The Winter's Night Sky
My vehicle was parked about
a mile away at the end of a little
traveled road, and the air was still and
soundless. To the north of me, not far
off, was the remote corner of a nearby
Indian reservation. Pointing me in that
direction was the North Star; not the
brightest star, but certainly the most
important in the night’s heaven.
I found it quickly by drawing a line
through the so-called pointer stars
in the Big Dipper. The North Star
(or Polaris) has been used to guide
travelers through the millennia.
If you were to stand on the North
Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead. Elsewhere, by observing
its height above the horizon, you can
determine your latitude. For instance
at 45 degrees north latitude (halfway
between the Equator and the North
Pole) Polaris is 45 degrees above the
horizon. Or, if you happen to be near
Mexico City at 20 degrees latitude,
the North Star would be 20 degrees
above the horizon.
Polaris is the central point around
which the heavens rotate. That’s
because Polaris is lined up with the
North Pole or, more descriptively,
Polaris is aligned with the Earth’s
axis of rotation. As the Earth rotates,
Polaris appears to stay in one place
while all of the other stars rotate
In mid-winter, if you were to step
outside and check the Big Dipper
each hour as the evening passes, you
would see it move around the North
Star in a counterclockwise direction.
As the evening hours blend into
early morning , the dipper will arch
up higher in the sky, its cup gradually
tipping more and more toward
the horizon, eventually spilling its
When you find Polaris, you’ve
found another constellation. Polaris is
on the tail of the Little Dipper. Neither
the Little Dipper nor the Big Dipper
are constellations, per se. They are
star groupings (astronomers called
them asterisms) that are part of larger
constellations. The Big Dipper is a
part of Ursa Major (the Great Bear)
and the Little Dipper is a part of Ursa
Minor (the Lesser Bear).
The ancient Greeks clearly had an
inventive bent when they saw a bear
in the stars that make up Ursa Major.
But the Greeks weren’t the only ones
with such an imagination. The Chinese
and even the northeastern Indians of
North America saw a bear when they
looked in the northern skies.
Like Orion, the Big Dipper can be
used to identify other constellations.
As you say know, by using the pointer
stars of the Big Dipper you can extend
a line out to find the North Star. If you
extend the same line even farther
past the North Star, you’ll reach a
constellation shaped like a house
with a peaked roof. The line points to
the peak of the roof. You have found
Cepheus (the King).
After you find the King, then the
queen of the sky, Cassiopeia, is
alongside. Look just beyond Cepheus,
farther along and slightly above the
same line extending out from the North
Star, for the “W” shaped constellation
of Cassiopeia. The “W” forms the chair
upon which the queen is gracefully draped. These and other constellations
you can find using the Big Dipper are
illustrated in the following chart.
It was about then, while I was
admiring Cassiopeia’s seated form
that I began noticing the cold. I had
lost track of time standing there with
head craned skyward, enveloped in
van Gogh’s dream world. The old
broken-down snowmobile, the Beast— and any plans to dispatch it — were
a distant memory. In fact, as I thought
about it, the track was finished enough,
and the race could go on.
It was time to move on. Cares gone
and feeling very much refreshed, I
turned towards my vehicle’s location
and glided down a long gentle incline
underneath a sky alive with stars
dancing to and fro.
The race went off the next day just
fine. There was, however, one obstacle
on the course. Racers had to make a
detour around the Beast, who remained
unmoving in the middle of the trail
where I had left him the night before.
Late that day, after the race, a
mechanically minded friend of mine
named Barefoot helped me get the
Beast running again. We hauled it
to his apartment which he shared
with three other college buddies.
Somehow, we got the machine through
the front door and into living room,
where Barefoot proceeded to tear it
apart and re-build the engine.
I had to hand it to Barefoot. He
knew how to pick his roommates.
Over the next couple of weeks, they
would wander through now and then,
stepping over various snow machine
parts strewn across the floor, and
none of them seemed to think that a
snowmobile in the living room was
anything out of the ordinary.
Ron Watters couldn’t be happier when
it’s cold and snowy. He is the author
of eight books including Winter Tales
and Trails and Ski Camping. Working
to recognize good outdoor writing by
others, he is the founder and chairman
of the National Outdoor Book Awards,
the largest book award program in the
outdoor world. He and his wife, and
cross country ski companion, Kathy
live in Pocatello, Idaho with Lizzy, an
Australian Shepherd, and Scrapper
and Annie, their two geriatric cats.