I was set to see the 2017 Solar Eclipse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I was not looking forward to it. I had inadvertently planned a three-week reporting trip in South Dakota and Wyoming at the exact time totality would be crossing the nation. With an already logistically stacked schedule ahead of me, it seemed the stars were not lining up in my favor when it came to the solar eclipse.
Grand Teton National Park was predicting it to be the busiest day of the park’s history, and all I could see ahead of me was camping jams, idling engines and unwelcomed shoulder rubbing. Plans were eventually written down on paper, park rangers were spoken to and I learned the correct way to pronounce Gros Ventre (“GraVant”).
Soon the Subaru was packed, I was on the road coming from Iowa, and South Dakota was already in the rearview.
Making our way from the Black Hills through Casper, auto-touring the Wind Canyon Scenic Byway as an impromptu sidetrack, my travel partner and I arrived at Hoback Junction later than expected.
Waiting for us at Hoback Junction, just 15 miles south of Jackson, were the two other party members of our group, who had arrived earlier in the day after a succession of Uber, airplane, and bus line. Upon our arrival and their addition, a Party of Four (POF) was effectively created.
With the sun quickly setting on the rendezvous, the POF made quick work to pack up the Subaru with the extra belongings and begin searching for a campsite. In much haste and great surprise, within 10 minutes of driving, the first U.S. Forest Service (USFS) campsite we came across waved us into their overflow camping area.
With less than 36 hours before the eclipse, The POF pitched tents next to the car, noticing the chill in the air from the increased elevation, and tried to get some decent sleep before the big day ahead.
The plan for the next morning was to find a trailhead to ditch the car, hike into the Bridger Teton National Forest, and into the Gros Ventre Wilderness specifically, where overnight permits aren’t required. From there, the POF would spend the night in the backcountry and enjoy the eclipse the following morning.
After a restless night’s sleep camped next to the Subaru, the POF rose slowly and spent a good amount of time thawing in the morning sun. At nearly nine o’clock, approaching 24 hours until the eclipse, the Subaru and the POF pulled onto a dusty canyon road and drove deeper into the Bridger Teton National Forest.
While the radio station was slowly lost to static, I knew, but perhaps no one else in the POF knew, that this was the end of the plan on paper.
The POF eventually pulled into a trailhead already marked with cars, and utilizing the all-wheel drive, the Subaru mounted a parking spot. Using the gravel road for a workspace, the POF pulled gear out from every direction and assessed the situation.
We had bear mace, bear vaults and one person had a bell. Everyone carried dinner and a breakfast, plus a conservative amount of snacks for two days. Water and water filters were added to the mix. Tents, sleeping bags and thermal undies were all packed up, and after spending too much time in the parking lot, the POF was ready to go.
Topographic maps of the area had been packed, but the signpost at the trailhead seemed to be relied on the most. A lake had been mentioned in the hours prior, as in “I want to swim in a lake”, and that really seemed to resonate as the POF scanned the faded photographic map. A lake was spotted, Shoal Lake, and as best that could be done, a course was plotted.
Hiking straight up and into the Gros Ventre Wilderness was no easy task, and with each switchback that brought knees to chest, once good intentions really began to sweat. With more than one packs-off, snack break, plus a couple of inclines that felt worthy of handrails, after five miles of rediscovered muscles, the POF made elevation.
With some luck of the mountain, more than one hiking party on the trail knew the off-route, backcountry beta to make it Shoal Lake. Statements like, “you see that peak over there, it’s just below that” guided the POF off the beaten trail, and through a boulder field the size of a crumbled residential city suburb.
There was a point here, after crossing over dozens of boulders, stepping through streams, and always trekking at a slant against the mountain slope, where the POF slumped off backpacks and sprawled out against the boulder-strewn landscape.
After testing out camp stoves and cooking meals, everyone began to pep back up and slowly but surely, the POF resumed the search for a lakeside campsite. From the impromptu dinner spot, the POF began descending the landscape, hoping to see a massive glacial reservoir with every turn.
After two miles of downhill scrambling, no one was disappointed in the reflection shining off Lake Shoal, and the straight-shot trail leading directly to its shores.
Bolting down towards the shore, a group decision was made to veer off the established route once again. Seen on the other side of a formidable stream that cascaded down into Shoal Lake, and separated by a dense collection of automobile-sized boulders, a large plateau could be seen jutting from the canyon wall.
From our vantage point, the plateau looked to be roughly smaller than the inside of a baseball diamond, covered in grass, and definitively overlooking the entire lake basin. Better yet, it was facing east, and the POF unanimously understood it had to be the spot for the night and the next day’s big show.
Approaching 15 hours from the solar eclipse, the POF crossed the formidable stream, climbed through the automobile-sized boulders and pitched tents atop our own personal, private backcountry camping spot overlooking Shoal Lake. Following a sunset to our backs blocked by canyon walls, sleep came easy that night under the full shine of starry night sky.
The morning hours leading up the solar eclipse were spent drinking instant coffee, overlooking the great view and occasionally listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, in which someone had downloaded to their phone specifically for the occasion.
Before I even knew it was happening, after donning a pair of well-packed eclipse glasses, the moon had begun its orbit in front of the sun. If it wasn’t for the intensely dark glasses, I wouldn’t have known anything was happening above me, and after taking the glasses off, the landscape only seemed to brighten.
After another round of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, the eclipse glasses revealed the moon to be more than halfway across the sun. The POF began finding comfortable seats on the ground, and I searched for a good rock to hold onto. The edge of the plateau was just out of range of spittin’ distance, but close enough to have eyes on the entire lake basin.
The POF donned the eclipse glasses, watching as the moon made unperceivable progress against the sun, and a collective murmur let out through the group. As the last sliver of the sun remained in sight against the darkened glasses, no one said a word.
Everything faded to black. The shimmer from the lake abruptly disappeared and the shadows of the trees blended back into the surroundings. I had not realized that I would be able to see the totality with my naked eye, and when I looked up at the sun, I was immediately stunned by the sight above.
Dominating the sky with a pulsating ring of light, a perfect oval of black surged over the landscape, and with no more control than the leaves have over the wind, words like “oh my god” and “look at that” began falling out of my mouth.
The magnitude of the darkened sky exceeded my expectations. The moon appeared much larger in my eyes than ever before, with a crisper edge defining the negative space. Surrounding the celestial display, the glowing corona permanently seared the image to the back of my eyes and in my mind forever.
Video courtesy of Michelle Bowser
Light returned to the valley. A last look through the eclipse glasses showed the orbit of the moon on its way out, and just as quickly as it had left, the day had returned. The POF looked around for reassurance that we had all just witnessed the same thing.
After some professional-grade lollygagging around the campsite, the POF packed up camp and made quick work on the eight-mile trail back to the trailhead. Navigating once again through the boulder fields, and careening down the switchbacks we had just the day before struggled to get up, spirits were high and a pretty good start to a two-week endeavor was nearly complete.
Getting back to the trailhead, I was relieved to see with unsubstantiated relief that the Subaru received no damage from a sleuth of hungry bears. The POF on the other hand had chaffed shoulders, tender knees and one burning blister on the inside of a big toe. Overall though, as I sat in the open hatchback of the Subaru with my pack on the ground, in the process of untying my hiking boots, I felt pretty lucky to have survived the 2017 Solar Eclipse.
The South Dakota, Grand Teton and Yellowstone reporting didn’t end (or begin) with the eclipse, not by a long shot, and less than 24 hours after watching the astronomical slideshow, the POF sat groggy-eyed outside the Grand Teton Ranger Station in line for backcountry permits. And with some great help from a Park Ranger named Pat, the POF received permission for take-off on the Teton Crest Trail.
– More on that to come –