The People’s Solar Eclipse

The tracks of solar eclipses across our planet are essentially random and, because human populations occupy a small proportion of the earth’s surface, one usually must travel far to see them. Therefore, it is mainly the cognoscenti who go eclipse chasing. I did this twice in small professionally organized groups. I saw my first in February 1979 from Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg. The sky was clear, and we had a great view out over a frozen lake. I saw my second in Los Cabos, at the southern tip of Baja California, in July 1991. The group drove to a small town in the mountains that was on the line of maximum totality. It clouded over locally, and we saw very little. People who remained at the beach resort where we stayed saw it all.

The track of the April 8 eclipse was unusual because it passed through so many major cities in coastal Mexico, the US South and Midwest, and Eastern Canada. The probability of a cloudless day in southern Ontario in early April is no more than forty percent. My wife and I decided to take our chances in Niagara Falls, Ontario, reasoning that an eclipse would be spectacular in such a magnificent setting. In the days leading up to the eclipse, it became clear that Niagara Falls would be a popular choice, with a crowd of a million anticipated. But we weren’t daunted because there is plentiful parkland along the Niagara River for the crowd to spread out.

Sunday April 7 was a beautiful sunny day in Niagara Falls. We promenaded in Niagara-on-the-Lake and then along the river to the Horseshoe Falls. I took this photograph of the iconic rainbow over the Falls.

rainbow over the Falls, April 7

Life’s Randomness

Monday April 8 dawned overcast and the clouds didn’t budge. We considered driving someplace where the weather was predicted to be better. But we knew the roads would be congested and we had a reservation for that night at Niagara Falls. We also heard weather forecasts that the cloud would break up in the afternoon. So we stayed, as did thousands of others. We found a patch of ground on the parkland close to the Horseshoe Falls. One group near us used tripods to mount cameras with mylar filters covering the lenses. A young couple brought their toddler, who ran around oblivious to the unfolding astral event. During the partial phase, the clouds occasionally parted and we could see the moon’s shadow growing. When that happened, the large crowd cheered. But as soon as we put on our eclipse glasses, the cloud cover returned.

When totality arrived and darkness rushed at us, the drama was accentuated by the overcast sky. Here is a photo looking towards the Rainbow Bridge (which spans the Niagara River) taken at 3:17 p.m.

Rainbow Bridge at 3:17 p.m.

Here is the same location taken at 3:19 p.m., showing the darkness, the streetlights that have turned on, and the daylight off in the distance.

Rainbow Bridge at 3:19 p.m.

During totality itself we had a few seconds when the clouds parted, and we could see the solar prominences. Another mighty roar from the crowd. When totality finished, there were very few glimpses of the moon receding from the sun. The chilled crowd rapidly dispersed. Shortly after the eclipse finished the clouds lifted and the sunshine returned. And we heard that the skies had been cloudless all day over Prince Edward County, Montreal, and Vermont.

Was Oscar Wilde Right?

Our situation brought to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous put-down of Niagara Falls as “the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans.” But we did glimpse, at least for a few moments, the dramatic visual effects of a total solar eclipse. And we felt an unspoken sense of solidarity with the thousands of others who were there, shivering as the temperature rapidly fell, hoping against hope that the skies would clear, and applauding every moment, however brief, that they did. Perhaps because our expectations were modest, going to Niagara Falls for the eclipse did not disappoint us.

2 Responses to “The People’s Solar Eclipse”

  1. Carol Smaye Avatar
    Carol Smaye

    Great article, glad you & Beth were able to have these great experiences, I’m sure Irene & Mom would like it as well.

  2. Syed W Ahmed Avatar
    Syed W Ahmed

    Thanks Sandy for sharing the experience and the pictures.

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