For one long weekend, the crowded behemoth, but magical, Yellowstone National Park was overshadowed by its next door neighbor to the south, Grand Teton National Park. The metaphorical shadow often refers to the crowds, for which Yellowstone almost always dominates. Grand Teton National Park though, actually had a literal shadow cast over it: the shadow of the moon.
A potentially record amount of tourists descended into the Jackson Hole valley in anticipation of the total solar eclipse, a rare celestial event. This particular eclipse happened to pass directly over the park, bringing unusually heavy visitation to a national park that often goes overlooked thanks to its close proximity to Yellowstone.
I had never experienced a total solar eclipse before, at least not since 1984 when I was only six years old and totality, or close to it, passed near my hometown of New Orleans. I only remember being led up to a solar scope, peeking through, and seeing an orange ring. That was my entire memory from that day. I can’t remember if I saw totality, or just a sliver of a sun. Either way, with the 2017 Great American Eclipse looming, I had no idea what to expect aside from what I had read and seen in some photos.
For about an hour the moon would pass in front of the sun. Then it would get dark for two minutes. Then it would get light again. Seemed like an interesting enough astronomical event to watch. I had seen pictures online, so I was looking forward to seeing something a little different in the sky. Having all the facts though doesn’t even come close to preparing you for the actual event. Of seeing something so unearthly that it stops you in your tracks and instantly etches a memory into your mind that will never be forgotten. Of experiencing an astronomical phenomenon that leaves the most vocal voices completely speechless. Nothing can ever prepare you for your first total solar eclipse.
My Chosen Location
I was undecided where to capture the total solar eclipse until literally less than two days prior to the event. My friend, QT Luong, was coming to town from California who ultimately decided on the summit of Table Mountain to get the sun over the primary Teton peaks, which you can read about here. A well chosen location indeed. I wanted something similar. I used a series of programs on my computer to try to find the ideal spot.
My first choice was the North Fork of Cascade Canyon; Lake Solitude, perhaps. After some investigating, however, my concern was that the eclipse would begin before the sun crested the canyon wall. I next looked to the South Fork, but in addition to the same problem, the peaks have an unfamiliarity to them from that vantage point. I looked elsewhere. The Idaho side? I’d have to leave immediately and fight crowds (at first). Farther north then? Farther south? Nothing felt like it would work. And then I remembered a spot.
A secret spot. So secret that in nearly nine years of living here I had only heard about it the previous spring. A place so secret I don’t plan on revealing it even after the fact.
It’s a steep hike, but short. I looked it up. It overlooks the valley, but Teewinot was at least visible. I could potentially do a panorama and have the expansive Jackson Hole valley, the distant Gros Ventre Mountains, glistening glacial lakes, and of course, at least one major rugged Teton peak.
It was off the radar. There was a slim chance I’d even be alone. I wasn’t counting on that though.
Preparing for the Total Solar Eclipse
I was on the trail shortly after 5am. My goal was to be up at my chosen location for sunrise, roughly 6:30am. The trail was steep, but no more than two miles, so it seemed doable, even with about 20 pounds of camera gear on my back, plus food, water, and extra layers for the morning. My headlamp lit the way while my ‘Hey Bear!’ calls interrupted the silence, most likely falling on deaf ears the entire way.
The climb up was extraordinary in gradually increasing light. Below, Jenny Lake and String Lake reflected the early morning. The oncoming sunrise through a light veil of smoke in the valley created a very colorful morning to encourage breaks on my way up. Exhausted, I eventually reached the top with a nearly perfect view just as the sky was at its most colorful. It was a picture perfect sunrise from a fantastic view. A view I had never actually seen before. As the color faded after a quick round of photos, I ate a snack, drank some water, and scattered my gear all over the place to get it all organized. Ironic how that works.
Golden hour light faded. Warmth began setting in. I looked at my clock and realized I still had about three hours to wait. I wondered if the high clouds that floated in overnight would clear off. I wondered if I’d be able to get the shots I wanted. I wondered if my fiancee was awake yet. I wondered if I’d have the spot to myself. At this last thought I heard a faint clapping noise. Then again, but closer. I looked back over the ridge as a group of three came walking up. A couple roughly my age, and their teenage daughter. We exchanged greetings, and they were off farther south along the ridge to find their own secret location. I was eager to see where they’d wind up. After their departure, I cleaned up my mess, now realizing they probably wouldn’t be the last ones up.
After 30 minutes of exploring, they began making their way back to me. Upon their return, they said that where I was was most ideal for watching. Since I now had neighbors, I decided to get to know them some more and enjoyed conversing with them. Their friendliness helped a couple of those hours pass by quickly as all the clouds cleared away for the event. We were getting absorbed in conversation. They were great to chat with and I was enjoying getting to know them. Then the alarm on my phone went off. The moon should have now been creeping into the sun.
Experiencing a Total Solar Eclipse
So far, we were all indifferent. Everything looked the same except for when we looked at the sun through our solar glasses, a small circle had taken a small bite out of the sun. Aside from that, it was just another warm clear day in Jackson Hole. I kept looking around for something interesting to happen, but thus far there wasn’t much to note aside from a portion of the sun missing. My alarm went off again; it was set every ten minutes to keep me on schedule to shoot in even intervals. I went to go take another shot, and though nothing appeared different to my eyes, the exposure was noticeably darker.
At nearly halfway, the dimming had become much more apparent to the naked eye. It was nearing midday, as reflected in the shadows, but it was unusually dim in the sky. Not like a cloud passing in front of the sun, but just as if the sun wasn’t as bright, which of course it obviously wasn’t. The dimming continued. More and more it became much easier to notice that typical midday light was getting abnormally distorted.
I looked out to the roads and highways. Completely empty. Parking lots and pullouts were full. On the roads though, there wasn’t a single car going anywhere. Everyone was somewhere. It had an almost post-apocalyptic feel. How often is everybody somewhere? Birds were quieting down. The only sound we could hear apart from ourselves was the white noise created from the waterfalls behind us.
There was a dullness to the light now. It was dark, but harsh midday shadows still clung to the base of trees and cliffs. The lighting dropped. It was quickening and easily noticeable. It was exponential. I looked at the ground and noticed atmospheric particles, perhaps the bit of forest fire smoke in the air, creating shadowed waves on the ground. Shadow snakes! I wanted to stare at it, but as the last sliver of the sun faded behind the moon, so did the patterns. And then, dusk.
Twilight. An evening sky representative of well past sunset, but at 11:30am. And something extra. I looked up. An alien sun in the sky. An ominous and eerie black, empty void outlined by a bright white flame shooting out from its circumference. In the midst of it all, I was scrambling on my camera to get the shot right before moving on to my other camera to work a different composition.
In between switching cameras, for a few slow-motion seconds, I looked up and stared at the total solar eclipse. For a few seconds, I was paralyzed at such an unusual sight. For a few seconds, I wished I wasn’t a photographer. I just wanted to be anyone else so I could just sit and watch such a rare phenomenon and not worry about capturing it in a unique way. I wanted to be with my fiancee, sharing such a bizarre moment with her so we could have a collective memory of an extraordinary event. For a few elongated and distorted seconds, I wanted to be someone else so I could just hold her and simply experience it.
It would be cliche to call it surreal, but there’s no better word for it. The surreal image is etched in my mind forever just from looking up for a few seconds.
Just as quickly as I was blindsided by the sky, I was back on my other camera, hoping to do a panorama. I got the first shot just right, then as quickly as it had started, it was over. Light fought furiously to creep over the moon. That small amount came pouring in over the landscape once again. The dusk light was now dawn light. Seconds later it was racing past sunrise magnitude. A mere seconds beyond that, it was daylight once again. Much dimmer than usual for sure, but having come out of the darkness, it appeared as bright as any other day.
Aside from the moon waning from the sun, it was over. Two brief minutes of totality left a lasting impression that completely justified all the hype and marketing ahead of the event. Both my fiancee and I are already planning where we’ll be on April 8, 2024.