HOULTON, Maine — Next April, from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Houlton, Maine, the moon will pass between the earth and sun and its 155-mile wide shadow will create daytime dusk-like darkness, unusual colors and what some describe as a mystical stillness.
The occurrence is much more than getting a T-shirt that says “I got mooned in Houlton.” It’s three to four minutes of cosmic rarity that will draw an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 of the curious to Houlton for the April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse, the last place in the United States to view it.
A recent Simons Foundation $10,000 grant means Houlton can offer eclipse chasers a hefty dose of science fun and an Alice in Wonderland-sized pair of certified eclipse viewing glasses that stand several feet taller than a child and can be used by more than one viewer at a time.
What Houlton can’t offer the influx of viewers is enough local lodging. For that, visitors will have to spread out to other parts of Maine, town officials have concluded. As far as feeding more than 20,000 visitors, local restaurants, area churches and nonprofits are planning additional meal offerings.
Town eclipse planners are lining up food trucks for downtown. And a local farmer has donated a refrigeration truck for local restaurants to store additional supplies to make food all weekend long, according to Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Area Chamber of Commerce.
“They will have extra right on hand,” Torres said. “It will be difficult for people to get deliveries in town.”
Planners anticipate the majority of eclipse watchers will have to find accommodations in surrounding towns across Aroostook County and farther south, said Johanna Johnston, executive director of the Southern Aroostook Development Corp. in Houlton.
“We’ve heard that people don’t mind driving two, three and four hours for a once in a lifetime experience like this,” she said. “This is why we expect the majority of the influx in tourism to occur on Monday, April 8.”
Johnston said they are hearing that friends, family and extended relatives plan to stay with their local families. Johnston has two friends from North Dakota and two from Virginia planning to stay with her. And she is continuing to make every effort to educate the community on the opportunities individuals have when it comes to housing, from renting a spare room or basement apartment or even a camp, she said, adding that services like AirBnb and VRBO make it easy for people to sign up their extra space for visitors to rent.
She listed her property on Hipcamp with space for three RVs.
“What I liked about Hipcamp.com is that they already have a section on their website showing the path of totality for the April 8, 2024, eclipse with icons depicting the spaces available in the path,” she said.
The Hipcamp site lists several cabins near Houlton that are already booked for the eclipse weekend next April. And other area motels have been completely booked for months. Some eclipse chasers booked rooms two years ago, according to lodging owners.
One lodging business that may still have room is the Shiretown Inn and Suites on North Street. They are currently taking names and numbers for people interested in staying in Houlton for the eclipse.
When viewers arrive in Houlton for the big event, they will find a pair of giant viewing glasses made by a metal fabricator and an eclipse viewing glasses company, so they are certified for safe viewing.
The only other known pair of such giant certified sun viewing glasses is in Perryville, Missouri.
Houlton’s director of community development, Nancy Ketch, has been working with Perryville for the past two years in planning for the 2024 event because the city is similar to Houlton and they experienced a total solar eclipse in 2017.
“I attended a meeting in July and saw the glasses and thought, ‘that is so cool,’” she said.
In 2017, Perryville had nearly 18,000 eclipse visitors from 36 states and 17 countries, Ketch said.
Because they were prepared, they did a great job in handling an influx equal to the population of their county. For 2024, Perryville started doing everything for the event earlier, she said.
“Their entire group has been an amazing resource for us in our planning,” Ketch added.
The Simons Foundation, in partnership with Main Street America, awarded $10,000 grants to 15 cities and towns in the path of totality to create science engagement activities for residents and host visitors from around the world as the moon casts its shadow over their communities.
Their “In the Path of Totality” initiative is intentionally designed for communities to actively engage residents and visitors with science.
“We’re spotlighting towns that fall in this narrow path because we believe that everyone should have an opportunity to engage with science in a place they call home,” Ivvet Modinou, vice president of the Science, Society, & Culture Division at the Simons Foundation, said in a recent release.
As part of the Simons Foundation initiative, a Science Sandbox grant, in addition to the $10,000 award, will pay for the New York City-based BioBus and a team of scientists to bring their mobile lab to Houlton on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the day of the eclipse.
During and after the eclipse, BioBus scientists will use DIY microscopes to mirror what is happening during the eclipse, discuss how eclipse viewing boxes work, and explore how insects and other mammals perceive the event, the foundation said.
“Insects like crickets start chirping, flowers will begin to close, although we probably won’t have many flowers in April,” Ketch said. “It has a fascinating effect on nature.”
Additionally, BioBus is also hoping to collaborate with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians for science-related and culturally relevant programming for participants, Ketch said.
“I think the BioBus will be a wonderful added attraction to our Eclipse Festival,” said Johnston of the Southern Aroostook Development Corp.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to get some in-depth information,” Ketch said.
Johnston attended the astrological conference via Zoom and after the event, she reached out to both the Houlton and Hodgdon school superintendents about getting teachers the resources they might need to incorporate eclipse science in their curriculum.
According to Johnston, an astronomy and physics teacher spoke at the conference about how she discovered that teachers understood what a total solar eclipse was but many did not feel comfortable teaching it.
Because of this missed educational opportunity, the teacher, Deborah Skapik, was inspired to write a complete teaching guide, Look UP, Below! an educator’s guide to the April 8, 2024, total eclipse, for next April’s eclipse, Johnston said.
With the eclipse clock ticking and less than 160 days to totality, it’s crunch time for organizers to pull the remaining pieces together, Ketch said.