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Chasing the Sun, Enjoying the Night

An adventure trip from Baku to Arizona chasing an annular Solar eclipse brought two TWAN photographers from two hemispheres under starry skies of America's national parks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Report by Tun Tezel
Photos by the author and Wally Pacholka

2012 July 10: For many years, annular Solar eclipse of May 20, 2012 has been one opportunity I considered to take, because of its reasonable location and accompanying good weather prospects. American "desert" southwest is a fine location for an amateur astronomer with its clear weather (apart from the summer monsoons), dark skies and amazing landmarks.

"We'll see"
I have seen 13 total Lunar eclipses (mostly from Turkey) without missing any single one until in the fateful, cold, dark and windy Baku evening of December 10, 2011 when I was clouded out and missed a total lunar eclipse. It was that night that made me confident to see the next eclipse, which was the annular eclipse of the sun in the US. The outline of my plan was to fly to Los Angeles or Las Vegas and have a road trip in Arizona/Utah with the eclipse viewing and TWAN imaging in national parks of the area. After all I have long been admiring the skies of the area through the pictures taken by my TWAN colleague Wally Pacholka.

Putting the wheels into motion proved to be more difficult. As I am working in Azerbaijan, I needed a week of leave for the trip. Asking for a leave is not a big deal usually, you either get the okay or not. The first answer I got was, "We'll see". That was because of then upcoming Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Baku in the last week of May. All jobsites were probably to be shut down by the government for a while. But when (or if) it would happen was uncertain until the very last days.

Next stop: USA
After few days at home in Bursa, Turkey, I took a 14-hour direct flight to Los Angeles, to be greeted by Wally at LAX. We left the city directly toward the Grand Canyon the same day. It was a long drive and even though we shared the driving, the twilight was already upon us when we reached our destination. I was able to catch the Moon over the canyon, which was 2.5 days away from the eclipse.

Apart from the immensity and glory of Grand Canyon, the most amazing aspect is the approach. Driving in the pine forest over the plateau, you have absolutely no idea what is about to come until the land actually ends.

After many months of living inside a badly lit city and just two or three nights under dark skies, the canyon was heaven. I went overboard with a huge all-sky picture and went on to photograph the rising Milky Way with my 35 mm lens, resulting another huge panorama (to be released in close future on TWAN). Wally made another pan which is now published (on this page).

Turkish Darth Vader!
On the 19th we went to Page, Arizona, home to Horseshoe Bend. It was our primary eclipse site, but was already crowded a day prior and even though we were able to find good spots, it was not certain how early we had to be there to secure the spots or if we could get them at all.


Monument Valley Galactic Arc by Wally Pacholka

After spending the night in Page, eclipse day was upon us. In the morning we decided to skip Horseshoe Bend and head for the Monument Valley. There, we met with Lukas Gornisiewicz, the young Canadian eclpse chaser and photographer who was in contact with Wally for a long time. He was meeting with Wally at last and I was the bonus. After checking out the new hotel opened right at the Monument Valley and named "The View" hotel we started touring the tribal park for a good spot to watch the eclipse.

Strong projectors of "The View!!" are flooding lights to the sky and the hotel became the source of obscuring the natural view of night sky over the world-known landmark (see the photo #9). The view-killer light pollution of The View hotel inevitably become the running joke which I repeated from time to time with a horror movie trailer voice: "The View!!" Wally calls it the Turkish Darth Vader voice!

Looking for the best place
At the spot called Artist Point we stopped to check how the Sun would go down and where in the sky the eclipse would be seen. It was not a good spot apparently, as the eclipse would be seen too far left of the three iconic mitten buttes. We had to move more than half a mile to have that view, which was not part of the touristic route. Then a local Navajo lady who runs a souvenir stand told us that some people were also checking the possibility to set up where we were looking to go. She gave us her brother's phone, who in turn told us we can stay at the prime location for some fee. Wally used his bargaining skills to cut the fee in half.

Summer Time Surprises
About 3 hours to go until first contact of the eclipse, we were checking out a small mound rising 15 meters above the valley floor. It was looking good and I thought we could secure the best angle about an hour before the eclipse begun. Then Wally parked his car by the earth road, where it would be stuck until morning. Which, we would not be aware of until after midnight.

We leisurely set up. I relocated my stuff about 40 meters to the south. It was time for the last checks. I was looking though the 20x view of the Sun through the telephoto lens (equipped with a solar filter) and there was a flatter part on the Sun's limb. There it begins! I announced it loudly and Lukasz was quite surprised as he was expecting the eclipse an hour later. There is a funny point about Monument Valley. It is on Arizona-Utah border and spans in both states. Arizona does not observe daylight saving time but Utah does. Lukasz probably used Utah time but we were barely in Arizona side, less than a mile south of the border.

Finally, the eclipse
The eclipse was perfect, the sky was crystal clear. Venus was visible much before the annularity and stayed that way until partial sunset.


Monument Valley Solar Eclipse by Tun Tezel

In fact, some haze over the horizon could be welcome to have a less bright sunset which we could have seen and photograph it easier. Not an issue anyway, especially considering the approaching night!

Venus over the buttes was the inevitable first shot of the evening. When it got dark, another good aspect of our spot became apparent. Lights from The View hotel was nicely blocked by one of the three mitten buttes. I again shot a set of pictures for another huge all-sky picture, which I have yet to start processing.

Sticking just like the Spirit!
About an hour after midnight, we called it the night and took our stuff to the car. Which was stuck in the sand, much like Mars rover Spirit. After half an hour of trying the front right tire was deep in the sand pool and front axle was sitting on the ground. Nothing could be done but sleep until morning. In the morning we walked to the two or three houses nearby if anyone was around to help us. No one... It was either one of us walk to the hotel at least 4 miles away to find help or one last effort with the tire jack, which proved to be successful.

Resting time
The next destination was Moab, UT, home of two notable national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. We reached there and checked in a motel. While Wally was getting his rest at the pool, I was trying to process the set of pictures for the time lapse eclipse picture.

It was a shorter night of photography at Arches NP, we spent about 2 hours around a spectacular site known as The Windows.

The last night of the road trip found us trekking to the fabled False Kiva in Canyonlands NP. There was also another fellow photographer Mike Blank, waiting for the darkness to take some Milky Way shots after taking some daylight shots earlier. I went outside the cave and walked to a higher ground to catch Venus with the 2-day-old Moon. Then came back, lied down on a comfy rock in the cave and dozed for a few hours. I would need some rest for the long drive back to LA and the sky I planned to photograph would not become fully visible before midnight anyway.

Night sky photography
Wally and Mike apparently arranged a nice soft source of light with a flashlight and some paper to light the kiva to take the pictures. I got up, waited for a few more minutes for the sky and started what I like doing most; going overboard again with the 35 mm lens for a big panorama. I added another light for shining the cave and started shooting. This time, shooting the sky was done in just 5 pictures and I had to shoot many more pictures of the foreground, right, up, left and down.

The way back home
We left False Kiva before dawn and walked back to the road. It was around 3 am when we were on the road back to California. At 6 pm, I was in the plane to Istanbul. As a cherry on top, for the first time in my life I was able to see Aurora on the plane, pressing my face to the window for a complete hour! It was somewhere over Manitoba, about 200 km SE of Churchill. Yes, I was even able to photograph it.

Next eclipse: 2012 November 14, Cairns / Port Douglas, Australia. Right then...


All-sky view from the Arches National park in Utah by Tun Tezel

   



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