HAA Tales From Under The Starry Sky – Part 6

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It’s been a while since we had a story from a member, and I was particularly thrilled when this tale arrived in my inbox.  It’s a great story and so worth reading.  

Sue MacLachlan has been a great asset to the club, working behind the scenes in recent years to oversee some club events like the Christmas social (big success!).  Recently you have come to know her as the mastermind behind our Zoom meetings.  Next time you’re online at one of our meetings be sure to say hi to her.

Now here’s her story… 

“My First Total Solar Eclipse!

Like many members of the HAA I have been fascinated by the night sky since I was a child. There are a few star gazing events that stand out for me: the dark velvet black skies in Banff National Park, my first guided star tour and finding that first object in our telescope. But there is one that memory that stands out above all the rest, the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017.

As beginner amateur astronomers my husband Doug and I knew about solar eclipses but we really weren’t that interested in them until we attended a lecture at Starfest one summer. The presenter opened up our eyes to the beauty and wonder of a total solar eclipse. So, we thought, maybe, we would go on a camping trip to the U.S. and take in the solar eclipse at the same time. Needless to say, we were quite naive at the time when it came to solar eclipses.

A little more than two years before the 2017 eclipse, the Bluewater Astronomical Society, a club from Owen Sound, where we are also members, asked if people were interested in travelling to Nebraska to see the solar eclipse. We figured that since we didn’t know much about solar eclipses it would be a good idea to join a group so we signed up.

The summer of 2017 arrived. Doug and I had planned a 5 week circle tour through the U.S. ending at the Grand Island KOA in Nebraska. There we would join up with our friends from the Bluewater club. All was going well, until the night we hit New Mexico. I suffered an eye injury which forced us to come back to Canada in the middle of the trip. My eye doctor prescribed a course of treatment and I asked with trepidation if I might be OK to go to Nebraska to see the eclipse. I was told “you could sit on the couch at  ome and follow the treatment or you could sit in the front seat of the car and follow the treatment, take your pick.” So, we packed up the car, again, and headed out for the Grand Island KOA in Nebraska.

We arrived 3 days before the solar eclipse. It was a great campground with pretty good amenities. You could order pizza to be delivered to your campsite and pick up a couple of beers to go with it right from the camp store!

As the weekend unfolded, the camp filled to the brim with amateur astronomers from all over the U.S. and Canada. The air was full of excitement as everyone prepared for the event.

The day before the eclipse was spent discussing the most recent weather reports. When I say most recent I mean people were checking every half hour (or less) to see if there were any changes. All day the forecast called for light cloud. There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky for days and now the forecast for eclipse day called for light cloud. Some people in the campground decided to leave that day and travel further west in hopes of clearer skies. Our group made the decision to stay and no matter what happened we would have had a good time anyway.

On the day of the eclipse I was up early and, yes, there were the light clouds. The morning was hot and the light clouds persisted. Everyone was busy setting up and checking their equipment over and over again. The air throughout the whole campground crackled with the nervous energy of expectation. Near the time of first contact, one of our friends started a countdown and a hush fell over our group. All were focussed on the sun and were waiting in anticipation. Then suddenly you heard shouts of “I see it!’ or “I got it!” as first contact was made.

As the time ticked towards totality we kept a careful eye on the equipment and the clouds in the sky. There was some light cloud but it didn’t really hinder the view at all. When the moon had sufficiently covered the sun to create a crescent, people used colanders and signs made with small punched holes to reveal hundreds of small images of the crescent sun. We took lots pictures of the crescents. While the crescents were amazing, the best was yet to come.

As totality neared a hush fell over the whole park. Once again the countdown was called out and you could feel the air rippling with excitement. Then a shout “I see the Diamond ring!” Another person shouted, “Baileys Beads!” Then the call came, “Filters off!” Totality had arrived!

The birds stopped singing. The sky darkened. Sunset appeared on the horizon everywhere, 360 degrees around us and the air which had been so hot started to cool. Then someone saw a star and the rush was on to identify it.

I stood there transfixed. I looked through our solar telescope and couldn’t see anything because I hadn’t taken the filter off, and at the time didn’t think to take the filter off, so I just stared up at the sun and the moon. Doug handed me the binoculars a couple of times and told me to look but I just handed them back to him without looking through them. I know this happened more than once because we have it on video. I was dumbstruck and awestruck. Here was a perfect demonstration of the precision and wonder of the universe.

And then it was over. The diamond ring was magnificent as the moon started to move away from the sun. Someone outside of the campground had fireworks and set them off and a great cheer went up throughout the camp and champagne was popped. The clouds had parted just enough at the right time so the beauty and wonder of a total solar eclipse was there for us to see.

After the last bit of the moon left the edge of the sun all of the Canadians in the camp gathered to have their picture taken. As we waited for the photographer, a friend from the North York Astronomical Association asked me what I thought of the eclipse. I couldn’t answer him as I had no words to describe what I had witnessed. Then I started to cry. He gave me a hug and said solar eclipses had that effect on him as well.

It was an experience I won’t soon forget. Now, we are thinking about next one in 2024!”

Sue MacLachlan


I look forward to 2024 as well, all the more so after reading about the excitement and thrill of seeing a total eclipse the way Sue and Doug did.  Thanks so much Sue, for sharing that wonderful experience! 

 If you would like to share an observing experience just email me and I will be happy to feature you in a future email.

Take care and stay safe.