The moon's shadow passing directly in front of the sun, blotting out all but the halo-like solar corona, was reported Monday to have been the most watched celestial event in human history.
Millions across the United States travelled to key viewing areas and tens of thousands came to Central Oregon, many passing through Wasco County.
It grew dark enough in The Dalles by 10:17 a.m. Aug. 21 for the streetlights to flicker on and the temperature to dip. Traffic came to a standstill and people gathered on street corners to watch the first eclipse visible from the contiguous United States since Feb. 26, 1979.
The last time a total eclipse was available from coast to coast was June 18, 1918. And the 2017 eclipse was the first exclusive to the U.S. since before the nation’s founding in 1776.
“The eclipse is either a bonus or a crutch, depending on how it (traffic) happens,” said Daniel Howard, of Hillsboro on Sunday.
He brought his family to Clear Creek Campground on Mount Hood for the weekend. They were heading to Madras, a key viewing area, on Monday morning and worried about ending up in gridlock during their travels.
That same concern was expressed by many of the people who stopped on the mountain to enjoy the serenity of the forest before moving east for the “big day.” Some of the campers had come from overseas to experience the eclipse.
“It’s very nice here — it’s quiet and people are friendly,” said Hubert Bouak of Germany, who was planning to visit Yellowstone National Park and the Redwood National Forest before returning home.
Although traffic volumes were not as high as expected on Friday and Saturday, the trickle turned into a steady flow by Sunday evening and then poured down highways on Monday morning.
Shortly after the eclipse there were traffic backups near Biggs and Grass Valley, and Madras was in gridlock.
“All the months of planning went very well,” said Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill, who set up the command post at Cow Canyon, a rest area at the junction of Highway 197 and 97, on Thursday and stayed there until Tuesday.
He said once the eclipse occurred, there was a mass exodus of vehicles from the rest area and along the shoulders of Highway 97.
“There were about 2,000 cars coming through per hour today,” he said Monday afternoon. “But this rest area emptied out within 15 minutes of the eclipse and the northbound traffic started.”
Despite the high number of vehicles on the road, Magill said there were only a couple of minor accidents.
He chuckled about being asked by a trucker if he was the security guard for the rest area.
“I told him, ‘No, not really’ and then he wanted to know who I was and what I was doing here,” said Magill.
A second command post was supervised by Chief Deputy Chris McNeel at the Oregon Department of Transportation maintenance yard at the junction of Highway 216 and 26.
Although the mission of the sheriff’s office was intense, and the hours long, morale remained high among the troops, who engaged in some good-natured rivalry.
“This is the ‘A’ team,” said Detective Scott Williams when a reporter arrived at the ODOT yard.
“We are definitely the ‘A’ team,” argued Magill when he heard what Williams had said. “They are the ‘B’ team because they have to be in the shade under the trees to protect their delicate skin.”
Deputies were joined by parole/probation officers, reservists, members of the posse and search and rescue volunteers at the command posts. Marine patrols cruised the Deschutes River to keep an eye on activity along the waterway.
“Everybody’s willing to do whatever is needed,” said Williams. “I think all of the volunteer groups were excited about being involved.”
Oregon State Police troopers were also present and ambulance crews were standing by at both command posts, and in Maupin, to handle medical emergencies.
Wasco County Amateur Radio members assisted with communications. Life Flight helicopters were staged around the region to respond to accidents involving traumatic injuries.
Magill said the event was a good test of how well all components of the sheriff’s office worked together, and with partner agencies, which he felt was highly successful.
“We are trying to find the balance between people having a good time and getting to do what they want — and making sure they are all safe,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Alan Birchfield, who had to stop numerous times on his patrol of rural roadways Sunday to ask that people move their vehicles off dry grass.
“I understand you just pulled off the road to take your pills, but you have a hot car that could have caused a fire,” said Williams to a motorist who had pulled into a wheat field off Highway 97. “Stay off the grass, stay on the road.”
They, like the other law enforcement officials on duty, delivered warnings in a friendly tone and concluded the conversation by telling people to have a good day and stay safe, or in some cases welcoming foreign visitors to Oregon and the United States.
“I’m just stopping by to see if you need anything,” said Deputy Jay Waterbury, former police chief of The Dalles, to campers at Frog Lake.
“This uniform is for fun, my other one was a job,” he said of patrolling the section of Wasco County within the Mount Hood National Forest.
The sheriff’s office contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure public safety in about 24 camping areas and along rural roadways through federal lands.
“I’m out here once or twice a week — as often as Mrs. Waterbury will let me out to play,” said Waterbury.
He had put in 292 miles the previous day and made contract with 172 recreationists. He passed out sheriff badge stickers to kids and answered questions from their parents, including where a good viewing area would be for the eclipse if they decided not to continue the journey eastward.
One camper from the Portland metro area asked Waterbury Aug. 20 if he knew “what kind of a cow had a tuft of hair off its chin.”
“I don’t know, I’m not a cattle guy,” replied the deputy.
Once back in the car, Waterbury talked about the importance of law enforcement officials keeping interactions with citizens as positive as possible.
“Most people will treat you the way you treat them,” he said.
A notice was posted at Clear Creek campground to remind people not to feed a bear that had been seen in the area. Waterbury said the animal, the mother of a cub, had gotten aggressive enough to tear a hole in the tent of a camper. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” stated the warning posted by forest service officials. Wild animals that get too comfortable around humans are likely to be euthanized to protect public safety.
With almost every campground full, Waterbury was on alert for people with campfires outside of the designated steel rings, or where they were prohibited altogether. He and other officials worried about the possibility of wildfires caused by careless human behavior.
Magill said several campers had to be evacuated Friday evening not far from his command post when the Nena Springs fire jumped a tributary of the Deschutes River on the Warm Springs Reservation.
In Shaniko, the street party was on during the weekend, with live entertainment and vendors setting up booths along the street that offered everything from snow cones to eclipse T-shirts and other memorabilia.
“It’s a once in a lifetime event,” said Steve Bryant of Roseville, Calif., who travelled with his wife, Brenda, and brother Wade to Shaniko to experience the rare phenomenon.
The community with a population of less than 50 and nearby Antelope, roughly the same size, were sited at the edge of the Path of Totality, a 70-mile swath of land where total darkness was expected for two minutes during the eclipse. At the peak of the eclipse, about 10:21 a.m., The Dalles was at 99.1 percent of total darkness.
Not everyone who came to Shaniko lived outside Wasco County.
Susie Tennison and Jason Eatwell of Mosier, along with their son Jaxson, 1, and his proud grandma, Peggy Arellano, were selling T-shirts to commemorate the occasion. They also offered old-time photos that they felt were befitting of the historical setting.
“We made shirts for ourselves and then sold them to friends and made more — and suddenly we had 350 T-shirts so here we are,” said Tennison.
Jude Patterson of Walla Walla Shave Ice said he and a partner were just “rolling through” Shaniko on their way to Madras and decided to stay.
In Antelope, the streets were quiet but the old school was the scene of activity.
“Welcome to the big bang theory,” said John Pettit, president of the Tacoma Astronomical Society, which had rented the grounds.
“Every other place was gouging people but we got this place for $150 for three nights,” he said.
Refracting telescopes and others were set up to not only study the eclipse but the constellations and stars that would be visible at night.
“We walked around and invited all the townsfolk to a star party,” said Pettit.
Williams said the eclipse provided an opportunity for deputies, usually working behind the scenes, to play a visible role in addressing challenges that arose.
Later this week, deputies will again be a visible presence at the Wasco County Fair, which runs Aug. 24-27 at Hunt Park in Tygh Valley.
“It’s going to be another busy week,” said Magill.
He did take time to watch the eclipse (through safety glasses) and described the event that drew so much public attention as “just amazing.”
“It was an interesting few days,” he said.