Jimmy Westlake: Chasing the moon’s shadow | SteamboatToday.com

Jimmy Westlake: Chasing the moon’s shadow

Jimmy Westlake

Right place, right time, right equipment — and a little luck. The sun's "ring of fire" was almost perfectly centered behind this lone windmill west of Sundown, Texas, on May 20 for the first annular solar eclipse in nearly two decades.

Transit of Venus

Don't miss the only opportunity in your lifetime to see Venus pass in front of the sun. The transit begins at about 4:10 p.m. this afternoon and continues until sunset at about 8:34 p.m.

Do not look at the sun without a safe solar filter. Permanent eye damage could result. Use a safe solar filter, like a No. 14 welder's glass, or project a telescopic image of the sun onto a white card for an enlarged image. You can watch the event safely live online at http://sunearthda…

— To date, I've spent 31 minutes and 23 seconds in the shadow of the moon, watching and photographing eclipses of the sun. Because the moon's shadow rarely comes to me, I have to chase it around the world, wherever it might fall.

Eclipse chasing has become somewhat of a sport to many astronomy enthusiasts, photographers and world travelers. Besides the awesome wonder and beauty of experiencing eclipses, eclipse chasing provides a convenient excuse for traveling to exotic places.

My first total eclipse experience was March 7, 1970, while still a budding young astronomer in high school. I had to travel from my home near Atlanta to the town of Waycross, Ga., smack dab in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp. We were actually clouded out for that event, but it did get dark and the alligators did get restless. NBC news anchor John Chancelor interviewed me at my telescope before the eclipse.

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For the July 10, 1972, total eclipse, two college companions and I drove to Prince Edward Island, Canada, and set up our telescopes in the path of the moon's shadow. This time, the skies were clear and I got my first view (and photos) of the sun's pearly atmosphere, the solar corona. It was then when I really caught eclipse fever.

The next opportunity to stand in the moon's shadow came the very next summer for the longest eclipse of the 20th century — 7 minutes and 4 seconds of precious totality on June 30, 1973. When the date and time arrived, my eclipse-chasing pals and I found ourselves on the deck of the MS Massalia, cruising southward off the coast of Mauritania, Africa. As I peered through my camera viewfinder attached to my telescope, the gentle rocking of the ship caused the eclipsed sun to drift in and out across my field of view. Careful timing allowed me to snap some images while the sun was centered in my camera, but they came out a little blurry. That was the last time I viewed an eclipse from the deck of a ship.

Banditos and sons

In 1977, a total eclipse was visible from portions of South America on Oct. 12. Married then, I left my wife at home with our firstborn son and flew down to Bogota, Columbia, with an eclipse tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope magazine. We drove several hundred miles over the Andes and onto the plains near a tiny town named Aguazul. At the moment of totality, a cloud obscured the sun, but it did get dark and we could see stars and planets during the brief moments of totality. Someday, remind to tell you about the bus trip back to Bogota when the luggage compartment on the bus popped open and dumped my camera bag and briefcase carrying all of my photos, cameras, travelers checks and passport onto the road. They were picked up by some Columbian banditos, with whom I wheeled and dealed in a dark saloon to get my belongings back. Let's just say it had something to do with a bottle of aguardiente and a bar maid named Bonita.

The last total eclipse of the sun visible from the continental U.S. was Feb. 26, 1979. I again left Linda at home, where she was very pregnant with our second son. I flew to Manitoba, Canada, and viewed the eclipse from the icy surface of a frozen lake under crystal clear, cold Canadian skies. Beautiful!

In 1984, an annular, or ring, eclipse swept across the southern states. Although not as spectacular as a total eclipse, this "ring of fire"event was amazing to watch, and I didn't have to travel more than 50 miles to be in the path of the moon's shadow.

My most recent total solar eclipse was July 11, 1991, from the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula near the town of Cabo San Lucas. That time, my two young sons accompanied me for their first total eclipse experience. Jason, 15 at the time, ran the video camera while 12-year-old Michael shot still images through a small telescope. We still talk and laugh nostalgically about that amazing experience together.

A new adventure

That's it. My last solar eclipse experience was 21 years ago — that was until May 20 of this year. And this was Linda's year — her first eclipse with me. We had planned to go through Lubbock, Texas, to view the eclipse on our way down to Georgia for the birth of our granddaughter. The timing was perfect, but Ava Rose had different plans. She arrived earlier than expected, on May 9, so after driving out to Georgia to welcome her, Linda and I drove back out to west Texas for the annular eclipse.

Arriving the night before eclipse day, we cruised up and down the little farm and market roads west of Lubbock looking for a windmill to have in our images with the eclipsed sun. But all we could find were hundreds of oil and gas jack pumps heaving up and down across the prairie. We spotted a picturesque jack pump in the distance surrounded by a few nice trees and decided to go with that view for the eclipse the next day.

But when eclipse day dawned, I was not satisfied to have a jack pump in my images. I wanted a windmill. So off we went in search of a rickety windmill here in oil and gas country. Driving toward the Texas/New Mexico state line, about 20 miles west of the little town of Sundown, Texas, we spotted a windmill way off in the distance. How can we get to it, and how can we get the right angle on it so that the eclipsed sun sets behind it?

Veering off the rutted dirt road, I kicked the Tahoe into four-wheel drive and drove across the prairie, dodging jack pumps, mesquite trees and cacti. Several times I stopped, got out of the car with compass in hand and shot a line toward the sunset point. No good. We kept moving.

Eventually, I found the spot, the right distance and angle from the lone windmill to make the perfect eclipse shot at sunset. I set up my array of filtered telescopes and cameras just in time to start snapping images as the eclipse began at 7:36 p.m. Although the sky had been full of low-hanging clouds all morning and afternoon, it had broken up into partly cloudy skies by evening. As the moon took ever-larger bites out of the sun, the sky cleared, except for one strip of clouds low on the western horizon.

I was shooting pictures through a special solar telescope while Linda was shooting pictures thorough a 300 mm telephoto lens mounted on a tripod. When the climax of the eclipse was nearly upon us, it became clear to me that we had two problems to overcome. First, there was a stubborn strip of clouds in the way that threatened to block the sun just as the ring of fire appeared. Second, my estimate of the sunset point was a little off and the sun was not going to set behind the windmill where I wanted it.

There was nothing I could do about the cloud, but I picked up the camera on the tripod and started running through the cacti and brambles, all the while glancing back to see if the angle on the sun and windmill were correct. I still had to guess exactly where the sun would be when it dropped to the level of the windmill. I picked my spot, set up the tripod and camera, and Linda took over, snapping pictures just as the ring of fire began. I ran back to where my huge, bulky telescope was destined to stay for the duration of the eclipse beside the Tahoe.

When Linda shouted across the prairie that her memory card was maxed out in her camera, I ran back to her with my Nikon in hand and put it on the 300 mm lens to finish out the sequence. The ring of fire was over, but now the partially eclipsed sun's fiery horns were nearing the horizon, perfectly placed beside the lone windmill. With coyotes howling around us, Linda and I watched the last fleck of eclipsed sun sink below the horizon. The Texas wind spun the windmill blades against the red sky. Our eclipse experience was over.

Or was it? Someday, when I have more time, I'll have to tell you about trying to find our way back to a road and civilization in the dark west Texas night across the mesquite and cactus-covered prairie with a near hysterical wife in the passenger seat.

My next date with the moon's shadow? Aug. 21, 2017, somewhere up in Wyoming. Maybe Ava Rose can join us for that one.

Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.

Transit of Venus

Don’t miss the only opportunity in your lifetime to see Venus pass in front of the sun. The transit begins at about 4:10 p.m. this afternoon and continues until sunset at about 8:34 p.m.

Do not look at the sun without a safe solar filter. Permanent eye damage could result. Use a safe solar filter, like a No. 14 welder’s glass, or project a telescopic image of the sun onto a white card for an enlarged image. You can watch the event safely live online at http://sunearthda…

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