Big Dipper (Sky Bear) comes to Earth in November

Star chart showing the Big Dipper, with an arrow pointing to Castor and Pollux.
If you’re a far-northern stargazer, the Big Dipper is low on the northern horizon on November evenings. For some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper is below the horizon. You can use the famous Big Dipper asterism to star hop to Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini. Look to the north-northeast. Image via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

The Big Dipper is the Sky Bear

On November evenings, depending on your latitude, you might or might not see the Big Dipper (Sky Bear) low on your northern horizon. If you’re too far south – say, latitudes like those in the southern U.S. or below – you won’t see the Big Dipper now at all. It’ll be below your northern horizon. In the western skylore, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear.

Meanwhile, to the Mi’kmaq, an indigenous First Nations people living in southeastern Canada, a celestial Bear – our same familiar Big Dipper pattern – low on the northern horizon in the evening at this time of the year signaled the start of hibernation season. It’s when earthly bears return to their dens, and when the sap of trees returns to the warm womb of the underworld.

In her birding blog called BeakingOff, Shyloh – who describes herself as “living in the Yukon Territory” – tells the Mi’kmaq story of the Bear. She writes that the Mi’kmaq story explains:

… why Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) moves and changes its position between fall and spring. Ursa Major is known to some as the Bear. This is because the four stars that create the ‘pot’ of the Big Dipper look like a large animal, one star being the head, another being the tail, one for the right front leg, and another for the right back leg. The Mi’kmaq First Nations used to call Ursa Major the Bear, and thought that the Corona Borealis looked like the Bear’s cave

Following the Bear are seven stars: the three stars that create the handle of the Big Dipper, and four stars from Boötes. These seven stars were “birds” hunting the Bear: Robin, Chickadee, Moosebird (aka Gray Jay), Pigeon, Blue Jay, Owl (some sources say Great Horned Owl), and Saw-whet Owl.

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How the Mi’kmaq saw the Big Dipper

In this sky lore, hunters catch Celestial Bear each year in the fall, and it’s the dripping blood from the Bear that colors the autumn landscape. But as Shyloh explains in her blog:

… this is not the end of Bear’s story.

All winter, her skeleton lies on its back, but her spirit has entered another bear who also lies upon her back in the den, invisible, and sleeping the winter sleep. When the spring comes around again, this bear will again leave the den, hunted again and then killed. And her spirit will enter the next bear sleeping in the den.

So, this cycle repeats each spring, when the sun awakens the sleeping earth.

Read more from Shyloh: Mi’kmaq story of the stars

Read more from GreenTeacher: Traditional Legends: Meanings on many levels

Radio tower against green-curtained sky, with 7 Big Dipper stars above.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Ariel Atienza in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, captured the Big Dipper and a green aurora on September 30, 2020.

Big Dipper is low in the sky in November

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper is probably the sky’s best known asterism – not an official constellation – but an extremely recognizable pattern of stars. But it’s harder to see the Dipper in the evening at this time of the year than at any other time. Every year, the Big Dipper (Great Bear) descends to its lowest point in the sky on November evenings.

In fact, people in the southern part of the United States can’t see the Big Dipper in the evening right now. That’s because it swings beneath their northern horizon.

Even in the northern states, the Big Bear is hard to spot. The Big Dipper skims along the northern horizon in the evening, ducking behind any obstructions such as trees or mountains.

And, of course, it can’t be seen in the evening from Southern Hemisphere latitudes now either.

But take heart, for the Bear will return in spring and be high in the evening sky!

Dots and lines making the shape of the Big Dipper plus the longer form including the head and legs of Ursa Major.
Ursa Major the Great Bear is best known as the parent constellation to the asterism of the Big Dipper. Can you trace out the rest of the shape of the bear in your sky using this chart? Image via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

Bottom line: The Big Dipper is difficult, or impossible, to see on November evenings. If you’re in the southern U.S. or a similar latitude around the world, the Dipper is below your northern horizon in the evening now. If you’re in the northern U.S. or a similar latitude, the Big Dipper may be above your horizon in the evening, but low in the northern sky.

Read more: The History of the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq

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November 11, 2022

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Bruce McClure

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