Astronomy Hobbyist Magazine
Mountain Empire Issue 1
Midnight Sun Eclipse

There are Strange Things
Done by the Midnight Sun

This story might more suitably have appeared in one of those "true confessions" magazines than in the Celestial Observer, for I begin by making a confession. I am an eclipse addict. And I am not ashamed.

It began in a trivial enough way. Early one evening in January 1970, Craig Halverson, Doug Duncan and I, all of the Griffith Observatory staff, were sitting at a table in La Villa Taxco, a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles which is one of the more popular haunts of planetarium employees on their dinner hour. The bowl of corn chips and the supply of hot sauce were dwindling. Conversation turned to the forthcoming solar eclipse of February 9, 1970. Craig asked whether I was interested in going to see it. My reply was something along the lines of "No, I'd like to go, but it would cost too much."

Craig began arguing...

He was not a planetarium lecturer at that time, but he had already cultivated a persuasive manner against which my weakening resolve was unable to stand. Phrases like, "Camping is cheap", "Gasoline would only cost $30 per person", and "Eclipses don't happen every day", began to have their effects, and before we left that restaurant that night the decision was made. We would go to Mexico to observe the eclipse.

Now this is not going to be the story of the 1970 eclipse, but I will say that when the moon's shadow left our hilltop observing station in Suchixtepec, Oax., Mexico, it uncovered three new converts to the mad science of eclipse-chasing. Then and there I resolved that I would try to observe every solar eclipse I could. And so it was only a matter of time.

The year 1972, according to the ephemeris, brings with it four eclipses: One total lunar eclipse on January 30, a partial lunar eclipse on July 26, an annular solar eclipse January 16, and a total eclipse of the sun on Monday, July 10. The July 10 event was to begin at sunrise in Siberia, glide across the remoteness of the Arctic Ocean, touch the north slope of Alaska tentatively, then cut out to sea again before attacking the North American continent in earnest in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada's Northwast Territories.

From there it would cut a three thousand mile swath, 108 mjles wide, across the Dominion of Canada, then depart into the Atlantic where, unobserved, it would disappear at sunset.
In considering possible observing sites, I noted in the January 1972 issue of Sky and Telescope an intriguing announcement about an expedition being planned and led by John Findlay of the Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. This proposed expedition was to depart from Calgary, Alberta, to Inuvik and then for the tiny Eskimo village of Tuktoyaktak, Northwast Territories, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, where the path of totality would first enter Canada. Weather prospects sounded good as did the cost (about $150 per person from Calgary,) and the excitingly remote location. So I sent a cash deposit off to Calgary in early April, and after a sales talk, persuaded a friend, Andy Burg of Los Angeles, to do the same.

Our plans then proceeded rapidly. We would leave Los Angeles by car on July 2 bound for Calgary, taking in some of the Northwest's spectacular scenery on the way. Our equipment would consist of binoculars for viewing the eclipse, and a Questar catadioptric telescope of 3.5 inch aperture and 56 inch focal length to make photographs of the partial and total phases. The Questar and the 35mm Pentax camera that would be coupled to it were to be borrowed from the astronomy department of Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA.

Our charter flight from Calgary was to arrive at 8pm in Inuvik. It was right on time, and eighty-five other astronomers joined us in surveying the wonders of the far north. The schedule called for the entire group to be ferried immediately to Tuktoyaktuk, eighty miles to the north, in DC 3's, since the Tuk field is gravel, and too short to accomodate the Electra in which we had come. The small planes were being readied, then... trouble.

John Findlay's request for a complete weather forecast brought the following message clattering off the radioteletype from Edmonton.

Generally clear conditions expected in (Mackenzie) delta. However, extensive coastal fog may obscure sky at Tuktoyaktuk and Shingle Point. Would suggest staying a few miles inland or even at Inuvik, where eclipse will be 99.5% complete. – Edmonton.

Disappointment? Yes.

On the airfield, listening to the words of that message as Findlay read them were amateur astronomers like ourselves who had spent weeks or months of preparation and hundreds of dollars on this trip. A few moments before, their mood had been excited and happy. Now it was one of uncertainty at best, despair at worst. The clear, sunny skies over the airstrip mocked our dark feelings.

The next day, with skies still clouded, we left Inuvic for the town of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. As you will see from our pictures, the miraculous happened. One hour before totality, the Arctic skies became as clear as those over Suchixtepec had been two years before.

First contact at 12:04. Cameras begin snapping.

12:45. The sky has darkened dramatically. Andy, along with the other first-time eclipse viewers, is incredulous. He takes picture after picture of the darkening landscape. Every five minutes, I take another partial phase picture. Because our film has little latitude for error, I take each photo twice, using different shutter speeds to ensure getting at least one good negative.

At 12:56 I notice the planet Venus, easy now in the darkening blue sky.

At 1:07 shadow bands are seen making their ghostly way across the sheets of white paper we have set up to detect them. It is my impression that they were much easier to see, and were visible for much longer, in Mexico in 1970.

Two minutes now until totality. The sky is very dark, and even darker to the west, in the direction of the moon's approaching shadow cone, now only 65 miles away and rushing towards us at more than 2000 miles per hour.

1:09 p.m. The shadow engulfs us. The tiny remaining crescent of the solar photosphere shrinks with the passing seconds. It is much less than half a circle. By blocking its dazzling brilliance with my thumb at arm's length, I can already detect the corona. A few seconds pass, and then the diamond ring effect is seen, as the last bit of the sun's blinding surface appears to evaporate from the lunar limb.

And there, at last, shines the corona, silvery in color, extending beyond the edge of the moon by twice its apparent diameter or perhaps a bit more.

The second diamond ring's extravagant brightness appears, now at the west limb of the moon, and totality is over. It has lasted a little over two and a half minutes. I follow the corona for a few seconds by using my thumb and then go onto other observations. I later learn that John Findlay and Bill Peters followed it for more than four minutes.

The rest of our story, if not anticlimactic, is pretty low-key stuff when compared with the unforgettable drama Nature has just played for us on her stage. As others run about comparing impressions, Andy and I force ourselves to stay at work, continuing to photograph the partial phases for a little over an hour until, at 2:18, the moon's disk departs from the solar face, and the eclipse of July 10, 1972, enters the realm of memory.

This article originally appeared in the magazine Celestial Observer, October - December 1972, Vol. 3 No. 4.

Custom Search