Totality - An Eclipse Reflection

On April 8th, 2024, the shadow of a solar eclipse made its slow dance across North America.

The path of totality would pass tantalizingly close to my home city of Toronto, but from my home we would “only” see 99.56% occlusion. 99.56% is so close to 100%. If you were wealthier than 99.5% of Canadians you’d have nearly $10 million. But for a solar eclipse, that missing 0.44% separates a dark afternoon from a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Full, 100% occlusion is required to experience totality - the glowing halo you see always see featured in photos of solar eclipses.

Site Selection

In the weeks leading up to eclipse day, there were dozens of articles about the chaos and pandemonium that would be caused by “up to a million people” flooding into Kingston or Niagara Falls on eclipse day. Niagara Falls even preemptively declared a state of emergency in anticipation.

My partner Joyce and I watched the forecasts carefully. The forecast models turned sour late in the week before the eclipse. First, Niagara started looking cloudy. Just as I was mentally preparing myself to make the 3 hour trek to Kingston, the forecast turned cloudy there too! However, a small sliver of Ontario remained cloud-free - Essex County along Lake Erie.

A weather map showing cloud cover on the day of the eclipse. Heavy cloud cover is present over the entire path through Ontario, except for Essex County, near Windsor.
The sliver of clear skies over Essex County looked to have the best conditions in all of Ontario (darker blue indicates heavier cloud cover).

We selected a few potential areas in advance. Some isolated country roads with a large shoulder and clear views of the sky were our backup plans, but we wanted somewhere nicer we could spend the day. Point Peele was an obvious choice, but we worried that despite an early start, long lines of cars from more local cities like Detroit and Windsor would beat us there.

An equally attractive location was Hillman Marsh, only about 20 minutes from Point Peele. Its a location well known to local birdwatchers and has a large pond, surrounded by a small woods and marshland.

With access to the same weather information I had, I assumed that the huge crowd of other eclipse hunters originally destined for Niagara and Kingston had turned their sights to Essex County as well. We packed water, snacks and gas and planned for at least 16 hours of round-trip traffic (1 million is a lot of people, after all). To mitigate some of the stress of driving there, I leveraged a tool I’m lucky to have as a morning person - the ability to wake up and function well at crazy early hours. This was entirely to the chagrin of night owl Joyce, and the opportunity to sleep in the car for three hours didn’t seem to make up for the fact that I dragged her out of bed at 4AM.

The Marsh

Arriving at 7:30, we were the first ones there. It turns out that neither Point Peele nor Hillman Marsh would reach parking lot capacity until 9-10AM, and traffic along the route we took didn’t begin building until that time either. So in retrospect, 4AM was probably a bit early. Still, our early start offered us good time to bask in the crisp, fresh morning air and explore the beautiful walking trails around the marsh.

A photo of Hillman Marsh, showing a waterway surrounded by trees.
A local bird-watching hotspot, Hillman Marsh is home to a wide variety of animal and plant life.

Joyce had prepared us picnic lunches of sandwiches and fruit, which we ate at our selected spot by the pond. We had plenty of space to ourselves - although more people had arrived throughout the morning, the “park to parking lot” size ratio was so huge that we all could enjoy the space without crowding. It was a very relaxing and peaceful experience. Sitting by the water, I thought “we should remember this place and come back here next time”. Hmm. That’s not quite right, is it? If only eclipses were so frequent.

The Anticipation Grows

In preparation for the event I set up my DSLR camera, which I had packed entirely as an afterthought. It wasn’t until the previous night that I had researched how to photograph an eclipse. I didn’t have a tripod, so I had to fashion a bipod-like structure out of things I had lying around. After taping the eclipse glasses to the lens for some safe test-shots of the sun, I fine-tuned the “infinity” focus of my lens as recommended online; a critical adjustment, in fact. I taped my focus and locked my settings so I could spend as little time possible working the camera during totality.

We got our eclipse glasses from Joyce’s work. Only a few days before however, we received a caveat emptor email stating that the original vendor had issued a “stop sell order”, as they were not an authorized reseller… but that they were “probably fine”. Amid the talk of counterfeits, we had built some pinhole projectors to observe the sun with instead.

The author, staring into a large box, originally for a turkey roasting pan.
If it looks stupid but it works, it ain't stupid!

Mk. 1 - made from a tissue box - wasn’t long enough to comfortably focus on the projection screen. Mk. 2 - from the box previously occupied by our Easter turkey roasting pan - worked much better. We looked completely ridiculous but it worked great!

The Experience Begins

The eclipse began at around 2 PM. We turned our pinhole projectors skyward and took quick glances through the sketchy eclipse glasses, watching as the moon took its first bite from the sun. As the occlusion progressed, the temperature dropped quite dramatically. Long-sleeve shirt weather turned into sweater weather, which turned into jacket weather. All the while, the world fell darker and darker, but in an unusual way. On a normal overcast day, the clouds diffuse the light from the sun, which softens or eliminates shadows. This was not the case today, our shadows remained just as sharp but were set against significant darkness. As the sun appeared dimmer and dimmer, our ocular instincts were often subverted - it became difficult not to take accidental unprotected glances at the sun!

About 10 minutes prior to the beginning of totality, silence set in. The background noise of traffic on a nearby highway had ceased. The birds, plentiful and vocal as they were mere minutes prior had stopped their singing. As darkness continued to fall the horizon embraced us with a warm orange glow from all directions.

In the last few moments before totality, I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, owing to the the absolute surrealism of the present experience. It reminded me of what it’s like to transition into a lucid dream - you realize that although your eyes were open before, suddenly and strikingly you now can truly see.

We watched through the projection box as the last sliver of sun was consumed by the moon, and then we looked skyward.

The April 2024 Solar Eclipse in Totality


A hole punched straight through the sky. The darkest void surrounded by a supremely brilliant shimmering halo. Bright beads of light danced around its perimeter. The wispy, high-altitude clouds were no match for the luminance, and they faded away into the night-light sky. Venus glowed faintly nearby. It was surreal - like nothing I had ever seen in my life.

It’s difficult to describe how I felt in that moment, and perhaps no words ever fully can. I thought about the rarity of these events, and how awesome it is that the lunar and solar geometry enables such stunning total eclipses. I reflected on the privilege I had to live so close and have the means to travel to see it.

I thought about how I almost didn’t travel to see it. My tendency to overthink and plan for the worst means my brain has no difficulty developing compelling reasons (large crowds, getting stranded in traffic, etc) against doing things I actually want to do. Joyce helped me realize it would be worth the risks I had conjured up. Without her encouragement, I would have just watched the sky darken from our balcony.

With this in mind, I reflected on my earlier thoughts about how there would never be a “next time” for us to return here for another eclipse. 125 seconds was all we had. There are so many incredible things to see in the world. We should count ourselves lucky for all of those that we may choose to experience for longer, experience again, or defer for another time. Eventually, we will all run out of “next times”, and it will be sooner than we’d like.

I cleared a few tears from my eyes and hugged Joyce as we continued to watch. Much too soon, the sun broke free from the edge of the void. Time was up, time to look away.

The chorus of birdsong began again, as if they had awoken from sleep (perhaps they really had). The golden horizon faded away as the sky brightened, first on one side, followed by the other. We stood for a few more moments, quietly processing and burning in the experience to our memories - a memory that will surely last a lifetime.