Chasing the 2017 Eclipse in Nebraska

I don't remember a whole lot about my childhood, but I do have very strong memories about an eclipse, and my whole school stopping everything and going out to see it. I remember it being dark, and pretty exciting, although where I grew up, excitement had a pretty low bar-I remember the Goodyear blimp flew over our house once, and that was the highlight of an entire summer (there's a reason I've lived in NYC for so long now). It must have been the 1970 eclipse, the totality of which passed near my home town on the rural eastern shore of Maryland. Of course, back then you couldn't just order some eclipse glasses online, so I assume we looked at it through some sort of pinhole camera arrangement. With that experience in mind, a couple years ago when I heard about the 2017 eclipse, I decided I needed to go.

I wanted to get into the path of totality, and the thing that can kill eclipse viewing is clouds. So I spent a lot of time studying the cloud probability map along the path of totality. Since I had to get back to start teaching at school, I didn't have time for a big road trip, so I had to fly somewhere from NYC. I thought about hanging out with my sister down in the Carolinas, but was worried about potential cloud cover. Oregon and Wyoming were too far. I looked into Carbondale in southern Illinois, the point of maximum totality, but I was worried about the roads being clogged in case of needing to move around because of cloud cover. So I ended up looking at Nebraska, where I've storm chased many times. I know it pretty well, they have a good road network, and the eclipse totality was going to go right down the interstate. There's less than 2 million people in the whole massive state, so even with a lot of visitors, traffic shouldn't be a problem. And then when I found out that the path of totality was passing over my friend Eric's hometown of Fairmont, and he was travelling out to visit family and see it, I bought a plane ticket to Kansas City and on points got one of the last rooms available in Lincoln (all those storm chasing hotel stays pay off for stuff like this). The eclipse was Monday the 21st, and I scheduled to fly into KC on Saturday so I had a buffer in case of weather (or a day to chase storms if any existed). Serendipitously, my friend Megan, who is an awesome, multi-talented musician, was playing in an amazing band that was wrapping up a Midwest tour in KC Saturday night, and she was interested in heading out with me. I often do trips like this alone, because it can be a tough sell: "Let's head somewhere unknown for an unknown period and possibly see nothing and sit in a truck stop, or maybe see the most amazing thing ever, and/or get in a very dangerous situation. Oh and the food sucks."  So I cautioned Megan that chasing the eclipse could result in driving hundreds of miles to see nothing if the clouds didn't cooperate. When she said "I'm excited for even the disappointment", I knew I had a found a great chase partner.

I flew out Saturday already exhausted, fighting a cold and trying to recover from an incredible whale chasing trip, which I did right after shooting thousands of photos for my friends' Madonnathon, and wrapping up a multi-month editing pass on my book. But I got lucky and got a free, random first-class upgrade on the flight, and stared out the window and dozed off. I caught Megan's amazing show Saturday night, and then Sunday we headed out to the plains. I had been agonizing over the cloud cover forecast for days, but with so few rooms available anywhere, we stayed with the Lincoln plan and its good road options and low threat of traffic jams. There was a chance of thunderstorms storms along the way, so we headed west into Kansas (most chasers have fond feelings for Kansas--I did my first successful tornado chase there). 

Kansas Turnpike Rest Area Bear

The thunderstorms didn't materialize, so we checked out the prairie, headed north to Lincoln, had some BBQ, and then made our final eclipse plan over some badly needed whiskey that Megan had brought along. Years of storm chasing experience comes in handy for eclipse chasing, although as storm chasers, we usually run towards clouds, not away from them! So in the run up to this trip I had to learn about a whole new set of weather model outputs. There was a large stationary front across the region, and the models for some time had been holding onto a solution of cloud cover in eastern Nebraska and into parts of Missouri, and a hole in the clouds out in western Nebraska. So, although we were both exhausted, we made the decision to get up and on the road before sunrise to head west. The eclipse was happening around 1pm so we had a bit of time, but not much, and Megan drove as I stared at the amazing new (not yet operational) GOES 16 satellite imagery (I actually was lucky enough to see this satellite launch in November).

We made it to North Platte, and then wandered north through some pretty country to Stapleton, NE, right on the center line of the totality and at the eastern edge of the scenic sand hills. We passed by some fields full of eclipse campers, and found our own dirt road west of town. Always thinking like a storm chaser, I looked for a spot outside of town on an east-west route, ready to move to clear skies if necessary.

JH-20170821-DSC_2721.jpg

There was actually a fair amount of fog on the way in, and a bunch of low clouds. I felt pretty confident that these low clouds would clear out, and even if they didn't we had time to blast further west if necessary. A jogger came by, and said that he lived up the road and that there was currently more cars on the road (about 3 by that time) than he had ever seen. He concurred that the low cloud should clear out, and we talked recent hail storms and crop damage. Another car rolled up, and it was a guy who had driven down from Wisconsin and camped out at one of the fields over night.  His name is Tyler and he had been to a talk by an astronomer the night before and was full of good information.

One of my favorite parts of storm chasing is when you get into a good position and wait for the weather to come to you. But in this case, I was still jumpy and nervous because while the low clouds were clearing out as anticipated, the high clouds were holding on. But they seemed to be moving away so we held our position (we learned later from the video below that we were completely wrong about the cloud direction, the clouds were actually training slowly over us from out of the west; with so many people overwhelming the cell network in this tiny town I hadn't been able to see this movement on the satellite). A woman from South Dakota rolled up; we had been watching the top of a severe storm up in SD on the northern horizon, but that storm was definitely was moving away.

Before this trip, I had decided that while I wanted to get some photos as memories, I was going to focus on the experience, and not the camera. But I set up the tripod and shot the sun through the high clouds:

Those are actually sunspots that you can see, and the blotchiness is the high clouds. And then, right on schedule, the eclipse started.

The high cloud was holding on, and while it was no problem at all for the partial eclipse, I was concerned that it might block the totality. So we tried to see if we could get out of the high cloud shadow, and left our spot and headed 10 miles or so north of town--traffic was no problem. But in the end, the clouds were so high (the guy from Wisconsin said he saw a jet liner flying underneath them) that I think we would have had to drive out of the totality to clear them. So we headed back to our road and our new friends, and figured we'd ride it out there.

As the totality approached, the light just became weird and unsettling. I eventually took off my sunglasses, and then I wanted to take off my sunglasses again. We watched for the shadow approaching from the west (that's what Megan's doing in the photo at top, looking to the western horizon for the shadow, her amazing, beautiful hair glowing in the unearthly eclipse light). One advantage of the high clouds was that you could see the shadow coming from the west (right half of photo below).

I had bought a little $2 eclipse app for my phone, and that was great.  It gave verbal countdowns and pointed out important happenings.  I originally thought the verbal functions were a gimmick, but they were actually very helpful in that intense time, with admonitions like "look for the shadow bands on the ground"; those were really wild but I didn't get a picture.   As it counted down, we noticed that the clouds right around the sun had miraculously thinned out, and then... All I could say was... "HOLY SHIT!!!!"

It's hard to describe how emotional the experience of the totality was. I got chills down my back (and not from the temperature drop). We were stuttering around and couldn't really form sentences other than "wow" and my classic, "LOOK AT THAT!!!" (I say pretty much the same thing watching tornadoes).  It was the fastest two minutes and 33 seconds any of us had ever spent.  I had set up my little gopro camera to capture us and the sky:

The clouds had moved in a bit, but it was still incredible. In the commotion I knocked my camera out of focus, but I really don't care (which is unheard of for me) since it means I was paying attention to the sky and the earth and my friends and not the LCD screen.

The lecturer the night before reportedly had said that after the totality, no one cares about the rest of the eclipse, and he was right. We said our goodbyes, packed up, and headed east. This tiny town of Stapleton did a great job handling probably the largest traffic jam they will ever see (I'm making a donation to their volunteer fire department as a thank you). We hadn't really eaten all day and were starving, and found lunch in a little country store in Arnold. After a leisurely lunch, we got back in the car, and the eclipse timer said, "end of eclipse in 10 seconds". Megan realized that it had gotten overcast, and we hadn't even noticed. As the counter reached zero, we high-fived and then headed to York, Nebraska for dinner with Eric and his partner. We were relieved to hear that a hole in the clouds had appeared over his hometown of Fairmont, so they too had a great show.

We headed back through a big thunderstorm back into Kansas City, cheering all the amazing lightning. It was icing on a nature cake after a phenomenal day.

In the end it was an incredibly profound and truly awesome experience, and I was so fortunate to be able to spend all that time and share the experience with amazing Megan, who is whip-smart, calm under pressure, a very photogenic subject, and a fantastic adventure partner. Here's our route:

If I'm alive, I will be somewhere in the path of totality for the next US eclipse.  It's only seven years from now...

Chasing Whales With CRESLI In The Great South Channel

I saw a headline a few years ago about a “seafaringness” gene for people who love the sea; those who have it supposedly have a strong desire to be near, on, or in the water. That article was a hoax, but I wish it was true because it would explain a lot in me. One grandfather was an officer in the navy; the other owned an oyster packing house and worked the "buy boats" out in the Chesapeake. Both died when I was very young, so I never really knew them, and while our family went to the beach for vacation every year, my parents had little interest in boats. But they did spring for sailing lessons (which never clicked to me because it’s too much work), and I did talk them into a little row boat with a tiny outboard which I used to check a couple commercial crab pots I kept in the Chester river (unloading the boat, I almost floated the family station wagon off the boat ramp, but that’s another story).  I now own whitewater and sea kayaks, and take any excuse to get out on a boat.

There’s something amazing and primal to me about being able see out to the horizon, and then to experience the power and majesty of nature. I feel that on the ocean, but I also find it in the plains chasing tornadoes, and when I got back in early June from storm chasing (and busting badly), I knew I had to hunker down and work on updating my book. But I saw that the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) was having a Great South Channel whale watch/research trip in August. On this trip, paying customers like me subsidize a serious, multi-year, mostly volunteer CRESLI research effort to identify and track the whales and marine mammals in the Great South Channel, an area off Cape Cod between George’s Bank and the Nantucket Shoals.  I’ve been on a ton of whale watches over the years, am working with Gotham Whale on an acoustic research project, have kayaked with dolphins as we circumnavigated Long Island, and have even touched baby gray whales in a bay in Baja, Mexico. But I had some concerns about this trip because, while I’ve rarely ever been seasick (only on a hovercraft in a rough English channel and wallowing in a sailboat), I’ve never been that far offshore or spent more than a day at sea. But I signed up and I’m really glad I did, since it was a really amazing trip and a profound experience.

We sailed out of Montauk on the Viking Starship, a well-worn, workhorse party fishing boat with, at best, “rustic” accommodations (which keeps the cost down). I lived all over the east end of Long Island in the late 80’s (and chased my first  hurricane-Gloria right at the East Hampton town beach), but Montauk was always a kind of unique place-it was the only town out there where you see the ocean right from the highway.  It was the least pretentious as well, and although it’s changing now, it still has kept some character, especially near the docks. A deckhand on the boat had a strong, unusual accent, and I asked him where he was from. “Hicksville” (suburban LI), he said, but then added that he really had a Montauk accent.  There seems to be a fisherman’s accent common around the Atlantic, because his accent was similar to what I grew up with Eastern Shore of Maryland, and I heard commonalities even up in Newfoundland. When I went there to paddle with icebergs some years ago, a lot of people in our group had a hard time understanding the locals; I had no problem because to me they sounded just like the watermen in my hometown.

We left Montauk at 6:30pm on Sunday and Artie, Trish and I sat on the bow drinking wine through a beautiful sunset (photo by Trish, we forgot to get a group shot).  

I was exhausted after pushing for weeks to get through the first editing pass of the 145,000 words in the book and shooting and editing thousands of photos from the always-amazing Madonnathon the night before, so I figured to crash early. Artie and Trish were (like many people) moving their mattresses to sleep out on the deck, but I really wanted to try to sleep in the below-decks bunk room to see if I could do it. Normally for offshore trips on this boat they are fishing porgies or fluke, and I think all those fisherman are drunk and/or covered with fish slime to the point that they don’t care about the dankness of the bunk room. But while the motion was fine, and the engine drone was comforting, it was just too warm and some guy had metal blasting in his earphones so loud that I could hear it several bunks away. So I grabbed one of the last spots on deck, and boy am I glad I did.

It was clear that night, and we watched the milky way and so many thousands of stars visible and the end of the Perseids meteor shower. I dozed off and then woke up again as the engine revved down as we stopped in Martha’s Vineyard after midnight to pick up a few more researchers and drop off a few passengers. I hadn’t been there since a friend’s wedding many years ago so of course I had to get up and look at the harbor in the dark. I dozed off again, and then about three in the morning, I woke up again and put my glasses on. I’ve been out in a lot of dark places, but not like this; we were well offshore and there wasn't a ship or a light out to the horizon in any direction.  The moon had come up, we were sailing directly towards it, and it was blindingly bright. The stars just went on and on forever. I stood there, the only passenger awake, and stared out in every direction and thought about my Mom, who died many years ago, way too young.  She always talked about her dream of being out at sea, out of sight of land. I think she did experience this once on a trip to Bermuda near the end of her life, but I had never done it myself. It was stunning and profound. The boat was rocking too much to get a photo so you'll have to take my word for it.

I had my big eye shade on and was trying to sleep as late as possible, but at about six in the morning our leader, Artie Kopelman, came on the PA to announce that we had a pod of Risso’s dophin right off the boat.  In all the frantic lead up to the trip, I hadn’t really had time to reset my cameras from the Madonnathon, but I ran below and grabbed one camera with the wrong lens and the wrong settings and got off a few shots. (Click on any to enlarge)

We also saw some distant Kelvin Helmholtz clouds:

And a sun halo:

And thousands of shearwater:

And then the real show began, with humpbacks cooperatively feeding, which we saw for the next two days:

One whale (they think trying to call its mother) breached over and over.  

There were so many that I eventually just put the camera down, watched, and shot a couple videos:

The fog came in overnight, and a few of us slept on deck again even though it was really damp, and we were awoken at 6am with rain in our faces.

But the fog cleared out...

All around us the last morning were whales cooperatively bubble feeding, where they would work together in a group, dive down, blow bubbles in circles, schooling up their prey in the center.  These are baleen whales with no teeth, so they just swallow all the fish whole.  You can see the bubbles first:

Sadly, nearly every whale we saw had signs of entanglement with fishing nets or other ocean debris:

I completely lost track of the number of whales that we saw, but Dr. Kopelman reported after that they identified 44, including 4 cow/calf pairs, and encountered 17 unknowns, including 2 cow/calf pairs.  We also saw countless minke whales, blue fin tuna, and sharks.

I turned my phone off when we left the dock, and that was probably the longest I've been offline in several years.  I love being connected but taking a break once in a while is a good thing.  And doing it far out at sea, amongst these majestic giants, is a humbling experience.  In these tumultuous times, one of the things I take comfort in is knowing that nature is going to do its thing no matter what we do.  Right now, out of sight of Cape Cod, regardless of whether or not we are there to observe them, there are whales feeding, breaching, and calves hanging out with their moms. 

I got back from this trip with just enough time to catch up at work and head out again for the eclipse in Nebraska; my write up of that amazing trip here.