Once every eighteen months, a total solar eclipse is visible from some point on our vast, blue planet. Vast is the keyword. Most can go their entire lives without seeing a total solar eclipse. That certainly earns it the prestige of being a “bucket list item”.
When I learned about the first total solar eclipse to cross the contiguous United States in nearly a century, joy and anticipation swept through me. I would finally get to see something I only ever saw in pictures. As a little girl, I was once so enchanted by the moon, I wanted to be an astronomer. That little girl still lives in a small corner of my heart and she now whooped with glee.
A quick study of a map revealed I could see the eclipse near its center-line if I kayaked out into Lake Marion in Orangeburg County, South Carolina.
I grew up in Orangeburg County and spent many a summer splashing in the murky waters of that lake. I had boated it once but never kayaked it. Therefore, not only would I see an eclipse for the first time, I would experience a childhood place as I never had before.
I nearly waited too long to make plans. News stations began reporting the eclipse would be the greatest driver distraction of the century. Traffic would be thick as people rushed to their viewing areas. States formulated plans to deal with the traffic in the same way they would form hurricane disaster plans.
Less than a month ahead of the event, without even calling around the area, I already knew we would have to go camping. There was no way a hotel would be available.
Even that nearly failed. Four camping areas later, including Santee State Park, and I was beginning to despair of finding anything. Then, I hit upon a small landing that offered primitive camping sites: Poplar Creek Landing near Elloree.
Camping in the Southeast during August is a questionable idea at best. Temperatures soar from the upper nineties to triple digits Fahrenheit (30s to 40s Celsius) with humidity making it feel even hotter. The heat doesn’t really break at night, either, unless there’s a storm on the way. Tents become nylon and mesh bags of simmering misery. Only a masochist would light a campfire.
However, seeing a total solar eclipse over Lake Marion felt like an event worthy of sacrifice.
We arrived at Poplar Creek Landing on Saturday afternoon, thereby beating any traffic. The eclipse was on a Monday, which meant all of Sunday and Monday morning would be travel-heavy days.
The camping area was mostly empty. Poplar Creek Landing is a public landing and mobile home park with a handful of RV hook-ups and campsites. The campsites sat on the edge of the parking area for boaters to leave their vehicles.
We weren’t there, though, for serious camping or to review the landing. We were there to see an eclipse.
Before even leaving home, we prepped. Eclipse viewing glasses? Check. Obscene amounts of water to stave off dehydration? Check. Kayaks, life vests, and other accoutrements? Double check. My husband even bought waterproof boxes so we could carry our phones with us onto the water.
The landing itself sits by a body of water that branches off Lake Marion. I’ve heard such bodies of water referred to as “creeks”, “branches”, and “inlets”. Whatever the proper name, it was beautiful. Cypress trees with knobbed knees edged the water. Ospreys dove into the murky depths for bass and catfish while herons softly paced the shallows
We kayaked that first day, leaving the branch for the larger lake. Lake Marion has the distinction of being one of the largest lakes in the United States. Its creation called for an enormous land clearing effort that wasn’t even finished by the time the Santee River was dammed.
Kayaking a lake feels different from being in a river. Rivers have currents that push in one direction. The water in a lake pulls differently. Also, even out in what should be deep water, I felt the edges of old trees or debris scraping along the bottom of my kayak. It made me wonder what exactly I was paddling over.
Humid, hot, and still characterized Saturday night. I fidgeted as I tried to sleep, waking up easily whenever noisy boaters returned to their vehicles or I felt even the slightest suggestion of a breeze.
On Sunday night, the heat broke. Normally, this would be cause to celebrate, but not this time. A cool night in August meant storms the next day. Sure enough, Monday dawned with large clouds peppering the sky like giant dollops of cream.
I watched them with a worried eye as the hours passed. We killed time by going to a local ice cream shop, perusing a consignment store, and packing up our camp. Every time we stepped outside, I immediately looked up to see how many clouds there were, if any had merged, and if the sun was still visible.
People who had waited until the last minute poured into Santee. The road leading into the state park, and to Poplar Creek Landing, was so packed with traffic, we had to use a winding dirt road to return to camp. Santee itself looked busier than I had ever seen it in my life, even during the height of the tourism season. A small, sleepy town, brought into being because of the lake and the interstate, had suddenly come under intense attention.
At a quarter till two o’clock, a nearby camper shouted, “Look! It’s started!”
I pulled on my eclipse glasses and looked up. Sure enough, a small black semicircle hid an edge of the sun. The eclipse had begun. We grabbed our vests, phones, and kayaks and hurried into the water.
Dozens of kayakers already floated in the branch as well as out in the lake. People crowded the shore and pier at Santee State Park. One boat motored by, blasting Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”.
Because we didn’t have an anchor, we knew we would be floating around a bit. We chose a spot in the wide area where branch let into lake and pulled our kayaks together. I took out my phone and opened an app I bought that would alert us to the progress of the eclipse. My husband corrected our course if we got too close to shore or floated into a bad viewing angle.
Anticipation rode the air. People’s voices were high and excited. Complete strangers chatted as if old time friends; we were all bounded in this shared experience. The dramas and divisions of recent months rolled away. No one was a Republican or Democrat, a Conservative or an Antifa. We were inhabitants of this Earth about to see a once in a lifetime event.
Time inched by. We checked on the moon’s progress across the sun. I marveled that the sun could be partially obscured but there would still be a lot of light reaching us. The temperatures slowly began to drop. As the moon covered more of the sun, the light took on an unsettling hue. It reminded me of a chance cloud covering the sun on an otherwise clear day.
Then, the big moment. Everything happened so quickly. The light darkened. The temperature plummeted. A corona of light expanded around a seemingly black sun. From a nearby tree, large birds took to the air, frantically flying away. In their minds, it was night and they should have been home hours ago.
A 360-degree sunset settled over the horizon. One side of the lake, pink streaked the sky. On the other, the pink was obscured by looming storm clouds. Lightning flashed in the upper part of the cloud.
Applause erupted. Who or what, though, were they applauding? The sun? A mindless, soulless ball of burning gasses? The moon? It’s only a collection of rock and irradiated dust. Maybe some were applauding God for arranging such an amazing event. Maybe it’s just our instinctual reaction: when we something amazing, we have to thank and congratulate something.
Just as quickly as it happened, it ended. The moon slid away from the sun, temperatures rose, and sunlight flooded the lake. The gathering broke up now that the purpose was gone.
To get out of Santee afterward took some back roads driving that went further than my own childhood memory. Because Google maps isn’t always that accurate in the country, it was a miracle we didn’t end up on another dead end.
But once across the lake, a lot of the traffic eased up and we were able to talk about the experience.
We marveled at how we cast aside differences to come together for such an event. I hope that as we face increasingly dark days in this country, some shining bit of that eclipse, which made us all one in amazement, will remain.
Many people are trying to find a reason behind the eclipse, some sort of meaning. They look at the 100th anniversary of Fatima and they wonder. I like to think it’s a sign of two things. First, that God is still in control no matter what chaos roams the Earth. Secondly, no matter the chaos, there exist events that can pull us together.