The night Polaris turned my world upside down

You know Polaris, of course. It’s also known as the North Star.

If you happen to find yourself in strange and trackless outdoors at night — like at sea, in the desert or on a mountaintop — and you don’t have any compass or GPS or radar beam or gas station from which to get directions, you can at least try to fix your position and best route on a mental or paper map.

To do that, you need to find at least one of the four compass points from where you stand. In the northern skies at night, the easiest to find is the north. That’s where Polaris is located. It floats there at one spot of the sky, almost motionless in a fixed position above the North Pole while the rest of stardom appear to rotate around it as the hours pass by.

Ancient astronomers noticed this uniqueness of Polaris and used it to find directions and trace the movements of other celestial objects. But the challenge is how to identify this average-looking star in the star-studded night sky.

Some years back, I was on a Mount Pulag trip with other members of the Baguio-Benguet chapter of the media organization NUJP, which had formed a climb group that included our kids and a few other colleagues, including two Swiss media friends and members of the CHESTCORE medical group.

We had set up night camp near the Babadak Ranger Station, on a wide meadow a few hours’ hike to the summit, and were just lolling about a small campfire after supper. The entire splendor of the Milky Way and the constellations brightly spread across the sky, a billion tiny suns, sparkling glitters embedded on a velvet-black void. As we milled around the campfire and idly gazed at the stars, we got to talking about Polaris and tried to find it.

We already knew in general where the north was, but our two Swiss friends and a few others wanted to find the North Star itself without a compass. They either didn’t know or had forgotten.

Since I was never one to skip a chance to show off some tidbit of knowledge, I began with an impromptu lecture about the Scouting lore I learned years ago — how we earned map orientation badges by way of compass and, when no compass was available, by finding Polaris in the night sky.

“The Dipper or Ursa constellations point to it,” I explain, pointing to the two Dipper constellations. “See that square shape with a long handle? That’s the Big Dipper or Ursa Major. Now shift your sights higher and somewhat to the right. See a similar but smaller shape? That’s the Small Dipper or Ursa Minor.”

Bianca indulges me. “So where is the Polaris?” she asks. Sabina is just tagging along for the fun of it. They both enjoy stargazing.

I recall that the Polaris was at the tip of a dipper handle, but which one? The Big Dipper’s, or the Small Dipper’s?

“I’m not sure,” I admit. “I hope I remember correctly… uhh… I think Polaris is at the tip of the Big Dipper. See? There’s the handle. Now just follow the line of stars. See the star at the tip of the handle. The one vertically aligned with that pine? Yeah, that one. I think that’s Polaris all right.”

I’m winging it by mere gut feel and vague recall. Intelligent guesswork, but still guesswork. But the more I look at it, the more it seems sure to me.

My friends follow my hands and instructions. They finally see the star I’m pointing at and utter a “Wow” or two.

I explain that since Polaris is the only fixed point in the whole starfield, we can look at it again four, five hours later and see that all the stars would have rotated, including the two Dippers, but the north star itself would remain fixed. Bianca and Sabina seem satisfied with my explanation. After their last smoke, they turn in to their tent.

I sense a vague feeling, so I go back to my own tent and look for my compass. I realize I forgot to bring it. Maybe I brought my pocket stargazers’ almanac? Nope, I had left it too. Sleep escapes me. I turn on the radio, dial through the shortwave band and listen to the BBC news.

I still can’t sleep. Something’s bothering me about Polaris and the two dippers. For me, the issue doesn’t feel like a small triviality, but a Galileo-like debate with the Inquisition about the Copernican theory. It’s 1 a.m. We’re supposed to hit the trail in an hour or so. My son is snoring softly, and I can’t sleep. I decide to go outside my tent and check my Polaris, whether it stayed put or not.

At first I’m disoriented. I can’t see the Big Dipper in its expected position. The other stars seem more topsy-turvy than usual. I finally find the Big Dipper. Damn. It seems to have moved much in the past four hours. I follow the line of stars to the handle tip. My gnawing doubt grows bigger. I check the vertical reference line from the designated tree. Finally, I realize with dismay that I had shown my friends the wrong star! My mindset still can’t accept it. I recheck again. Voila. It’s the tip of the Small Dipper, not the Big Dipper, that hasn’t moved. There’s the true Polaris. My Scout training had failed me.

A minor triviality, you might say. No one got lost, no one got hurt, so what’s the big deal? But for me it’s almost like a Copernican revelation in reverse. Pointing to the wrong Polaris turned my world upside down for a few hours, made a wrong impression on friends, and now I have to right the wrong in my mind.

As I slip back to my tent to wait for the team leader to rouse everyone, I smile wryly. “Polaris is last star in Small Dipper handle. Big Dipper pointer stars point to it. Polaris is last star in Small Dipper handle, Big Dipper pointer stars point to it…” I repeat the mental drill in my mind, like a schoolboy writing 100 times on the blackboard never to misbehave again.

The next morning, on the lazy hike back to Camp 2 after the mad scramble to the Pulag summit and the typical sunrise rituals and photo ops, I sheepishly tell my friends about my monumental error.

“You know, I pointed to the wrong Polaris last night,” I say, and proceed to explain the different positions of the two Dippers. They just listen quietly, but don’t seem to see the import of my paradigm shift. I tell them anyway that, for a few hours, my world turned upside-down and I lost sleep until it turned right side up again. I think they appreciated my effort to make things right.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Officially, I’m still that guy who can find his way in open fields or mountains at night with no compass, because he has the unmoving Polaris star to guide him. Most everyone else simply wanted to lie on the grass, enjoy looking at the stars, and not have to go anywhere for now. I have to admit that’s one cool option too.

I see some life’s lessons here:

  • Life’s lesson #47: If you want to find your place in the universe, make sure to fix your sights on the right guiding star.
  • Life’s lesson #48: If you f**k up in the choice of your guiding star, correct your mistake as soon as you can. And tell your friends.
  • Life’s lesson #49: In the end, you might decide it doesn’t really matter much which stars to choose. You just want to enjoy the moment.


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