The ancient Chinese believed a dragon was swallowing the sun.
Vikings blamed sky wolves.
And a native tribe in western Canada saw the mouth of heaven opening to consume the flaming ball.
Nowadays, we call it a total solar eclipse, and there’s one coming to the Pacific Northwest this summer for the first time since Feb. 26, 1979.
The brief period when the sun is fully blocked by the moon will last just over two minutes near the center of the 60-mile-wide “path of totality” stretching across a band of Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho.
Tourism officials in Oregon expect 1 million visitors for the eclipse, a mass of people that’s driving up lodging prices and drawing warnings of jammed roadways.
But for astronomy buffs, either you are in the path of totality or you are not. Seeing a partial eclipse isn’t enough.
“You need to decide if it’s that big of a deal for you,” said Debbie Cotten, events coordinator for the Spokane Astronomical Society.
“For me, it is,” she said.
Appearance of sun’s outer layers the big difference
On the morning of Aug. 21, the moon will orbit in front of the sun, completely blocking the fiery disc and revealing the sun’s corona and chromosphere.
Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will only see a partial eclipse of 90 percent of the sun’s face, likely enough to cause a discernible dimming of daylight. Locally, the maximum coverage of the sun will occur a few minutes before 10:30 a.m.
The eclipse will begin in the middle of the Pacific Ocean near the International Dateline and cross the U.S. from northwest to southeast until it ends in the Atlantic Ocean toward the coast of Africa.
“A big difference between a total eclipse and a partial eclipse is the appearance of the two outer layers of the sun – chromosphere and corona – during a total eclipse, but not during a partial eclipse,” said professor Robert Ruotsalainen at Eastern Washington University.
“Because these layers are so much fainter than the sky next to the photosphere – the visible disk of the sun – they are masked by that skylight except when the photosphere is entirely blocked during a total eclipse (or at locations above Earth’s atmosphere.) The appearance of these layers is said to be truly spectacular,” Ruotsalainen wrote in an email.
The eclipse will occur precisely at a new moon. Stars may appear. The temperature will drop quickly. Birds may quiet and animals may show unusual behavior.
Before the sun is fully blocked by the moon, looking at the sun can easily damage your eyes. Looking through unprotected binoculars or cameras is also dangerous and could damage cameras.
Viewers should use eclipse glasses, which can be ordered cheaply on the internet, or multiple squares of welding-hood glass to observe the sun during partial phases. Passive projecting devices such as a box with a pinhole offer the safest way to view the partial eclipse. And solar filters are available for telescopes, which allow viewers to see sun flares, sun spots and the outer layers safely.
Once the moon fully covers the sun, it’s safe to look at the eclipse without protection. And it’s that sight that eclipse watchers are willing to travel to see.
Roads, hotels and campgrounds will be jammed
To get to the path of totality, people from the Spokane region would have to drive four to five hours south to central and Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho.
But lodging in communities within the path has been booked for years, and some of the still-available options are priced much higher than normal rates to cash in on this rare event.
At the small Indianhead Motel and RV Park in Weiser, Idaho, owner Cal Moniz said he’s been booked since December. He gets a handful of calls every day from people seeking lodging.
“I’ve got people coming from Hawaii,” he said.
One hotel in Bend, Oregon, 13 miles south of the path of totality, was asking $500 a night with a three-night minimum stay.
The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City, Oregon, has been booked for two years. A bed and breakfast near John Day, Oregon, reports all bookings are filled in the scenic John Day Valley along U.S. Highway 395.
Linea Gagliano, of Travel Oregon, said the state visitor center in Ontario, off Interstate 84, will have eclipse guides and glasses.
Her agency is reluctant to put a dollar figure on the value of the eclipse tourism in what’s a $10.8 billion annual industry already, but Gagliano did say, “We are happy to have it hit Oregon shores first.”
Authorities are encouraging visitors to get to their viewing sites the night before the eclipse, since roadways are likely to be choked during the morning before the eclipse.
“Transportation officials predict traffic will be at a standstill on Aug. 21,” Oregon State Parks warns on its website. “Keep in mind that it may be impossible to drive into the path of totality that morning. But if you’re less than 30 miles from the path of totality, you’ll see what’s called ‘deep partiality.’ ”
Small communities are planning for the potential crowds and warning that things like food and fuel could run out. Cellphone networks could become overloaded.
Cotten, of the Spokane Astronomical Society, and her husband, Bill Cotten, plan to travel either to Mitchell, Oregon, for the annual “star party” that was planned to coincide with the eclipse, or to visit relatives at a cabin in Idaho.
They are also going to keep a close eye on the weather as the day approaches.
“If it’s going to be cloudy in Oregon, we’ll go to Idaho. If it’s going to be cloudy in Idaho, we’ll go to Oregon,” she said.
Paul Yost, a board member for the astronomical society, said he and his family are going to camp near Borah Peak in Idaho. He said he plans to climb up the side of the mountain to get a bird’s-eye view of the approaching shadow.
He said he will go with plenty of water and a stove, but no telescope with solar filter.
“I’m just going to sit and enjoy the moment,” Yost said.
Several state parks in Eastern Oregon that are within or near the path of totality haven’t taken reservations yet. Oregon State Parks says on its website that some normally first-come-first-served parks will convert to reservation-only for the eclipse weekend. The parks department is also creating additional “special event camping” at some parks that will add up to 300 more campsites; reservations will open for those spots this spring. Check the parks department’s special eclipse website or Facebook page for more information and updates.
In Idaho, the Boise National Forest staff was just starting to consider plans for the eclipse and the likelihood that people will be going to the forest to see it.
Yazzie Voight, a forestry technician for the Malheur National Forest around John Day, said up to 60,000 visitors are expected in a valley that has 8,000 residents.
“I can’t imagine how many people are going to come into the path. It’s going to be pretty impressive,” he said.
He said numerous campgrounds will be open on a first-come basis, but no more than 14 days in advance of the eclipse.
Also, camping is allowed in dispersed areas of the forest but not near main forest roads, developed campgrounds, trailheads and within 150 feet of waterways.
“There are plenty of dirt roads, places to disperse camp,” Voight said.
Self-contained RVs can use those areas to park for the eclipse, but out of the way of traffic.
The Grant County (Oregon) Chamber of Commerce is trying to match up property owners and potential visitors to find places in the John Day area to open bedrooms, RV spots and tent sites, said Elaine Husted, a chamber volunteer.
To the west at the John Day Fossil Beds, the staff is planning for large crowds and are bringing in a special events management team to monitor it. Camping is not allowed on the national monument.
Despite all the hype and preparation, Oregon State Parks warns eclipse visitors that Mother Nature will have the final say.
“We can’t promise good weather,” the department says on its website. “Be prepared for possible fog, clouds or rain that can affect the eclipse view.”