Total solar eclipse draws visitors from near and far, but few difficulties reported

Scott Swanson

The first total eclipse of the sun viewable in Sweet Home in nearly 40 years left impressed spectators behind Monday morning, but that was about where the excitement ended, according to local officials.

Monday afternoon, City Manager Ray Towry, Police Chief Jeff Lynn and Fire Chief Dave Barringer agreed tongue in cheek, that their emergency operations center, located at Sweet Home Police Department, proved a pretty “boring” experience.

“We had a campfire (call),” Barringer said. “That was it.”

The EOC handled the eclipse on Monday just fine.

“Like a smooth, well-oiled machine,” Lynn said, semi-jokingly.

Which was rather easy to do under the circumstances.

“We experienced really minimal traffic and a minimal influx of people,” Lynn said. “No incidents that came to our attention.”

“No issues so far,” Towry said Monday at about 1 p.m. “Still monitoring traffic, particularly if the campers from the music festival come this way to get out.”

Cars lined Highway 20 and other rural roads Monday throughout the county as visitors took advantage of harvested fields for a clear line of sight.

Linn County campgrounds were full, but not overly so, Parks Director Brian Carroll said.

“It was busy but it was suprisingly quiet.”

He said emergency contingency plans proved unnecessary, though he had staff standing bhy for all eventualities. Plans to use Lewis Creek Park and open the fields at Sunnyside Park to accomodate more campers proved unnecessary.

The only exception was John Neal Park on the North Santiam, which had to be closed Monday because it was overflowing, Carroll said.

Locally, viewers lined Foster Dam and Shea Point, along with Lewis Creek on the morning of the eclipse, Carroll said.

“It was fun to see.”

The county even had some last-minute openings, which were snapped up by visitors from California, one leaving Concord, in the Bay Area, at 5 a.m. to get here by Sunday night, then returning on Monday.

Other campers in local parks include people from Switzerland, Australia and the Netherlands, Carroll said. A bus full of French tourists rolled into Roaring River Park near Scio Monday morning.

Parts of Interstate 5 were at a standstill Monday as people tried to leave the area.

Throughout Sweet Home residents could be seen in their yards or in parking lots, nearly all with the ubiquitous eclipse glasses.

Nearly 100 visitors congregated on the high school athletic field, around Weddle Bridge, with others in Sankey Park Monday.

Nearly all who spoke with a reporter hailed from the Eugene area.

Kevin and Dana Parrish of Pleasant Hill were there with friends Chad and Teri Wright, of Helena, Mont.

“It is only 99.6 percent totality (in Pleasant Hill),” Chad Wright said from his camp chair as they sat in a semicircle waiting for the solar event to begin.

“We heard about all the traffic and decided we could make it to Sweet Home,” Kevin Parrish said.

Dana Parrish gestured at the chain link fence surrounding the high school and its open gates.

“We really appreciate them opening it up.”

Nearby, Pamela and Jim Poverman-Victor of Eugene sat with their adult sons, Brian and Adam.

“It’s a nice little town,” Pamela said.

“An easy drive, no traffic,” Brian added.

Pamela noted that it was their second total eclipse.

She said they and Brian, their oldest, saw the last one, in 1979, from Moro, just south of the Highway 97 and Interstate 84 junction.

“Brian was 10 months old,” she said.

“It’s the first time we’ve been outdoor since,” Jim joked.

Humor was rampant among the watchers as they waited, as was enthusiasm, which seemed to grow as the sun shrank into a deep orange sliver.

Brian Beard, who taught art and drafting at Sweet Home High School from 1994 to 1999, was there with his family, from Eugene. He said three of his children, Brianne, Britney and Bryce, all graduated from Sweet Home.

“We thought it was so close, we should come here,” said Heather Beard, his wife.

“Why not make the effort to see 100 percent?” Brian added.

A college buddy, Scott Mitchell of Modesto, who teaches there, was along with a sophisticated camera set-up. He checked an eclipse app on his phone.

“There’s not much time left,” Mitchell announced. “10:17 is totality. It’s 10:16.”

The sky was darkening rapidly and the temperature dropped noticeably as the eclipse developed.

“Yeah, it’s definitely getting colder,” Mitchell said.

“It’s amazing how much light there is from that little sliver,” Brian Beard commented.

“Here we go,” someone in the crowd yelled.

“Amazing,” someone else said as the sun turned to a barely discernible ring of light, hidden by the moon, the shadow of which darkened the field, leaving some bare traces of ghostly light.

“It’s coming back,” someone yelled as the moon slid away, slowly, opening up another sliver of orange from the sun.

“That was exhilarating,” said Mitchell, who had been busily shooting photos during a two- or three-minute span. Spontaneous applause erupted as the sunny sliver grew wider.

“That was so cool,” said another spectator who walked by, toward the parking lot, with an armload of folded chairs. Reaching his truck, he took one last look at the sun through his solar glasses, then held them out.

“I’ll make you a good deal on these glasses, here,” he offered a passerby.

Next to the tennis courts, Clark Goble, Daniel Frankom, Jimmy Gill and Liam McParland had the entire field pretty much to themselves as they watched the event after driving from Vancouver Island, British Columbia – a 15-hour trek.

“It was totally cool,” Goble said. “It was definitely worth the trip.”

They’d spent the night at a park in Albany, then decided to head east.

“We thought it might be busy in Albany,” Frankom said.

Now that they’d seen the eclipse, they were planning to go to the coast and stay overnight before heading home, Goble said.

“I-5 was pretty congested.”

Local emergency responders and public officials began the day with their emergency operations center in place “because of the unknown,” Towry said.

“The potential for natural and man-made disasters,” said Barringer.

Among a series of emergency messages sent by Linn County Sheriff’s Office to cell phones across the county Monday was a warning to not park vehicles on dry grass.

“What we were seeing this morning out and about, people were parked anywhere they could get off the road,” said Craig Pettinger, unit forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry Sweet Home Unit. “So far we haven’t had any calls to deal with that.”

The biggest concern was the possibility that visitors staying at the coast might have awakened to find a cloud-covered sky and driven east in search of clear skies to observe the eclipse, Towry said. With that would come the potential for traffic bottlenecks.

New Public Works Direct Greg Spillman drove into Sweet Home from Newport Monday morning. He described it as a quiet drive.

“That gave us our first real-life intel,” Towry said. City officials had been monitoring the forecast for months to figure out whether Sweet Home would experience any significant impacts from the influx of people flocking to the region to observe the eclipse.

The bottom line is that it was a better to be prepared than unprepared, Towry said, and it gave Sweet Home’s emergency managers a chance to test their emergency operations center out, a chance to find gaps and see how everyone from other agencies to local ham radio operators integrate.

Sheriff Bruce Riley said the eclipse came and went with few issues across Linn County.

Linn County had placed a search and rescue team, with an ambulance crew from Sweet Home, at the junction of highways 20 and 22. The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District also put a five-man rescue team on standby.

City staff manned stations around the community to provide emergency water and maps to viewing areas and restrooms. Sweet Home Police Department had three extra patrol officers working.

The Sweet Home School District was prepared to open its buildings and grounds if needed.

“We coordinated everything we could coordinate and were ready as we were going to be,” Towry said.