(Editor’s note: Marie describes her and her husband’s vagaries in the waning hours before they were to photograph Eclipse 2017 that forced them to split up. The second part, “Marie’s & Steve’s Eclipses” will publish here soon.)
Over the month leading up to August 21, 2017, I chronicled for Photofocus readers our preparations for shooting the Great North American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. (Part 1: Total Solar Eclipse Preparation, Part 2: Eye Protection, Part 3: Photographic Considerations & Part 4: Dress Rehearsal)
The natural follow-up question is: How did we do?
The short answer: Steve and I both had great experiences and are happy with our results. Surprisingly, we ended up having two completely different eclipse experiences. Usually, we shoot side by side and we planned to shoot the eclipse together. But…the best laid plans may derail, and as it happened, we ended up shooting the eclipse from 2 vastly different vantage points in Grand Teton National Park: me as planned at Phelps Lake, with our friends Greg and Sarah, and Steve, at the Jackson Hole Airport.
Our only prior experience of totality was nearly 20 years ago, in the Caribbean, on a bobbing boat in the open ocean near the Netherlands Antilles. We experienced the mystery and majesty of a total eclipse, but we didn’t come away with much of a photographic record.
Planning and logistics
In stark contrast to our prior eclipse, I devoted a LOT of time to thinking through how to shoot this eclipse. Deciding where to be for the eclipse was easy: we didn’t need much of an excuse to return to Grand Teton. Deciding WHERE in Grand Teton to be was much harder. I consulted local resources, reading site-specific Jackson Hole Total Eclipse Guide by Aaron Linsdau cover-to-cover, while poring over maps of the area, considering his ideas of where to be positioned to shoot the eclipse. I quizzed our local photographic guide, the affable and knowledgeable Daryl Hunter, who confessed to being stymied himself in coming up with a site for the shot he had in mind.
The predictions of an influx of perhaps 100,000 visitors to the Jackson area meant that traffic could be snarled. Coupled with the fact that Steve and I had a flight to catch out of Jackson 3 hours after the eclipse’s end meant we had to carefully factor possible traffic delays into our plans. As it was, we were second guessing our original plan, to spend the night before the eclipse in the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone. It would be crushing to rise in the dark on eclipse morning, speed our way south toward Grand Teton, only to miss the eclipse due to a traffic jam. We were considering winging it and spending eclipse eve in our cars at our chosen site when we had a bit of luck. Checking into Jackson Lake Lodge a week before the eclipse, I asked:
“By some miracle, have any rooms become available for August 20?” (Online, intermittently checking, there hadn’t been any, months-weeks ahead.)
Friendly clerk from Michigan: “I have good news and bad news…The good news is… there is one room available, which will hold up to 5. The bad news is…there’s a 20% surcharge for the eclipse AND a 3-night minimum.”
By this time, I had already rejected a room in Jackson offered at $3,500.00 for the night. We also heard rooms at the Motel 6 were going for $600.00-900.00/night, depending on who was doing the talking. Compared with these options, a 20% eclipse surcharge sounded reasonable. As for the 3-night minimum, we were still within the cancellation window for the last 2 of 4 planned nights in Yellowstone, Greg was able to cancel an additional night’s stay planned for elsewhere after our departure. So, it worked out remarkably well, at the very last moment, seemingly an act of cosmic or karmic intervention.
Where to be on Eclipse Day?
Once our sleeping arrangements were sorted, it was back to figuring out where to be in Jackson Hole for the eclipse. Even within Grand Teton, the length of totality varied considerably with the distance from the center line. Viewing events were planned for multiple locations in the park, including where we were staying, Jackson Lake Lodge. Although that might work for shooting the eclipse, we still had the issue of a short turn-around between the eclipse and our needing to be at the airport. The Lodge is north of Jackson and the airport and if the traffic predictions held true, we might be sunk. Steve had made an inadvertent tactical error in booking our rental car from an agency down in Jackson, not at the airport. The traffic would probably be the worst near Jackson. We thought about returning the car the day before and managing with Greg’s rental.
Another major argument against staying put on eclipse day and shooting at Jackson Lake Lodge was that the length of totality dropped from 2 minutes, 19 seconds on the centerline, to 1 minute, 50 seconds. Totality is short and mystical, and to cut down on it voluntarily…? Anyone who has experienced the other-worldliness of totality understands this reluctance.
So…I studied a larger and more comprehensive map, newly acquired in Jackson, for sites along the path of totality in Grand Teton. The Gros Ventre Road was along the centerline, a good wildlife spotting area per Daryl and a designated eclipse viewing area. On eclipse morning, it would be made one-way, with parking along one side. The Jackson Hole Airport was also on the centerline of totality and would solve the problem of making our flight. Both sites had the same major drawback, from my point of view. While fine for viewing and shooting close-ups of the eclipse in progress, both are scrubby, flat fields, not particularly interesting for a wide angle foreground. Neither site had much tree cover and we’d have a lot of sun exposure, being completely exposed for hours.
Most of the sites mentioned in Aaron Linsdau’s book had been eliminated as possibilities, as requiring too long or too strenuous of hikes or being too distant from the airport for us to make it out in time. Some sites I loved as possibilities were eliminated as too popular, like Jenny Lake. During the week, we’d hiked one of the possible sites mentioned in the book, Taggart Lake. We had a wonderful bear encounter and loved the hike, but the right location didn’t present itself.
A larger lake south of Taggart, Phelps Lake, was not mentioned in the book but offered a similar vantage point, looking east from the west shore of a lake. This offered the possibility of a lake view as a nice wide angle foreground, and maybe even a reflection if the surface were calm.
From the map, it appeared it could be reached by a road not subject to closure during the eclipse. The hike wasn’t too long. We decided to scout it out by hiking it, which we did the preceding week. It was steep but the footing was good. We tried out a few routes down to the lakeshore, and when we found the flat, small sandy lakefront beach, backed by sun-sheltering trees, we (me, Greg and Sarah) agreed: “This is it.” Steve had already turned back after an earlier, unsuccessful foray down to the lakeshore from another route. We timed the mostly downhill hike back (1 hour) and assessed the likelihood the rocky dirt road leading to the trailhead would be clogged up with traffic (low). Thus we settled on Plan A.
The day before the eclipse, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve was offering a guided walk to the same destination, Phelps Lake, from the center. This alternate route was more level, and I had a chance to ask ranger Laura about parking logistics at the center. Parking at the center offered a smooth paved road, access to a nice bathroom and a longer, still scenic, but overall more level and easier hike to our destination beach. We decided to play parking roulette at the Rockefeller Center, which would open at 6 am on eclipse morning.
In between our two reconnaissance hikes to Phelps Lake, while in Yellowstone, a wrinkle developed in the plan. We had a full day wildlife and photography tour scheduled with local expert workshop leader Daryl Hunter. Our pick-up was at 5:50 am, which came VERY early, as we had shot a 9:33 pm eruption of Old Faithful the night before, followed by a late dinner and then an hour’s drive back to Lake Yellowstone. Steve was hurrying down the carpeted stairs at the hotel when he twisted his ankle, which was bruised and swollen. Although he was improving rapidly and even managed the leisurely ranger-led walk the Sunday before the eclipse, he was concerned about being caught in traffic and slowing us down on the return hike.
That is how we ended up shooting the eclipse from completely different vantage points. More to come…