By Pat Caldwell and John L. Braese
The solar eclipse lived up to its promised awesomeness Monday, wowing thousands in Malheur County who watched without the company of the predicted hordes.
The best vantage points for a once-in-a-lifetime experience did fill up Monday, but entrepreneurs and agencies expecting to profit from the spectacle were disappointed.
The only hint of challenge came after the sun went back to its normal duty as sky watchers all took to area roads at the same time to go back where they came from. Traffic slowed on major highways around Ontario, but was nowhere near the stopped gridlock on freeways in the Willamette Valley.
At Treasure Valley Community College, students from the Nyssa School District converged on the open grass besides the college’s science building. Students from other area districts such as Adrian were also on hand at TVCC.
Pink tape cordoned off sections for each grade and young people gathered in groups or individually and chatted while they waited for the big event.
“We’ve been preparing for this since school got out in May,” said Matt Murray, Nyssa elementary school principal.
Shannon Ayarza, a ninth-grader at Nyssa High School, said the eclipse experience was impressive.
“It a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Ayarza said.
Jana Iverson, Nyssa school superintendent, said busing students to Ontario on the opening day of school was a unique way to view the eclipse. Nyssa was just outside the band of totality.
“This is a wonderful, shared experience,” said Iverson.
As the students waited for the eclipse, they congregated in small groups and touched their special eclipse glasses as anticipation began to build. The sound generated by a large number of young people talking and laughing suddenly stopped as the sun dimmed. Teachers quickly began to walk among the students urging them to put on their eclipse glasses.
When the eclipse hit totality students began to clap, some yelled and others stood silent as they watched the celestial event.
At the first day of school in Vale, teachers and students gathered in groups outside Vale Elementary School as teacher Tom Huston announced over a loud speaker when to don glasses.
While older students put on glasses, younger ones had the glasses built into paper plates for easier fitting.
At the announced time, Huston told everyone to put on glasses and gaze upward. Murmurs of “oh cool” and “wow” arose from mouths both young and old.
As the sun disappeared and the temperature dropped, a silence took over crowd.
The influx officials had worried about for weeks didn’t occur until Monday morning. On Sunday, prime camping and viewing areas around Ontario hosted only a modest number of people.
Monday, though, crowds gathered at several locations, filling by 10 a.m. the two state parks along Interstate 84 near Ontario.
Still, local police said overall the event went smoothly.
“There was an obvious increase in traffic but I don’t think our roads were maxed out. I think it was nothing like some of the predications indicated,” said Travis Johnson, Malheur County undersheriff.
Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan said preparation was important for his Ontario office. He said the event occurred without any major traffic crashes.
“Overall we are absolutely pleased with how this happened. We had mild to moderate traffic flow this weekend, but much less than we anticipated,” said Duncan.
The real traffic issues didn’t begin until after the eclipse, he said.
“At one point we had a five-mile back-up on the freeway. (Oregon Highway 201) north was heavy with bumper-to-bumper traffic from Weiser to Ontario,” said Duncan.
Still, Duncan said from a state police point of view things could not have went better.
For many around the county, the visitors didn’t arrive in the numbers hoped for, but in the end, the eclipse was a site to behold.
As students and adults gathered at Vale Elementary School, teacher Tom Huston announced for students that it was time to put on special glasses.
A gasp went through the crowd as eyes looked towards the sun. Murmurs of “oh cool” and “wow” arose from mouths both young and old.
As the temperature started to drop as the sun disappeared, organizer Dan Wenger, a senior at Vale High School, raced around to help younger students adjust glasses. Wenger used the eclipse to complete his senior project, organizing the day for younger students.
But on Sunday, Malheur County seemed as quiet as normal.
Along the highway heading to John Day, the newly opened Willow Creek Store had the regulars on Sunday, but not many visiting faces.
“We had about one quarter of visitors on Saturday,” said owner Robin Hutson. “Today, we are not seeing much other than the regular people that come in.”
Down the road a few miles, Susan Gregory was busy putting out toys for a yard sale the family was holding.
Gregory planned the yard sale around the eclipse weekend, hoping for some extra people stopping by.
“We had a few people stop by I didn’t recognize, but it has been pretty slow,” said Gregory. “We figured more traffic.”
In Jamieson, traveling bicycle minister Greg Mark left Newport for more solitude in eastern Oregon.
“It was just too crazy over there so I came this way,” Mark said.
Mark found a place to stay in Jamieson and was selling a collection of items usually hauled around in a trailer behind his bike. He planned on viewing the eclipse before loading his goods and heading to Idaho.
One area seeing a good amount of visitors was a yard sale in Brogan. Besides the usual fare of items for sale, Pat Perry was also selling tickets for a quilt drawing. The handmade quilt commemorated the eclipse.
“We had quite a few visitors,” said Perry. “A couple from Denmark stopped by and bought some movies. They were heading farther west to see the eclipse.”