Excitement builds for rare 2017 eclipse

Jim Vail, a member of the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society, shows off his eclipse viewing equipment on Friday at his home in Idaho Falls. Vail, an eclipse veteran, has a modified Canon EOS camera attached to a “Skytracker” device for taking eclipse photos. He also brings along special tinted glasses and modified binoculars for safe viewing. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

This map shows the path of the total solar eclipse over Idaho and Wyoming. You must be between the blue lines to see the “total phase” of the eclipse, according to NASA. The eclipse will be visible longest along the red line. Courtesy NASA

People are silhouetted against light pollution in the sky before daylight beside telescopes setup up to view the partial solar eclipse from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath in London on Jan. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

A total solar eclipse is visible through the clouds as seen from Vagar on the Faeroe Islands on March 20, 2015. Apart from a few small breaks, a blanket of clouds in the Faeroe Islands blocked thousands of people there from experiencing the full effect of the total eclipse. (AP Photo/Eric Adams)

The first total solar eclipse to sweep over the continental U.S. in decades is still more than a year away.

But local astronomy and eclipse aficionados don’t seem to care. For many of these so-called “umbraphiles,” planning for the rare 2-minute celestial event began months ago.

“We’ve been talking about it at every single one of our meetings,” said Wescott Flaherty, president of the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society.

On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon will fully block out the sun, the first time since 1979 that a total solar eclipse will be seen from the lower 48. It’s been coined “The Great American Eclipse.”

The phenomenon will only be visible in its entirety along an approximately 67-mile-wide path tracing across the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina — a path that includes Idaho Falls, Rexburg and several other eastern Idaho communities.

At their monthly meetings, Astronomical Society members have been studying Google maps, Flaherty said, circling possible viewing points. There are a number of factors to consider: Is the spot free of viewing obstructions? How long will the eclipse be visible? Is there enough space to park and set up high-tech solar telescopes?

Others from around the country and world are planning trips to eastern Idaho, too. Flaherty has received emails from people in Scotland, Germany and Japan inquiring about ideal eclipse viewing locations and lodging near Idaho Falls.

“I think it’ll be packed,” Flaherty said. “For one it’s August, it’s tourist season already here. Add to that the solar eclipse.”

Hotels around the region have been receiving reservations for at least six months already, tourism officials said.

Rexburg is situated in an ideal position to see the eclipse for more than two minutes. The Rexburg AmericInn is already booked solid, and has been since last summer, General Manager Trish Siepert said. She’s still receiving inquiries about rooms, from as far as Denmark and Taiwan. One group was curious how they might rent out a local parking lot to view the eclipse.

“I had no idea it was that big,” Siepert said.

At the Rexburg Super 8, manager Debbie Birch said her reservation system can’t even book rooms that far out. But the hotel already has a waiting list “a mile long,” she said. Birch said she’s never seen anything like it.

“We’ve been getting inquiries for over a year,” she said.

Several companies and cities lying in the eclipse’s path are looking to capitalize on the anticipated influx of tourists. Casper, Wyo., has a four-day “Eclipse Fest” scheduled. You can buy a $2,000 eclipse travel package to Nashville, Tenn., or pick up 2017 eclipse T-shirts and other merchandise online.

Jim Vail, the treasurer of the Astronomical Society, understands the eclipse craze better than most. He’s traveled to six eclipses around the globe, from the Aleutian Islands, to Mexico and the jungles of Sumatra. His daughters caught the bug, too, trekking to Libya and Egypt in recent years to see them.

In the Aleutian Islands, Vail needed a bush pilot to take him to an ideal viewing location. In Sumatra, local villagers helped him haul his viewing equipment through the jungle. Sometimes the destinations don’t have hotels or other tourist amenities. But he said the effort is almost always worth it.

As the sun is gradually covered up by the moon, the temperature drops, he said. It feels like nightfall.

“And when it eclipses, you can see this corona around the sun, and the sun is just a black hole in the sky,” Vail said. “The planets and the stars come out, and the animals quiet down.”

There’s just one thing that can ruin the experience: clouds. They have blocked half of Vail’s eclipse-viewing experiences over the years, and often tend to form at the last minute, he said, especially “if you’ve spent a small fortune getting there.”

Vail expects thousands of people to travel to eastern Idaho in August 2017 to catch the eclipse. This time, however, he won’t have to leave his Idaho Falls backyard if he doesn’t want to.

“It’ll be a lifetime experience,” Vail said. “Everybody should see at least one total eclipse in their lifetime.”

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth