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A journey to the centre of totality

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Astrophile’s from all across the world gathered in a 113 kilometre strip from one coast of the USA to the other on Monday (Aug. 21) to witness the solar eclipse’s path of totality. In this area the world went black for approximately two minutes and 40 seconds as the moon crossed the sun’s path.
Resident videographer Kevin Penner was one of the local residents to make the Trek, making a 3,100 kilometre round trip by car to Douglas, Wyo. in just three days.
“I started discussing a trip months prior with my friend Andrew Jones,” said Penner. “But, I realized my niece’s wedding in Saskatoon, Sask. was the day before the eclipse.
“I had just about given up on the trip when, on a whim the week before, I started doing the math. If I left after the ceremony in Saskatoon it would give me approximately 16 hours to drive the 1240 kilometres to the closest point of totality.”
Penner’s plan was to drive south until fatigue became a factor, pull over and get a couple hours of sleep, then drive through desolate badlands to a rendezvous with the moon's shadow at 11:44 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time the next day.
“The whole trip went pretty much as planned,” said Penner. “I arrived at the border crossing by 9 p.m. Sunday evening and I got to Douglas with 2.5 hours to spare. This gave me time to set up my equipment, chat with people and get a few short interviews on video.”
Penner noted that his two main concerns about the trip down were falling asleep at the wheel and not being able to maintain a good average speed through the night.
“I was happy that fatigue only became a factor after midnight so I pulled off the road at 2 a.m., got a couple hours of sleep in my van and continued on,” he said.
“Adrenaline, sunflower seeds and audio podcasts kept me awake till I got to my destination, as well as having to keep up a constant watch for wildlife. It is definitely a place "where the deer and the antelope play".”
Penner was also happy to have navigated the trip on unfamiliar roads in the dark fairly well with only one wrong turn that was quickly corrected.
“Since I was going on the trip alone, I knew I wanted to watch the eclipse with other people to interact with,” he said. “Shortly after entering Douglas I saw a hotel with a large gas station and truck stop.
“The whole place was crowded with cars and people, but I managed to find a spot to park. I saw a small group of people close by already set up with cameras and a telescope on a patch of grass, so I introduced myself and joined them.
“They were from all over the States: California, Texas, Arizona and Colorado,” continued Penner. “And, one couple was from... Saskatoon!. They had driven the same route as me but over a more sensible period of two days.”
Penner had not been able to find solar eclipse glasses prior to his departure but had setup a filter for his video camera.
“The so-called first contact – when the moon first takes a bite out of the edge of the sun's disk – happened over an hour before totality,” said Penner. “As the sun began to disappear more and more, things started to happen quickly. You could definitely notice it was getting dark.
“Automatic lights in the parking lot came on and the breeze felt slightly cooler,” he continued. “I started feeling really wound up, as everything was moving inexorably towards totality. All I could think of was "This is it! What you drove all the way down here to see. What you've wanted to see your whole life!"
“Someone described the last few seconds as similar to being in a theatre when the lights are dimmed, and that is very similar to what I experienced. As totality arrived, a cheer erupted from the crowd.”
Quickly removing the filter from his camera and adjusting the exposure, Penner took the time to watch the spectacle.
“It's like this black hole just appeared in the dark navy blue sky, a hole that was burning round the edges with white fire,” he said. “It's amazing how the familiar old sun and moon can combine to make something so alien-looking.
“Somehow, it didn't seem far away. It looked like something you could actually fly up to.”
Penner was happy with the footage he was able to bring back, noting that his filter worked perfectly.
“I have to admit I was a bit distracted with the second video camera that was just recording the people,” he said. “I suddenly wanted to get a wide angle of the sky, including the planet Venus which appeared brightly the moment totality began.
“I fumbled with the camera, but it wasn't focusing well, and I wasn't handling the tripod well. So I just gave up on it and went back to watching the eclipse and the orange ‘sunset’ on the horizon in all directions.”
You may wonder why he would endure a 25-hour round-trip journey for just 2.5 minutes of eclipse ecstasy but Penner noted that it was just something he had to do.
“Those who have seen a total solar eclipse say it is one of the most rare and spectacular sights in the natural world, something everyone should experience at least once,” he said. “The difference between a total eclipse and even 99% totality is literally night and day. I was definitely happy I went; it was the highlight of my whole year!
“I have to admit there was a sense of deflation after the eclipse was over. People were packing up, not bothering to watch the second half of the eclipse. If people arrived in town over the course of a few days or hours, it seemed like everyone left town at the same time!”
Heading back with a sense of achievement, Penner wasn’t quite as lucky to avoid all of the wildlife on the way back but his vehicle made the trip back relatively unscathed,
“I told my wife we really must make vacation plans to travel down to the U.S., or to eastern Canada to experience the 2024 eclipse together,” he concluded.

See Penner's documentary on the trip below.