University Lowbrow Astronomers

Confessions of an Eclipse Chaser.

by Brian Ottum
Printed in Reflections: October, 2003.

I have the bug.  The totality flu.  It became apparent when I punched pinholes in cardboard and viewed those tiny little crescents of a partial solar eclipse.  That was in the mid 1970’s in my boyhood home of Wisconsin.  Since then, I’ve been blessed to see three total solar eclipses.  This is a summary of my adventures.


I became interested in astronomy and telescopes at age 12, in 1973.  At age 14, a couple adult members of the local astronomical society approached me to start a Boy Scout Explorer Post focused on astronomy.  That was the start of a great experience.  We spent many a late night at the observatory drinking Mountain Dew and laughing at each others’ stories.  We even did a little observing.  The dozen of us found out that a total solar eclipse was going to happen a few states away in February, 1979.  So we made plans and raised money for two years.  Parents were worried and had a lot of questions:  “Are you really going to drive to North Dakota in the Winter?” “Where will you stay?” “What if it’s cloudy?” With adult guidance we came up with a plan that was acceptable to all.

Our group drove from Madison, Wisconsin to Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Boy Scouts were welcome at military bases back then, so we slept on the floor of the officer’s rec. center.  The next day we listened to weather forecasts during our entire drive toward the northwest part of the state.  It didn’t sound good.  Not surprising for a North Dakota winter, a low pressure system was rapidly moving through.  (Clouds are a four-letter word for eclipse chasers.)  Soon there were heated arguments and a split in the group.  A minority wanted to dash north into Canada in hopes of catching clear weather further along the eclipse path.  The majority won out and we stuck to our plan of going to the Minot Air Force Base.  When we arrived the weather was cloudy, so we did our cloud dance and went to sleep on the floor of the gymnasium.  (Teenagers are crazy, and amateur astronomer teenagers are just plain weird.)

We awakened the next morning to a beautiful sunrise and balmy (by North Dakota standards) temperatures in the 20’s.  The eclipse was to reach totality by about 11am, so we started setting up after breakfast.  We had cameras, tripods and a couple telescopes.  The Air Force officers gave us a lot of quizzical looks, but few asked us any questions.

We started monitoring the progressing partial eclipse phases by projecting the sun onto the snow.  Now the passers by stopped to look and chat.  One of the most exciting times for me is to see those sunset colors of orange and red approaching.  Below that on the horizon you could see the black total eclipse line moving toward us.

One of the Scouts had a shortwave radio so we started the countdown to totality.  About a minute before totality we could easily the shadow bands moving across the snow.  All of a sudden there was a huge siren and blaring horn.  We asked someone and they said it was a “scramble” where B-52 pilots rush to get their planes into the air as quick as possible.  Amazingly, there were cars driving down the roads at mid-day with their lights on!

I had many plans on things to look at and photograph during totality.  However, I spent the first 30 seconds looking upward with my mouth open.  The prominences stuck out from behind the moon with the richest “shocking pink” color.  The corona was bright and had about 6 points extending out.  We could see many stars, along with Venus.  When I came to my senses, I started clicking away with my camera.  Quickly, I changed lenses from a wide angle to a telephoto.  I had a lot of plans for different shots, but it all went out the window in the excitement of the moment.

Soon a small but dazzling bit of the sun came back, shining through a valley on the edge of the moon.  We were sorry to see it all end after 2 minutes, 12 seconds.  But the shadow bands came back even stronger against the snow and sides of buildings.

We knew we had an 18 hour drive back home, so we didn’t stay to observe all the outgoing partial phases.  But the trip home went fast as everyone emphatically shared their own perceptions of the spectacular event.


In July, 1990 my wife and I quit our perfectly good jobs so she could have our first child and I could go to grad school.  So we went from two incomes to less than half of one.  Therefore, when people asked me if I was going to try to see the upcoming Mexican eclipse I said I did not want to spend the money.  Also, I had lost 6 lbs. (all of it brown) the previous year after returning from a Mexican business trip.  I was not eager to return.  However, enthusiasts from the Salt Lake City Astronomical Society arranged to charter a plane for just a 20 hour trip.  I could bring all my own food and water!  The price was low, and my loving wife urged me to sign up.

We left at about 11pm, arriving at the La Paz airport at about 1am.  After disembarking and walking out of the tiny airport we realized we were in a desert.  We rolled out our tarps and blankets onto the sand and tried to catch some shuteye before the sun was to come up.  However, sleep would not come easily.  There was too much excitement in the air.

The sun blazed hot by 6am, waking everyone up.  The sweating began immediately.  Just as in my previous eclipse, there was much excited discussion on where to set up.  Most wanted to stay near the airport since time was short.  However, I saw that it was an ochre dustbowl (which would play havoc on any photographic equipment not to mention lungs).  I invited anyone who wished to accompany me into town via a cab.  The cabbie let us off at the harbor’s beach.  The town was quaint and the floating boats completed the idyllic scene.

We carried our equipment to the edge of the beach to set up.  Surprisingly, there were no other eclipse chasers in town.  We heard the big Sky & Telescope and National Geographic groups were just south of town.  But we were quite happy with our seaside observatory.  I continued to videotape the journey in segments.  The western horizon began to darken by 11am.  The waves on the harbor began to flatten.  As totality approached, I could see that the shadows became very sharp.  The light from the 95% eclipsed sun was gray and weak.  Some local folks began to talk excitedly, not quite knowing what they were about to see.

When totality started, I quickly pulled my solar filter off of the video camera lens and zoomed in to catch the prominences.  Again, I was struck with the bright pink-orange color.  The corona this time looked like a giant eye, with just two spikes, one on either side of the sun.  You could see Venus, Mars, Saturn and several stars.  The very hot day suddenly got quite cool.  The wind stopped.  The sea became calm.  The streetlights flickered on.  The party boat’s tiki lights automatically turned on.  The most amazing thing was seeing a local citizen yell something and jump into his car.  Spitting gravel, he took off into town.  I do not know why.

Totality this time lasted over 4 minutes, so I had time to take it all in.  I could see constellations and sunset colors 360 degrees all round.  Each time I’m under the shadow of the moon, my spine tingles almost continuously.

When the sun came back, the heat came back with a vengeance.  Strangers came together to compare perceptions.  We slowly packed up, noting the smaller and smaller bite the moon was taking out of the sun.  It was fun to stroll around town, but the July Mexican weather started to become a problem.  I came up with a solution.  Why don’t we rent a hotel room and hang out in air conditioning?  I collected a couple bucks from each person and we got a very nice room.  The eclipse coverage was on Mexican TV, and CNN interviewed folks in Hawaii who were clouded out.

About dinner time, we headed back to the airport.  The sunset was spectacularly orange due to the Philippine volcano, Mt. Pinatubo.  It was the end of a perfect day.

Over the following weeks, I produced a 16 minute videotape of the eclipse.  It was fun to splice the good parts together and set it to music.  (The original audio contained a few overexcited exclamations that I was glad to remove.)


I decided to try to see the 1997 eclipse right after 1991’s.  It was just too much fun.  Royal Caribbean had a special eclipse cruise and I booked a room for my wife, two small children and me.  When I told my mother about the trip she sounded interested.  I asked if she wanted to come along and she said “sure.”  Then my sister said she’d share a room with my mom.  The family reunion became complete when my brother and his family decided to come.

A cruise is a great vacation for extended families because there are so many things to do.  You can stay together or split up.  We flew to Puerto Rico and departed for St. Thomas, Barbados, Martinique, Antigua & St. Maarten/St. Martin.  Some highlights were a hair-raising St. Thomas cab ride, the secluded beaches of Antigua, playing basketball on back of the ship and a train ride deep into a Barbadian cave.

On the day of the eclipse, the crew gave out eclipse glasses.  The captain announced that he was moving toward the clearest location and pointing the bow toward the sun.  As eclipse time approached, I noted that we were coming alongside the mountainous island of Montserrat.  The volcano there had been erupting for a few weeks, forcing people from the island.  As the partial phases of the eclipse started, the volcano began belching plumes of gray ash into the atmosphere.

The ship’s captain announced over the P.A. when there was 5 minutes remaining.  About that time, my video camera decided to quit.  I nearly tossed it overboard (which would have been easy since I was at the railing).  But I didn’t let that setback affect my enjoyment.  Having my mother, brother and sister nearby during the eclipse was special.  My wife was with the kids in the pool (with the other not-so-dedicated observers).  Her sole picture was the best.  She turned around during totality and shot a picture of the hundreds of smiling faces with those silly eclipse glasses.

This third eclipse was the most striking with the volcano, the sea and the massed crowd.  It was definitely the way to go (but maybe a little too posh).


I’d love to see the eclipse cutting through the corner of Egypt, the eastern Med and Turkey in 2006.  Maybe there will be another family reunion.  But something in the back of my head has me a bit worried.  I’m “three-for-three” with eclipses.  Three cloud-free views.  Maybe my luck will run out.

But wait:  I’ve also gone to one Super Bowl and one Rose Bowl and my team won each time.  So actually, I’m a charmed five-for-five!  Aw heck, if it’s cloudy on March 29th, 2006 I can still go see the pyramids.  Does anyone else want to come?


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