HOW TO WATCH A TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE FROM A WILD IDAHO MOUNTAINTOP, PART III
The morning of the solar eclipse, we woke up bright and early — the chilly air, dawn light, and annoyed deer stomping around our campsite were an effective alarm clock. The deer spent a few minutes circling our hammocks from a short distance before eventually wandering out of sight. Felt like a lucky way to start the day!
I usually start the day with a few cups of coffee, but didn't make any this morning: we didn't bring a stove, and without hot water my only option was a cold cup of instant coffee. Uncaffeinated, I woke up slowly, watching the sun illuminate the peak of the mountain southeast of our campsite, and then spread west to the valley we’d hiked up through. We had a calm morning, with several hours to go before the few precious minutes of total eclipse just after 2:00pm.
We didn’t know exactly where we were, but based on predictions for major cities to our east and west, we expected the totality would reach us between 2:02 and 2:17pm. In order to protect our eyes, we planned to keep our goofy eclipse glasses with us at all times and start checking how much of the sun was obscured once we reached early afternoon. The partial eclipse would be ongoing throughout the morning, so we’d still have to be careful not to look directly at the sun and burn our retinas! Our eclipse glasses were our most valuable possessions at this point (just don’t tell our beloved running shoes!) and we checked and double-checked that they were safely wrapped and stowed in our packs.
After yesterday’s slow hikes, we were excited to get some real running in today. We set out towards the Lowman side of the mountain, where we’d originally planned to camp: the maps showed a basin area that we hoped would be an easily accessible, wide open field, where we could relax and watch the eclipse. We stayed bundled up against the cool morning air, packed some snacks and water, checked for our glasses one final time, and got moving.
Our first mile covered the same stretch of trail we’d checked out the night before, a steep climb over the rocky peak and down into the sheltered, lush eastern side of the mountain. The forest was still crowded with burned out trees, but the landscape was much brighter than our side! We began to head downhill and could soon see through the trees to the valley we’d spotted on the map.
We kept descending, watching for the fork in the trail that would lead us to our valley destination. The Peace Creek Trail would continue east to the trailhead we had originally planned to use, but there was a short northern spur on the map that we wanted to check out. When we were still planning this trip, we’d also thought running a few extra miles in the morning would give us some peace and quiet as we got away from other campers — as runners, we knew could cover more ground than hikers on the same trail. In the end, we had the whole forest to ourselves, no matter what speed we traveled.
We headed down an even steeper grade once we reached the smaller trail, and finally bottomed out around 6,300 feet above sea level — about 700 feet of descent over 3 miles. The trail ran right up to the treeline, but what we found wasn’t a peaceful meadow to frolic in. It was a marsh, an enormous floodplain that came right up to the trail we’d followed.
Because of the heat and time we’d be away from camp, we brought one camelbak with us, and alternated carrying it. I tried to get the boyfriend to drink up before we headed back uphill to lighten the load, but that’s easier said than done! A few miles and a few hours without water wouldn’t have been too much trouble, but as we warmed up and the day did too, I was glad we brought it along.
Our legs were happy we went for a run, but now that we’d reached our destination we knew we’d rather watch the eclipse from the mountain’s summit. We rested for a bit by our secret lake, then started to retrace our steps. We knew we had plenty of time, so we didn’t run back terribly fast — we felt free to stop for photos and to take in the scenery, as well as to hike the steeper portions. And at this point, we also started to feel the effects of skipping our morning coffee. A growing caffeine headache made going slow appealing, though it also meant a longer time until we got back to our coffee stash...
We kept an eye on our flooded valley as we climbed back up the mountain. From above, it looked like a perfectly secluded meadow, but without finding another access point there was no way we’d be able to watch the eclipse from there. So much for my dreams of Maria Von Trapp-ing my way through the Idaho mountains.
As we reached the top of the mountain again, I started to wonder when the eclipse would begin. Totality was definitely an hour or two away, but the partial eclipse would be slowly occurring throughout the morning. We dug out our glasses and peered at the sky: sure enough, the glowing sun was being obscured by a dark shadow, only visible through the glasses! It was impossible to tell by how bright and clear the day was, but the moon had slowly been creeping across the sun’s face while we’d been scrambling around the mountain.
Suddenly, the trip felt real. We weren’t just on a vacation or a fun trail run. We’d come up with a crazy plan, faced unexpected roadblocks, and still found ourselves right on track to see the cosmic event of a lifetime.
We kept trekking back to camp, but not before remembering the glasses weren’t the only way to check if the eclipse had started! When viewed through an aperture, like a “pinhole camera”, the shape of the moon crossing in front of the sun affects the shape of the shadows cast onto a white background through the “pinhole”. This is actually one of the oldest, low-tech ways to observe an eclipse safely, without looking at it directly. Boyfriend even wore a white shirt specifically so we could do this little science experiment, but we’d nearly forgotten!
We grabbed one of our baseball caps and sure enough, when the sun’s light passed through the tiny circular vents in the cap, its image appeared as a crescent that matched the eclipse we saw through our glasses! Instead of a circular ray of light, only the unobscured part of the sun’s shape appeared.
Giddy, we finally got back to base camp with just over 6 miles covered. We bundled up against the cool breeze now that we'd stopped running, and decided that a clearing just a few minutes from our sheltered hammocks was the best place to view the eclipse. We settled down with our picnic lunch, peeking through our glasses at the eclipse-in-progress every few minutes. PB&J roll-ups, chocolate, and a few clif bars gave us plenty to munch on while we waited.
And we finally got our coffee! I turned my back for just a moment, and was delighted when the boyfriend handed me our camp cup full of coffee, complete with a frothy layer on top. "Mountain latte!" he announced. Turns out, instant coffee grounds foam up beautifully when they're squirted by water from a camelbak spout, and aren't nearly as gritty and gross as I feared. If only we'd tried this out in the morning!
The day still felt calm, but there was a breeze, birdsong, and an assortment of background noise that we barely noticed until all of a sudden —just as we’d heard would happen— the world fell silent. The white noise faded, the air grew still, and an eerie chill accompanied the unnatural hush. As the atmosphere around us shifted completely, we threw our glasses on and watched the moon move completely in front of the sun, leaving just a fiery white ring visible around a black sphere.
With only a fraction of the sun’s light still reaching earth, night fell. The sky turned dusky blues and purples, and the air grew cold. The rapid and unexpected (even though we knew it was coming!) changes were awe-inspiring, and the washed out, cool coloring of the world around us felt like a strange negative of the bright day we’d been living.
We took a few photos, but didn’t want to stop gazing around us and up to the reverse image of the sun through our glasses, a white ring around a pitch-dark center. It would be tough to capture the surreal image of the obscured sun that we saw through our glasses if we took them off to snap a picture, and we didn’t want to waste precious moments of totality trying to get it right with our little cameras. Our photographs couldn’t capture that image like professional equipment could, let alone encapsulate the eerie stillness that was more than just the sights around us.
On the horizon to our west, where the eclipse had already passed, we could see brighter coloring like a sunrise — another strange, backwards detail to these minutes. I felt like I was living in an alternate universe, where everything I took for granted and considered normal was subtly different.
Soon, the moon continued crossing the face of the sun enough to end totality, and light returned to normal levels. The world woke up again, and quickly! We sat in awe, before eventually returning to our abandoned lunch. By the time we picked it up again, the chocolate we’d set aside melted under the sun’s renewed strength, and the layers we’d been wearing were suddenly stifling. From long pants and thermal shirts, we changed to shorts and lighter tops, and the day continued to get hotter as the sun returned to full strength and rose even higher in the sky.
With the big event finally over, we packed up our gear and began to make our way back down the mountain. The 6 mile hike passed fairly quickly, even though we'd just finished our 6 mile run a few hours before. Heading downhill, and still being so excited at how well our plan played out kept our spirits high! From hanging our hammocks to finding a comfortable, remote, and clear sightline of the event, the trip was a roaring success.
We finally reached the base of the mountain, and as the trail flattened out we saw a dirt biker or two heading into the forest. We opened up the car and wriggled out of our packs, and congratulated ourselves on thinking to leave our little camp stove and burrito supplies ready to go — we fired it up and were soon eating a delicious hot meal. A jar of pickles and our reserve stash of water completed our parking lot picnic, and a small foam roller helped us loosen up before climbing back into our rental for the trip back to Boise.
But our adventure wasn’t over yet! The traffic jams ahead, full of eclipse-watchers like us, lead to one of the silliest moments (and exciting runs) of our trip. I’ll cover those miles and a few other Idaho highlights next time to wrap up the eclipse series!