Heaven on Earth For Eclipse Chasers
July 25th, 2017 by Curtis Condon

The solar corona shimmers around the moon during totality. Photo by iStock/teekid

A swath of Oregon and Idaho offers some of the best spots to view this month’s total solar eclipse

A scene right out of a sci-fi thriller is set to unfold August 21. The sky will darken, the sun will disappear from view mid-morning and wildlife baffled by the sudden darkness will fall silent.

At 10:15 a.m. local time, the shadow created by the 2017 total solar eclipse will make landfall near Depoe Bay, Oregon, and race across the continent in 90 minutes, casting a miles-wide swath of darkness on its trajectory from Oregon to South Carolina.

For as long as 2 minutes 40 seconds in some areas, all that will be seen of the sun in that path of darkness is the sun’s corona—a halo of shimmering light—encircling the moon. People who have watched a total solar eclipse before say the experience will leave viewers awe-struck and bring some people to tears.

Astronomy buffs, area businesses, planners and entrepreneurs have awaited this event for years, though not necessarily for the same reasons.

Eclipse chasers seek the exhilaration of viewing the rare phenomenon. Some are chasing its economic promise, while others worry about the effects the crush of millions of people will have on local quality of life and resources.

All of them are holding their breath in anticipation of what’s to come.

What’s All the Fuss?
A total solar eclipse is a rare thing.
The last one to pass over the Pacific Northwest was in 1979. It won’t happen again for another 152 years.

Rarity is one explanation for the fascination and strong following. The experience itself is another reason—maybe the biggest reason.

“For me, the total solar eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, ” says Lowell Frauenholz.

The 80-year-old is a longtime astronomy enthusiast. He has seen several partial solar eclipses, but this month’s event will be his first total solar eclipse.

“It’s really exciting,” Lowell says. “It’s hard to explain, but even the most stoic people say it’s a deeply emotional experience to see the sky darken in the daytime. That’s why shadow chasers travel the world to watch a total solar eclipse.”

Tens of millions of people are expected to witness this year’s event. Many of them will travel long distances for the privilege to watch something that will last fewer than three minutes. A fortunate few will simply spread out a blanket or set up lawn chairs to watch it from their own backyards.

Lowell is one of the lucky ones. The path of totality passes squarely over Mackay, the small central Idaho town where he lives.

“I can’t wait,” he says.

It is no surprise Lowell is anxious about his first total solar eclipse, but what about someone who has already seen one? Does the experience diminish after the novelty of the first one wears off?

Jay Pasachoff says the experience never gets old. He should know. The Williams College professor of astronomy has viewed 65 solar eclipses so far.

“It gets better and better, because you know the odd and eerie feeling that you get in the minutes before totality as shadows get strange and the light changes,” he says. “And you want to experience it again.”

Jay will watch this month’s solar eclipse from Salem, Oregon. He hopes people in nearby Portland and Eugene will take advantage of the rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.

Residents of those two cities don’t have to go anywhere to see a 99 percent solar eclipse, but Jay says there is no compari-son between that and a total solar eclipse.

“If you go to the stadium to buy a ticket for the game and then go home, that’s like a 99 percent eclipse,” he says. “You haven’t gone inside to see the game.”

He says it is all about the unforgettable experience of totality.

“That’s why eclipse tourism is growing,” he says. “Those who go to one eclipse want to do it again.”

A Boon for Local Economies
Cities and towns within the path of total-ity are expecting an economic windfall as a tidal wave of visitors arrives to watch the eclipse. Revenue estimates for the event vary from hundreds of millions of dollars to more than a billion dollars nationwide.

But it is a double-edged sword: On one hand, the eclipse will provide a significant boost to local economies; on the other, it will put a strain on area residents, roads and resources.

Madras, Oregon, is touted as one of the best places in the country to view the eclipse. The town is almost astride the center line of the path of totality. That means people there will get a better—and longer—view of the eclipse.

“We’re looking forward to having people come and watch the eclipse with us,” says Madras eclipse coordinator Lysa Vattimo. Planning for the event has been under way for
years in Madras.

The 6,000-resident town expects to host a mind-boggling 100,000 eclipse chasers—maybe more.

“Businesses have been preparing for this and looking forward to it for a long time,” says Lysa, “and we’ve been working with ODOT for two years to work out a plan to ensure traffic flows as smoothly as possible.”

To avoid the worst of the expected traffic congestion, Lysa recommends arriving early and staying late.

“Holiday weekends are typically busy,” she says, noting the two-lane highway through the middle of town gets congested then. “With the eclipse, we expect four to six times that much traffic.”

Traffic likely will be a major problem everywhere. The Idaho and Oregon departments of transportation are doing everything they can to limit congestion, including postponing road projects during
the extended weekend of the eclipse.

But myriad other concerns keep planners up late at night, such as the possibility of wildfire. Fire danger is always high in August, especially in Central and Eastern Oregon, and Idaho.

Questions still worry planners. Will the weather hold? Is there enough food? Are there enough eclipse-watching glasses? Are there enough port-a-potties or, for that matter, enough toilet paper?

With the eclipse just weeks away, planners can’t do much more than check off last-minute details and hope for the best.

Entrepreneurs to the Rescue
Existing resources in most eclipse communities have not been able to match the crushing demand. There are only so many restaurants, only so many hotel rooms, campsites and other lodging options—and most sold out long ago.

Entrepreneurs have seized on the opportunity to make up the shortfall.

“We’re seeing a lot of pop-up campsites,” says Lysa.

They are the work of ranchers, farmers and other landowners who have staked out bare bones, dry camping spots to satisfy the demand—and make money to boot.

Mom-and-pop festivals are planned as well. Crops and livestock will make way for makeshift towns. They offer eclipse chasers package deals that often include parking, a place to stay, food vendors, entertainment and other activities.

The Moonshadow Festival features all of the above. It is being hosted by Mary Beyer and her family at their 2,100-acre Wine Down Ranch north of Prineville in Central Oregon.

Typically, their operation grows hay, raises beef and harvests timber. On the side, they rent a rustic cabin through airbnb.com, an online marketplace of alternative lodging options.

But 2017 has been far from typical. This year it has been all hands on deck—including Mary’s husband, daughters and son-in-law—as festival preparations have taken center stage for months now.

“I really love to share this space with others because it is so unique and beautiful, and we are very blessed to live here,” Mary says, explaining the motivation behind the festival. “Second, it is another way for us to diversify and bring in another income stream.”

Asked if she plans to drop everything to watch totality for a couple of minutes, she said she hopes to, since that is what this effort is all about.

“I have never been in a more amazing place to view a total solar eclipse than here,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe this will be the beginning of a whole new lifestyle for me.”

Pocatello, Idaho-based freelance writer Dianna Troyer contributed to this story.