Oregon Public Broadcasting

Mark Dalton spent Sunday evening with a welder's helmet on his head in a fire lookout, peering at the sky and talking about vintage video games.

All this makes perfect sense when you understand that Dalton is middle school teacher in Yreka, California. A few months ago, he taught his students about solar eclipses. On Sunday, he was among millions of people who positioned themselves to witness such an event for themselves.

"It's like there's just a slight little bite out of the lower right quandrant of the disk." Dalton says it reminds him of Pac-Man, if Pac-Man had a rounder bite.

Dalton pulls down his welder's visor to protect his eyes. The darkly shaded glass filters out harmful UV light and lets him look directly at the sun. The other eclipse-watchers on this hilltop have brought binoculars fitted with solar filters and home-made solar goggles. Without protection, the sun is still far to bright to look at. But with the helmet on, Dalton watches the sun shrink as the moon advances.

For most people in the West, this is what the eclipse looks like: the moon taking a bite out of the sun. But Dalton is waiting to see something more. Northern California is along the centerline of this eclipse, directly under the moon's shadow.

"I hope to see the ring of fire." He says, "I hope to see the solar flares, when we get to that point."

In a total eclipse, the moon covers the sun completely. But in a ring-of-fire eclipse, the moon looks a little smaller than the sun. Eric Anderson is an astronomer and president of the Southern Oregon Skywatchers club. He says the moon looks small during this eclipse because it's far away from the earth.

"The moon's orbit is pretty close to a circle, but not quite. It's actually an elipse. This means there are times when the moon is close to the earth, and there are times when it's far away," he says.

Anderson says in a total eclipse, the moon is about the size of a quarter, while in a ring-of-fire eclipse, it's more like the size of a nickel. Anderson says people from Alaska to Massachusetts have traveled here to see the ring of fire.

"Some people will chase eclipses anywhere in the world, even if its in the middle of the ocean, they'll go on a cruise ship to watch it," he says. "There's that level of devotion out there."

Back on the hilltop near Yreka, Mark Dalton is watching the eclipse reach its peak.

"Alright, the points are touching. We got a ring!" he exclaims.

It gets chilly, and the sky darkens a little. The alpenglow on Mount Shasta fades, and the mountainside goes dark. And then, after what feels like only a minute, the ring of fire passes as far as California watchers are concerned. The show moves on. Crowds in New Mexico and Texas watch it before the sun goes down. Dalton says it was worth the wait.

"It was just a fleeting thing, but it was certainly indelible in my mind. I don't think I'll ever forget the look of it."

If you bought a pair of solar glasses to watch this eclipse, hang on to them. Astronomers say an even more rare event is happening June 5th: the transit of Venus. The closest planet to Earth will be visible passing in front of the sun, and that won't happen again for more than 100 years.

Find photos and more on this story at EarthFix.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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