We traveled up to Redding, California last weekend to pursue one of our favorite family activities: viewing a solar eclipse. This time, we didn't need a fancy cruise ship or a trip to the Sahara Desert or even an airplane to get to the site. We just drove our trusty, dusty Lexus RX300 about four hours north.
An Annular Eclipse is one in which the moon covers most, but not all, of the sun. What's left is known as the "Ring of Fire". You don't get the same twilight effect or the diamond ring of a total eclipse, but it is still a pretty spectacular sight. The moon moves slowly over the sun, leaving only a golden ring shining through. The center line of this particular annular eclipse ran through Oregon, Northern California, Nevada, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle. It's a once-in-every-forty-years sight at any given location, so it was worth the drive north to see it in all its glory. The last annular we viewed was in Costa Rica when Alex was 18 months old.
We headed out on our 2012 eclipse adventure on Saturday, May 19, after a rushed packing job that left us without sunscreen, lawn chairs, or hats. As much as we travel, you'd think we wouldn't forget essentials, but it happens to the best of us. We made do with what we had, which included a golf umbrella in the car, and even a grocery bag that Frank fashioned into a hat so his head wouldn't roast. Thankfully, I found an emergency supply of sunscreen in my purse.
We met up with some local friends who are also eclipse buffs the night before for dinner. We weren't quite sure where the best viewing spots would be, so we debated the various spots that were recommended by the local astronomy club as good bets. We decided to play it by ear, waiting to see what the weather would be prior to making a decision.
On Sunday, we woke up to cerulean skies and little cloud cover. The news reported that it would be hot, so we thought that being near water would be a good bet. We spent the morning touring Redding, which is a lovely little town with view of Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta off in the distance, surrounded by lakes made from the hydro-electric dam nearby. The Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River is something of an architectural marvel, with a tall spire swooping above the river like a tall-masted ship flowing in the wind. We walked across the glass-tiled bridge and enjoyed the views of the river and hundreds of tiny birds swooping over and under the bridge.
Frank thought the bridge might get too crowded for the actual eclipse, so we set out for Whiskeytown Lake, about ten miles out of town. We found a spot along the shore and set up our make-shift camp for the day under a towering pine tree, with our golf umbrella, beach towels, and snacks. Alex swam across the lake and back a couple of times, and only complained a few times that "this eclipse was taking its sweet time."
The shoreline filled up over the course of the day with telescopes, cameras, tripods, serious astronomers and first-timers waiting to see what all the fuss was about. Finally, we heard some cheering down the beach and looked through our handy solar filters to see First Contact, or the exact moment when the moon's shadow starts to take a bit out of the sun.
About an hour later, we could see the mid-way point of the eclipse. Tiny smile-shadows danced on the ground through various pinbox cameras, cardboard, and anything people could find to create a pinhole to see the shadow. In parts of the US, this was as good as it got. At the centerline, we were waiting for more.
The big show finally arrived at around 6:30 pm, when the moon perfectly centered itself in the middle of the sun. This created a bright ring of glowing light called The Ring of Fire. It was well worth the wait in the roasting sun to see it.
One thing I missed about the total eclipse experience is the 360 degrees of twilight and darkness you experience for a short time. During the annular, the sky was visibly darker, but more like it was cloudy rather than twilight. It wasn't quite as mystical or mysterious, but a lovely effect all the same.
As always, it is not safe to look directly at the sun during an eclipse, even through sunglasses. You have to use a heavy filter to see anything. I placed the filter over my camera to get the shots above.