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Reports from Under the Shadow

Updated: Jun 10

A Compilation from the April 8, 2024 Total Solar Eclipse


The last sweep of the moon’s shadow across any part of the continental United States until 2044 has taken place, and what an event it was. Astronomy enthusiasts from throughout West Michigan and far beyond now have lingering memories from two dramatic and accessible solar eclipses in a span of less than seven years.


April 8th Eclipse Montage, photos by Andrew Harwood


A GOES Satellite video of the April 8th eclipse path from Mexico to Canada shows large sections with clear or nearly clear skies just prior to eclipse time, exceptionally good fortune during the meteorologically volatile month of April. In Michigan, where a deep partial eclipse was experienced, just about everyone in the lower peninsula who looked up with proper eye protection saw it unfold. Friends in the Detroit area, just outside the path of totality, report that it got mighty spooky about 3:00pm, when close to 99 percent of the sun was occulted by the moon.


Across the Detroit River, the eclipse became total in southern Ontario, where mostly clear weather prevailed. There, GRAAA icon Gary M. Ross joined up with Canadian friends in a frenzied but successful quest for optimum viewing. To summarize a G.M. Ross submission would be an injustice, so his account is published verbatim in an addendum at the end of this article (good luck!).


It was mostly clear for awestruck viewers in southern Illinois, central Indiana, and northern Ohio. Only those in southern Texas (where statistical probabilities for clear skies were most favorable) and in most of New York State had really poor views due to clouds. That unfortunately included thousands of viewers packed into the popular destinations of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, though a friend located there reported a brief view of totality through a hole in the overcast. Another said the sky cleared 15 minutes later. Such is the frustration that those who have been eclipse chasers for decades have come to accept.


I have personally been very fortunate. Of eight attempts over more than 60 years, only one (in 1972) was clouded out, though there have been several close calls. The April 8th spectacular, viewed from Arkansas with a group of about 40 GRAAA friends and family, could not have turned out better. More about that after we check out some of the reports from colleagues in other locations...


Chaffee Planetarium Manager Jack Daleske took one for the team and concentrated on inviting the community to join him and the few members of his staff not seeking totality on the Blue Bridge downtown. Despite statistics showing only a 40 percent chance for successful viewing from West Michigan on April 8th, cloudless skies and comfortable temperatures prevailed for the mid-afternoon event.


Eclipse viewing from the Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, photo by Dale Robertson
Eclipse viewing from the Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, photo by Dale Robertson

Several hundred gathered, quickly depleting the Museum Shop’s remaining inventory of safe viewing glasses. Crowds concentrated around several telescopes set up for safe direct viewing of the eclipsed sun, or an enlarged image projected onto a screen. Thanks are in order to GRAAA members Mike Murphy, Richard Panek, and Jerry Klebba, who answered the desperate plea to help out while so many of us were off shadow chasing.


GRAAA Treasurer Jim Foerch, board members Mark Daneman and Jack McCarthy, and others who took a chance on successful viewing from northern states lucked out nicely despite less than favorable climate statistics. Despite scattered high clouds, the beauty of the corona shone through for most.


A close personal friend who has experienced two solar eclipses with me (including his first in 1963 at age 13, and my first at 22), reported success near Fort Wayne. Andrew Fraser was initially going to be part of the Arkansas group, but he diverted to Indiana when pre-eclipse forecasts for the Little Rock area turned bleak.


Jack McCarthy and his small party of friends and family had booked rooms to observe totality from the Dallas Texas vicinity, joining long ago GRAAA member and fellow shadow chaser Bob DeYoung, who now lives in the Dallas area. Increasingly ominous forecasts about five days out prompted Jack to divert to a location near Indianapolis, where he reports only high clouds over a picturesque park at eclipse time. He captured a dramatic photo of the most elusive phenomenon associated with solar eclipses, caused by residual sunlight peeking through rugged terrain along the moon’s edge.


Baily’s Beads, photo by Jack McCarthy

Solar limb and inner corona, photo by Sam Sherman

A success report also came in from GRAAA student member Sam Sherman, who with his family observed from Knightstown, Illinois. Good friend Mikey Kosak saw totality with his family from a location right on Lake Erie not far from Cleveland. The center line was well out into the lake, but apparently most of the hordes that crowded into locations all along its southern shore did see the corona, though conditions became more marginal at Erie’s eastern end.


GRAAA President Chris Miller had months ago reserved camping space near El Capitan Viewpoint in southern Texas, depending on favorable climate statistics to maximize chances for viewing success. Actual forecasts several days out were not reassuring, and Chris was faced with a dilemma: stay and take his chances or flee north to join the main GRAAA contingent in Arkansas. His decision resulted in a thirteen hour drive through the night across rugged terrain to reach Perryville, Arkansas ahead of the moon’s shadow. He just made it.


Chris Miller’s route from Texas to Arkansas

Starting almost a year ago, two of the Grand Rapids area’s most experienced meteorologists, George Lessens and Bill Steffen, began conferring with other GRAAA leaders and myself to assess where to go for the best chance of success. We picked Arkansas, with its favorable spring weather trends, easy access to the path of totality, and main roads both south to Texas or back northeast into Illinois in the event we had to make a last minute run to escape clouds.


A block of 20 rooms for the expected contingent was booked in July, at what we considered a reasonable rate for a Comfort Inn facility in North Little Rock. Little did we know that this innocuous step would soon turn into a fiasco as we were forced to wage a battle to retain these rates once the hospitality community came to realize the commercial potential of what was happening overhead on April 8th!


Despite some troubling forecasts in the days preceding the eclipse, prompting thoughts of redirecting the group to Indiana and several defections from the ranks based on those forecasts, there was enough consistency and optimism among outlooks by April 4th to launch the expedition as planned.


An armada of vehicles headed south, first to our appointed lodge in North Little Rock, and then on eclipse morning to a little village nestled in the picturesque foothills of the Ozark Mountains. The shadow of the moon would pass directly over Perryville at midday, and the good townspeople had put out the welcome mat.


I cannot say enough about the true southern hospitality provided by Perryville Mayor John Roland and his colleagues, who offered use of the high school football field, provided tents and lawn chairs, and then settled in with a bunch of astro-nerds from up north to watch a rare celestial event that most in the area had never witnessed before.


Mayor Roland and Perryville Residents, photo by Dave DeBruyn

Setting up prior to first contact, photo by Michael Falk

Group members kept a wary eye to the sky while setting up telescopes and other gear. Pesky high clouds persisted even as the passing moon was about to take its first nibble out of the solar disk at midday. That bite came right on schedule, and much to our delight, as the partial eclipse progressed, the overhead clouds faded away.


About an hour into the event, as the solar disk narrowed to a thin crescent, an eerie glow surrounded us. The breeze settled and midday warmth turned to a slight chill. The sounds of nature quieted, as they do with the approach of night.


The moon’s shadow was about to sweep over us, signaled by an ominous darkness toward the southwest. The sky took on a deep velvet glow as the planet Venus appeared on one side of the disappearing sun, and Jupiter on the other. Bright stars emerged.


Totality comes to Perryville; note Jupiter at upper left corner and Venus lower right of the sun, photo by Stacy Falk

Where the sun once shone, there remained a black disk surrounded by an intricately structured halo of peal white light, the solar corona. This is the superheated outer atmosphere of the sun, where intense magnetic fields twist flowing gases into delicate streaks and arches.


Most participants who had viewed previous total eclipses agreed that the coronal structure during this eclipse was among the best they had seen. There were remarks from some that the corona seemed brighter than in 2017. Images captured by skilled eclipse photographers, such as Andrew Harwood, Joe McBride, and others confirm that impression. The 2024 corona reminded me of an intricately detailed celestial flower petal.



Composite of outer corona, photo by Andrew Harwood
Solar Limb with Prominences, photo by Andrew Harwood

As I gazed through binoculars at the spectacle, dazzling crimson eruptions along the edge of the blackened disk revealed themselves in stunning detail. Several of these solar prominences could be well seen with naked eye alone.  Colleagues captured stunning photos of these phenomena.


Inner corona, photo by Chris Miller

Chromosphere and Prominences, photo by Andrew Harwood

Turning away from the eyepiece for a moment, I took in the deep twilight that had enveloped the athletic field. The stands and service buildings were silhouetted against a 360 degree twilight enhanced by the multicolored glow of sunlight reflected off distant clouds outside the path of totality. As a group, we were entranced by the weird glow enveloping us.


Young Perryville observers in the shadow of the moon, photo by Tom Strikwerda

Through binoculars, I perceived a brightening on one side of the solar disk. The climax of a dramatic four minutes of totality was coming soon. “Watch for the diamond ring!” I shouted to all of those gathered around.


Diamond Ring, photo by Andrew Harwood

Diamond Ring, photo by Randy Mergener

That blaze of glory lasted for at most two seconds, but that brief burst of the emerging solar disk is what everyone remembers best and raves about most. As the corona faded, and the landscape began to brighten, reactions from those gathered to watch what many feel is “ Nature’s greatest spectacle” included breathless exclamations, applause, shouts of joy, and even tears.


A wonderfully gleeful celebration followed that evening at pizza place in Little Rock,  where stories and conviviality prevailed amidst the relief (especially the meteorologists, who were now in a playful mood) that we had actually pulled it off after months of planning. The rain and gloom that greeted groggy risers the next morning reminded us of how lucky we had been. It could not dampen our spirits as most departed for a long but contented ride back to Michigan.


Relieved meteorology team George Lessens and Bill Steffen, photo by Dave DeBruyn

The group of 40 shadow chasers in Perryville, photo by Dave Staskiewicz

On the minds of eclipse chasers now, both those new to the quest and old veterans like this writer: What options await for a replay, especially for those without the option to wait two decades for another touchdown of the moon’s shadow on US soil?


The next total eclipse is viewable along a narrow band sweeping southward across the Atlantic Ocean from Iceland to Spain in 2026, but totality will be short. My attention is drawn to a much longer period – over six minutes – coming to a band across the Mediterranean Sea and adjoining regions, including Egypt, in 2027.


Three of my seven total eclipses have been viewed from shipboard, and I can heartily endorse the concept. August seems like a superb month to experience a Mediterranean cruise. It is time to start saving up.

 

 And now, the promised unedited addendum from self proclaimed “World’s Greatest Observer” as he alone can tell it.


Hell-Bent to the Hole in the Heavens

By  G.M. Ross


Raymond A. Rea, MS JD, Suzie Scott, JD, and my erudite self all had Midwestern (US) experience, and for weeks made designs there for the eclipse. Why were we packing in Hamilton, Ontario on the morning of the 7th aiming for Quebec? ("Ja Me Soviens") In days before, the American leg of the path had softened up -- and the very convenient Niagara region was: a.) expecting about a million people on both sides; b.) looking at clouds, with west NY contemplating rain.


Being a Sunday helped. Excellent weather helped. Raimondo was in the speed lane nearly the entire fetch up the Four-Aught-One. Only once did I have the temerity to ask how fast, a faux pas, and he said 130. The word to the wise for the Rea Expedition: "Go [east] old man. Grow up with the country." I must have aged a year as we skirted Montreal, to rest our weary heads in Drummondville.


I observed Sun's rise the next morning. Parfait. The free (?) breakfast nook was crowded with Toronto Centre migrants. We were headed for Sherbrooke, but the "intel" was the city viewed the wonder sans enthusiasm. The Fab Three cared nothing for their anal retention. Raimondo initially favoured the Walmart car park, given our happy memories from 2017 in Kentucky. Suzie's view prevailed: Bishop University, where we were disallowed from the "VIP" car park, consequently consigned to the play field beyond the utility garage.


All forgiven. Even in the company of groundlings from Indiana and Manitoba, can one really describe...? Some cirrus arrived just before 4th contact.

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