I'm a real science geek so I was excited when I learned about the solar eclipse of 2017. Sometimes I buy Astronomy magazine at the store so I read about it almost a year beforehand.
When I saw that the centerline of totality went right through the Sawtooth Mountains, I thought that would be an awesome place to watch the eclipse. I figured that I would need to make reservations way in advance. Redfish Lake Lodge is closed during the winter so I had to wait. Their website said that they would start taking reservations for the 2017 season on a particular date in January. I figured the site would go live sometime that day but since I was up late the night before, I went to their website just after midnight. Even though it was only 12:45 am, every one of their rooms was already booked for the date of the eclipse. I was already too late! Then I noticed that for the weekend of the eclipse they had doubled their usual prices. Apparently that hadn't even slowed people down. That was my first indication that crowds might be a problem for watching the eclipse.
As it got closer to the day of the eclipse there was a lot of news coverage. There were predictions of huge crowds, traffic jams and shortages of gas and supplies anywhere that was close to the path of totality. My next thought after Redfish Lake Lodge was a backpack trip into Sawtooth Lake. I figured that would be a good way to avoid the crowds and traffic. But a few weeks before the eclipse I got an indication that even that approach could be problematic. I was hiking in North Cascades National Park. When I reached Cascade Pass I was talking with another hiker, a woman who turned out to be from Boise (she mentioned it because I was wearing a BSU hat). When the subject of the eclipse came up, she said that her husband planned to backpack into Sawtooth Lake to watch it. Uh oh. So I wasn't the only one who had come up with that bright idea.
When we got back from our trip to Madison, there were only a few days left till the eclipse. By now the news had convinced us that anyplace close to the eclipse was going to be totally overrun with crowds. Sandy was discouraged and gave up on trying to see the eclipse. I was determined to see it so I spent the weekend before the eclipse scouting out possible places to go to watch it.
On Friday the first place that I went was the Stanley Valley where I hiked to Sawtooth Lake. When I got to the Iron Creek Trailhead, I could see that things were not normal. There is room for about twenty cars and sometimes the lot will fill up by the afternoon on summer weekends. I was there early in the morning and it was already overflowing and cars were parked along the side of the road for a quarter of a mile. I had never seen so many cars there.
At the trailhead there is a sign in box for hikers. The USFS uses the info to compile usage statistics. Someone had put a dozen or so eclipse glasses in the box. As the eclipse got closer a lot of stores had run out of them. Later in the day I was talking to another hiker on the trail and found out that she had put them there. She had extra glasses that she didn't need so she thought she would donate them for hikers going in to watch the eclipse in the backcountry. Sure enough, when I came out at the end of my hike, they were all gone.
It was a beautiful day and a nice hike. But I've done this hike at least a dozen times, and this time I saw about five times as many people as I had ever seen on this trail. Especially coming out, there were a lot of people backpacking in. And the eclipse was still three days away. I wrote off Sawtooth Lake as a place to watch the eclipse. But before going home, I drove to the Horton Peak trailhead to check it out. The hike is not as well known as Sawtooth Lake and I thought watching from the top of a mountain would be awesome. So I left that as a possibility.
The locals were obviously expecting a lot of people in the Stanley area. There were several places along the highway where parking areas and porta potties had been set up. But I could see traffic being a real problem before and after the eclipse. There are only winding two-lane mountain roads leading into Stanley. Another concern was that there were forest fires to the north. The smoke hadn't come this far today but might on the day of the eclipse if the winds were wrong. So I decided to look at other options.
Our friend Mary Beth was planning to go camping near Placerville to watch the eclipse. I had never been there so I thought that I would check it out on Saturday. It's not far from Boise but is deep in the mountains and actually quite remote. After a short drive to the town of Horseshoe Bend on a state highway, it's twenty miles down a dirt road. I thought that if the main roads were backed up on the day of the eclipse, it might still be possible to reach Placerville since I only had to go a short way on the highway. It was worth exploring anyway since I had never been there. Turns out Placerville is mainly a ghost town. From three to five thousand people lived there in the nineteenth century at the height of the Boise Basin gold rush. Now there are only a handful of buildings still standing. Most of them are museums or just vacant, although Donna's Place is still an operating General Store.
From the standpoint of viewing the eclipse, there were some open areas near Placerville that looked like they would work. So this was a viable candidate. After going through town the road went over a pass and dropped into Garden Valley. From there it was an easy drive back to Boise.
On Sunday, the day before the eclipse, I drove into the western Treasure Valley. The town of Weiser was really preparing for lots of people. They had several large fields set up for campers or just for parking, with shuttle buses running into town to viewing areas. There were some campers but not many. I also stopped in Payette, where they were setting up a few booths with tshirts and food and such at the high school, where there was a large open area which would be good for seeing the eclipse.
With lots of options, I finally had to decide. I had thought of going up early and camping but decided not to. It seemed from my scouting that things weren't going to completely fill up in advance. My plan was to get up very early and drive up on Monday morning.
I thought that Horton Peak would be really neat, watching from the top of a mountain, but I was worried about smoke from forest fires. So I scratched that off the list. I only had one shot so I didn't want to take chances. Placerville would work, but was probably more effort than neccessary to reach. I finally settled on going to Payette. It was an easy drive to get there. Coming back, it was only a short drive to the interstate for a quick getaway when the eclipse was over.
I talked to Sandy about going but she wasn't willing to get up in the middle of the night to make the drive. I got up about 4 am and drove over in the dark. There was almost no traffic and I was parked in front of the high school at 5 am. Instead of a crowd, there were only two other cars there. A couple behind me was from Boise. Another car across the street had someone sleeping it. The plates indicated it was from Couer d'Alene.
For the next couple of hours I waited in my car or walked around. When it got light, people started to set up their booths and I bought two tshirts and got a doughnut for breakfast. More people showed up, but not many. I could see the main highway, US 95, only a block away and it had very little traffic. About eight in the morning I called Sandy. I told her that no one was here and that she should drive up. She wasn't very anxious as she was just taking Abby out for a walk. I twisted her arm so she said she would call back after her walk. When she called back I told her it still looked good so she agreed to drive up. When she got there, she was able to park in the spot right next to my car. She said there still hadn't been that much traffic. Only half an hour before the eclipse started and she was able to drive right up. The crowds had obviously been overestimated.
We had a great spot for watching the eclipse. There were less than a hundred people, with plenty of space for everyone to spread out. The eclipse itself was amazing. I didn't worry about getting pictures. I concentrated on just watching. I figured that I could always find pictures afterwards on the internet. I had watched an excellent video on what would happen during the eclipse. I knew that it was supposed to get dark as the eclipse progressed but that only happened at the very end. Maybe two or three minutes before totality it got dark very quickly. I had looked up the time for totality at our exact location. I set my watch to the correct time, right to the very second, the night before. Totality occurred exactly when it was predicted. Physics really works. Everyone took off their eclipse glasses. It was amazing. We had about a minute and forty seconds of totality. That was pretty good. The maximum on the centerline was only two minutes and ten seconds. Even Sandy said afterward that although she hadn't really wanted to drive over to see it, the experience was well worth it.
After totality we only hung around for about five minutes. It brightened up as quickly as it had gone dark. We jumped in our cars and started home. The interstate was busy with people heading back to Boise but there weren't any delays. We made it home in a little less than an hour, about the normal time.
So the crowds predicted never materialized, at least in Idaho. In Weiser, where they expected ten to twenty thousand people, they had three thousand. Other states, like Oregon and Colorado, did have big traffic jams. The only place in Idaho that turned out to be crowded was the Sawtooth backcountry. Two weeks later when I was in Stanley, a ranger told me that they had closed the Iron Creek road (which leads to the Sawtooth Lake trailhead) two days before the eclipse because it was so heavily parked up. So it was good that I had given up on that idea.
The eclipse was truely an amazing experience. I was glad that I had finally been able to see a total solar eclipse in my lifetime. Definitely something crossed off my bucket list.