Eclipse Madness

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Months before the so-called Great American Eclipse, news outlets were breathlessly reporting how crazy it was going to be. There was a strange surety to it. After all, the same people who knew the precise moment the moon would blot out the sun were the ones saying store shelves would be stripped bare, gas stations sold out and traffic backed up for 12 hours, starting four days before the eclipse.

There were wildfires, too, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This story is about crazy ideas influenced by rare celestial events. Mine was to bring 27 people ranging from 2-1/2 to 76 years of age on a four-day rafting trip. Many of them—almost all as it turned out—weren’t river people. But I’m jumping ahead again.

When eclipse mania finally penetrated my bubble of suburban dad-hood, the Internet had already determined with great confidence that Central Oregon was statistically the very best place to observe this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. That would, of course, make it the epicenter of eclipse insanity. News reports confidently predicted a hellscape somewhere between Burning Man and the apocalypse. But I knew something they didn’t.

The Deschutes River flows straight through the eclipse zone, and it’s an idyllic Class II-III float renowned as a first multi-day for young kids. That suited me perfectly because as a river-runner I had no interest in just walking out the door to watch the eclipse. I wanted to shift into river time first, and I wanted to experience it with my daughters, who are four and eight. Better yet, the Deschutes is a permitted river. If we could just pull that paper we’d have our very own Fortress of Solitude from which to experience the eclipse.

By this time of course, more forward-thinking river-runners had scooped up all the permits, but I parsed the fine print and found a loophole. The BLM releases 30 percent of Deschutes permits in a special lottery one month before the launch date. So I sent an email called ‘Totality Awesome River Trip’ to pretty much every person I know, whether they’re boaters or not. It included detailed instructions for carpet-bombing the BLM website with permit requests at precisely 7:30 a.m. on a certain Tuesday in July. I even included a link to the atomic clock. Timing was everything.

Nobody followed that advice except my mom and me. We both scored permits.

Suddenly I was holding the golden ticket to statistically the very best way to possibly observe the solar eclipse. On top of that, it was a chance to spend time on the river with the people I love best, plus a few random folks they know. Why not? We had permits for 31. Of course everyone is welcome! I sent out more emails, collected deposits, made a spreadsheet with categories like ‘kids (9),’ ‘adults (16),’ and ‘boatmen (2).’

I included myself in the latter category, rather generously. The fact is I’m not much of a rafter. I usually paddle kayaks in whitewater and canoes on the flats. Rafts are the strange big things I climb onto looking for cold beer. Now I was leading a trip with five raft-loads of people and only two of us who could reliably drive them through whitewater. I’ve always been a strong believer in river magic though, and about two weeks before launch everything seemed to fall into place. Three solid boatmen came on board, including a friend of my brother’s with 12 years guiding experience and a Partner stove.

I relaxed about the whitewater and started focusing on logistics, like how to shop a trip if the grocery store has been cleared out by hordes of eclipse viewers. Then, the Tuesday before our Saturday launch, all three new boatmen canceled. Life had got in the way, they said, or maybe they just got some clarity on exactly what they had signed up for. Either way I wasn’t sure how I’d pull off the trip without them. I confessed those doubts to my brother Hugh, who gave me a well-needed pep talk. He’d been down the Deschutes on a bachelor party and had no doubt we’d come out okay.

“I’m all in,” he said and that was a comfort, even if a guided trip full of professional firefighters isn’t exactly apple-to-apples with an oversized private party full of toddlers and old ladies. On the other hand, the kids and grandmas would be sober.

Still, it was too late to turn back now. I spent a nervous morning calling old boating friends and acquaintances and firing off Facebook messages, looking for somebody, anybody, who wanted to have probably the most magical experience of your life! and also guide a bunch of pretty cool but inexperienced people and their reasonably well-behaved kids down the river.

It was an honest query; that’s pretty much how I thought it would unfold.

Wednesday morning I got a taker. Kate is a head guide with OARS, a friend of a casual acquaintance who heard the call. She’s been guiding for about 20 years and surely must have known more about what she was getting into than I did. She had a Partner stove too, and a guide friend named Zack who wanted to come. That same afternoon Barry called from the road. He was on his way out from Colorado, after a series of noncommittal phone conversations that left me sure he wasn’t coming on the trip, but feeling good just the same. Barry has that effect on people. He’s also got a Grand Canyon guide’s license from 1972, and all the stories that go with it.

How could I have doubted the river magic?

We staged at Martin and Katie’s house in Bend, with plans to wake at four to run a three-hour shuttle because the BLM had assured us that there was absolutely, positively no way we’d be able to camp or park rigs at the Trout Creek put-in because it would be mobbed by eclipse enthusiasts for two solid weeks.

That night the kids ran laps through the house while the grownups grilled burgers and worried. The air was thick with smoke from the Nena fire not far from the put-in. In the night the fire jumped the river between South Junction and Whiskey Dick, which coincidentally were the spots I’d circled as potential campsites. We loaded kids into car seats in the smoky pre-dawn, the moon a narrow orange sliver on the horizon. A warm-up performance for the sun-blotting extravaganza to come.

When we reached Trout Creek the campground was just coming to life. A line of boats was on the ramp, half rigged. The parking lot was mostly empty. A singular thought penetrated my sleep-deprived, under-caffeinated brain: we could have camped here last night. There were no flames in sight and the smoke haze was gone. We ran the shuttle—two hours, one wrong turn—and got back to a hive of activity. Kate and Zack had already rigged two of the oar-rigs. My wife Nysa was guiding one of the paddle rafts and my brother Hugh was in charge of the other. This was a compromise brought on by personality types—mine and his—and lack of better options. My brother is blessed with unshakeable confidence about pretty much everything, and it’s impervious to contrary evidence. This man will drive in circles for hours, and when you find him he’ll tell you about all the reasons he never gets lost. He’s been on a number of rafting tours including the Zambezi, which he likes to remind folks is the biggest and most extreme whitewater on the planet. He expected to steer a raft and I didn’t want to argue. I just made sure his raft was stocked with strong swimmers.

At least we wouldn’t have to worry about the kids. My girls were already seated on Kate’s raft with the rest of the female children. In less than 15 minutes she’d charmed them with an irresistible combination of raft-guide aura and snacks. Zack had a similar effect on the boys, who were busy ranging their super-soakers and enquiring about ‘the gnar.’ I took a long look at my raft, a well-equipped 14-footer rented from All Star Rafting in Maupin, and quietly asked Barry to confirm which end was the front. I’d guessed right but he helped me rig anyway.

At least we wouldn’t have to worry about the kids. My girls were already seated on Kate’s raft with the rest of the female children. In less than 15 minutes she’d charmed them with an irresistible combination of raft-guide aura and snacks. Zack had a similar effect on the boys, who were busy ranging their super-soakers and enquiring about ‘the gnar.’ I took a long look at my raft, a well-equipped 14-footer rented from All Star Rafting in Maupin, and quietly asked Barry to confirm which end was the front. I’d guessed right but he helped me rig anyway.

From the start we were caught in a cosmic tug-of-war between the calming influence of river time and the potent crazy-making force of the eclipse. The eclipse was winning. The Deschutes flows north, away from the zone of totality, meaning the farther we floated before camping the less totality we would experience. We launched on Saturday and the eclipse was supposed to start around nine on Monday morning. Since everyone else on the river was also here for the eclipse we anticipated a mad rush for the best upstream camps, followed by a layover day. We reckoned the camps at Whiskey Dick would already be taken, and we wanted to camp before Whitehorse, the long Class III+ rapid with a reputation for wrecking parties such as ours. That left the camps at South Junction and Redside, which may or may not be on fire.

We spun downriver under clear blue skies, whooping in the riffles and watching osprey hunt and feed their young. The river was chock-a-block with fish hawks and their screeching calls followed us downstream as we played leapfrog with herons and spotted an otter in the brush.

The kids slid right into a semi-feral state of wonder fueled by double-stuffed Oreos and Pringles. The grown-ups started to bicker. We’d pulled up for lunch on a steep sandy bank about four miles below the put-in, and some of us decided this was as good a spot as any to camp. We could see the scorched grassland downstream on river left. My brother reminded me that the sooner we camped, the longer the eclipse.

Curiously, the people who knew nothing about river-running had the strongest opinions. My wife had an opinion too, which was different than mine. Once she lit in everybody else piled on. It was mob rule. We decided to go, then stay, then go again. By the time we finally shoved off I didn’t care one way or the other. It just felt good to be on the river again, lost in my own thoughts, stinging from my brother’s rebuke. “The great is the enemy of the good,” he’d said, meaning we were going to miss out on this good camp spot because we were looking for something better. That’s solid wisdom, except when you use it to justify camping on a narrow shade-less ledge for two days so you can experience an extra four seconds of totality.

We floated on past charred hills on river left. The fire had come all the way down to the thick wet grass at river’s edge before burning itself out. Now only a handful of dead or dying trees still burned, their bases smoldering like logs in the ashes of a bonfire. A firefighting plane flew low overhead, and a helicopter ferried back and forth with a bucket suspended below it. We floated another hour and camped at Wingdam. The site was covered in red retardant but everyone agreed that, aside from the red ants, it was at least as good as the lunch stop. That night we sat watching the river and the burned-out hill beyond, where the smoldering trunks glowed like orange stars.

In the morning we had a repeat of the lunch mutiny. Neo and Doug had hiked down the railroad tracks, and Neo came back with a cell phone video of a perfect little cove at one of the Whiskey Dick camps three miles downriver. “It’s empty,” he said breathlessly, “and Doug is holding it for us!”

Shit. Nobody bothered to tell Neo you can’t just walk downstream and save a campsite like a seat in the eighth-grade cafeteria. Technically I suppose it was my job to tell him, but it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t know. Still, the downstream camp was better. The kids would love playing in that shady cove, and there wasn’t much to do on a rest day except bake in the sun. We started loading up.

Since we were on two permits and there were a few empty sites above Whitehorse we could hedge our bets. We sent a couple of rafts ahead to set up in the cove camp. The rest of us would follow and take a nearby camp or, worst case, crowd in with the others. We agreed that the second group would wait for Doug to come back on foot to confirm there was still somewhere for us to camp.

Doug came jogging up the railroad tracks and reported somebody had come along and claimed the cove camp (well, duh!) but we had another one. Now, I’ve known Doug for more than 20 years. He is an engineer and a natural-born pessimist. Hyperbole is not in his vocabulary, and as he described the mundane reality of the lone remaining downstream camp my brother completely lost his shit.

Judging by Doug’s description, our search for the “great” had well and truly torpedoed the “good.” And for the second time in two days, everyone was doing the opposite of what my brother wanted. It didn’t help that the agent of this move was Neo, who had rubbed my brother the wrong way from the moment they’d met. That kind of thing can happen when you bring a big group of people into close quarters and pile expectations on top. I knew that, but counted on river magic and the transitive law of cool folks to smooth out any rough edges. Neo is Martin’s friend so he must be cool. And Hugh is my brother, so more the merrier. Only that’s not how it played out. No amount of river juju was going to make those two see eye-to-eye. Worse, I’d brought family into this. Family has no filter.

Near the end of his tirade, my brother said “I came here for totality,” and I realized in that moment that I hadn’t. I’d come to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience with people I love, in a place that always makes me feel good—on a river. The eclipse was the occasion for that, but it wasn’t the reason.

My brother didn’t get that, and I didn’t tell him. The next morning, before the moon began slowly to encroach on the sun, I watched him walk with his family to the top of a high, scrubby knob about half a mile from camp. I couldn’t follow. I’ve got a broken right knee, a disability I try not to make a big deal about but that has influenced nearly every waking hour of my life for 23 years now. It’s the reason I came to rivers in the first place, because they’re the only places where I feel truly whole. With a paddle in my hand I can move freely, even if I can’t hike or bike or run the way I used to. Training with our high school track team my brother and I used to push the pace until everybody else fell away and just the two of us were left. The summer he came back from the Marines we bushwhacked for miles through the Three Sisters Wilderness. In college we rode our bicycles through Italy, where we lived in an old monastery and played soccer with students from all over the world. Neither of us was very good, but we sure could run. We were close in those days, and that closeness was grounded in the physical adventures we shared. I wanted that back.

But my brother had no concept of sharing this experience with me, who had spent weeks planning it, renting rafts, shopping for the trip, worrying over details. He hadn’t been much help with cooking or the groover, but that’s not what bothered me. What bothered me was watching him walk up that hill without me. Without even a thought about me.

This all came clear to me, oddly enough, while sitting on the groover with my eclipse goggles on. The early stages of the eclipse unfolded slowly, and I had time for the breakfast dishes and a second cup of coffee. A strange feeling came over our little camp. It was mid-morning and the sun cast a high-angle light, working up to the kind of high-desert heat that sends river-runners scrambling for the shade-tarp by 9 a.m.

Slowly the sunlight became less intense. The kids were circled up playing ‘smash the rock.’ An osprey winged downriver, still hunting in the dwindling light. The most dramatic change was the temperature. The sun’s radiant warmth went out of the air and I searched my mind for something to compare it to. The first moments after sunset? The approach of a summer thunderstorm? Nothing quite fit. This was something altogether different and wonderful. Through the goggles the sun now appeared as a bright orange sliver, like that pre-dawn moon filtered through the smoke of the wildfire.

About two minutes before totality, my four-year-old slipped up and smashed her hand instead of the rock she’d been aiming for. She ran to me crying, and then all of a sudden the extraordinary moment stopped her cold. She went quiet and pressed up against my legs, next to her sister. The moon blocked out the last of the sun and I felt a primal scream leave my body. Cries echoed from other camps all along this bend of the river. A silver corona danced around the outline of the sun, casting a thin light across the desert. Barry pointed out Arcturus and Jupiter. Kate, in her raft-guide wisdom, suggested we all take a moment just to listen, to take in this extraordinary moment. I felt my girls squeeze close and my wife beside me.

In less than two minutes it was over, the sun again casting that high, dim light and gaining strength with every moment. I couldn’t stop grinning. Everyone hugged and slapped backs. On the ridge, I could see my brother starting down. Soon he was waist deep in the water, piling dry bags into the raft as I rigged.

With the eclipse done a weight seemed to lift from the trip. That afternoon Barry found a shady camp with a slow eddy and a thin black beach. We sipped cocktails in the shade and listened to the children play. The moon and the sun returned to their regular orbits and old scars began slowly to scab over again. The river magic had arrived as it always does, just a little tardy this time.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor, Jeff Moag is a journalist and lapsed river-runner based in Dana Point, California. All photos courtesy of Martin Sundberg.