Chasing Totality

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The most vivid memory I have of an eclipse is one of deep anxiety.

Written by
Paul Kawai

Illustrations by
Kellen Hatanaka

I was nine years old in May of 1994 and‚ at the small elementary school in Edmonton I attended‚ a partial eclipse was scheduled to pass over us. Parents warned us we could go blind if we glanced upward‚ even momentarily. Elaborate stories circulated of kids frozen in stares, their pupils expanded and changed shape to permanently mimic the eclipse itself. The worst sign of all — and proof that this was serious — came when the adults cancelled recess.

Of course‚ in science class we did what many grade school classes have done for decades — we fashioned pinhole viewing helmets out of extra large cereal boxes‚ and ventured outside under the supervision of our teachers. One by one‚ my classmates took turns sticking their heads inside retrofitted Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes boxes‚ oo-ing and ah-ing at the tiny eclipse projected within. When my turn came around‚ I couldn’t stop thinking about the warnings and horror stories. I slowly lowered the box over my head. Once inside‚ I didn’t dare open my eyes. I faked it. “You can really see it!” I must have shouted.

Since then I’ve mostly overcome this phobia of sorts. But eclipses still generate a strange sense of anxiety in me. Perhaps it’s because of this first childhood experience that I became so intrigued in learning that there are some out there who willingly spend a great deal of their time‚ money‚ and effort chasing eclipses all across the world. How could something that I first learned to avoid‚ and even fear‚ hold such reverence and fascination for others? It would appear that‚ like most complex natural phenomena‚ the more I learned‚ the more my fear began to transform into fascination.

The moon is 400 times closer to earth than the sun. Coincidentally‚ the moon is also 400 times smaller than the sun.

Total solar eclipses happen roughly every one-and-a-half to two years somewhere on earth. The next one will pass over Chile and Argentina in July of 2019 and in nearly the same place in December 2020. For the one after that‚ you’ll have to be in certain parts of Antarctica to experience it.

The last total eclipse traversed the entire land mass of the continental U.S. in August 2017. It attracted a huge amount of attention and became known as the Great American Eclipse.

When I got hold of Bill Kramer at his home in Jamaica‚ I asked him what made it so special. “To be clear‚ I wouldn’t describe this eclipse as being particularly special. The word I would use is ‘easy.’” Bill is a self-proclaimed eclipse chaser who became my guide into this strange world. I learned during our first chat what he meant by “easy.”

“As a comparison‚ I can tell you from experience that setting up a campground in Zambia for a tour of 200 eclipse viewers — not a logistically easy thing to do. This one in August‚ this was the easy one you could bring the whole family to. Just pack up the car and go.”

If you’re like most of the American population‚ you likely don’t pause to regularly appreciate the complexity involved in the mechanics of our solar system‚ all of which dictate where eclipses — total‚ annular‚ or partial — will show up. But here are some highlights:

The moon is 400 times closer to earth than the sun. Coincidentally‚ the moon is also 400 times smaller than the sun. Without this precise mathematical relationship‚ a total eclipse is not possible. And this relationship is not static. A few hundred million years from now‚ as our moon’s orbit continues to move farther from earth‚ eclipses as we know them will no longer exist.

The moon is a giant rock orbiting earth‚ which orbits the sun. And though we can’t feel it‚ our solar system is hurtling through space at 72‚000 kilometers an hour. The idea of both the moon and the sun aligning perfectly for our viewing pleasure from earth‚ even briefly (most eclipses last for several minutes) seems so impossible it’s laughable.

The alignment of the earth‚ moon‚ and sun can cast a shadow virtually anywhere in the world. This includes but is not limited to: northern regions in the dead of winter‚ remote uninhabited islands‚ active war zones‚ and open ocean. Ever try steering a ship toward a moving shadow in the Atlantic?

An atheist could be forgiven for wondering if some higher power might have a hand in all this. Considering the natural forces that had to align‚ the Great American Eclipse became this strange combination of both ease and rarity. Easy because just about any American could drive to it relatively cheaply and quickly. Rare because an eclipse is almost never this accessible. The last one to cut clear across the U.S. was nearly a century ago. And over the next century‚ only a few will even be visible in North America.

An atheist could be forgiven for wondering if some higher power might have a hand in all this.

Where and when eclipses happen are never a surprise‚ thanks to geometry and mathematical calculations. For many chasers‚ including Bill‚ this is part of the fun. “The first eclipse I saw‚ we were in the middle of the ocean on a cruise ship. How’d they get us in the right position? This was before GPS and all this stuff existed. My mathematical mind went‚ ‘I’m keen on figuring out how you calculate these things.’ And I went off trying to figure it out on my own and got into calculating eclipses. So for me‚ the mathematics and the precision of it are really cool. And‚ when I go see an eclipse‚ the fact that I’ve been able to calculate it down to a tenth of a second is awesome. You almost feel like the master of the universe for a second. And then‚ nature quickly puts you right back in your place — you are immediately humbled at what you now get to see.”

The driving force for this story came as a result of our first conversation with Bill Kramer‚ and the discovery of his online Eclipse Chasers Log. Every person we spoke to mentioned Bill and his database‚ as each are listed within it along with their eclipse-chasing statistics‚ a selection of which we’ve included within each profile. Bill became our unofficial gatekeeper into this world that somehow manages to contain everything from behavioural psychology to tactics for pirate evasion. In the profiles that follow‚ we will introduce you to David‚ Kate‚ Jay‚ Joe‚ Paul‚ and of course‚ Bill. The following is a glimpse into what each of them has learned from being in totality and what keeps them hungry for that next chase.

Bill Kramer

The Life of the Party

On How Eclipses Affect People

I have seen marines … soldiers with tears in their eyes at such a marvel of beauty. So‚ to somebody who’s thinking about it‚ who’s on the edge‚ all I can say is it’s probably one of the most beautiful celestial events you will ever witness in your life. It beats everything else in the sky. Even a triple rainbow. It totally beats it.

You almost wonder sometimes what people are thinking when they’re watching the eclipse. I’ve realized over the years that what you take away from the eclipse is really just a function of what you bring to the party. If you are a devoutly religious person‚ this is a religious experience. If you are a naturalist‚ this is an extreme natural experience. If you’re a humanist‚ this is an extreme human experience. It may not be a miracle‚ but I’ll tell you what — this is what I think a miracle should look like.

Birthplace: Youngstown‚ U.S.
Eclipses Logged: 26
Total Eclipses Logged: 17
Totality Time: 57m 40s
Total Years as a Chaser: 47
URL: eclipse-chasers.com

David Makepeace

The Storyteller

On the Bigger Impact

I think it comes down to the realization that you are nature. You are this earth. Carl Sagan and David Suzuki and Neil deGrasse Tyson and everybody in between and before have been trying to draw our attention to the fact that we’re not separate. We live in complete integration. The realization of interconnectedness is waiting out there for you‚ but it’s also built into you. I believe experiences like eclipses can help you not only understand this connectivity better‚ but also begin to feel it more at a deeper level.

It’s one of those few events in your life that actually make you ponder your existence because it’s just so profound; the fact that we’re a part of a solar system flying through space on a rock. It really removes the veil across our eyes that we don’t have this cosmic connection‚ because we do.

Birthplace: Montreal‚ Canada
Eclipses Logged: 23
Total Eclipses Logged: 16
Totality Time: 43m 55s
Total Years as a Chaser: 26
URL: eclipseguy.com

Dr. Kate Russo

The Philosopher

On What She’s Learned From Chasing

How often do we stop everything and just look up? Normally it’s an aversive event that makes us all stop and pause — a shooting‚ a natural disaster‚ a tragedy of some kind. But an eclipse is something profoundly positive that makes us all stop to experience our place in the universe.

We can only be lucky enough to be there in that one particular spot‚ at one point in time to be able to see it. To me‚ that’s like the perfect metaphor for life — we have to experience it. Let it happen‚ and be there‚ witness it‚ be fully immersed in it. And that’s what life is all about. It’s fleeting‚ and then it’s gone. I think chasing probably gives you that understanding that there are things that we can’t control.

I look at a map of future paths of totality‚ and what I see is a scaffold of the future moments that make up my life.

Birthplace: Ingham‚ Australia
Eclipses Logged: 13
Total Eclipses Logged: 11
Totality Time: 24m 22.2s
Total Years as a Chaser: 18
URL: beingintheshadow.com

Paul D. Maley

The Guide

On the Feeling of Observing an Eclipse

The response I feel is something akin to when you see a rattlesnake on the ground and your hair stands on end. I live in Arizona now‚ so I do see rattlesnakes periodically. But it’s one of these awe-inspiring‚ knock-your-socks-off types of feelings when you realize there is something so big‚ so incredible‚ and you cannot change it or alter it in any way.

And uniquely‚ nobody on earth can screw it up! I feel like whenever anyone in any sort of powerful capacity tries to get involved in changing things in the natural environment‚ it generally turns out for the worse. But nobody can change a solar eclipse. That makes me feel quite satisfied — nature will take its course no matter what. All we can do is sit back and observe. That’s such a uniquely satisfying experience.

Birthplace: Queens‚ U.S.
Eclipses Logged: 69
Total Eclipses Logged: 25
Totality Time: 1h 4m 26.2s
Total Years as a Chaser: 60
URL: eclipsetours.com

Joe Cali

The Wallflower

On His Favourite Eclipse Memory

The most important thing is to see it in person — experience the wind‚ temperature changes‚ watch the umbra devour the sky‚ sense the reactions of people and animals around you.

In June of 2001‚ we were in Zambia. Before the eclipse‚ an elderly man from the village we were staying in was more or less mocking me‚ asking if it was true that I had travelled all this way to see the sun disappear when it sets every day. He was laughing at me. Rather than get annoyed‚ I asked him if he would come and find me after totality because I would like to talk to him afterwards. He came back and found me soon after totality‚ tears streaming down his cheeks. He shook my hand and said‚ “Now I understand. Thank you.” I’ll never forget the expression on his face.

Birthplace: Chinchilla‚ Australia
Eclipses Logged: 23
Total Eclipses Logged: 13
Totality Time: 35m 49.9s
Total Years as a Chaser: 23
URL: joe-cali.com/eclipses

Jay Pasachoff

The Scientist

On ‘Preceding’ and Why He Does It

Well‚ first of all‚ I don’t like to call it “eclipse chasing” because eclipses move far too fast to chase after them. So I “precede” eclipses to the locations where we’re going and then they catch up to us. A better term that we like to use is “umbraphile‚” which refers to people who devote a great deal of their lives to being in the moon’s shadow‚ or umbra.

The example I often use is‚ if I were a heart surgeon and got to look at a human heart half-way around the world every couple of years for two minutes‚ I would certainly do it as part of research and innate curiosity. Same thing for astronomical phenomena. So‚ to me it’s just very natural. The sun is different every time and I want to be there to capture whatever I can.

Birthplace: New York‚ U.S.
Eclipses Logged: 66
Total Eclipses Logged: 34
Totality Time: 1h 24m 8.7s
Total Years as a “Preceder”: 58
URL: sites.williams.edu/iau-eclipses

Paul Kawai

Paul is the Design Director at Frontier. He studied Environmental Design at OCAD University, as well as directed the OCAD Student Press, publishing three editions of their Shift series.

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