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Solar eclipse transforms tiny Oregon town into red hot tourist destination

August 20, 2017 10:02 PM
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Solar eclipse transforms tiny Oregon town into red hot tourist destination

Madras, pop. 7,000 — dubbed 'Eclipseville' — expects close to 100,000 solar-eclipse visitors

On a large map mounted on a barn wall, hundreds of visitors are pushing pins to mark their hometowns. The pins cover the globe, literally from Botswana to Barrie, Ont., which is where Marc Francis sticks his red pin.

"I've been studying astronomy for a number of years and this is sort of the ultimate thing get to see," says Francis. "So that's why we came all the way over here."

But this weekend, the town about 200 kilometres from Portland is expected to swell to about 100,000, as visitors jostle their way into town to get a glimpse of the first total solar eclipse to sweep across the entire country in 99 years.

Neva Lieby,7, is a very excited and a little frightened as she waits for 'the middle of the day' to 'turn nighttime.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It's really exciting cause it's like going to happen in the middle of the day and it turns nighttime," says Neva Lieby, 7. "That's kinda cool."

Why Madras? Because the town is located behind two mountain ranges, the weather is usually sunny and in August experts say it offers the best guarantee of clear skies anywhere along the path of the so-called "Great American Eclipse."

Madras is widely considered the best place in the U.S. to see the eclipse because it has wide open spaces and the highest expectation of good weather. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's why Canadian astronomer Chris Gainor drove to Madras from Victoria, BC. Back home, about 90 per cent of the sun will be blocked by the moon. But 100 per cent, Gainor says, is just different.

"For those two minutes of totality, this thing is just really a sight to see. The place goes dark, the birds react to it. It is really strange," he says. "It sort of does give you a little sense of our place in the universe."

Chris Gainor, VP of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, drove almost 600 kilometres from Victoria, B.C., to Madras, Ore., to witness his first total eclipse since 1979.

Gainor last saw a total eclipse in 1979 in Oak Point, Man. And the first thought from this vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada: "Somebody has pied the sun!" he says, and laughs. "It looked like somebody had stuck a pie plate in it."

On Monday, Aug. 21, the sun will be eclipsed by the moon. While the path of totality will stretch across a swath of the U.S. — from Oregon to South Carolina — for the first time in nearly a century, Canadian sky-watchers will be treated to a partial eclipse.

To mark this celestial show, CBC News will broadcast a live special, hosted by Hannah Thibedeau, starting at 1 p.m. ET. Watch it on CBC News Network or via live stream on will also bring you on-the-ground coverage from sites across North America through our live blog, kicking off at 11 a.m. ET. You can also follow along on Facebook and YouTube.

To handle the crowds, Madras had to bring in police from out-of-town, install extra cell towers, and even fly in 500 port-a-potties from as far away as Idaho.

"Our community's opening its arms and everyone's adjusting," says Sandy Forman of the Jefferson County Tourism Group. "The biggest thing is 'Where's the wifi, where's the data?' and trying to get that in. We'll see what happens!"

Now Madras has been transformed into "Eclipseville." Every street corner provides a opportunity to hustle. Every parking lot is an eclipse-themed bazaar.

It seems as though every street corner and parking lot in Madras has been transformed into an eclipse-memorabilia bazaar. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I'm almost out of those too," says Jeannie Mendazona as she searches for an eclipse-themed T-shirt for her customer. She brought out several racks of clothing and souvenirs this morning, and already many items are sold out.

People are renting their homes for thousands a night. A hotel room is as rare as the eclipse itself. Just ask San Francisco's Tim Villanueva, who traveled to Madras with his two sons.

If you want a spot to pitch your tent on this field in Madras, it will cost you $220 a night. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"About three months ago I thought, 'Oh, we should go to the eclipse.' So I started calling around and basically got laughed at. They said they've been sold out for three years."

So these self-professed Silicon Valley geeks brought a tent and built their own suite: a tent equipped with air-conditioning and a 42" TV. And they're renting this spot of dirt in Trish Hansen's field for $220 a night.

The way Trish Hansen explains it, the eclipse truly is a gift from the heavens. In December, she lost her job. Now with 800 people camping on her land, she'll make more this weekend than she would have in a year on her banking salary.

"You get to thinking I'm going to be really stretched thin," she says, and points to all the tents. "It was a good thing for us. Very good." Hansen says. "It helped tremendously to have this. So we were able to remodel the house and I'll be able to sell it."

Some visitors are veteran eclipse chasers, like 19-year-old Katerina Nottbohm. She squeals with excitement as she spots a someone dressed in a Smoky the Bear costume and asks her father to take a picture of her with him.

Nottbohm hails from a town of about 150 people near Hannover, Germany, and has traveled the world to see total eclipses in places like the Faroah Islands, Indonesia, and Turkey.

"Every total solar eclipse is different," she says. "It's an international adventure that most people just have one time in their life."

This eclipse will be her fourth. Her favourite moment: not totality itself, but the moment fifteen seconds before the sun disappears.

Others, like Oregon resident Michael Walton, are rookies. He spent hundreds on a serious-looking telescope to get a great "totality shot" with his camera. Then decided to buy another worth $1,300.

"This one's not big enough," he says, patting the first telescope. That one, he says, he nicknamed "The Kid." The other he decided to call "Michelle."

"I don't have kids so that's why I can afford a toy like this," he says.

For Jim Price, meeting eccentric "eclipse-heads" like himself is as much fun as watching the eclipse itself.

"The people around here are all incredible in all their own own unique ways and part of that journey is is meeting other people who also feel as compelled as I do to be here," Price says.

But for him, it will be a bittersweet event. He spent years planning this trip with his wife. But last year, she passed away suddenly.

"I can hear her you know sort of telling me, you know, this is what I have to do you know and this is something she would have loved to have been at; in some way I think she is she's here actually."

Now after years of planning and preparation, it's less than a day away. And so he sits in the chair he set up outside his tent, and, with the thousands who temporarily call Madras home, settles in and waits for the sun to go dark.


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