Thrillseekers take to Ocoee River for solar eclipse viewing [photos]

Thrillseekers take to Ocoee River for solar eclipse viewing [photos]

August 22nd, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Matthew O'Brien, Christina O'Brien and Logan Brokway, 16, watch the eclipse from a Big Frog Expeditions raft Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, on the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tenn. While some rafting outfitters stayed off the river for the day, others including Big Frog Expeditions marketed the day as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Gallery: Thrillseekers take to Ocoee for eclipse viewing

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POLL: Did you watch the eclipse?

BENTON, Tenn. — The moment when the moon swallows the sun is the most epic, awesome, amazing thing in the whole planet.

Just ask Rob Benson, owner of Big Frog Expeditions, raft guide for 27 years. Benson has steered down the Ocoee River about 5,400 times in his career, and every experience is interesting and heart-stopping and great. He loves to talk about it.

But Monday was going to be great in a whole new way, Benson just knew — a total eclipse, with his hometown in the line of totality. He marked the day in his calendar a year ago. And he made sure the other raft guides knew to work Aug. 21, 2017. He researched when the eclipse would hit here and figured out what spot on the Ocoee would be best.

And then Monday, around 1 p.m., with about 50 customers at the edge of the water, Benson urged everyone to put down their rafts and grab their paper glasses.

"Let's look up at this eclipse, man," he said. "This is so cool. This is so cool. It's just, really cool."

One rafter said they couldn't tell a difference. And indeed, through the glasses, the sun looked like a big orange ball, same as it ever was. But Benson swore he saw a slight difference, with a baby shadow over the top right corner of the sun. The eclipse was due.

To be a raft guide, Benson would later say, you have to be enthusiastic at all times. You have to coach a group of novices through the rush of Class IV rapids. But the enthusiasm cuts deeper than that. When someone buys a trip down the river, they want to feel like they finally took a high school graduation speech to heart, that they are finally seizing the day.

Gallery: Total solar eclipse hits Tennessee

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Monday was no different, except for what was happening with the center of the universe.

About 20 minutes into his trip, Benson yelled for his team to stop the raft on the side of the river, resting up against some rocks. He handed out the glasses, urging everyone to look up again. This time, he was pleased to see a big chunk gone.

"It looks like Pac-Man," said Logan Brockway, 16.

"Yeah," Benson shouted out from the back of the raft. "It looks like Pac-Man. It looks like Pac-Man. Womp-womp-womp-womp-womp-womp-womp."

"Hey, Alex," Benson shouted to another raft guide across the water. "It looks like Pac-Man."

About 30 minutes later, he looked again, saw the moon gliding over half the sun.

"Oh man," he said. "Here we go. It is so cool."

Across the country, capitalists took advantage of the natural phenomenon. Hotel rates spiked. Airbnbs did, too. Stores sold out of viewing glasses, and some buyers started hawking pairs online for hundreds of dollars.

Benson, 48, wasn't so shrewd a deal maker. He sold tickets for the trip at $30 each, about $5 less than his advertised rate for a typical ride down the Ocoee. A natural phenomenon like this, he said, is life changing. The people who saw it — on the water or elsewhere — will one day tell their grandchildren about it.

And even after we die, he said, those grandchildren will think of us when we think of an eclipse. It's a form of immortality, he said. Also, it just looks cool.

Christina O'Brien and her husband, Matthew, drove here from Smyrna on Monday with Christina O'Brien's son and his friend. They already were in the line of totality at home, but they wanted to try something different.

They struggled to explain what they expected, beyond the obvious: Sit in the water, look up in the sky, watch day become night, tell your friends about it. Beyond that, how can you explain the phenomenon? Christina and Matthew O'Brien made reference to God and the order of the universe they believe he put in place. Also, rafting is really fun.

Around 2:15 p.m., Benson coached the O'Briens and the boys to steer toward a calm part of the river, at the Hiawasee Shoals. Once they stopped, Benson hopped out the back and held on to the raft, next to his 17-year-old stepson. He checked his plastic green watch, strapped to his life vest.

"Keep your glasses on," Christina O'Brien told the boys.

"Let's stop and take this in," Benson shouted. "This is going to be so awesome."

But in the minutes leading up to the eclipse, clouds rolled across the sky. Every once in a while, one would move and Benson could see the sun. It looked like a bright crescent moon. Then, the sky drew darker, blue becoming purple.

The clouds moved, leaving the sliver of sun exposed. Just another minute, Benson told his stepson. Behind them, about 40 other rafts belonging to several other companies waited. Some kayakers paddled blind in their glasses, gliding forward, staring up.

The afternoon became dusk, the moon swallowed the sun, and rafters began to woo in unison. Some shouted. Some clapped. Benson stared at the ring of light around the edges.

"Wow," he whispered. "This is even better than I thought."

About 90 seconds passed. The sky became light. The trip down the river continued.

"All right," Benson shouted. "That was awesome. Let's come back in 99 years and do it again."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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