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Idaho: Solar eclipse 2017

[flickr: Idaho solar eclipse]

I figure I had better write about this before I forget even more about the trip! I was mildly interested in the solar eclipse this year, had finally heard enough people talk about how awe inspiring a totality is and decided to go check it out. I vaguely remember seeing a partial eclipse sometime, but I can’t remember if it was in Oklahoma or Texas, nor when it happened. For best viewing Oregon was the obvious choice, although the more I heard it was going to be insanely crowded up there. As an interesting coincidence, Facebook’s Prineville datacenter was right in the path of totality.

I had heard of some astronomy folks headed up to Idaho which stood a better chance of having clear weather, so that’s where I went. I knew hotels and campsites would be full, so I scoured maps for BLM or other public land to camp on. I vaguely wondered if I could stealth camp somewhere in Craters of the Moon park. It turns out BLM was well prepared for this and gathered a lot of information about campsites and areas under the eclipse’s path and also generated some nice maps.

Like most of my trips I did utterly no planning and at the last minute scrambled to find some eyewear. Amazon was all sold out (or things were recalled) of eclipse glasses. NASA recommended at least a #12 welding glass, and I only had a #10 in my helmet. I first went to Airgas to see what they had, thinking it would be easy to find something like #14, wrong. The best they had was #12, which I should’ve bought at the time. I tried my luck at Home Depot, Lowe’s, OSH, they were all sold out. I went back to Airgas before I left and discovered they were closed on the weekend. So, I departed without any specialized safety glasses, only my welding lens.

I had planned to go into central Idaho, and if the weather proved to be poor, divert over to Wyoming. I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as traffic delays in remote areas so I took an extra 20 liters of gasoline. The drive up was uneventful, I didn’t really encounter any heavy traffic. I spent the night at a rest stop somewhere along I-80 in Nevada. Driving through Twin Falls, the Perrine Bridge over Snake River caught my attention. It was a huge bridge over a gaping canyon with the river along the bottom. I stopped to take photos and two things caught my attention. First, the bridge handrail quivered and rattled like crazy whenever trucks went over it. Second, people used the structure beneath the roadway for BASE jumping. I saw 3-4 people jump, land next to the river, then start the long hike up to the park next to the road.

BASE jumper at Twin FallsBASE jumper in Twin FallsThe state had several travel advisories, mainly around Boise. There was a lane of I-84 closed which made traffic heavy, hard to say if it was eclipse related or not. Had I been smart I should’ve checked my maps sooner. I had driven almost all the way east to Idaho Falls, thinking that was the way to the mountains. Turns out I could’ve driven directly north from Twin Falls and saved myself a couple hundred miles. Not all was lost because I discovered EBR-I, the first nuclear power plant. It wasn’t too far from Arco, so I mentally noted to check it out tomorrow. I was surprised how close I was to Jackson, Wyoming, it was just over the border from Idaho Falls. I had last been there in 2010 when I made the long haul up from Austin. It was tempting to go visit again, but not this trip.

In McKay I stopped at a ranger station to check out the local info. A ranger came out to greet me, gave me a stack of maps and recommended a couple of places I could do dispersed camping. She recommended Borah Peak and a few areas in Sawtooth National Forest which would be directly in the path of the totality. I later found out Borah Peak is the highest mountain in Idaho, good to know if I ever want to come back to highpoint. All along the highway were homemade signs in peoples’ yards offering camping and RV parking spots, food, and water.

At the Borah Peak trailhead cars were already lining up along the side of the road. I parked next to a little creek and broke out the foldy chair. I really wish I had brought a tent with me, I was getting swarmed by these friggin little black flies that DEET did nothing for. More and more people were arriving by the minute. It was slightly hazy due to some wildfires but the forecast said it would remain clear tomorrow. I did some night photography and got some decent photos of the Milky Way.

Eclipse day

Monday was the big day. The partial eclipse started around 10:30 AM and would be total around 11:30 AM. Shortly after 10:30, it started feeling weird outside and I can’t put my finger on why. It felt like things had a slight red tinge to them. I didn’t even need glasses to look at the sun to tell it had started.

On the way back from the porta-potties I stopped by to check out a photographer’s setup where he had a few photo and video cameras set up taking time lapses. I mentioned I didn’t have glasses so he lent me a pair of really nice solar glasses and I finally got to see the partial eclipse happening. As it got closer to 11:30, it still felt weird outside. Now it seemed like my brain was telling me the shadows cast by things didn’t match up with the decreasing sunlight in the middle of the morning. I had my camera mounted up on a tripod with a 70-200mm lens ready to go.

As totality started it got very dim quickly, like dusk. It cooled off significantly, almost jacket time. People cheered as the moon completely covered the sun. It was really interesting to experience, although I didn’t have any great life epiphanies. I did notice a couple of stars come out near the sun which I wasn’t expecting. I spent the first minute soaking it in, then spent the remaining time shooting photos and videos as fast as I could. The 200mm did a decent job, but it was far from filling the frame. I cycled through many shutter settings not really sure what would work best. In the end I got two good photos and a video.

The stars came out as the sun was covered up

Standing there watching the big black sphere with the corona shooting out, I couldn’t help but think back to how it reminded me of the Spark from Super Mario Bros 2:

Artist rendition of the eclipse

It was a quick two minutes but still plenty of time to enjoy it. As the first hair of the sun peeked out from behind the moon, it was insanely bright. I got a brief blinding flash looking through the camera before I turned away. It warmed back up, and that was it.

After it was over I headed back out onto the highway, traffic was quickly picking up from everyone leaving the mountains. There were lines of traffic through small towns like McKay and Leslie as police were directing traffic at intersections. Locals were sitting outside in their lawn chairs watching the spectacle rolling through their town. First thing I did was head back out toward Atomic City to visit the EBR-I museum.

EBR-I museum

Experimental Breeder Reactor I was the first place where electricity was generated from atoms, enough to power its own building. It was completely open to self guided tours, you could wander through the control room, stand on top of the reactor core, go inside some of the heavily shielded repair rooms, and see the various supporting machinery. This reactor also proved it was possible to produce plutonium, and thus it was also the first place electricity was generated from plutonium.

Inside the blanket repair room

The “core blanket maintenance room” in the basement was sort of spooky to be in. The walls and door were 3 feet thick, requiring pry bars to move the door to get in. This was where bricks of shielding material could be removed directly from the reactor core, moved into this room where they could be put into lead casks and wheeled out. The windows were also 3 feet of layers and layers of leaded glass, so huge lights were in the room to compensate for the dimness. A big steel door is all that separated the room from the reactor core next door. My photos don’t do it justice, this is where I wish I had something that could do 360 degree photos. Clearly this room saw a lot of radiation but had been decontaminated. There were numbers scribbled in markers all along the walls, I’m wondering if they were some sort of radiation measurements.

The museum was a great accidental find, so I’m not upset at the extra milage. On the way back I stopped by the Craters of the Moon National Monument. The park was absolutely full so I didn’t get to explore much. The entire area was a huge lava bed and was certainly out of this world. There was also no chance I could’ve camped here anywhere.

In the middle of the night driving back through Nevada, I almost ran out of gas. I had taken a nap, was rocking out to my stereo and hadn’t paid any attention to my fuel gauge after leaving Idaho. I had just enough to make it into Sparks, oops. I spent the rest of the night at another rest stop and finished the drive home Tuesday.


7:08 PM   315,488  Fremont, CA   8312.2 hr
9:46 PM   315,651  Gold Run rest stop
12:28 PM  315,819  Lovelock, NV
2:28 AM   315,972  Battle Mountain rest stop
7:51 AM   315,972
10:07 AM  316,067  Wells hwy 93 N
1:20 PM   316,258  Raft River rest stop
2:28 PM   316,322  Blackfoot, ID
10:51 PM  316,435  Mount Borah, ID
7:27 PM   316,640  Twin Falls, ID

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