Take it from eclipse chasers: Viewing one is life-changing

Take it from eclipse chasers: Viewing one is life-changing

Take it from a local eclipse chaser who's traveled to the Sahara desert and other far-away destinations to catch a good glimpse of the moon blocking the sun.

A total solar eclipse like the one coming in eight days is a spiritual and life-changing experience.

"When you see a solar eclipse, real things are happening that you haven't seen before," said Andy Jones, who has seen six of them, traveling to far corners of the globe — China, Libya, Romania — to improve his viewing experience the past five decades or so.

"Maybe the world is more complicated than you thought. You will have a hard time looking at the universe the same way you thought of before. You may re-evaluate your place, your purpose in this life."

For the one happening a week from Monday, Jones is staying much closer to home than usual. He, wife Cynthia and other family and friends will rent a five-bedroom house in Paducah, Ky.

It lies in the 70-mile-wide eclipse path of totality. But Jones, a purist, is itching to get to the center line, about 20 miles from the house.

Being on the central line will give him an extra 20 to 25 seconds of duration of the total blocking of the sun by the moon's shadow.

Unlike the semi-retired Jones, eclipse chaser Walter Alspaugh of Urbana wouldn't go so far as to call seeing a solar eclipse spiritual. But it does shift your perspective, he said.

"You're talking about celestial bodies. It makes you more aware that you're riding along on Earth, which is a celestial body. You have a different perspective of your place in the universe and of being on a big, round ball."

Alspaugh, a 66-year-old retired administrative case reviewer for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, has traveled to see six total solar eclipses.

For the upcoming one, the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in the United States since 1918, he plans to watch from a bluff in Prairie Du Rocher — "with the understanding that I might have to go elsewhere if it's cloudy," he said.

James Wehmer, who also will travel to southern Illinois, has seen three total solar eclipses and several partial ones, including from outside his home in Champaign in 1994.

He didn't really feel changed as a result.

"It did whet my appetite, and I will see every one of these things that I possibly can," he said. "It's just great."


Adventures in Libya

The best solar-eclipse viewing experience Jones had was in Libya, in March 2006. He had to go into the Sahara to be in its path of totality.

He remembers that when the moon's shadow finally obscured the sun, it didn't become completely dark but rather "dusky" — the sand in the distance reflected light.

"It was not disappointing," he said. "Libya was hands down the best eclipse ever. It was total and lasted around four minutes. It was clear and gorgeous. It was straight overhead. It was really good. The corona was large and beautiful."

Another interesting viewing experience came in Romania, where Jones went to great lengths to get to the path of totality.

He and son Brian first flew to Budapest to join a German tour group of eclipse chasers.

They then traveled six to eight hours by train to Romania, another stretch by truck to a national park, and hiked a day and a half from there to the path of totality.

"We hiked up this little mountain, ignoring all the 20-somethings up there looking for the dragon to meet the sun," Jones said. "It was in August, and it was hot and humid.

"When the eclipse happened, it was like somebody turned off the light. All of a sudden, it was cloudy and misty. Clouds formed immediately. You could see the eclipse and then not see it."

The temperature also dropped suddenly.

A couple of the worst eclipse-viewing experiences for Jones came in Georgia (the state, not the country) and China. It rained heavily in both places, in China ruining Jones' camera.

"It's still pretty awesome because it gets dark," he said, adding that even cloud-obscured solar eclipses are worth seeing.


Celebrity guest

Alspaugh's first solar eclipse trip was in 1979, when he and friends traveled to the Canadian province of Manitoba. There, they stayed with a farm family.

"It was a very pleasant experience," he said. "A lot of families up there opened up their homes to let people stay in them. The family we stayed with didn't seem to want money. They seemed to like having the company. It was wintertime."

Alspaugh later took eclipse trips with his wife, Mary Fehner, who died in 2006. He said she really enjoyed the social aspect of the outings.

"You're all there — not everybody for the same reasons — but you all want to see the eclipse," he said. "Immediately, it's something to talk about."

One eclipse the couple experienced was from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Greece.

Because the ship left the shipping lane to get a better view, a military helicopter flew overhead to check on it.

When Alspaugh went to Indonesia to see a solar eclipse, he traveled from Bali to an island to reach the path of totality.

The vice president of Indonesia had decided, at the last minute, to join the other observers.

"They set up a high school soccer field for the viewing so you had to go through metal detectors," Alspaugh remembered. "They had a grandstand set up for the vice president. It was really kind of surreal. Nobody was expecting that."

When Alspaugh observed a solar eclipse from a cruise ship in the Caribbean, he could see an active volcano in the background.

"While we were watching the eclipse, it was puffing," he said.


Expert advice

Wehmer's three solar eclipse trips came in 1970, to Florida; in 1991, to Mexico City; and in 1998, on a Caribbean cruise.

He also has seen many partial solar eclipses — he remembers the one in Champaign in 1994 creating a perfect ring of light around the sun.

His advice for people on Aug. 21?

"Look at the shadows under the trees even from right here in Champaign," he said.

In 1994, "there were a million of these little rings — the sun shining through the leaves formed a pinhole camera, which projected the image of the eclipse on our driveway."

Wehmer, who has University of Illinois bachelor's degrees in astronomy and electrical engineering, also advises people to look at the planets.

"They're going to be big and bright," he said.

Wehmer said the human brain will draw on its imagination when seeing an eclipse. He remembers how his worked in Mexico City, after everything went dark.

"My brain didn't know what it was looking at," he remembered. "I interpreted it as a big hole, with a ring around it, through which you could pass, like 'Star Wars' warp drive."

For the upcoming eclipse, Wehmer, a retired resource engineer from the UI chemistry department, will go to a Catholic church camp in southern Illinois. He will give a lecture to the few hundred people expected there.

"Being a research engineer, I'm taking two telescopes, one 35mm film camera, one digital single-lens reflex camera, four video cameras and my cellphone," he said.

Eclipse chasers, though, advise observers not to take photographs — they should just soak in the experience. However, Wehmer and others use software programs that will have their cameras self-clicking and self-bracketing.

"With all the equipment I prepared, I'll be upset if it's cloudy down there," Wehmer said. "The problem is, you won't be able to go anywhere else because half of the population will be down there."

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