Eclipse chasers: A special order of Nature’s People

It matters little whether we regard the point of view
of the savage…or that of the astronomer,
the total solar eclipse is a most imposing natural phenomenon.

Mabel Loomis Todd
Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894)

If you and yours were some of the millions of Americans who traveled mucho miles to personally witness the celestially rare experience of a total solar eclipse last 21 August, you have something uniquely in common with Hog Island history.

And if you are an Audubon camper, you no doubt remember the part of the opening session narrative as retold from Millicent Bingham’s decades of addressing campers about her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, who is still blessed there regularly as both primary ‘savior of Hog Island’ and the first editor of the Emily Dickinson canon of poetry and letters. Somewhere in that storytelling you might also remember mention of Millicent’s father, David Peck Todd, who is usually simply noted as chief astronomer at Amherst College a century ago and notorious for being, among other things, a global total solar eclipse chaser.

First off, let me just say how impressed I am with mathematicians who for millennia have accurately calculated solar eclipse events on the Earth. Though they couldn’t figure out exactly where they would show up until the 1850s, skywatchers from the time of the Babylonians recorded celestial events accurately enough to recognize the moon’s variable orbit plane that has everything to do with the timing and location of both solar and lunar eclipses. David Todd contributed to improvement in the plotting of such celestial dynamics only fifty years after it was first accomplished in Great Britain.

As a college student, David Todd cut his eclipse teeth by observations not of Earth, but of Jupiter. His meticulous observations and record keeping of eclipses of Jovian moons, and subsequent publication of that data, caught the attention of famed American astronomer Simon Newcomb who gave Todd his first job as a special assistant and ‘calculator’ at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. A few years later, Todd would take the astronomy job at Amherst where he and his new wife and little girl would make their home which proved fertile ground for the development of three very illustrious and successful careers.

Getting to totality, of course, is the first order of business before witnessing this unique and ‘most imposing natural phenomenon.’ My wife and I braved expected heavy interstate traffic through Ohio and Kentucky to get to Tennessee for our experience. We heard on the news that those 60,000 folks who joined us at Triple Creek Park in Gallatin, thirty miles north of Nashville, came from 39 states and 17 countries, including two busses of Japanese observers. During David Todd’s era of observations, one can only imagine the added degree of difficulty required to get not only expedition members to the precise path of totality, but also crates of sensitive optical equipment, often over miles of difficult terrain. All for a mere few quick minutes of totality.

As if expedition life wasn’t hard enough, often on the outskirts of civilization, there was never a promise of clear skies. Twice, in both 1887 and 1896, David and Mabel and observation teams sailed to Japan to record the sun’s corona using an innovative photographic camera system designed by Todd. It took eight months of difficult sailing and overland travel to record on wet photographic plates what solar science could only view at totality. And it was cloudy. Both times. So if you had clear skies like we did at Gallatin, you did a whole lot better than many of Todd’s dozen or so expedition teams. Such makes it easier to understand Millicent’s family anecdote that the only thing her father ever admitted to really upsetting him was clouds at totality. And if you know much about Todd family history, that really was saying something.

In part because catching totality under clear skies was inherently risky, David Todd assembled broadly based scientific teams to join his expeditions. The thinking was that even if all the money and effort spent on photographing the sun’s corona resulted in failure, other scientific natural history data, like flora and fauna study and collections, would result in the team bringing something of value home. Keep in mind, too, that the nation of Japan the Todds personally experienced was not yet fifty years removed from Commodore Perry’s abrupt appearance in 1854 to negotiate a trade treaty. Japan was a nation of mystery to Americans who were eager to learn more about the secretive and exotic Land of the Rising Sun. Which is another place in history where Mabel Loomis Todd fits right in.

Mabel Todd did not accompany David on all of his expeditions, but she didn’t miss many. Following both trips to Japan, she published articles in national publications with broad readerships, including The Atlantic Monthly and The Century Magazine. Whereas Dr. Todd and his team collected scientific data, Mabel focused on cultural issues in articles titled ‘An Ascent of Fuji the Peerless,’ ‘In Quest of a Shadow: An Astronomical Experience in Japan,’ and ‘In Aino-Land.’ American readers were hungry to hear more about the island nation most would never have the opportunity to travel to.
Mabel Todd produced a few full-length books from her global travels with her husband. Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894) had a mostly scientific bent but was aimed at explaining astronomical phenomena to laypeople while Tripoli the Mysterious (1912) focused on north African culture, another topic with broad interest among American readers at the time. A third book, though, Corona and Coronet (1898), offered a theme that resounded deeply in me as we awaited totality in Tennessee. Mrs. Todd wrote about the camaraderie that developed among the expedition team sailing on the Coronet on the long and difficult trek from New England to Japan. David even mentions that bonding by dedicating one of his own published works to the Coronet crew.

I surely don’t mean to imply the thousands of us who gathered at Triple Creek Park became best of friends like the Coronet crew did, but there was a palpable sense of community among us. I felt it, as did my wife, my brother, his wife, and the dozen or so strangers who found shade under the same tree we did. We had gathered to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that elevated place we found ourselves was not lost on us. I did not hear one hostile word from anybody I saw all day. One family under our tree gave a tee shirt away to a guy who they only knew by first name who had gone to look for one, but found they were sold out. Another family offered surplus catered lunches they brought along to a younger family with kids just because the young ones looked hungry. I went over and tapped the younger dad on the shoulder and said, ‘Kind of like the loaves and the fishes, eh?’ He grinned and nodded while another woman who heard me looked up a bit startled and said, ‘I wonder if that’s how the miracle did work? People just brought out food to share when they knew their neighbors were hungry.’ How could I disagree? Maybe spectacular celestial events just bring out the best in us.

I’ve been a fan of Mabel and David Todd for years, even before I first heard their story about Hog Island. Being able to witness, first hand, that same spectacular yet elusive prize David spent a career trying to capture makes them feel even more like kin. It’s not just the aura of being on that special island in Muscongus Bay that they protected over a century ago, but now the etched-in-consciousness singular event of experiencing the sun and moon in their unique dance that produces the only time human beings can see the corona and planets together at midday. Now we have another commonality that assures our place in the fold of Nature’s People.


If you enjoy hearing stories about legendary Hog Island personalities, be on the lookout for my book, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon. I’ve been at it for a while, and it’s a whole lot closer to publication, but there’s still fathoms to go. Look for an announcement at when it’s available.

Images:  Opening image of totality (Tom Schaefer, 21 August 2017, Gallatin TN) David and Mabel Todd (Todd-Bingham Family Papers at Yale University archive) ‘Amherst Station, Esachi, Japan 1896’  (Todd-Bingham Family Papers at Yale University archive) Note Mabel Loomis Todd standing in the doorway.

Tom Schaefer
Dayton, Ohio
August 2017

What a 75th celebration it was!

Hog Island is Audubon’s “True North,” said David Yarnold, CEO of National Audubon, at the 75th anniversary celebration on August 20, 2011. In the Audubon camp’s Fish House, David Yarnold’s inspiring and heartfelt words and commitment to Friends of Hog Island and to the island and camp itself, which dates back to 1936, left attendees bubbling like a freshly opened bottle of champagne.

Not only did Mother Nature provide signature Maine sun and bright skies for the event, but also calm seas for an eye-popping tour around the island.  Abundant wildlife including close-up views of Harbor Seals and a mature Bald Eagle, which when it took off caused an outburst of “oohs” and “aahs” among the passengers as if at a 4th of July fireworks. Nature has a way of eliciting such awe.

Lobsters, clams, corn, potato salad, and fresh blueberry cream puffs by Janii Laberge, the camp’s chef, left everyone sated and looking for an empty hammock or Adirondack chair to relax and enjoy the scenery.

The celebration spilled over into Sunday with a reunion of former alumni and friends. Tom Schaeffer, FOHI board member, started the full day by leading a walk down to Bingham Cottage to see the restoration inside and out.

Then Jay Collier’s presentation about archiving Hog Island’s history moved many to sign up to help with copy-editing documents that had been scanned. A break for lunch was followed by Bruce Poland, lobsterman and co-owner of Bremen Co-Op, talking about the local lobster industry. He had to be rescued from the many eager questioners after the presentation so that he could get back to the traps!

A lively, amicable discussion about the future of FOHI followed against the backdrop of hope and enthusiasm for the new leadership at National Audubon. All were greatly taken by David Yarnold’s address to the 75th anniversary group on Saturday and felt confident of a promising future for Hog Island.

The day’s presentatons culminated in a moving talk and DVD by Dur Morton. But not to have everyone feeling sad on the last night Sue Schubel organized a rousing game of Bird Jeopardy with three teams: The Wild Turkeys, the Woodcocks, and the Terns. Friendly competition ended with  surprise rally by the Terns. Much laughter prepared us for a restful night’s sleep.

Hog Island Reunion attendees 2011
Hog Island Reunion attendees 2011

Over 80 people enjoyed the weekend’s festivities – old Hog Island friends and alumni, neighbors, and new friends; Peggy and Dur Morton, Steve Kress, Mike and Margie Shannon, Mary Alice Knox and her daughter Elaine, Brita and Don Dorn, Susan Clancy, Roz Allen and Paul Landry, and Marilyn Smith to name but a few. New friends, included the NAS staff that wanted to see Hog Island for themselves – Susan Lunden, Anne Brown, Susan Houston, and Susan Ketterlinus. Leigh Altadonna, NAS board member, extended his Chapter Leader participation to include the 75th anniversary.

Yes, this was, indeed, a memorable 75th anniversary full of promise for a bright future for an island that has given so much to so many.

Good news to share

Christmas and the holidays are almost upon us. Here in Maine, lush greens have turned to shades of gray and dark greens. Our beloved Audubon Camp at Hog Island is wrapped up for the winter – final maintenance projects have been completed, windows are shuttered, floats are in, and water is shut off.

By Juanita Roushdy

We hope you’re in the mood for good news, because we have a lot to share with you!

  1. Under innovative leadership from Steve Kress and Project Puffin, the 2010 programming was a huge success. More than 160 adults and teens enjoyed classic programs and new offerings. By all indications and current registration numbers, 2011 promises to be an even bigger success, and two additional sessions, for educators and Audubon chapter leaders, have been added.
  2. A flurry of activity in the past three months by FOHI has resulted in its application for 501(c)(3) tax exemption. The action was precipitated by news that National Audubon was in negotiations with Camp Kieve, a private local camp, for imminent transfer of ownership of the Hog Island buildings and peninsula. The good news: National Audubon has deferred its decision in order to give FOHI time to prove that it can provide an endowment and supplemental income for the camp. For articles and background, visit, where you’ll see my favorite description of our role in this drama: “FOHI came charging over the hill.”
  3. We have located missing camper lists back to 1969 and are busy putting that information into digital format – approximately 5,000 names.
  4. National Audubon’s highest recognition, the Golden Egret Award, has just been given to Steve Kress “who by his continuous and consistent effort over the years displays leadership qualities and is an example to other employees of helpful, supportive, caring, and dependable service.” We already knew that! Congratulations, Steve! (His work with Hog Island was singled out for particular mention.)

Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places – this one will change your life. – Scott Weidensaul

We hope you share our energy and enthusiasm for this new era in Hog Island’s long and storied history, which marks its 75th year in 2011. FOHI has been pivotal this year and will play a key role in the island’s future. We have a committed board, a vision, mission, and a set of goals to guide us:

Vision: To see the day when, under Audubon ownership, the Audubon Camp at Hog Island is financially self-sustaining with a substantial endowment to assure its future.

Mission: The mission of the Friends of Hog Island is to preserve the legacy and support the conservation, nature programs and activities of the Audubon Camp at Hog Island, Maine.

Goals: The Friends of Hog Island, through openness, social media, technology, and personal contact pledge to:

  • Build a sense of community among campers
  • Build partnerships with local conservation and environmental groups
  • Build upon and further the mission of National Audubon
  • Build trust and support within the local community
  • Build a stable, financial annual income stream through fund-raising and an endowment
  • Build a nationwide volunteer base to work at the camp during sessions
  • Build a collection of historical materials to keep alive the conservation legacy of the Audubon Camp at Hog Island for future generations

By doing this, we hope to assure a sustainable future for Hog Island. We believe that all the Friends of Hog Island will generously support the camp in an ongoing, reliable manner, ensuring that National Audubon will continue its ownership of the island and its programming there.

We anticipate approval of our 501(c)(3) status early in the New Year, and will be writing you then to ask for your support to assure a sustainable future for Hog Island.

In the meantime, please visit our website ( and provide us with stories and feedback, sign up for email updates, and spread the word of our new direction. And come back to join us! For information about the 2011 programs, visit

Have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.

Steve Kress receives National Audubon honor

The Golden Egret Award is for a staff member who by his or her continuous and consistent effort over the years displays leadership qualities and is an example to other employees of helpful, supportive, caring, and dependable service.  The candidate must have a minimum of ten years service at Audubon.

Steve Kress

The 2010 Golden Egret Award has been awarded to Steve Kress, Vice President, Bird Conservation, Seabird Restoration, ME

Steve is known by some as “the puffin guy,” others as Audubon’s rock star scientist, and others as that humble but passionate protector of seabirds and a great believer in the power of education.

Steve has had a long and distinguished career with Audubon.  He is internationally known and celebrated and has produced conservation results that are legendary not only in Audubon, but far beyond our borders.  Steve doesn’t just save birds — he’s a passionate educator who inspires and empowers others. Steve, with his 30-plus years of directing the Seabird Restoration Program, continues to demonstrate a record of leadership, team building, and financial ingenuity that is remarkable to all those who work with him.

After starting a small field program on one island, he has now grown the program to include seven Audubon-managed islands, where more than 8,000 pairs of mixed Terns and 1,000 pairs of Puffins nest each summer. Steve is a master of innovation, inventing ways to solve problems that may not have been used before, while building leadership among others who work with him.  For example, since he started his work with puffins and seabirds he has trained more than 500 college students who have served as “seabird island stewards.”  Many of these interns have gone on to successful careers in conservation, cherishing their unique experiences with the “puffin project” and Steve Kress.

Steve is not only a role model for so many of us at Audubon, but is truly an inspiration to anyone who cares about conservation and building the next generation of leaders.

Steve is known to his colleagues as having a wonderful sense of humor, and is thoughtful, wise, and an entrepreneurial leader who continues to create new opportunities that grow and promote the Audubon mission.  Since the late 1980’s more than 75,000 people have participated in this Audubon-sponsored venture.  With every trip, Steve and his team of interpreters inform, inspire, and entertain future conservation constituents who often go on to be Audubon members and supporters.

Steve has written books about birds, bird watching, and gardening for birds and wildlife.  And he’s organized a cadre of highly-motivated volunteers and staff who are currently helping to restore Hog Island programming and operations for new generations.  And the list could go on and on.

Steve is not only a role model for so many of us at Audubon, but is truly an inspiration to anyone who cares about conservation and building the next generation of leaders.