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Scouting Oregon for the 2017 Solar Eclipse

Scouting Oregon for the 2017 Solar Eclipse

The Great American Eclipse 2017 is more than a year away, but Robyn Higdon, producer of the Exploratorium’s live streaming of the event, was feeling like she was already too late.

 “I’ve called over a hundred lodgings—hotels, motels, RV parks, Airbnb and VRBO—and no one has any spaces. Every place I talked to is totally booked with eclipse-chasers, except one that won’t take reservations until March. I have a team of 19 people who need places to stay for a week!” Finding housing for the Oregon solar eclipse was clearly near the top of the list for her August location-scouting trip.

Robyn’s team consists of videographers, astronomers, telescope wranglers, satellite technicians, and on-air teaching talent from the museum and NASA. In August of next year they’ll travel to the “path of totality” in eastern Oregon to film and broadcast the total solar eclipse as it sweeps across the state. The logistics of such an endeavor are daunting. The team warmed up by documenting the 2016 eclipse on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and in many ways this will be a much easier job. But the sheer volume of people who will show up for the 2017 solar eclipse complicates other aspects of the planning. Such as finding rooms. “I’m ready to go knocking on stranger’s doors to see who might have space for us,” Robyn said.

She and co-producer Rob Semper left for Oregon in August, planning to crisscross an eastern region of the state lying along the centerline of the eclipse path, where totality—the time when the sun is completely obscured by the moon—will last the longest. The high desert country around Oregon’s Hwy 97 has wide vistas and hot August days with nearly zero chance of rain or significant cloudiness. There is a scatter of towns both north and south of the centerline: Fossil, Mitchell, Dayville, Madras.

The map was fundamental, even more than on most road trips

Robyn and Rob drove along the 45th parallel, the radio blaring road songs. “I’m driving my life away, lookin’ for a sunny day....” They planned to visit every possible town to consider its potential as a staging site. The eclipse will pass over Oregon in the morning, so is there a clear view east to the rising sun? The satellite transmitters need a southern path—is it clear to the south as well? What is the expected time of totality? They want two minutes at least, to get the most splendor for their hard work. Is there infrastructure to support our program: power, water, cable and phone connections, access to an airport? Will other astronomical savants gather there, so we have expert backup? Will we be able to cook or find food? Take showers? Get out of the heat?

They hopped from town to town, “I've been everywhere, man. Crossed the deserts bare, man.” And one by one, locations dropped from the pool. Mitchell looked like a good candidate on paper—it’s close to the centerline, with a predicted 2 minutes 15 seconds of totality, and the high desert Columbia Plateau seemed to promise clear viewing. But driving there, they discovered the plateau to be broken and carved with rivers, and the town in a sightless canyon rather than on the heights. A ranch resort near Fossil had great camera potential, with wooden fences, wagon wheels, horses and cattle, but it’s too far from the centerline; totality will last only a little over a minute. Dayville was so remote, so far from the airport, that other eclipse chasers will never make it there.

Encountering cowboys, both real and wooden

Madras, a farming town of 6,000, seemed hopeful: flat and open, close to highways and airport, and with an expected two-minute view of totality. When Robyn came calling, she found eager partners. The director of the Erickson Collection, a hangar-full of vintage airplanes at the city airport, offered its parking strip as a set-up site for the telescopes and satellite dishes. They run a convention center that would be available for lodging, or they could provide parking for rock-star tour buses if we decided to drive from San Francisco.

The Erickson Collection of vintage airplanes

But as Rob and Robyn admired the collection of old planes, they became aware that the little airport was a busy strip, with regular take-offs and landings.  Would there be airplanes flying through our eclipse video? And the haze in the sky wasn’t just high cirrus cloudiness, which wouldn’t be a worry—it smelled acrid and made their eyes smart: smoke, the result of late summer burning of crop stubble in the surrounding fields. Smoke can kill visibility of an eclipse as surely as clouds.

Still, in talking to city officials, it was clear that Madras is well aware of its position of favor for the upcoming celestial event. They expect an influx of people that will quadruple the city’s population—at a conservative estimate—and they’re busy planning a Solar Fest that will rival Burning Man. Two campgrounds, three viewing sites, music, educational booths, food, and hundreds of port-a-potties imported from Seattle will turn the town into a four-day solar theme park and eclipse lovefest. The city isn’t about to let anything get in the way of a good show: they’re planning a burning ban in the week leading up to the eclipse, and they’re working with the FAA to limit airplane landings that might interfere with a peak viewing experience.

“I think maybe we’ve found our place,” said Robyn. “Driving home tonight, feels like I've found a long-lost friend … down a red dirt road."

Where we'll be for Eclipse 2017: a panorama of the Madras Airport