Last April I got a call out of the blue from my uncle in Las Vegas and he sounded like a kid on Christmas. A solar eclipse was set to cross the United States on August 21st with its path of totality touching 14 states. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the best places to watch was the great state of Idaho.
I didn’t know much about eclipses in terms of photography, but I knew we needed goofy looking shades reminiscent of the 3D glasses Biff’s henchman wore in Back to the Future. With some light planning spread out over those weeks and months I gravitated towards watching it from Blue Lake, a lake one hour north of Boise secluded in national forest. My thought process being that it would be passed by tourists not knowing about it or being turned away by the hike to get there.
Sunset the night before the eclipse at Mackay Reservoir, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff/Released)
The days leading up to the 21st, word on the radio of the sheer numbers we would be dealing with became daunting, especially anywhere north through Boise. So we settled on a reservoir just outside the town of Mackay, going east away from Boise to hopefully avoid the masses. Most importantly we were dead center in the totality zone, giving us nearly two minutes of totality to witness. The route took us along highway 84, to the 26 past Craters of the Moon and finally after hitting Arco we took highway 93 north to Mackay.
When we hit Arco the day before the eclipse, our hearts sunk. Not because of crowds, which were moderate, but a thick haze of smoke was all we could see looking north. As luck (or lack thereof) would have it a forest fire was burning near Stanley and it looked like the smoke only got worse the further we went. Upon arriving at the reservoir, the smoke was still heavy, but we were relieved to find that the area around the water was pretty open. The official camp grounds were pretty darn full, but the beauty of Idaho law is we could pitch a tent anywhere around the reservoir, and so we did just that.
Our camp above Mackay Reservoir, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff/Released)
I didn’t realize how cool the surrounding area was until we drove around looking for good spots from which to watch. The reservoir is a great place to relax and if you want to get a little adventurous there are some great hiking/mountain climbing opportunities in the vicinity. I found out that Borah Peak (which my uncle climbed back in the 80’s) is about 20 minutes north of town and is the largest peak in Idaho. I’ll definitely be going back to take a swing at that.
After a night of checking out Mackay and making some new friends with our neighbor campers from Washington, we turned in early to get some rest for the next day’s events.
The view through a pair of eclipse glasses before totality hit at Mackay Reservoir, Idaho.(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff/Released)
That morning all the people we were afraid of overrunning us showed up, in force. The roads were lined with cars pulled over to watch and people were walking all over looking for a spot to set up. We ran over to the public restrooms by one of the campgrounds and the parking lot was a madhouse. You couldn’t walk five feet without running into the kids riding around on bicycles with signs saying, “Eclipse 2017 T-Shirts! $20.” My personal favorite though was the t-shirt selling Willie Nelson look alike who was passed out after the eclipse on our way home.
A man selling eclipse t-shirts takes a nap at Mackay Reservoir, Idaho. (Courtesy photo by Flo Gardipee)
Then the moment was finally upon us. The smoke had improved thanks to some strong eastern winds and thankfully the sun was at such an angle that it didn’t impact our view very much. It felt like it took forever to witness totality in all its glory, as the darkness moved from the top right of the moon downward at an angle. Then, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees as totality hit. A wave of darkness swept over the valley and you could hear the excitement from the thousands of viewers. All the animals stopped moving and making noise, until the coyotes began howling which was very surreal at 11 in the morning. The view around us was like a weird dusk, where you could see what was around you, but not very well.
The eclipse makes its pass at Mackay Reservoir, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff/Released)
I personally didn’t expect it to be as jaw dropping as it turned out to be, but I was happily surprised. I was focused on my camera at first, but at a point I found myself get lost in what I was seeing. Such an amazing phenomenon that so few people in the world get to witness the way I did. Everyone around was speechless. One of the girls camping with us started crying uncontrollably because she was so overtaken with emotion. It’s funny how something I had chalked up as a neat outing became almost a spiritual experience.
The 2017 solar eclipse in totality at Mackay Reservoir, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff/Released)
It was a truly cosmic experience made even better by good company. If you ever get a chance to see a solar eclipse in totality and you’re even remotely near that zone, take some friends and see for yourself just how incredible it is. (The next one is in 2024 if you’re up for a Mexican vacation to reach the best point, or watch from one of 12 states) You won’t regret it.
Commentary by Airman 1st Class Jeremy D. Wolff
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