Follow the North Star
By Kevin Cronin
“Follow the North Star” is the instruction fugitives of southern slavery seeking freedom found helpful, but why? What does It mean to follow the drinking gourd, to follow the North Star, and why does it matter? The North Star has been vital, used by explorers for centuries and is unique for navigating. This star chart for the “Drinking Goard” constellation of stars, also known as the “Little Dipper,” along with the “Big Dipper,” helps illustrate why the North Star is so important.
The North Star is the first star in the handle of the Drinking Goard, also known as the Little Dipper. As you can see, the Drinking Gourd is a group of stars that appear in the northern sky and take the shape of a ladle, a cup with a long handle. The North Star, formally known as Polaris, is a bright star that corresponds to the end of the handle of the drinking cup. Another group of stars more widely spaced, resembling a Big Dipper, is also in the northern sky.
To find the North Star, look for a bright star in the northern sky. Or if you recognize the larger Big Dipper first, find the furthest bottom star of the Big Dipper cup and trace a line in the sky to the rim star and go further into the night sky. That line will lead you to the North Star, the tip of the handle for the Drinking Goard.
Today, stars are obscured in our night sky by pollution and bright city lights, but in prior centuries, the stars would have been much more prominent in the clearer skies and explorers have been navigating with the North Star for centuries. The North Star has always been bright and prominent and appears to be unmoved in the northern sky, always fixed in the same position, ideal for navigation.
Why does the North Star appear not to move? It’s all about location. If you were located on the Earth’s equator, or midpoint between the North and South Pole, the North Star would appear just over the Earth’s horizon. If you were at the North Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead. It would appear to never move in location, an ideal navigating tool.
Why does the North Star appear not to move? The Earth is constantly spinning and that rotation causes the sun to appear to rise and set and the stars to move across the sky. The earth is also tilted, creating different seasons. If we drew a line through the center of the Earth and extend it more than 300 light years past the North Pole, it would reach the North Star. As a result, it does not appear to move and stays in the same spot in the sky 24 hours a day.
As a result, the North Star doesn’t just help you find north, but by estimating the star’s height in the sky you can identify your location on Earth, terribly valuable information if you are the Viking, Eric the Red in 980, native Americans, Ferdinand Magellan in 1519 or Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Do you want to head North? Follow the “Drinking Goard.”