeared the sun out into a white streak. Partiality was starting even as we pulled over and unloaded the gear. The dark silhouette of the Moon was making a dent in the solar disk. It had begun.

“We all kept quiet and cool through the morning, and by 2.30 took up our positions on the roof, when at 2.58 first contact was announced by gun fire.

The last time I saw a partial eclipse was 1998, in fifth grade. We watched it in the school courtyard using my home telescope as a makeshift pinhole camera, projected onto a music stand. I saw a blank white disk of light with a crescent cut into it, and all I could think about were the misaligned circles made when trying to punch a hole in a sheet of paper.

The Sun during the eclipse from our observing camp. The Sun itself is too bright to see the Moon, but directly below it appears as a tiny crescent - an internal reflection inside my camera.

Now the Moon ate its way across the Sun, and we followed its every move through the telescopes, dashing from one to the other. It swallowed up sunspots and prominences, a chipped black shadow sliding across a glowing background. It was there. It was really happening. I was struck all at once by a sense of space, by the real understanding that the Moon was a sphere, that it was a real object and very far away and not an image painted on the sky. I wanted to go there. It was a real place that I could be and I wanted to go there. I wanted to see the Sun from the mountains and valleys in silhouette, cutting across the sunspots that were larger than the Earth.

Shutters clicked. Partiality was going to last an hour; we had time to mess around. There was a family there at the turn-off at the same time we were, just by chance; from their bathing suits I guessed they’d been out on the river. The little girl – not more than 10 – came over to see what I was doing. I showed her the telescopes. Then I took out my extra solar filter and handed it to her. “You can have that to keep,” I told her. She stared through it, awe-struck. One of my enterprising companions had cut and taped mylar filters over the lenses of his binoculars. Through them the faint haze of clouds became an icy blue sea around a crescent sun.

Totality began around 6:30 PM. The first sign of it was the appearance of bright red streamers on the other side of the Moon in the H-alpha telescope, prominences jutting out from an obscured solar limb. Then the Sun appeared. The entire Moon could be seen against the disk. Ninety-five percent of the Sun was obscured, but with the naked eye it was hard to tell that anything had changed. The Sun looked the same, a white steel blur against the icy clouds. But when I held up the filter at arms’ length it framed a black square, and at the center of it a ring of fire.

Striking a blow for cell phone astronomy! Shot down the eyepiece of an 8" Dob with a neutral density filter.

It was here. I was watching it. I had run around like an idiot finding camping supplies and endured cold nights on the ground and huffed up and down mountains, but now I was here and watching it and it all seemed worthwhile. I was in the middle of the redwoods with my friends and the Sun had become an empty circle in the sky, blazing down over the hills.

I wondered how many other eclipses those great trees would see. A total eclipse reoccurs at the same place on Earth roughly every 400 – 600 years, about the same age as most of the redwoods. Some of the largest trees we had stared up at were thousands of years old. They had been in the shadow of the Moon many times.

It was only then that I looked at the sign and realized the place we had stopped was named “Bagdad.” “That’s awesome,” I said. “We can tell everyone we went to Baghdad for an eclipse.”

We went back to the campsite in Humboldt, only to discover that some kids had stolen our s’more supplies out of the bear boxes. I knew those things wouldn’t be useful.

“After totality … we all returned to the hotel to tea, eagerly talking over together the wonders of the beautiful spectacle we had seen.

In 1780 the British allowed Americans past their lines to observe a total solar eclipse. In 2006 Libya did the same thing, opening its borders to scientists following the path of totality. The eclipse predicted by Thales of Miletus in 585 BC spooked the Lydians and Medes so strongly that the two groups – who had been at war for five years, and were evenly matched – laid down arms at once and were “the more zealous to make peace.” Something about an eclipse unites us, across the planet and throughout time.  Beyond the astronomer’s desire for data, there is the human desire to see something so extraordinary: the most constant of things, the Sun, briefly turned to shadow. It’s midnight at noon, the ultimate inversion of the natural order. Eclipse accounts often read like dry scientific treatises until the moment of totality, when even the most jaded observer breaks out the prose:

“It was a far more imposing sight without than with the telescope, and long has been my experience in the investigation of celestial phenomena, and calm and unimpassioned, at such times, as my temperament has become, the sublime majesty of the scene thrilled me with excitement and humble reverence.

The 2012 UC-Santa Cruz eclipse expedition.

Annularity, as photographed by one of our expedition members. (Image credit Shangfei Liu)

About Elizabeth Lovegrove

I'm a graduate student at the University of California - Santa Cruz, working with Stan Woosley on simulations of supernovae. In the past I've tinkered with gamma-ray astronomy, galaxy evolution, exoplanet detection, and instrument design. I like supercomputers, aircraft, observing runs, loud techno, and videogames. I am on an unending quest to develop the nerdiest joke in the world. You can find me on Twitter at @GravityAndLight.

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