MADRAS — For just over two minutes Monday, a grand shadow from the heavens glided across Central Oregon as the Great American Eclipse moved thousands of people to a sense of wonder.
Just after 10:19 a.m., the solar eclipse, which would trace a path from Oregon to South Carolina, cast the Solartown camping site on the north end of Madras into pre-dawn darkness.
The moon fully obscured the sun for two minutes and two seconds, leaving the sun’s corona, an aura around the sun that’s normally obscured, visible and radiating outward. The crowd of thousands gathered on the central field at Solartown cheered, whooped and howled.
“It’s primeval,” said Michael Kirk, a scientist in the heliophysics division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It connects you back with those early humans who saw eclipses and weren’t quite sure what was going on.”
More than most natural phenomena, eclipses begin slowly and quietly, with little fanfare. Kirk said the eclipse officially began in Madras — considered one of the best places to view this eclipse — at 9:06 a.m., when the moon first began to obscure the sun. However, the beginning didn’t draw wide applause until nearly five minutes later, when the slice of the obscured sun was large enough to be visible through special eclipse glasses.
Over the course of the next hour, the sun began to change shape as the moon passed, from a wheel of cheese with a slice cut out, to something reminiscent of a Pac-Man logo and, eventually, to a small crescent.
Around a half-hour after the eclipse began, someone from the Leopard Lounge campsite, a mobile campsite-turned-bar and entertainment area, popped a bottle of Champagne, drawing cheers.
While the light and temperature changed almost imperceptibly over the first 45 minutes of the event, the large changes came after 10 a.m. Ken Katen, a visitor from San Francisco, described the light as being similar to dusk, but with no change to the color of the clouds.
Katen, a retired civil engineer who is building an Orthodox Greek church in San Francisco’s Mission District, said he had seen 85 percent of the sun eclipsed before, but the change in the final 15 percent is, almost literally, night and day.
“The change in ambient light continues from 85 percent to totality, sort of on a continuum,” Katen said. “But as far as the distinct shift when (the eclipse) goes total, there’s nothing to compare.”
It was spectacular to see.
Less than a minute before the total eclipse began, Mount Jefferson, in the eclipse’s path and visible from Madras, went as black as obsidian against the sky as the shadow passed over it. The shadow raced down the mountain and enveloped the campsite in darkness.
Above, in a starry sky, the spectral corona radiated out like solar cobwebs.
“The solar corona is really what people pay the big bucks to see,” Kirk said. “It is the most awe-inspiring and spectacular natural wonder you can see.”
Two minutes later, as quickly as it began, the totality was over.
Among the viewers was Dave Johnson, 55, who still has a photograph from the first time he saw a total solar eclipse. He shot it from an airplane window over Montana using his dad’s telephoto lens in 1979. Johnson was 17, and a co-founder of his high school astronomy club.
The memories of that day have dimmed over 38 years, edged out as life got busier with a job and a family. But Johnson said it was impressive.
On Monday morning, Johnson, now a psychiatrist working in San Mateo, California, saw his second eclipse, while manning multiple cameras hooked up to telescopes and standing with his three children and his wife in a crowded tent site.
“It went so fast,” Johnson said of the experience. “I’m not ready for it to be done.”
Johnson said he’s already planning a trip to Chile in 2019, to see his third eclipse.
“There’s so many ways to experience it,” Johnson said. “Maybe next time I’ll take no pictures, and just watch.”
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