lights out in arco watching the total eclipse in a small idaho town

The sun rose from behind a mountain and cast amber light over the central Idaho plains.

Horses wandered in a pasture looking for morning mouthfuls of dry grass. A hawk glided low along a field of barley ready for harvest.

Mourning doves cooed softly, their voices mixing with the sounds of dogs barking and wild turkeys gobbling that carried through the cool, still air. Sunflowers turned their faces into the rising stream of sunlight.

As a car rolled by and left a plume of dust hanging in the air I looked down at my phone to check the time. It was 7:22 a.m. Morning had come to Arco, Idaho.

But in about four more hours, it would come again.

I saw my first total solar eclipse 38 years ago back in 1979. My brother Rick had joined me on a short drive from Lethbridge down to Helena, Montana, so we could be in the narrow path of the moon’s shadow when the moment came. The sky was cloudy that morning but just before the eclipse happened, the clouds parted and the moon passed in front of the sun.

It was a moment unlike any other I’d ever experienced. The temperature dropped, the air calmed, the clouds scattered across the sky lit up in a 360-degree sunset. The cheers of the crowd as the darkness of the shadow reached it’s zenith quieted to a murmur and then rose to a crescendo as the sun reappeared.

The memory of those brief two minutes of daytime darkness has stayed vividly with me all those years since. And now here we were, Rick and I, in the little town of Arco, Idaho, to experience it again.

Why Arco, Idaho? I mean, the path of the eclipse passed across most of the United States and if I’d based my decision on where to intercept it, there were places a bit closer. Dubois, Idaho - pronounced DOO-boys down there - was a hundred miles east and on the path. I’d originally planned on camping out at the St. Anthony sand dunes just east of Dubois but after checking out the $800 per night motel rates in the close-by town of Rexburg I figured even camping there would be financially ruinous.

So I headed to Arco instead.

I’d been here before and quite liked the town. It’s a quiet spot at the mouth of the Lost River valley, the place where the river starts flowing underground through the lava beds of the Snake River Plain. It’s laid out in the Mormon pioneer plan with wide streets and big yards, much like the Mormon towns of southern Alberta and a style I like. The cliffs on the mountains above the town are painted with high school grad years going back half a century or more.

And it’s just down the road from - are you ready? - Craters of the Moon.

They don’t look much like the moon’s actual craters but this black lava flow that covers the grass and sagebrush prairie west of Arco is a national monument and worth a trip to see all by itself. I, apparently, wasn’t the only one to make the connection. When Rick and I visited it the day before the eclipse, it was absolutely jammed.

But the other thing about it that made me settle on Arco as the place I wanted to be as the sun disappeared was that it was the first place in the world to be electrified by nuclear power. The nearby EBR-1 nuclear power plant went online in the early 1950s and lit up Arco. Now decommissioned, you can visit this small nuclear facility - about the size of a small-town grocery store - out on the plains near tiny, aptly-named Atomic City, 30 miles southeast of Arco.

So, I thought, if nuclear fission, one of nature’s most powerful forces, supplied the power for the town, where better to watch the show put on by nuclear fusion, the natural force that powers the world?

Brother Rick and I in the metropolis of Atomic City.
EBR-1, the nuclear power plant that lit up Arco, Idaho.
Inside EBR-1, the nuclear power plant that lit up Arco, Idaho.
Fun times in the Atomic Bar in Atomic City

A crowd of about 200 people scattered themselves around the town park. Several of them had telescopes with solar filters on the front to make the bright sun visible. A few, like me, had long lenses on their cameras. Everybody had cardboard eclipse glasses.

The majority of the people were from Idaho and Utah but I met a couple from New York and several folks from California. Rick and I couldn’t have been the only Canadians there but I didn’t meet any others.

By 10 a.m. the moon had started to nibble at the sun. By 11, the morning had noticeably started to dim. I wondered what the sunflowers must be thinking about this. Their faces would be turned to the southeast, toward the diminishing light source that was still high in the sky. Would they droop when the darkness came?

The smoke that had filled the valley the day before was nearly gone and the sky was cloudless. Over in the corner of the park a helium balloon was about to be launched with a long string of meteorological equipment and a camera trailing underneath. The folks with the big telescopes were letting kids look through the eyepieces as the moon continued its traverse. Photographers - me included - kept twisting and adjusting their tripods and the angle of the lens as the sun and moon moved across the sky.

By twenty past eleven, the sun was just a silver sliver and the temperature had started to drop. Nightjars - whippoorwills -, their body clocks attuned to crepuscular light and fooled by the midday darkness, left their daytime roosts and flew overhead. The air, already calm, stood still.

As the sun disappeared, a cheer went up from the crowd. Faces that a moment before had been dim but visible were now illuminated by the glow from cell phones. The cheer dropped to a murmur, the exclamations became more awe-filled and less exuberant.

The 360-degree sunset I’d hoped for didn’t materialize since there was nothing in the clear sky to reflect off but a soft salmon-pink glow coloured the horizon. For a few moments I tried to take photos and video but then I stopped and let the camera roll as the darkness enveloped us all.

The bright dot is an approaching aircraft.
The sun's corona glows around the moon as red solar flares erupt.

Sitting there looking up at the sky as the bright dot of Mercury became visible in the blackness next to the coronal flare now visible emanating from the moon-shadowed sun, I felt my face start to crumple. Within seconds I felt tears rolling down my cheeks.

This was pure power that I was watching. Not the nuclear power that lit up Arco, not even the hydrogen-to-helium conversion that powers the sun. No, it was the power of nature, the power that governs, well, everything.

And the fact that I, a fluke of nature myself, was there to witness it was overwhelming.

Wiping my eyes and hoping that nobody had noticed, I adjusted the exposure setting on my camera as a bright flash of sunlight popped its way between the mountains of the moon. Within seconds, the day had brightened and the crowd erupted in cheers again. A group of people started dancing and I grabbed my camera to record it but in my agitated state, I hit the wrong button.

And then it was over. Full daylight wouldn’t come for another forty minutes or so but the second dawn of the day was done. I packed up my gear.

A total eclipse is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. It's an experience you’ll never forget.

The next total eclipse over North America happens in April, 2024. And then totality visits Alberta in August of 2044. So waddaya think, Rick? Do we have time for a couple more?

I know I’ll be ready to go!


AUGUST 21, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300 and the Sigma 150-600C.

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