Have you ever picked a place out on a map and just gone to it? Guest poster Jamie Walter tells us about it.
That’s how my pilgrimage to photograph the Great American Eclipse started. After months of brainstorming different ways to capture the August 2017 solar eclipse, the one thing fellow adventure photographer Chris Shane and I never planned was exactly where we would shoot from.
With just 72 hours left before the moon’s shadow was to race across the United States, we were sitting in Chris’ apartment in Boston, 750 miles away from the closest point of totality, scrolling around Google Maps. Our biggest fear in choosing a location had become cloud coverage; we certainly didn’t want to drive thousands of miles to a place where clouds could obstruct the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and it wasn’t something we could have planned for until the last minute anyways. Our random clicks eventually landed on an area of public land in Southern Illinois. Neither of us had ever heard of Shawnee National Forest before, but if offered scenic views, claimed to have plenty of camping still available, and most importantly, had fairly low cloud cover predicted for eclipse day. We were a bit apprehensive that this area was too good to be true, but the clock was ticking and 1200+ miles still separated us between Boston and Illinois.
Our growing excitement for the eclipse fueled us through the 18 hour road trip; time flew by as we made our way through New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and finally into Karbers Ridge, Illinois, at 3am on Sunday. After a few hours of restless sleep in our car, we were up and at it again to begin location scouting. It was quickly apparent that we were not the only ones who had found this gem of a location; vistas like the “Garden of the Gods” were rapidly filling up with cars and spectators, and with several tripods and cameras to set up, we continued a search for a more private space. We eventually stumbled upon a makeshift campground that had been established to handle the overwhelming crowds. It was nothing to write home about – just a farmer’s field that had been roughly mowed with a few porta-potties scattered around – but it would serve as a perfect base camp and shooting location.
Before we knew it, it was the morning of Monday, August 21st. A palpable excitement could be felt in the muggy southern air; as the temperature began to rise, so did the energy from the surrounding campsites, full of visitors that had traveled from far and wide to experience the eclipse alongside us. I spent the morning going over the notes I had been taking the last few months – when the eclipse would start, where it would be in the sky, how long we would be in totality for, and what exposures I would want to shoot each phase at. As we set up our tripods and made our final arrangements, we began to notice clouds forming around us. The pure excitement in me began to turn into nerves. Would the cloud cover increase or dissipate? Had we made the wrong decision coming here? What if we didn’t get to see this incredible moment that we put so much time and effort into planning?
Regardless of how I was starting to feel, at 11:53am local time, it finally began.
To most people, the first hour or so of the eclipse is fairly uneventful – the moon slowly begins to creep in front of the sun, without changing much of what’s going on around you. However, watching this happen through our cameras was remarkable; the detail we could see on the sun’s surface, along with the backlit contours of the moon, were enhanced through the telephoto lenses we had rented from LensProToGo. Occasionally, clouds would drift in front of the sun, turning our “wows” into “boos.” But as the event progressed and the light began to fade around us, so did the clouds. With just minutes to go before totality, a wave of relief washed away all the stress that had been building in my body. This was actually going to happen.
It’s hard to believe that an event that lasts just two minutes and forty seconds can be life changing. But when you are swallowed by darkness in the middle of the day, looking up at a black hole in the sky, it’s hard not to be moved in some profound, indescribable way. As totality began, it felt as if the entire campground let out a collective gasp before cheering and celebrating what was happening – the sky was so dark overhead that you could see stars scattered about, a sunset-like glow lit up the horizon in every direction, and in the center of it all was this remarkable halo surrounding the moon. I remember taking a moment to pause, step away from my camera, and just enjoy the spectacle for myself. When light began to return as the moon continued on from its place in front of the sun, we exchanged high fives, hugs, and tried to explain just how incredible those 160 seconds had been.
Looking back at our trip, it wasn’t just the eclipse that made our adventure worthwhile. The journey itself was nearly as memorable – the 40 hours spent in a car (23 hours of which was a non-stop, overnight push on the way home), the rock climbing mecca we stumbled upon in the National Forest, the quirky locals and fellow eclipse chasers we met along the way, and finding ourselves in a part of the country we had never once considered visiting. Combined together, my eclipse chasing experience was one I will never forget, and I’m already looking forward to where the next solar spectacle will bring me.