Total perfection: Chasing solar eclipse totality

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  • A wide view of the solar eclipse over Roberts, Idaho on Monday, Aug. 21. The sky above the town went completely dark, while the horizon appeared as a 360-degree sunset. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake) (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Al Tays of Whitefish stands near the Roberts Fire District station as he watches the moon begin to pass in front of the sun. Seeing totality was a “bucket list” item for Tays.

  • 2

    On Sunday evening, the night before the Great American Eclipse, signs for places to park and camp were still up waiting for more visitors to arrive in Roberts, Idaho.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 3

    Leona Bacon is a volunteer with the City of Roberts. As people came into town Leona was there with information on parking, camping, options for hotel rooms. She wore a vest which read: The Great Roberts Eclipse. Bacon decided to volunteer because she wanted to be active in the community. “I really like how everyone is loving our small town,” said Bacon. “People from Arizona, Utah, New York, Canada, California, they are all saying that they just love it.” (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 4

    Clark Cunzler of Logan, Utah sits with his daughter Mykell, 13, and son Ethan, 11, at a campsite a mile from Roberts, Idaho on Sunday evening, August 20. Cunzeler clearly remembers being 12 years old and watching the eclipse in 1979 through a welding helmet. He remembers wondering who he would be in 2017, where he would live, what his life would look like. On Sunday morning he and his wife decided to make a last minute trek up to Idaho to see the eclipse with their kids.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 5

    Melody Benchley, 13 of Hooper, Utah looks up at the eclipse through a disk of obsidian. Her family got the disks while traveling in South America. They were told that obsidian is what the ancient Aztecs used to view eclipses.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 6

    The park in Roberts begins to starts to fill up as people gather for the total eclipse at 11:32 a.m. on Monday, August 21. At the moment of totality a collective shout went up from the crowd that was heard four blocks away.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 7

    Volunteers at the Roberts Fire District station watch the eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21. The Fire District has only 15 volunteers all of whom were on duty on Monday. Many of the volunteers had taken vacation time from their regular jobs so they could be at the station and on call during the eclipse. Firefighters had been meeting with the local law enforcement community for more than a year planning and preparing for the influx of visitors.

  • 8

    Roberts, Idaho witnessed 2m16s of totality on Monday, August 21.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • A wide view of the solar eclipse over Roberts, Idaho on Monday, Aug. 21. The sky above the town went completely dark, while the horizon appeared as a 360-degree sunset. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake) (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Al Tays of Whitefish stands near the Roberts Fire District station as he watches the moon begin to pass in front of the sun. Seeing totality was a “bucket list” item for Tays.

  • 2

    On Sunday evening, the night before the Great American Eclipse, signs for places to park and camp were still up waiting for more visitors to arrive in Roberts, Idaho.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 3

    Leona Bacon is a volunteer with the City of Roberts. As people came into town Leona was there with information on parking, camping, options for hotel rooms. She wore a vest which read: The Great Roberts Eclipse. Bacon decided to volunteer because she wanted to be active in the community. “I really like how everyone is loving our small town,” said Bacon. “People from Arizona, Utah, New York, Canada, California, they are all saying that they just love it.” (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 4

    Clark Cunzler of Logan, Utah sits with his daughter Mykell, 13, and son Ethan, 11, at a campsite a mile from Roberts, Idaho on Sunday evening, August 20. Cunzeler clearly remembers being 12 years old and watching the eclipse in 1979 through a welding helmet. He remembers wondering who he would be in 2017, where he would live, what his life would look like. On Sunday morning he and his wife decided to make a last minute trek up to Idaho to see the eclipse with their kids.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 5

    Melody Benchley, 13 of Hooper, Utah looks up at the eclipse through a disk of obsidian. Her family got the disks while traveling in South America. They were told that obsidian is what the ancient Aztecs used to view eclipses.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 6

    The park in Roberts begins to starts to fill up as people gather for the total eclipse at 11:32 a.m. on Monday, August 21. At the moment of totality a collective shout went up from the crowd that was heard four blocks away.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 7

    Volunteers at the Roberts Fire District station watch the eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21. The Fire District has only 15 volunteers all of whom were on duty on Monday. Many of the volunteers had taken vacation time from their regular jobs so they could be at the station and on call during the eclipse. Firefighters had been meeting with the local law enforcement community for more than a year planning and preparing for the influx of visitors.

  • 8

    Roberts, Idaho witnessed 2m16s of totality on Monday, August 21.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

For those lucky enough to have clear weather on Monday, Aug. 21, the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse gave sky watchers around two minutes of undiluted perfection. While the direct shadow of the moon did cross a small patch of Montana, those who wanted to see the real power of a total eclipse of the sun had to travel to get to it. And many Montanans chose to do just that.

Monday’s solar eclipse was the first in almost a century to be visible across the entire country, with the path of totality crossing 14 states.

For Montana, the shadow of the moon crossed the state near Italian Peak and Scott’s Peak in the southwest corner — a mountainous area with no roads. One website described the challenge of seeing totality in Montana as a hard hike that would only result in less than 30 seconds of totality, but also as a rare and worthy challenge for the people willing to try harder for something truly unique.

One person who decided to make the trek to totality was Al Tays, of Whitefish, the self-described “curmudgeon” bartender at the Great Northern Bar and Grill. Tays, who is originally from Portland, Tennessee picked the town of Roberts, Idaho which is just off of I-15, north of Idaho Falls, as his spot to experience totality.

The population of Roberts tops out at 579. It’s a small farm town with a grain silo as its dominant physical feature. The community struck him as both picturesque and a prime bit of traditional “Americana.” It also reminded Tays of what he’d heard his friends in Tennessee were expecting.

“My buddy Mike lives in Tennessee. He’s going to be just a few miles from the point of longest totality. He told me in Hopkinsville, Kentucky they were expecting around a million people. And closer to Mike they were expecting around 150,000 visitors into a town of just a few hundred people,” said Tays.

After camping on a stretch of farm land about a mile from Roberts, Tays woke up the next morning to a clear blue sky. “Sunrise is usually when I am going to sleep,” Tays noted, laughing. “I woke up that morning and saw the sky was absolutely clear. I just kept thinking to myself how lucky we were. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There wasn’t any smoke. You couldn’t ask for better conditions.”

The eclipse lived up to everything Tays had hoped for.

“It was magnificent. It was fantastic. It was all the great words of pure joy that you can think of!”

“When I got back to the bar someone showed me the photo from the Inter Lake and asked if this was really the way it looked. I said that’s exactly how it looked and I was standing right next to the photographer when she took that. For me, this was one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. Everything was perfect.”

Another person who chose to travel for a chance to see the total eclipse was Whitefish resident David Restivo, a public affairs specialist and web manager for the National Parks Service. His job put him at the top of the queue for information about the eclipse. As he saw the information and planning getting underway, Restivo and his wife, Katrina, decided they were going to make the trek to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to see the eclipse in totality.

“This was a little bit of ‘forced family fun,’” admits Restivo. “I tried to explain to my boys (Carson, 16, and Blake, 14) but they didn’t really have any concept. When I told them that we were going, their response was something like: ‘Really? We’re going to travel for nine hours to watch something that will last two minutes?’”

The Restivos watched the eclipse from the visitor center parking lot with about a hundred other people.

“Every parking space was filled,” recalls Restivo. “The people around us were all filled with anticipation, it was awesome.”

“We knew when the eclipse was going to start. At around 10:15 a.m. we put on our glasses to see the moon pass in front of the sun. There is a children’s book I read years ago called ‘Someone Is Eating the Sun.’ Seeing the start of the eclipse took me right back to that childhood memory.”

Restivo vividly recalls the details of totality in part because he deliberately decided not to take photographs. He remembers being mesmerized by how quickly the sun went from being a fat crescent, to just a sliver, to entirely hidden. He described the way the light started to change and the temperature dropped, and getting to take his glasses off to see the sun’s corona. He also remembers turning around to see the 70-mile-wide shadow of the moon overtake the mountains.

But mostly he remembers his boys.

“My boys are growing up, soon enough they’ll be leaving home, I wanted to just cling to this magical moment and this experience with my family all together,” said Restivo.

“Photos do not do justice to the experience,” added Restivo. “It’s hard to describe unless you are actually there because there are so many emotions that go into it. People were giving each other high fives, you had people doing fist pumps next to others who were overcome with tears. When you are standing there and this happens right in front of you, it’s the best natural event I’ve ever experienced. Period.”

Looking back on the event, Restivo said that if anyone has the chance to go into totality, they should do it.

Al Tays would agree.

“I’ve been telling people this is something that everyone should see. This is special and rare in the universe. To be honest with you, I didn’t want it to end. For that minute and 45 seconds we were all a part of something bigger.”

The next eclipse across the United States will not cast its shadow anywhere near Montana.

On April 8, 2024 the path of the eclipse will make landfall in Mexico making its way north into Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, Canada and finally over Nova Scotia before continuing out over the Atlantic.

It’s not to early to start dreaming and making travel plans.

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