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Western Slope Skies - Dog Days of Winter

December 24th night sky
December 24th night sky

Winter weather finally arrived in western Colorado. After a warm and dry autumn, this cold, snowy, and windy weather may be a welcome sight to many of us. Some may be fondly looking back to summer adventures in the warm sun, the dog days of summer. Perhaps you are familiar with this phrase referring to the long hot days of July and August when even your dog is too hot to do much of anything. The origin dates back to the Greeks and Romans and refers to the star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, or “big dog”. In the summer, Sirius appears to rise near the Sun. It was believed that the very bright Sirius and the Sun combined to make for the extra hot summer days. . They also believed the dog days were bad days, signs of tough times ahead. Homer’s The Iliad refers to Sirius as Orion’s dog rising, and it describes the star as being associated with war and disaster.

Winter is sounding better all the time. Bring on the quiet, dark evenings to settle by a warm fire or to just rest from the frantic pace of summer OR to get outside for some brisk night sky observing! Warm summer nights of observing are amazing, but after a few months, somewhat exhausting. Winter brings us an early sunset and more time to enjoy the night sky while still getting an early bedtime too. Maybe it’s time to refer to the darkest times of the year as the dog days of winter. Your dog may think it’s too cold to leave the comfort of the woodstove this time of year but with a little inspiration and a warm coat, you could experience the wonders of the winter dog days. This week your inspiration could be those very same dog stars from summer. Early evenings in December and January, look to the eastern horizon for the rising of the constellation Orion followed closely by Canis Major and the star Sirius. This is the brightest star in our night sky and you will see why the Greeks and Romans believed it made their summer days hotter.

While you won’t get any extra heat from Sirius on your winter night sky adventure, you may just find the excitement and courage to develop a further connection with the dark nights of winter. In the book “The Shortest Day”, author Susan Cooper says “Once our forebears learned to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, but it was the solstices that caught their attention. The extremes.” Whether you are in the summer or winter camp, it’s to be noted that we have always been a cyclical people. Days will now get longer and the dog days of summer aren’t far away. Until then, get outside, look up and revel in the dark, cold skies of western Colorado and remember that our ancestors saw this as a time of celebration. As Cooper writes: “feast, give thanks, dearly love friends, and hope for peace.”

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and voiced by Park Ranger Nick Myers of Mesa Verde National Park.