For those of us in the northern U.S. or Canada or at a similar latitude, the Big Dipper is always above the horizon. That means it is described as circumpolar. The mnemonic to remember for the Big Dipper is “spring up and fall down” to describe its appearance in our northern sky.

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The Big Dipper’s location at around midnight in each season. Image via burro.astr.cwru.edu

The Big and Little Dippers are asterisms – a prominent pattern or group of stars, typically having a popular name but smaller than a constellation. The Big Dipper ascends in the northeast on spring evenings, and it descends in the northwest on fall evenings.

“Follow the Drinking Gourd” is an American folk song that used “Drinking Gourd” as another name for the Big Dipper. The lyrics, according to legend, came from a conductor of the Underground Railroad, called Peg Leg Joe, as a way to guide some fugitive slaves.

The “drinkin’ gou’d” alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used in the song, it was a code name for the Big Dipper which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and to the North and freedom.

Polaris is a special star because it always stays in the same spot in the northern sky. The entire northern sky appears to turn around it because Polaris is located more or less above the northern axis (pole) of the Earth, and the wheeling of the stars across the dome of night is really due to Earth’s turning, after all. Polaris is part of the harder to find star pattern known as the Little Dipper.

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