Total eclipse of the heart: Why some Albertans chase the dark side of the sun

A small, devoted group of astronomy enthusiasts from Edmonton have travelled far and wide to see again and again what for most is a once-in-a-lifetime event: a total solar eclipse.

‘I coined what I thought would be a good T-shirt phrase: look up and get shook up’

Don Fleming photographed the total solar eclipse from Lourdes, Chile this year. He has taken trips as far as Zimbabwe and Mongolia to see it. (Don Fleming)

Devoted astronomy enthusiasts from Edmonton travel far and wide to see again and again what can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime event: a total solar eclipse.

For Don Fleming, who travelled to Chile to view the phenomenon on Tuesday, this was trip number 13.

The eclipse, he said, was among the best he had ever seen. 

This year, he viewed it from a bleacher at a dirt soccer field in Lourdes, a small town in the Elqui Valley wine region about 400 kilometres north of Santiago. 

Fleming, the former Edmonton public school board chair, said people in Lourdes were flabbergasted.

"It knocked their socks off," he said. 

Don Fleming travelled to Lourdes, Chile to view the total solar eclipse. (Don Fleming)

Fleming has been making these trips since 1979, and plans his holidays around those moments when the moon blocks out the sun. 

"Once you've seen one you want to see another," he said. "I coined what I thought would be a good T-shirt phrase: look up and get shook up."

His travels have taken him to Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Argentina.

When Fleming began making the trips he didn't know many people with similar interests, but through the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada in Edmonton and online groups he has found a growing number of eclipse chasers. 

Don Fleming built an eclipse viewer out of welding glass and cardboard along with kids in Lourdes, Chile. (Don Fleming)

He said many are scientists, though his interest is mostly in travel and the experience of awe. Since his journeys began, companies have started offering tours targeting the growing niche. 

'It happens all around you'

Krista Stefan was on a boat in the South Pacific on Tuesday. 

Five other passengers from Edmonton were also among the cruise travellers there to take in the view, she said. 

"The whole wonder and amazement of the universe is what draws me into it," Stefan said, who became interested in astronomy as a kid and now receives newsletters about trips through a community of people who follow eclipses. 

Her first trip was in 1998. As a adult she has followed eclipses to Zambia, Norway, Australia and Indonesia. 

On eight different trips, she has watched as a solar corona becomes visible around the sun.

"It's this beautiful, shimmering atmosphere around the sun which is only visible when the bright part of the sun is blocked," Stefan said. 

It's a strange and amazing experience, she said, to see the sky become dark and the shadows sharpen, and the atmosphere shift.

"It happens all around you. Everything changes," she said.

This time, she missed the show, as clouds obscured the view during the full eclipse, but she said she enjoys every trip to a new part of the world. And this won't be her last.

"I call it the most addictive two-minutes in the universe," she said. "The thing you hear people say most often after one is over is, 'when is the next one?' " 

For people in Chile, the next one will arrive as soon as next year. The total solar eclipse will appear in parts of the country in December 2020.


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