Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gwen and Dave's Excellent Eclipse Adventure

"If you don't leave a comment - I don't know you were even here."

Day one - Catharsis

About every 18 months an Annular or Total solar eclipse happens somewhere in the world. There are two types of solar eclipses - total - where the moon completely covers the Sun. Total Solar eclipses are the jewel of Earth based astronomical events since the completely covered Sun affords a rare view of the Sun's outer atmosphere called the corona - a most awe inspiring view - if you get a chance to see one - I highly recommend it.

During Annular solar eclipses the moon is too far away to appear big enough to cover the whole sun - leaving an "annulus" or "ring" of Sunlight surrounding the smaller moon. The last Annular solar eclipse visible in Arizona was 18 years ago - The path of Annularity passed very close to Tucson and I ventured to the edge of the path of Annularity to watch the eclipse. This year another annular eclipse passed through the desert southwest in northern Arizona. I had planned to travel to Monument Valley, Utah to view the event ever since I visited The View Hotel in the summer of 2009 when Gwen was working at Mesa Verde as a Park Ranger.

In late 2011 a major health event threatened my plans. Though weakened from various rounds of chemotherapy and hospitalizations I recovered enough to make the trip. As with all astrophotographers we feel obligated to put the full force of our equipment to the task at hand. This meant taking my telescope mount and all of my camera/ telescope gear - filling my van from top to bottom with expensive hardware.

Now, because I was taking pain killers and tired easily I was not allowed to drive. Horror of horrors I had to turn control of the automobile over to my beautiful and completely capable wife. However, as a card carrying type-A control freak this situation grated on my psyche to the point of almost a psychotic break. Needless to say the first half of the trip was tense and prompted a much needed discussion of my problem. Best marriage counseling one could ask for - trapped in a confined space with my spouse for seven hours while I freak out!

Note - you can click on the images for a larger view.

Well maybe I can pretend I'm driving.

On the way up to the Monument we stopped at the famous Cameron Trading post just for gas and then on through the Painted Desert.

Arriving at the Monument entrance we were treated to some amazing cloud formations ahead of an approaching Sandstorm.

A few minutes later we arrived at the Hotel and went to the lobby to check in. The interior design of the View Hotel is amazing - the architecture as well. I had plans to do some architectural photography of the hotel but spent only a few minutes during the coming two days at the Monument to do this. A much regretted loss. I could spend a month at this venue and still not get all of the cool images I wanted to get.

Once in our room I had to try out a new camera I got just before the trip. It is tiny - no more than 2 inches wide and an inch and a half tall and is secreted in a water proof enclosure to protect it from the elements. The camera is capable of taking 11 megapixel still images as well as 1080p video. I setup the camera on a tripod and set it on the balcony of our hotel room. The camera was then programed for timelapse mode - taking a full resolution image once every 5 seconds. Here is me checking the camera for operational integrity. Note the view from the balcony.

The resulting video from the camera, played back at 100 times normal time. Be sure to select full screen playback

After the sandstorm passed I unpacked my trusty DSLR and ventured out to the View's windy patio to see what the tourist's were up to. I captured the following images of a impromptu portrait session of a very cute young girl.

As sunset finished I returned to the balcony of our room to capture the Monument in the pastel light of twilight.

Day Two - Into the Monument

It had always been my plan to take images of the Sun from a predetermined location in the Monument that would provide a foreground for a composite of the eclipse that I would construct later in Photoshop. I could not take all my astrophotography support equipment into the Monument without probable severe damage to the hardware due to the ugly road conditions in the Monument. To accomplish foreground photo shoot , I had to hire a Navajo guide to take us into the Monument. Liz had found a guide weeks in advance that would do the job. His named is Larry Holiday - a great guy and a great guide. We scheduled a trip into the Monument for late afternoon so we had pretty much the whole day to enjoy the Hotel. I took the opportunity to shoot some architectural images of this grand Hotel built in the Monument and architecturally blends in with the surrounding landscape. Amazing.

Late in the afternoon we met Larry and proceeded to take a very bumpy ride to a location that I had determined using Goople Earth and TheSky software. Using GPS and my visual memory of the view I had wanted, Larry put us with in a 100 feet of the GPS position I had specified. The location was beautiful - just what I wanted. All three Mittens in the frame - the Sun setting between the western most two Mittens - perfect.

I setup my Canon 5D Mark II - a 21 Megapixel high resolution camera with a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter to cut down the extreme brightness difference between the sky and the foreground. I set the N80 timer to take an image of the scene every 4 minutes to record the position of the sun for later verification of the positions I would use in the final composite.

With the camera set and running - we spent the next 2 hours talking and eating cheese and crackers.

Just after sunset we returned to the Hotel without incident for a relaxing dinner and conversation with Liz and Gwen - two girls at once - nice!

Day Three - Eclipse Day!

The big day was here. Too excited to sleep I awoke early before sunrise to attempt some long exposure photography and capture sunrise.

Not long before sunrise I got treated to a pass of the International Space Station - seen here in three separate exposures combined into one.

It was great fun to watch the balconies as sunrise approached . . .

After a nice morning nap and cuddle with my girl, I ventured out to setup the equipment - a task I was NOT looking forward too. Since I decided to stay at the Hotel to view the eclipse instead of heading out to intercept the centerline, I had staked out a great spot in the parking lot to park the car which had a nice place to setup the mount and still be close to the Hotel. Now the decision to stay at the Hotel was not without debate. The centerline intercept I had chosen was only a few hundred feet on a dirt road off the main highway 160 - about 50 miles form the Hotel. Perfect horizon and open area for setting up and observing the eclipse. Not until Gwen and I scouted the location out on the way to the Hotel did we find out it was private Navajo property. Now, unbeknownst to me or Gwen or Liz, eclipses are a BAD Omen for the Navajo and they are culturally prohibited from viewing these celestial events. They must fast and avoid being in the sunlight all day. This presented a problem since we did not know the family and were unsure they would even let us observe the eclipse from their property. The only way to contact them was to drive out and see them - a 100 mile round trip if things went sour. The whole situation was too precarious for my tired and frial body and mind. Besides which - and I can not stress this too much - there is MUCH to be said about having a porcelain convenience nearby.

In order to run my mount and cameras I needed the service of a generator. I had one. Setting the generator in front of the van I proceeded to set up the mount.

Once it was assembled - it was time to calibrate the Mount and the instruments - the task I dreaded. Calibrating envolves aligning all the telescopes to one another so they are all pointing to the same thing - in this case - the Sun. Since I had only one screw that held each of the instruments to the mount there was a elevation adjust that could occur only by shimming in between the instrument and the mount. Once this was accomplished all the instruments had to be rotationally oriented to the same view. Needless to say this took a couple of hours using paper shims torn from a pair of solar sun glasses. The other adjustment - the Mount was even more of an issue. Now I know a bit about observational astronomy and I know how to polar align a telescope - even in the day. Now mind you my mount is not one of these fancy "GOTO" mounts - I have to move everything manually. Normally I would make a first attempt by setting the proper Declination and Hour Angle of the Sun on the scopes setting circles then move the mount in azimuth and elevation to sight the Sun. This was a failure - why I don't know. So I reverted back to my days of using the "drift" method which is slow and very time consuming. This too was and utter failure - I don't know why I just could not get the Sun to sit in the same position in the field of view. I chalk it up to Chemo-Brain CRS (CRS= Can't Remember Sh!t) A hour before first contact of the Moon with the Sun - I gave up and used the telescope paddle to occasionally nudge the mount into position.

The eclipse was due to occur in the late afternoon and the Sun would be low in the Northwest sky. From our location the eclipse would still be in progress when the Sun set - only during the final "partial" phase of the eclipse. One of the things I brought with me was 75 pair of "solar" glasses designed for viewing eclipses and the like. Now these glasses were $1.00 a piece - no big deal. So whenever a curious tourist would come by to admire the monolith in the west parking lot, I would ask them if they had a safe way to view the eclipse - if they didn't I would give them a pair to have - no charge. Originally, I had bought the glasses as a distraction hoping that giving the person a toy they would be amazed with and walk away. Didn't happen. The free glasses began to attract numerous looky lous. My "security" (Dave's Angels) dealt with most of them but a few got through via our flank while we were watching the show. Needless to say I ran out of glasses in a hour mainly due to the word of mouth that rippled through the assembled crowd and beyond.

As for the actual eclipse - I got to watch a lot of it constantly having to adjust the position of the Sun in the cameras field of view. Most of the photography went well with just a few glitches caused by operator error (remind me to fire that guy). My most desperate moments came just prior to what is called "Second Contact" when the Moon first moves fully unto the Sun's disk. An important event in any eclipse. I missed it. I was trying to reset the camera timers to a 4 second interval from a 4 minute interval set during the "partial" phases of the eclipse. The horror of my error was only compounded by the "Awe's, "Ohhhs" and other excited exclamations coming the from the assembled crowd. Sigh.

For what it is worth - here are the fruits of the still photography efforts . . .

The day had been exhausting and I barely had the strength to finish packing up the equipment and downloading the images and movies before I literally passed out in the room of our Hotel. It was a deep and wonderful sleep.

Day Four - The Journey Home

Checkout time for The View was 11:00am - we took out time packing up the final essentials from the room and having a leisurely breakfast before heading off on a brief detour to see The San Carlos River Goose Necks. Where I come from these formations are called Horse Shoe Bends - but whats in a name?

After visiting Mexican Hat briefly we said good bye to our great friend Liz and headed back toward Tucson - passing a curious landmark along the freeway . . .

Back down the road - a stop at Cameron Trading Post again - this time for Lunch . . .

The restaurant has an amazing collection of extremely expensive Navajo rugs - check out the hammered metal ceiling . . .

In Flagstaff we had to stop and see our good friends Karen and Pierce.

Closer to Tucson we were able to see the fire near Payson . . .

Another couple of hours and we'll be home in Tucson. I leave you with a portrait my wife took, Suck that gut in geeze!

And another by Mike Terenzoni - © Mike Terenzoni 2012.


Kristen said...

Wow Dave. You cannot be eclipsed - this is amazing work with nature and a camera..... You never cease to amaze me. Kristen

Alex Landeen said...


Tom Harvey said...

Outstanding view! Looks as though all your objectives for the composite (to include the Mittens) were achieved. Typical of your excellent work.

Steve Shuey said...

Great stuff, Dave. I wish I had your fortitude. Love the shot of the small moons composite in the valley. Super!

Melinda said...

WONDERFUL post, David! It's nice to see the 'behind the scenes' pics, and read of the frustration - knowing we went through the same types of things. Great pictures, of course - but I especially like the difference in Gwen's expression from driving the car on the way there, to her expression at lunch on the way back. Priceless! And, gut or not, I like the pic that Gwen took of you!

Dana B said...

Excellent post; I enjoy your style of writing and the pics are phenomenal. wow. Glad you were able to do the trip!

Dean said...

Hey Dave-
Gotta love that hat - looks great on you! Spectacular pictures of eclipse and scenery. Wish I knew how to do that stuff!

skyshooter said...

Great story and photos! You're hard work paid off nicely!

skyshooter said...

Great story and photos. Your hard work paid off nicely! Now I have to plan a trip to that hotel!

Benny said...

I love your stuff David. I'd love to hang around and learn a few things. Keep it going.
Benson Ricks