Polaris: The North Star
(Originally printed in Camping Life in 1998.)

If you have the time and the inclination, you might spend a few hours one moonless night lying on your back, watching the stars slowly work their way across the sky. Watch long enough, and you'll see something unusual. You'll see that one star - and only one - doesn't go anywhere. Polaris, the North Star, Etoile Polaire, doesn't budge. It sits motionless, content to let the rest of the sky revolve around it.

You can count on the North Star. It's always there, in the same place, every night. That, and the fact that it sits due north no matter where you go in the northern hemisphere, has made Polaris the single most important celestial being outside of the sun for as long as we've wondered just where we are and how to get back to where we came from.

It's pretty amazing when you think about it. Without the North Star, there might have been no age of discovery because nighttime navigation would have been virtually impossible. The great explorers might not have known exactly what they were going to find, but they had a good idea which way they going and they knew exactly how to get back if the going got too rough, thanks to a moderately bright star that would be utterly nondescript if it weren't the Pole Star.

Today, with GPS and whatnot, Polaris isn't quite as crucial as it used to be, but it's still pretty cool. And you can still use it to know where you are, where you came from, and even where you're going.

First off, you have to find the North Star. You can either get a star chart and use that, or you can use the Big Dipper to point the way. If you trace an imaginary line up from the two stars that form the outer edge of the Dipper's bowl (the line goes up and out of the bowl), the line will go straight to Polaris, which happens to be the outermost star in the Little Dipper's handle. Polaris isn't particularly bright, so don't expect it to be overly obvious.

Once you've found the North Star, finding your way around is easy. And so is finding where you are.

In the Northern Hemisphere, you can find your geographic latitude by measuring the North Star's height (in degrees) from the horizon. At the equator, Polaris sits right on the horizon, and you're at latitude 0. At the north pole, the star is directly overhead, and you're at latitude 90. If you're anywhere else, you'll need to rig up a simple sextant, or astrolabium, to deduce your position.

Get a length of sewing thread and tie a washer or other light weight to one end. Tape the other end to the centerpoint of a basic protractor. Look down the straight in edge of the protractor and sight the North Star. With your free hand, mark the thread's position. Take that reading, 40 degrees for example, and subtract it from 90 to find your latitude. (Check it on an atlas if you don't believe me.)

A crude version of this method of measuring latitude was published by Bishop Nicolas of Iceland in 1150 to help pilgrims find Jerusalem's latitude. His method still works, by the way. Lie on your back, with your feet pointing north. Bend your right knee up to about a 45-degree angle and rest your right hand, thumb pointing up, on your knee. When you reach a spot where the North Star seems to be resting on the tip of your thumb, you're at the same latitude as Jerusalem.

Okay, so finding Jerusalem's latitude isn't the big deal it used to be, but finding your present latitude still comes in handy if you want to get back, or if you want to know where you are in relation to someone else. If you make frequent observations and keep a log, just like the ancient mariners did, before long you'll have a pretty good idea of just where you are and how to get where you want to go at any time. If you don't have a logbook handy, you can still keep track by using a Kamal, the same device presented to Vasco de Gama by native sailors on one of his trips to India.

Take a stick and tie a string about two inches from one end. Move the stick until the one end of the stick is on the horizon and the North Star is at the other end. Raise the string up to your face and tie a knot at the tip of your nose. Every so often, repeat the procedure. Each knot represents a waypoint.

It may sound kind of like kid stuff, but you never know when a simple trick like this may come in handy. A shipwrecked sailor once navigated his lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean for days using a variation of a Kamal. The sailor held a pencil at arm's length to mark the North Star at night and hold his latitude steady. This kept him within the shipping lanes, where he was rescued by the Danish sailor and author Troels Klovedal.

So keep an eye on the stars. They just might save your life someday.


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