Cover photo courtesy of Liz Lott (2018 Ice Follies site-specific work by Aanmitaagzi of Big Medicine Studio on Nipissing First Nation)
The night sky has always been a source of wonder and mystery. Since the beginning of time, stargazers have imagined captivating stories and sought knowledge and spiritual guidance from the night sky. Seasoned stargazers know that the winter months offer some of the best sky watching when long nights and crisp, cold temperatures create a clarity not seen in the summer. The North Bay Astronomy Club is a wealth of knowledge. Your ‘gateway to the universe’ founded 36 years ago and dedicated to making astronomy interesting and fun for everyone. Merlin Clayton, one of the club’s co-founders gives us a few pointers to make the most out of a nighttime adventure.
Start by checking the local weather forecast and aim for clear conditions. An amazing reference can be found on this North Bay Clear Sky Chart developed at the Canadian Meteorological Center. While it can appear complicated at first glance, the chart offers every detail you need from moon phases, darkness, cloud cover, transparency and seeing (aka clarity). If you need a little interpretation, the friendly folks at the astronomy club are just an email away.
DRESS FOR THE WEATHER
Next, bundle up and grab a pair of binoculars. You will be amazed at how details of the night sky pop with only a little magnification. In terms of where to go to avoid city lights, try the informal network of trails past the dog park at Champlain Park at the end of Premier Road. If you time it right, you might even catch one of Lake Nipissing’s famous sunsets. North Bay Nordic is another great spot for stargazing in the winter. A couple of the trails are lit for night skiing but lights out is at 9 PM.
DOWNLOAD SOME HELP
And finally, like everything else in life these days, there is an app for it! I’ll admit that some of the apps are pretty cool. In addition to showing you what planets and constellations are visible, some will even locate and identify certain satellites and the International Space Station and track their progress across the sky in real-time.
A JOURNEY INTO THE COSMOS
Once on the trail, point your binoculars to the sky and let your imagination run wild as you discover the cosmos. While many of us have grown up to know the star stories of the ancient Greeks, Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of the skies has been shared orally through the generations through a different set of stories and is deeply interwoven into cultural beliefs, traditions and ceremonies. Ray St. Louis Jr., a member of Dokis First Nation and an active member of the North Bay Astronomy Club speaks to the importance of the sky.
“As many Anishinaabe teachings are orally passed, there are fewer about the cosmos; however, the sky is an extremely important part of our lives. Our sun is the very source of life on this planet and our moon is a way to measure time, when to travel, and when to harvest.”
The Big Dipper and the Northern Lights – Photo courtesy of Ray St Louis Jr. Ray recounts an ancient Iroquois legend of The Great Bear being pursued by three hunters. This is a story of the constellation known also as the Big Dipper. The four stars that form the dipper are The Great Bear wandering freely in the sky feasting all summer while the hunters hunt it to provide food and warmth for their families for the oncoming winter. In the autumn, the hunters finally meet their mark and The Great Bear’s blood spills down from the sky to colour the leaves. As a symbol of respect and mourning, the trees drop their leaves every fall. Interestingly in Greek mythology, while the story is different, these same stars form part of the constellation known as Ursa Major – Big Bear.
Orion – Photo courtesy of Ray St. Louis Jr. One of the most recognizable constellations in the winter sky is that of Biboon, or Orion as it is also known. For the Anishinaabe, Biboon is the north wind spirit that heralds winter with outstretched arms putting the land to sleep for a time before it awakens. Like Orion, the constellation takes a human form and is composed of the same seven brightest stars. It’s no wonder that stories of the northern lights run deep in the spirit world. Many Indigenous nations believe that the northern lights are a connection to ancestors and the spiritual world. If you have ever had the good fortune to see the spectacular display for yourself you can truly understand the connection. Unfortunately seeing the northern lights comes down mostly to pure luck – the right sky conditions at a reasonable hour. They are sometimes visible dancing in the skies over North Bay, but if you aren’t so lucky let Ray’s beautiful pictures inspire you to keep looking up to the sky!