Over the past 30 years of capturing stories for “Oregon Field Guide,” we’re used to packing camera gear into remote locations. But on this expedition our goal was different than we’ve ever done before: to capture the solar eclipse — a fleeting moment when the moon crosses the sun, turning day to night for two minutes.
We knew it would hit the Oregon coast first, whisking over the entire state of Oregon in a mere nine minutes. But we didn’t know exactly what to expect. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the entire United States was 1918.
Groups planning for totality’s impact on the state, like Travel Oregon, predicted gridlock, long lines at gas stations and crowds. Hotel rooms were sold out. Grocery stores stocked up on bottled water and “totality glasses,” that looked, appropriately enough, like 3D movie glasses from the 1950s, the kind folks wore to watch sci-fi flicks at drive-ins, under the stars.
We hoped to get away from the crowds and capture this natural event in a natural location. Our plan: Head into the high-elevation backcountry of Central Oregon.
Our original idea was to climb to the summit of Mount Jefferson, the highest point in the path of totality. But massive wildfires flared up just days earlier, blocking access.
As the fire on Mount Jefferson burned to the north, another wildfire burned to the south, near the Three Sisters. This left the craggy peak of Three Fingered Jack.
We hiked in on a hot, dusty August afternoon. The air smelled like campfire.
Leading the expedition was John Waller, a seasoned outdoor photographer and filmmaker. Joining the expedition was Jared Smith, a member of Mountain Search and Rescue, an experienced mountaineer. He was there to help the camera team get to the best possible vantage point.
Waller wanted to get a shot of Smith standing atop one of the rocky outcroppings, silhouetted at the moment of totality. After a few days of scouting, he picked his location.
The team woke at dawn and got into position. Although we thought we’d selected a remote location to experience totality, other folks had the same idea. Soon a dozen or so people began climbing up the loose volcanic rock.
Anticipation built. The morning started, however, like any other. The sun slowly climbed higher, and the air got hotter.
Even when the eclipse began, nothing much seemed to shift. Slowly a small notch appeared in the sun (when looking through the glasses). The notch grew and grew, until the sun looked like it had a bite taken out of it.
“It’s starting!” someone shouted. Suddenly, the temperature dropped. What was once a hot summer day was now chilly. Winds picked up. The sky dimmed like dusk and a couple stars began to appear above, while the horizon glowed a fiery orange. It was like seeing sunrise and sunset at the same time. All around, 360 degrees.
Everyone looked around excited and unsure, glancing from the stars above, to the horizon and at each other.
Then, it happened: the moon completely blocked out the sun. Glasses off. We could see the wispy flares of the sun’s corona ringing the moon’s silhouette.
The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun. But it is 400 times closer to us. This exact ratio is the only reason the moon is able to block the sun in its entirely, according to University of Oregon particle physicist Jim Brau. There is an elegant precision about this, a perfection of timing as sun, moon and Earth slide into alignment.
The perfectly round and pitch blackness where the sun used to be looked, as some ancient cultures believed, like a hole in the sky, or a portal into another dimension. Day had not just become night. It had become an unearthly twilight.
The small handful of onlookers erupted in cheers. One couple hugged and kissed. Some muttered expletives in disbelief. Others gasped. And some simply gaped, mouths open in awe.
One-hundred twenty seconds later, it was done.
The moon rolled away, and the sun burst out. It bleached the sky back to day. No more stars. No more hazy orange glow on the horizon. It was hot again.
In the fleeting moment, Waller snapped his photos, while Smith stood on the promontory.
“Totally spiritual,” Smith stammered after the sun returned. “I just didn’t know where to look or how to feel in the moment and I wanted that back.”
It had been months of anticipation, and now it was over.
As the sun resumed climbing higher toward noon, everyone was left in a general feeling of euphoria, and a collective desire to have the experience last just a little longer.
There was nothing left to do but pack up cameras and pick a path down through shale.
Before returning to civilization and daily lives of routine, we invited our new-found totality friends for a leap into a glacial lake, as if this small gesture was at least something we could do to immerse ourselves again.