Finding Your Way

Humans must have a hardwired wanderlust.  For generations our ancestors  always moved on to new places, and this continues today. An average American will live in five homes in his lifetime, and in between we take vacations.  Nowadays we have road maps, Map Quest, and global positioning systems (GPS) to show us how to get to anywhere we wish.

Before satellites we depended on the Earth’s magnetic core to determine direction using the ever handy compass to point out north.  Without a compass one must be more observant to figure out direction.  The North Star, Polaris, stays fixed in the sky while all other stars move.  To find Polaris, look for the big dipper, which is easy to find in the northern sky.  With your eye extend a line through the outer two stars of its ladle until it crosses a star, and that’s Polaris.  Stars in general can be used for direction because they drift from east to west across the sky.  Keep your eye on one bright star near the horizon.  If after a while it appears to rise, that’s east.  If it seems to be drop towards the horizon, that’s  west.

On a sunny day place the end of a straight stick in the ground in such a way that it casts no shadow (the stick is pointing directly at the sun).  Wait until the stick makes a shadow 6 inches long or longer.  The end of the shadow is now pointing east.  If you have a regular watch (not digital) you can use it as a compass.  Place the watch face up, with the hour hand pointing toward the sun. South will be halfway between the hour hand and twelve o’clock.

Other ways to tell direction are not as accurate, but they are better than nothing.  If you see a tree standing out in the open with heavy moss on one side, chances are it’s growing on the north side of the tree where it’s cooler.  If you see a tree stump, its rings will probably be further apart on the sunny side, which is south.  The tops of pine trees often point east.  Our prevailing winds are from the southwest, so face the wind and west is probably slightly to your right.  This only works when no fronts are moving through and changing wind direction.

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