Thursday, August 24, 2017

Solar Eclipse 2017

How many times in your life do you get the chance to see a total solar eclipse? The path of totality passed directly over one of my favorite landscapes- the sand hills of central Nebraska. We decided to drive to Nebraska.

We packed up the truck and hit the road on Saturday.

I had arranged to meet up with Jenny, a relation who lives in Gothenburg, Nebraska on Monday after the eclipse.

I sent Jenny a text when we were on the way. Her reply got our attention. She sent news that they were expecting "10,000 people in the hills and you might want to bring gas cans" as, according to the news reports, gas and food shortages were possible. Then our daughter texted stories of traffic jams and gas shortages in Oregon, where my 2 brothers' families were gathering to watch. We wondered what we might be getting into with this adventure.

In spite of the fact that we have nice military issue gas cans and carriers for them on our camper, we had left our gas cans at home, never considering the possibility of shortages. It must be said that before we left, Kathy asked "wasn't I bringing the gas cans?" I replied that we would never be more than 50 miles from a gas station- "it's Nebraska!"

We replied to Jenny with a question of whether her driveway could be a backup campsite for us (the answer was yes) and decided to stop and pick up a gas can on the way.

The first day's drive took us through the southern Minnesota prairie into South Dakota and the Missouri River Valley. Along the way we stopped several times to look for gas cans but never found one that would fit the carriers on our camper. Funny, the military cans at home fit just fine. Why didn't I bring those! We decided to surrender to the adventure and pressed on.

After crossing the wide Missouri, we entered the beginning of sand hills country- a taste of what was to come in Nebraska. On the map we found a state scenic recreation area campground that looked like a good place to spend the night. Adjacent to a small lake, the campground was sparsely occupied- only two other campsites were taken. We picked a nice one away from the others and settled in for the evening.

After dinner we took a walk around the lake and enjoyed a nice sunset with interesting clouds. Storms were brewing in the distance. We returned to camp for a campfire before bed. Our fire was enhanced by a wild lightning show in the east. With no thunder accompanying the lightning, we went to bed trusting no storms were coming our way.

(note: you can click the photos for a larger view or, on a mac, 2 finger click and open the image in a new tab)

The beginning of the sand hills in SE South Dakota

The Missouri River

Heading into the Missouri River valley

A pleasant campsite for a night's stopover

We walked around the lake at sunset

Interesting clouds in the distance- lots of lightning later

We woke to a beautiful sunrise and ate our breakfast under the watchful eyes of several whitetail deer browsing nearby. Today would take us to our eclipse destination- near Halsey, Nebraska. 

Many people don't associate Nebraska with national forests, probably for good reason.

The Nebraska National Forest is unique in the national forest system. It began with no trees:
The Nebraska National Forest began in 1902 as an experiment. University of Nebraska botany professor Dr. Charles E. Bessey, with the assistance of Gifford Pinchot, first Forest Service Chief, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two treeless tracts of Nebraska sandhills as “forest reserves."  Dr. Bessey’s intent was to eventually produce wood products, which would help to offset what some thought would be a national timber shortage due to large fires, unregulated harvest, and the country’s growing appetite for wood products.  Thus, began a pioneering effort to produce trees and plant them in what is now the largest human-made forest in the United States. 
We stopped at the Bessey Ranger District office to see what was happening. They were ready for the eclipse. Forest staff had a display set up with information on the eclipse, eclipse glasses for sale (we had ours), weather forecasts and other information. They were very friendly and we had a nice conversation. They informed us that, contrary to reports, there were not thousands of people roaming about and, although the main campground was full, there were still openings in the rustic Natick campground.

We like the national forests because they allow dispersed camping. That was our plan for this trip to avoid the expected crowds. We said our goodbyes to the forest staff and set off to explore the forest. We had been here last fall on our trip to Utah, and had a site in mind to camp (see this report:

We filled our gas tank without issue. We had time to explore so we drove the forest roads, enjoying the scenery. Road signs cautioned that four wheel drive was required and rough roads and deep sand would be encountered. We did find some rough patches and deep sand and were happy our truck took us through with no problems. At one point we met a guy driving a Lexus sedan going the opposite way. Luckily there was a spot we could pull off the single track to let him pass. I considered suggesting he turn around, knowing what he was going to find just over the hill, and wondered what was he thinking driving that car out here? But I didn't. We hoped he had sense to turn around before he got stuck.

As we explored the forest, we noticed the rustic Natick campground on the map. We decided to check it out. When we arrived, rather than a crowd, we found a nice open campsite with a view of horse corrals and windmill. One horse was present. His owner came by later to feed and water him.

Only one other site was nearby, occupied by a tent but no people or vehicle. The availability of a picnic table, fire ring and somewhat distant toilet won us over. We paid our $4 fee (half-price thanks to our National Parks Geezer card) and set up camp.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon being lazy. I set up the hammock, collected some kindling and took some photos. Kathy read a book and took a nap. A very nice day indeed.

Nice spot at Natick Campground

Iconic Nebraska windmill
I liked this tree...

Another view of camp

We cooked dinner, which consisted of a stir fry of vegetables and pork- very tasty! Our campground neighbors returned to their site and we chatted a bit. They were from Omaha and were also here for the eclipse. They had many questions about our camper (they were sleeping in a tent).

During dinner, another couple walking by stopped to inquire about the camper. Turns out they were from Wisconsin and had just bought a very similar Four Wheel Camper. They were curious to check out ours, made by All Terrain Campers, a rival company. We shared our love of our campers.

After dinner, Kathy went over to feed the horse an apple core and some carrots. He was appreciative. We had a nice campfire and went to bed. Tomorrow would bring the eclipse.

Cooking dinner

What's cooking? Lots of veggies and a bit of pork. Tasty!

The Nebraska sand hills region is a unique place. The gentle rolling hills covered with grass are soothing and peaceful. The region sits atop the huge Ogallala aquifer, one of the world's largest, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. The high water table creates shallow ponds and lakes scattered amidst the sand hills. The aquifer also feeds the Loup river system with a steady flow of water year-round, boiling up out of the ground through the sand.

Sign at bridge over Middle Loup River- Nebraska National Forest

Middle Loup River

But things have not always been this way. It turns out that only for the past 1000 years or so has there been enough moisture for the grass to survive. Rainfall in the semi-arid region drains quickly away through the sand. Prior, the region was roving sand dunes. And it likely will be again. In fact, the sands hill region is the largest area of sand dunes in the western hemisphere. With a bit less moisture, it would look like the Sahara.

You can read more about the sand hills here:

Monday morning we woke with anticipation of the coming eclipse. Morning light was coming through the windows but it was not tinged with the yellow of the sun. I looked out into thick fog- could hardly see 100 yards. I dressed and went outside. The fog was so thick I could feel it on my skin. My rain jacket was quickly wet. I looked at the sky- deep, dark grey, featureless clouds. Oh my, I was not hopeful of seeing the sun anytime soon.

I set about making breakfast. Nature would take its course. The one thing I knew for certain: about 1 PM it was going to get dark, whether we could see the sun or not.

While we were eating breakfast, I kept looking at the sky, couldn't help it. At several points, I swear I saw a bit of blue through the grey, then it would quickly vanish. Wishful thinking, I thought. We decided to break camp and drive to the east and south, towards a lighter sky and closer to the center of the path of totality.

To our delight, as we drove, the imagined blue openings in the sky turned real. After driving about an hour, there was more blue than clouds. The sky was beautiful! The sun was bright, occasionally obscured by clouds. We had turned on a minor road, headed toward Arnold, Nebraska, near the center of totality. The road was narrow without good shoulders. We were watching the clock. Kathy had her solar glasses out, checking the sun for the eclipse. At about 11 AM we started looking for a good place to pull over.

At last we found a field access point and backed in. We pulled out our chairs and got ready to watch the show. The sunflowers were watching with us.

Looking at the sun with anticipation (and special glasses)
Sun behind a cloud- nothing happening yet

Prairie Sunflowers were waiting too

Fence posts are part of Nebraska scenes

Our vantage point- not bad
How many photos like this are now on the internet?

This windmill kept us entertained while we waited for the eclipse

Wandering around, I found some prickly poppies

Very pretty, but prickly

Sky and flowers (and a fence post)

Our kind of place...

The world is beginning to get dark

Such a beautiful landscape
360° sunset

Nearing totality
This is it!

Totality by iPhone- see the dot in the center?

Best I could do without fancy photographic equipment

Post-totality panorama

The eclipse was over. We reflected on what we had witnessed. The whole world participated. The bees stopped flying. The temperature dropped. The crickets started chirping. It seemed as if the sunflowers got confused- they turned this way and that, trying to find the sun. Ok, in truth, maybe that was our imagination, or the effect of a breeze.  During totality, it was as if a 360° sunset was occurring, with golden clouds surrounding us at the horizon. We imagined the earth, the moon, the sun, floating through space, doing their celestial dance for the ages, and we were exhilarated to be observers of it all.

Arnold, Nebraska

We drove on through Arnold to Gothenburg, where we camped in Jenny's driveway and had a lovely visit, capping off a fun and rewarding adventure. The next day, we packed up and headed home.

We made it to Kilen Woods State Park in Minnesota before driving fatigue forced us to stop. Kilen Woods sits aside the Des Moines River valley with nice sites and a new shower building. This trip we would only sleep there. We might come back another time to explore it.

The next day we stopped in St. James for breakfast and drove the last leg home. The trip was a lot of driving but an unforgettable experience.


  1. What a great time and experience for you! Thanks so much for the information on the sand hills and National Forest. Well done, thank you!

  2. That sure looked like a more pleasant experience than the traffic here in Oregon. The Sandhills look interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ski3pin and Steve, thanks for the comments!

  4. Al thanks for the nice trip.
    "trees"in Nebraska,kind of reminds me of the Greg Brown song
    about his Grand Ma canning in Iowa.
    Nice camp with few people,what a treat.

    1. Frank, Canned Goods- great. Lots of Greg Brown songs would fit. Nebraska has more ranches and fewer farms than Iowa, but Greg Brown could easily be singing about Nebraska. Another good one is "Out in the Country" Thanks for your comments.