Eclipse-Chasers-1

Totally Out of Sight

David Makepeace has journeyed to the tip of Antarctica, to the Iraqi border, and most recently to the Libyan desert just to stand and stare at the sky. Is he nuts? Nope. He’s Canada’s most famous eclipse chaser.

(Toro magazine, September 2006. Photo: Lorne Bridgman)

IT’S RIGHT THERE in the bible, Amos 8:9. “‘And on that day,’ says the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the Earth in broad daylight.’” Weird, but He didn’t say anything about the Red Bull concession tent blasting Ja Rule into the limitless Sahara. Nor did He mention the vanishing line of port-a-potties; the sea of military-style tents; the 3,000 people from a dozen nations speaking in their myriad tongues. But such is the sprawling scene outside Jalu, a barren desert outpost in northeast Libya, where these pilgrims have come to bear witness to this: a giant shadow from space that will rush over them in what is the wildest sideshow in the solar system – a total eclipse of the sun.

On this sweaty, camel-croaking Wednesday in March, the crowd has left their tents and dispersed into the desert. They have dragged along white plastic chairs and coolers. With only minutes to go, they have hunkered down beneath big-mouthed telescopes and fancy cameras. Most of these people are mere rubberneckers, thrill seekers with an extra week of vacation who figured they’d try something exotic. Others are professional types: editors of science magazines; astrophysicists from NASA. (If you were to yell “Hey geek,” the whole place would duck, anticipating a spitball.)

Here the faithful are the cool kids, a small band of New Agey dreamers whose lifelong goal is to spend as much time “in the shadow” as they can. They are eclipse chasers, and they will go to the farthest places to find one. By one estimate, there are fewer than 350 hardcore chasers on the planet. One of the most zealous and outspoken is Dave Makepeace, a Toronto film editor, also known by the name he gave himself for his Web site: Eclipse Guy.

At 43 years old, Makepeace is beefy, with a peach-fuzz dome, a snarky smile and the riveting blue eyes of the true believer. He wears a single gold-hoop earring, a blonde goatee, and a bunch of hippie string bracelets that dangle from his right wrist. He is a born proselytizer. “It’s goosebump time people,” he yells, stretching his arms skyward as the light begins to slowly shift from pale white to eerie twilight. “No turning back. The shadow is upon us.”

Nobody really listens to Makepeace, except for a small posse of friends. Other people nod, and give a tolerant smile, the way they would for a guy at a concert who whoops and yells out the name of the song as the band starts to play it.  “It makes me feel huge,” says Makepeace, shaking out his fingers like a dancer in a musical, or someone on speed. “It elates me.”

In the past 15 years, Makepeace has witnessed 14 eclipses in 11 countries on seven continents. He has spent 24 minutes in the moon’s umbra, or shadow. According to his “umbra log,” today’s eclipse, lasting four minutes and four seconds, will raise his tally to nearly a half hour. For two years, he has been waiting and planning for this moment. He has already trained one camcorder and three cameras at the sky, which he obsessively tweaks throughout the day. Among chasers, Makepeace is known as one of the best chroniclers of eclipses on the internet. His website, EclipseGuy.com, is a vault of videos, photos, facts, and hype. On it he proclaims “I am Canada’s busiest eclipse chaser,” and he admonishes visitors “You must see a total solar eclipse at least once before you die!!”

Here in Libya, you see the kind of caffeinated camaraderie among chasers that you’d expect in the parking lot at a jam-band concert. And by the looks of it, some of the same enthusiasts have shown up, but with new paraphernalia. There are old men in tie-dye shirts and pale legs showing off telescopes; high school teachers in camo bragging about their math clubs back home; and one guy smack out of a Simpsons episode: a nutty-professor wielding a red laser, slashing at the sky each night as he nasally explains Einstein’s theory of whatever. To strike up a conversation with anyone here means falling into a rabbit hole of astronomy lecture and spontaneous confession. A grown man with a bowl-cut and a crisp safari jacket tells me eclipses are “better then sex.”

In some areas of the camp, chasers adhere to a closely-observed etiquette. No yelling. No hooting. No jumping up and down. Makepeace is not one of those chasers. “Orange, orange, orange,” he calls out, as the sky darkens, like a fierce storm is coming, and the horizon is suddenly ringed in a surreal 360-degree sunset. His friends hug him, they shoot each other with camcorders, laugh with ecstasy eyes. “This is undeniably, ethically, cosmically huge!”

TO KNOW DAVE MAKEPEACE is to be pummeled by his enthusiasm until you submit. His dedication is so righteous, his speechifying so poetic, and his mind so startlingly trippy, that he regularly seduces family and friends along on his “far-out journeys.” In the past, these have included boarding an ice breaker to Antarctica; flying in a rickety prop plane into Australia’s outback; and driving to within 100 kilometers of the Iraqi no-fly zone in Southern Turkey. This time around, he has wrangled his friend Mike Riley, a TV and film actor, and Noelle Elia, a freelance writer dressed wholly in black, along for the ride.

“There are all these little phenomenon you can play with,” Makepeace tells Elia, snatching a straw hat and holding it against the sand as the eclipse progresses. Through the holes in the hat, the sun makes dozens of replicated quarter crescents. “Isn’t that killer?”

Like all good stories, Makepeace’s obsession begins with a girl. In 1991, he followed a woman to Baja Mexico, where she was working for a tourism company. The romance sputtered, but it was there, on a wilting day in July, that he witnessed one of the century’s more spectacular eclipses. The sky went black for a full seven minutes, the maximum time any eclipse can last and a feat that won’t be seen on earth for another 26 years.

“I just remembered the next day, sitting at the Sea of Cortez, and just being astounded by what I had seen, and feeling really changed by it,” says Makepeace. “And of course, as soon as it was over I was like I want to do that again. I want to do that again. That was fucking brilliant. Give me more. It’s why you get back on the ride, because of the thrill.”

Any number of the chasers here today are willing to explain in textbook detail the clockwork solar system’s eclipse trick. But pretty much, it’s what you already know from grade school: The moon blocks the sun. So really, what’s the big deal? Total eclipses happen roughly once every 18 months. But because the earth is three-quarters ocean, and much of its land is remote, they often go unseen. When the moon’s shadow does pass over populated areas, a little thing like cloud covering can basically eclipse the eclipse.

That’s why Libya is proving so ideal: It’s dry and flat. And that’s why so many chasers have traveled thousands of miles to be here. Today’s path is a long one, starting in Brazil, crossing the Atlantic into Africa, and moving diagonally through Libya, Turkey, and parts of Asia, then ending at daybreak in Mongolia. We are here on the center line, in a spot where totality will last the longest. As the sky darkens further, a wind kicks up. The temperature drops to an autumn coolness. You suddenly realize you don’t need your sunglasses. Venus begins to blaze away in the sky. Mars and Mercury come out.

As the moment of totality looms, the crowd becomes agitated. Hundreds of people stand up almost at once, necks stretched, as if they’re trying to get closer the moon itself.  “All right,” says Makepeace, addressing the masses, “four more minutes. The cosmic joke is coming.” People woop and holler. A woman says, “It’s getting creepy out.” And then, with seconds to go, the sky goes black, the crowd erupts in disjointed chatter.

“Oh my god.”

“It’s the end of the world.”

“Holy shit.”

“Whoa, imagine the first time people saw this.”

“Take your hat off.”

“Holy shit, look at that.”

“There’s Mercury, there’s Mercury.”

“Wait, which one is Mercury?”

“Oh my god, here it comes.”

“Wait, are you crying?”

Just before totality hits, at 11:40AM, the desert looks like a scene out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nearly everyone is on their feet, faces turned upward, arms around their friends and family, waiting. What they see is spectacular. The sun is a brilliant blazing sliver that forms a gossamer halo around the moon. Just before disappearing completely, it creates a dollop on one side, producing what chasers call a diamond ring. Then it’s gone, and the sun’s corona – a superheated plasma of two million degrees – can be clearly seen. Ghostly grey streamers shoot outward into the black night. People looking through telescopes can see tiny red flames licking at the edge of the moon’s black disc. And on the horizon is a stupefying yellow and orange twilight, as if the earth is quietly burning.

Moments later, the whole process reverses itself, and the sun slowly reappears, By then, Makepeace and his friends are in a group hug, with Makepeace videotaping them all with one extended arm. “We were here man,” says his friend Riley. “We saw every phenomenon.”

“We saw everything,” says Makepeace, his face just inches from Riley’s as if they’ll kiss.

A few moments later, Elia breaks down in tears. “I want to be with her,” she says, looking skyward at the retreating moon, and crumbling up in the sand, chin to knees. “I want to wrap my arms around her. I want to hug everyone. I’m on a high. I just want a big hug, a big cosmic hug.

Makepeace is kneeling now, talking to Elia. The rest of the crowd is slowly packing up their equipment, funneling back to their camp and to lunch. Makepeace is filming Elia as they talk.

“That’s why they’re so special,” he says, “Because you don’t get them all the time. You got to wait three or four years.”

“I just feel so raw, so out of language,” says Elia. “I wonder if I missed something.”

“Man, we all go through that,” he says. “This is exactly what creates chasers. Because you want to do it again. Yeah, you want to do it again.”

AN HOUR OR SO LATER, both Makepeace and Elia are wandering around the camp looking exhausted, spent, post-coital, vulnerable. Makepeace, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment near Toronto’s western harbour, cluttered with teddy bear wizards, Depak Chopra books, and several glossy Avril Lavine posters, already has his next eclipse on his mind. In 2008, he’ll head up to the Canadian Arctic to see a rare sunrise eclipse, and he’s willing to risk the high threat of cloudy skies for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But right now, he’s mostly dazed, and looking a little peeved at having me hovering. Gone is the gregarious hugger and pontificator, replaced, momentarily, by a rattled soul. In fact, the rest of the camp seems equally subdued. The midday heat is once again wilting everyone. The tents are like saunas. People are taking refuge near the coolers of non-alcoholic beer (Libya is a dry country) and playing cards amid the fumes of idling trucks outside the vast catering tents. There’s nothing to do but wait for the buses to take them home tomorrow. One hippie chick, whose boyfriend proposed to her during the eclipse, is showing off her new engagement ring.

“It’s so different than this morning,” Makepeace tries to explain. “The thing is so taken up… and I’m walking around with a sort of post-eclipse… ya know.”

“Yeah, like bummed,” says Elia.

“No, not bummed,” Makepeace says quickly. “Nobody’s bummed. It’s just the energy level has been brought down. The thing’s been released and now we’re sort of, you know, thinking about what happened, what it was like, how our expectations were met or they weren’t. You’ve just been going on adrenaline, and everything pops. You can’t stand.”

“It’s like sex,” says Elia, twisting her fingers together, “like this exhaustion.”

“Yeah, you can say that,” says Makepeace, as a large, quiet group of Japanese march past, their leader holding a flag and wearing a full face sun visor. “How the partial phases are the build up, then the climax of totality, and then the release. And then, you know, you’re smoking, and waiting for room service to bring you a sandwich or something.”