Star Hikes

For four summers, I was on Staff at Camp Napowan – a Boy Scout camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. An amazing place and time – with amazing young men. Many remain good friends today. For three of those summers I taught Astronomy . . . . merit badge (see 7/25/11).

I worked in the Nature Area with Bish (who was Best Man at my wedding) and Harkins. The three of us lived in a wood frame tent from the end of May ’til the end of August. And collaborated on teaching Nature merit badges. For Bird Study, I was up at 5:00 a.m. to awaken campers who put a towel on their tent (“wake me up“). I’d wander around the forest and farmland with a gaggle of Scouts – looking for birds in the gray fingers of dawn.

At night, I would lead the “Star Hikes” — a gathering of Scouts and leaders who were interested in Astronomy. There was no light pollution. So on clear nights we could see the vast fringes of the Milky Way Galaxy. And stars beyond measure. Between 5,000 and 8,000 on a clear night. And planets – Venus and occasionally Mercury at night (or morning). Jupiter. Mars. The furthest astronomical miracle seen with the naked eye – The Andromeda Nebula (Messier 31) – 750,000 light years away. The nearest – Alpha Centauri (4.4 light years). Mizar and Alcor in the Big Dipper. I explained that a line from Polaris to the ground is true north – 24 hours a day – anywhere North of the Equator. Identifying every constellation (which I can still do. . . almost).

And then I spoke of life – “out there.” There are trillions of stars. If you assume that 1% of them have planetary systems, there would be billions of planets. And 1% of those are capable of sustaining life – we’re talking still hundreds of millions of possibilities. And if 1% of those have life like ours – within a chronological spectrum of evolution like ours – we’re still talking millions. Today – planets in other solar systems are called “exoplanets.” As of June 2021, there are 4,768 confirmed exoplanets in 3,527 planetary systems, with 783 systems having more than one planet. Perhaps the newly-released UFO report (“Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon”) presents the just tip of the iceberg. Or universe. . . .

Mizar and Alcor

When I was a Boy Scout, I was on the staff of Camp Napowan in Wild Rose, Wisconsin.  I worked in the Nature Area.  One of the merit badges I taught was astronomy.  Twice a week, at around 10:00 pm – when the sun’s last wisps of light had dipped below the horizon and darkness ruled – I would gather those working on their Astronomy Merit Badge to gaze at the stars above.  Camp Napowan was in the middle of nowhere – blessed with no light pollution and a clear and amazing view of stars, planets and nebulae.   

To get the evening off on the right foot, it was often the middle star of the handle of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) that I would first mention to the gathering.  “Look carefully” I would say.  “What do you see?”  After a few seconds, the Scouts would begin to say that there were actually two stars — not one. 

2,000 years ago, Arabs would use that middle star of Ursa Major as a test of sight.  Why?  Because there are actually two stars:  Mizar and its fainter companion Alcor.  “Horse” and “rider” in Arabic.  If you could see them, you were thought to have great vision.  In Japanese mythology, Alcor was the “lifespan” star.  If one could not see jimyouboshi, they would pass away by year’s end.  

If you have a chance to go to some place where when the sun goes down, the lights don’t shine, take a look and see if you can see Alcor.  Bring binoculars too.  By the way, a popular Japanese manga (comic) says if you do see Alcor, you will pass away by year’s end.