The Great American Eclipse, August 2017

If you’re a North American who isn’t living under a rock you know about #TSE2017—and I could ride my bike there.

Ha ha! JK. I’m not riding my bike 21 miles. But the edge of totality falls across Redmond, Oregon on August 21, 2017 at the northernmost edge of Roberts Field airport, just up the highway from my home in Bend.

Coincidence? I think not. Even the weak Kallawalla mystic would say it’s predictable that I live in the path of totality, a quarter of a century from experiencing my first total solar eclipse.

People ‘round these parts say they remember the Northwest eclipse of 1979—no they don’t. It was clouded out. (Disagree? Let’s see your corona shot. Yeah, I thought so.)

On eclipse day I will not be driving from my house—gridlock will grip highways 97 and 26 on the weekend before August 21st and traffic to the path from all directions will be slower than the Bend Broadband wireless network.

I’ll be at the Oregon Airstream Club Blackout Rally on the shore of Lake Simtustus, the reservoir behind Pelton Dam, in a sea of silver among my fellow Airstreamers.

Below: Lake Simtustus site; position of the sun at first contact on August 21; Great American path

 

Great Barrier Reef

Oh, the eclipse? *yawn* Just another breathtaking miracle of nature.

The sky was blue and the Orion steady on eclipse day, following two grueling days on choppy seas to return to the calm waters over the Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas.

Jay Anderson—meteorologist, astrophotographer, and co-author of the NASA eclipse bulletins with Fred Espenak—commanded a microphone and walked us through the timeline of events. Meet Jay in this video and hear his play by play (“filters off!” “shadow bands behind you!”). Jay also consulted with the captain and special reef pilot who was brought on board to guide the Orion over the Reef and ensure the best viewing area.

Thanks to his coaching I got my goggles on and off in time to witness all the phenomena. Baily’s beads were meh but we saw the best. diamond. ring. EVER. The prominence flames were higher than I’ve ever seen them too.

At third contact many beers (Corona, natch) were consumed, followed by brunch on deck and a how-was-it-for-you debriefing session in the Leda Lounge for the relieved and excited chasers. Most of them were either first time virgins—virgins no longer!—or had just racked up their 10th or 15th TSE. Me?

Six for six, and counting.

The moments on deck are captured in this 5-minute video. If you’re hoping to see the eclipsed sun itself, lower your expectations: this captures the minutes leading up to totality on deck, and before and after reactions. (Here’s a 3-minute video of totality—again, no sun, but you’ll see the sky go dark and brighten at third contact.

Above: Diamond ring photo via Snapfish, taken from the Paul Gauguin, July 10, 2010

Below:

Scenes on board the Orion, November 13, 2012.

Variety of customized gadgetry, including scope “squint” aids and fancy pinhole projection art.

TravelQuest founder and president Aram Kaprielian. (Is there a bigger smile than the one on the tour director after a cloudless TSE?)

 

Betel nut

Like most island nations in the tropical Pacific, chewing betel nut is a popular pastime among the people of Papua New Guinea. The effect (I’m told) is a mild and calming buzz, akin to cigarette smoking. Like cigarettes, betel nut is addictive and not without side effects beyond the ghastly red smile: gum disease, tooth loss, and mouth cancer.

So what! Betel nut—actually, the areca seed and associated chewing paraphernalia—is widely sold on any market day in PNG. Some roughnecks on the street in Madang were happy to demonstrate the technique for enjoying “buai”: bite the nut meat a bit to, what, get it going I suppose, then spit the fibrous wad onto a betel leaf and add powdered lime (or, if you’re man enough, just pour the lime onto the inside of your lower lip). A type of mustard may be added to make it extra gross. Position the wad to the side of your mouth or under your lip; do not swallow. When spent, spit it on the ground, adding to the various clumps of ABC fibers in the gutter.

Justin, the Orion’s cultural liaison (and official tribesman by marriage) brought some on board for us to try during happy hour. After tasting it I can safely say I will remain betel-nut free. 

Above: Market selection

Below: The Faces of Betel Nut

 

 

WWII history

Aspects of the cruise would have been a challenge for Ralph: wading ashore after a cramped and bumpy Zodiac ride with twelve strangers; the terrifying blackfaced guy who jumped out of the jungle with a spear on Tufi; the crew talent show. But as a historian he would have loved the significant World War II sites and the buried and rusting remnants of tanks, aircraft and military vehicles in Rabaul, Alotau and Milne Bay.

The military history in Milne Bay in Alotau is dear to Australians as the site of the Battle of Milne (or “Millin” as the locals say). Yamamoto—you’ve heard of him: Japanese Admiral? Battle of Midway? Bombed Pearl Harbor? that’s the one—spent his last night in a bunker in Rabaul where hand-scawled battle maps and notes remain on the walls down in the dark. Exposed caves and tunnels reveal Japanese cargo barges, and the steel bones of sunken ships and aircraft are still half buried in the sand.

For actual details, please read this moving article about PNG’s war history and relics.

Island artifacts

At every island there were ample opportunities to shop for handmade artifacts and home goods: carved bowls and raku-style Bilbil pots, shell jewelry, bilum string bags, woven penis sheaths (a lovely souvenir to bring back to the men at home), and eerie masks.

Those who had an eye for tribal art were salivating, and at one point on Tami Island it was like a sale at Filene’s Basement—the collectors were prepared to physically fight each other over who would take home the best spirit mask from the selection lined up on display along the muddy main street.

I had yet to purchase my showpiece collectible when the mask supply ran low (and a sneaky couple bought the one I had chosen when I turned away for a few minutes to pull more Kina bills from my backpack). One of the sing-sing dancers ran to their costume shop and brought me a three-foot tall white Tago “ghost” mask with a feather headdress that was used ceremonially, not just made for tourists to buy. Look—it’s the same type pictured on our tour t-shirt.

Many items—certain turtle shell and bean beads, Kundu drums with lizard skin heads—would be disallowed by customs officials when we returned to Trinity Wharf in Cairns. The ship’s purser helped sort out the mess of souvenirs on board, and ensured that all items were brought to the deck of the ship to be soaked liberally with an anti-infestation spray.

I spent the entire last day on board scrounging bubble wrap from the Orion gift shop and wrapping my treasures for shipment home.

Above: New mask collection

Below:

Tapa cloth 

Shlepping our souvenirs on the Zodiac

Shipboard treatment

The Tago mask—represents an ancestor ghost

Sing-sings

A sing-sing is a cultural demonstration of ritual dance and kundu drumming, that, in many cases, was necessary to perform before we were allowed to set foot on the islands to ward off the evil spirits we brought with us on the ship (they got that right).

Extravagant ceremonial costumes and body paint are worn, incorporating reeds, leaves, flowers, feathers, skins, and shells. Each island cultivates their own unique style and local custom for welcoming guests. This video will give you a taste.

 

 

 

Island hopping

In 2012, 60,000 people descended on Cairns for the TSE. Ninety of us sailed away for awhile to visit the Papua New Guinea people in their secluded villages.

With expedition natural scientists as our guides we watched locals dig for Megapode eggs, laid in the ash leftover from the still-active Tavurvur volcano eruption.

We were led into remote Watam Village, where there’s no wifi—or roads, or phones, or electricity—by an ostentatious ceremonial dragon dance and witnessed “sing sing” cultural performances at every historic, scenic, mind-blowing location.

We were shown how to make pasty palm sago, the local staple that can baked into a pancake-like bread. We sailed through fjords (not just for Norway anymore) and boarded hand-carved outrigger canoes, paddled by willowy young girls, to get to villages deep in the jungle. We saw flying bat colonies and “yam houses” and masks of human bone. By the way, the people of Papua New Guinea stopped practicing headhunting and cannibalism, oh, gosh, months ago.

My favorite people were the lusty Kitava from the Trobriand Islands. When colonial rulers came to stop the inter-island warring in the 1800s they were aghast to see the suggestive thrusting and pointing during the ceremonial Kitavan dances. The Europeans introduced them to cricket as a means to channel their competitive fighting and ribald desires. Unfazed, the enthusiastic islanders just substituted a violent cricket rivalry—and used their vulgar dances anyway as a victory celebration to taunt the opposing teams.

The Orion also supplied sea kayak and snorkel gear, taught passengers how to use it, and ferried everyone via Zodiac boat to private coves to swim in the reefs and enjoy barbecue lunches on white sandy beaches. “Big Dave”, my new friend on board (and expert diver) taught me to snorkel on Nuratu Island. Underwater it was like an aquarium in a tropical fish store. The hardcore divers on board said it was the best snorkeling they’d ever experienced.