The Shortest Night Ever

Total solar eclipses are fleeting and ephemeral — lasting only mere minutes — but it’s the total eclipse’s scarcity that makes your life feel fleeting and ephemeral as well. In the lead-up to the April 8th Southern Ontario total eclipse, we were well-reminded that our next opportunity to see totality in Canada wouldn’t be until 2044 — and the next total eclipse visible from Ontario would be in 2099, a harsh reminder that for many, this would be the very last total eclipse visible from your “backyard”.

Despite a year of careful preparation — many hotel reservations, hours of research on Google Maps staking out parking spots and viewing spots at every Lake Erie town, traffic and highway analysis, contingency planning and packing as if we were preparing for a zombie apocalypse, learning meteorology, interpreting HRDPS and HRRR and T-Skew cloud plots — on Sunday afternoon we find ourselves on an unexpected 4-hour drive to Leamington, headed to a hotel that we booked last-minute the night before: the change of plans driven by a sudden shift in the forecast, which declared that Leamington was one of the few places “guaranteed” to have no low-altitude clouds on an otherwise cloudy day. If this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you leave nothing to chance.

On Monday, we wake to a cloudy overcast morning in Leamington that quickly clears into an forecast-validating crystal blue sky. Still, I pace around and worry (“will the coming high-altitude cloud front impact visibility? will we make it back by nightfall?”), while kids entertain themselves on the huge jungle gym and recreation area in the hotel, oblivious to the upcoming theatrics. At T-3 hours, right at peak-anxiety, our four-year old declares that she already loves this trip and the hotel. “Can we come back here again?”, she asks.

While many other hotel guests depart for nearby Point Pelee National Park or other local conservation areas, we setup our camp chairs in the beautifully landscaped field behind the hotel, amidst some marshy bullrushes and a pond. Proximity to the hotel, with its easy bathrooms and kid-pacifying activities is a no-brainer. A few other groups of hotel guests follow suit, but there is still plenty of space and privacy. The three kids saunter out at one o’clock for a picnic, and to get ready for the big show.

Nature starts on schedule, at 1:58 PM. “A bite is missing from the sun!”, our four-year old proclaims.

The eclipse builds slowly and gradually, through a quarter, half, and then three-quarters. We’ve seen partial eclipses before — including a dry-run to have kids try eclipse glasses during the annular eclipse in 2023 — so this is not yet out of the ordinary. But, somewhere around 80% obscuration, as the sun squeezes into a beautiful orange arc, a gentle crescent, something clicks inside your mind that this is not the same script — totality is really happening! “It looks like it’s going to rain!”, says our six-year old, as the skies darken and temperatures drop precipitously. A dark and ominously large circle appears in the sky, on the clouds circumscribing the sun. Only later, we realize this is the umbral shadow of the moon, projected onto the translucent high-altitude clouds, as seen from below. Remarkable.

The moon nibbles away at the remaining sliver of crescent, from either end, until all that’s left is the smallest of specks. We take off the eclipses glasses to check, but it’s still impossibly bright. We see the shadow on the horizon rushing towards us — then, in quick progression — Baily’s Beads! Diamond Ring! In a flash, the sun is gone.

All the research and science and videos can prepare your mind, but not your emotions, for the primal moment that follows: what was once bright goes dark, with the sun now a pre-historic black eye staring down at us. What was once dark is now bright, with a radiant corona emanating out from the darkest black. You feel an immediate connection to generations of humans past, who may have also gazed upon this spectacle, and who may have also wondered, just as you do now, what they had done to deserve the sun’s angry black ire.

We look around and revel in the 360 degree sunset, a peachy hue on the horizon in all directions. We listen to birds, now very loud and very confused, preparing to roost or scratching in the dirt for a dusk meal. We peer at the trees and neighbouring groups — lit not by the sun, but by the horizon, the world’s largest ring-light, with a vibrancy and saturation that’s hard to replicate or describe. We even see Venus shining brightly, a very rare sight at three o’clock in the afternoon. But most of our time is spent gawking at the sun, or more accurately the corona of it that remains, with hints of red prominences peeking out like fangs from the dragon hidden behind.

Even though over two minutes have passed, it feels like only thirty seconds — a logic-defying time dilation. You yearn to spend more time in totality, but you know it’s not possible, and your remaining few seconds are precious. The horizon glow brightens from one direction, and you see the dawn rushing towards you with a fervour and unfamiliar speed. The corner of the sun breaks out into a singular point of light.

Diamond ring…

The world wakes up again, we wake up again. We share a family hug, and a few tears: we are happy that all our planning has paid off and that we have experienced this adventure and ethereal magic together, this “shortest night ever” — in the words of our nine-year old. But we are also simultaneously sad: we are acutely aware that this may be the last local total solar eclipse we share together as a family. While total eclipses may be immortal, we are most definitely not.

We scurry back to the car, and like the sun above us, start our return journey home.

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