Asking people to “look at the damn sky” isn’t much good if they don’t know what they’re looking at. It’s easy to assume everyone can find the big dipper or locate the North Star. In the spirit of “baby steps” – everything you ever needed to know about finding the “dippers” and locating Polaris, the North Star.
The Big Dipper is always found in the north sky – in spring and summer, high in the sky – fall and winter, close to the horizon. Made up of seven stars forming a bowl and handle, the two outside stars of the bowl are Dubhe and Marek – the “pointer stars” leading to Polaris and the Little Dipper. Follow them in a straight line and Polaris is always there – a cosmic anchor for “dippers” making a complete circle of the north star every 23 hours and 56 minutes.
No matter what time of year you look, the two outer stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl always point to Polaris.
Polaris may not be the brightest star in the sky – ranking 50th is inconsequential to a stellar constant above the “celestial north pole”. A star of many names; pole, north, steadfast, lodestar, guiding; a fixed point in the sky responsible for navigation of the ancient world. A gift of cosmic confidence powerful enough to sail into the unknown, the only GPS northern hemisphere travellers needed to find their way home. A beacon of hope for American slaves heading north to freedom – and once you know how to find it, a way back to the car when you’re lost in the woods.
Imagine yourself lost in the woods without a compass or GPS. An accurate sense of direction could save your bacon; so which way is north or south? In the Northern Hemisphere the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. At noon the sun will appear in the middle of the horizon and directly south. Walk facing the sun and you will be heading south, sun at your back sees you trudging north. For the Southern Hemisphere simply reverse the process.
Not noon, don’t know the correct time – here’s another method. Find a stick about a metre long, drive it straight up into the ground of a sunny spot. Mark the end of the shadow it casts with a rock. This will be west. Wait about 15 minutes then mark the end of the cast shadow with another rock. This will be east. Draw a line between the two points for your east/west position and another at a 90 degree angle for your north/south line.
No sun? Look for moss on trees – moss on the southern side is usually greener and thicker. Ants also build their hills on the warmer southern side of trees or hills,just as snow melts faster on southern exposures.
What if night has fallen? If the moon rises shortly before sunset the bright side will face west. If it rises much later around midnight, the brightly illuminated side faces east. If you can’t see the moon but the sky is clear enough to find stars, look for the Big Dipper, next find the Little Dipper and draw an imaginary line between the two brightest stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper to the brightest star in the handle of the Little Dipper. This should take your eye to Polaris or the North Star; the bright middle star in the constellation Cassiopeia.
I’ve only ever been lost once, and that was in a department store when I was four. If I ever find myself lost in the woods – at least I’ll be able to find my direction home.