Run on Water

Occasionally I’ll come across something really interesting, at least to me, and I’ll save it away for a more appropriate time. That’s great when it works. It’s much less impressive when other factors conspire to take away its very reason for being. Sadly, the 2012 "Run on Water" will be the "Run by the Water" due to unseasonably warm weather this winter. That’s unfortunate. I’d been stalking it on my calendar for several months.

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Let’s start with a little background information by focusing on northern Wisconsin. The twenty-two Apostle Islands extend from the northeast corner of the Bayfield Peninsula into Lake Superior. I was lucky enough to travel there a few summers ago and I had a great time. I’d love to return in the winter for a completely different experience.

All but one of the islands is included within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore so it’s not feasible to live there except at that one place. Madeline Island has about 250 permanent residents and most of them live in or near its only town, La Pointe. It’s only a couple of miles from Bayfield on the mainland but it’s not cost effective to build a bridge across the straight for a handful of residents and summer visitors. Rather, people take a regularly-scheduled ferry (my visit).

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Something magical happens in the winter. The gap between Madeline Island and the Bayfield Peninsula freezes over, making La Point a part of the mainland. Ice thickens progressively over the winter until it’s strong enough to support automobile traffic. Then ferry operators take a rest. Frozen Lake Superior waters become an extension of Wisconsin County Highway H. It’s marked and monitored to keep the route safe during weather variations until it melts and the ferry can ride again. I’ve checked various sources and I believe this may be the only formally-designated Ice Road in the Lower 48 of the United States. Someone please correct me if one exists elsewhere.

I’ve long wanted to drive County Road H as it makes its frozen crossing above Lake Superior. Someday I’ll do that. In the meantime I’ll have to remain content with various YouTube videos of those who have been lucky enough to experience the phenomenon in person.

Residents of the Bayfield Peninsula and Madeline Island embrace winter. They don’t remain indoors for months at a time. Instead it’s a celebration, a Winter Festival in early March including a variety of outdoor activities such as ice fishing, dogsled rides, cross-country skiing, and tubing. The Run on Water is a Winter Festival highlight. This is a running race with a course that traverses the ice road, an impossibility at any other time of year. It’s not just runners, either. Other race categories include bike, skate, ski, skijor, snowshoe and walk. I’d probably enter the "walk" category if I were ever to participate. I can’t think of many other opportunities to race across a solid sheet of ice.

This year it’s scheduled for Saturday, March 3. However:

Due to an unusually warm winter in 2012, there is not enough ice to safely cross the lake over to Madeline Island. As an alternate course, we are offering a 4 mile “Run by the Water” on the Brownstone Trail… as the course follows the shoreline of the lake, with views of the bay and Madeline Island. The course will be an out and back with a turnaround.

The Winter Festival sounds like a great time and I know everyone will enjoy themselves. I’d really want to race that ice road, though. I guess it’s a good thing that I hadn’t made any definite plans. Maybe some future year.

The Largest Smallest US County (population)

If the "Largest Smallest United States County" sounds fleetingly familiar, you are correct. I covered a variant of this a couple of years ago. Count yourself among the small group of 12MC devotees who have been following along and paying attention for quite awhile. I was contacted by reader Ariel who wondered if I’d ever looked into a different angle of this same phenomenon: examining population rather than geographic size. I’d never thought about that before so I enjoyed his suggestions and I will present my findings now.

Let’s make sure we all understand the reference. Consider that every U.S. state has one county with a smallest population. We’ve examined some counties with extremely small populations previously. In Texas the county with the smallest population is Loving, with 82 residents. Which state, however, has a smallest county population that is larger than any other state’s county with the smallest population? We know it’s not going to be Texas which which comes in dead last (alas, not everything is really bigger in Texas) so it has to be a different state.

Anyone care to guess which one anchors the opposite end of the spectrum? Think smaller states in the northeast.

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Delaware wins according to 2010 Census figures. The county in Delaware with the fewest residents is Kent County, the home of a whopping 162,310 people. Take that, Texas! Delaware has a clear advantage, though. It has fewer counties than any other state, only three, cleaved approximately into thirds. Mid-Atlantic rural isn’t anything like Texas rural either, and there aren’t a lot of places for Delaware residents to spread anyway.

The largest smallest U.S. counties by population are:

  • Kent County, Delaware (map): population 162,310
  • Windham County, Connecticut (map): population 118,428
  • Salem County, New Jersey (map): population 66,083
  • Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
  • Coos County, New Hampshire (map): population 33,055

It drops-off quickly from there.

Ariel did well with his educated guess. He figured Kent and Salem, missing only Windham. Good job, Ariel!

Here’s a trivia question that just came to mind as I typed this: Which state is the only state where the capital city is found in its least populated county? Delaware! Dover, the state capital, is located in Kent County. Some quick fact-checking seems to confirm my assertion. Feel free to use that at your next social gathering and see how quickly people find a way to break away from the conversation.

Let’s try this from another dimension. Each state also has a smallest county by size. Using Texas as an example once again, the smallest county by size in Texas is Rockwall County (not Loving County, even though it has the fewest people). If we shuffle that list of fifty again, this time using the smallest county by size for each state, which one has the largest population?

This one is a bit of a "gimme" because it should be pretty obvious.

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Did you guess New York County, also known as the Borough of Manhattan (which is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan)? It’s the smallest county in New York State by size and it has 1,585,873 residents.

The largest populations of smallest counties by state are:

  • New York County, New York (map): population 1,585,873
  • San Francisco County, California (map): population 805,235
  • Multnomah County, Oregon (map): population 735,334
  • Hudson County, New Jersey (map): population 634,266
  • Baltimore City, Maryland (map): population 620,961
  • New Castle County, Delaware (map): population 538,479
  • Ramsey County, Minnesota (map): population 508,640

Once again it begins to drop off fairly quickly after the initial set. Portland caught me off-guard; I never would have guessed that one. The others seemed logical once I saw them on a list.

As an aside, Baltimore City is a bit of an anomaly. It’s not a county and it shouldn’t be confused with Baltimore County which cradles it on three sides. Nonetheless it is considered a "county equivalent" for census purposes so I will keep it on the list. Yes, and some New England states no longer have functioning counties either but I’ll keep them in consideration for the same reason.

We know that in our Texas example, Loving has the smallest population and Rockwall has the smallest size. Are there any states where the same county has both? It doesn’t happen as often as I imagined because cities are often concentrated into small county areas as noted above.

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I found six instances where the smallest population concentrated in the smallest county.

  • Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
  • McCormick County, South Carolina (map): population 10,233
  • Nantucket County, Massachusetts (map): population 10,172
  • Ohio County, Indiana (map): population 6,128
  • Robertson County, Kentucky (map): population 2,282
  • Kalawao County, Hawaii (map): population 90

I then considered sorting these data by population density, but I began to lose interest. Maybe next time.

Highpoint Tripoint

I was discussing highpoints with 12MC reader Michael from Atlanta recently. He mentioned the curious situation of North Carolina. Its highpoint is Mt. Mitchell — no dispute there — but curiously the mountain summits that form highpoints for South Carolina (Sassafras Mountain) and Tennessee (Clingmans Dome) are also right along their respective borders with North Carolina. Thus, the highpoints for three distinct states have a direct relationship with North Carolina.

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We theorized that stranger situations probably existed at the county level because of their considerably smaller sizes. This left me to wonder if there were counties that shared common highpoints ("two-fers") and more improbably whether there were three counties that shared a common highpoint at their tripoint ("three-fers"). I asked, and Michael delivered. He directed me to the proper page on the County Highpointers site.

Blanca Peak in Colorado (pictured above) appears to present a unique situation. As far as I can tell, meaning I didn’t feel like searching exhaustively, I believe this could be the only spot in the United States where three counties share a common highpoint. The counties involved are Alamosa, Costilla and Huerfano. I use phrases like "appears" and "as far as I can tell" so that when someone in the Twelve Mile Circle audience proves me wrong I can still save face, just so you know.

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One can clearly see the county lines on this Mapquest map. I apologize to people subscribed to 12MC using Google Reader because it doesn’t display embedded Mapquest images (I think maybe Google dislikes like the competition), but Mapquest provides a superior view this time. You can always open the map in another tab if you can’t see the image.


For the sake of disclosure, I did see another page that says that maybe the Huerfano Co. highpoint is about a hundred feet away from the summit, making it a "near three-fer." Other sources claim that the tripoint hasn’t been definitively delineated yet, making it hard to claim either option. Still others say that the three counties involved all believe their tripoint is located at the summit so it’s the right spot de facto, regardless. I don’t know. In any case the tripoint and the summit are found in close if not exact proximity by all measures, thus earning a coveted 12MC "good enough" designation.

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Blanca Peak is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost extent of the Rocky Mountains. A great series of photos can be found on the Blanca Peak page. Indeed, it’s a "Fourteener;" or one of those rarefied summits that reaches an altitude higher than 14,000 feet (4,267 metres). This would be an amazing site in most places but it’s almost pedestrian in Colorado where twenty five summits earn that honor.

It’s not even the Colorado state highpoint. At "only" 14,345 feet (4,372 metres) Blanca Peak is surpassed by four other mountains. lists several ways to get to the highpoint tripoint on Blanca Peak: (1) Highway 150 and Lake Como for most people; (2) Huerfano River Valley for highly experienced climbers; and (3) Highway 160 which is currently closed to public access. SummitPost notes that the first option is the preferable with one additional caveat, "The mosquitoes are fierce at Como Lakes… they will piss you off to the point of uncharacteristic fits of rage."

An extremely challenging 4-wheel drive road winds its way up to Como Lake and beyond. It’s not for the feint-of-heart as this YouTube video I lifted clearly demonstrates. However it seems to hand drivers about 5,000 feet of elevation gain towards their goal that they’d ordinarily have to hike on foot.

Thanks again, Michael from Atlanta. I don’t think I’ll ever experience the highpoint tripoint in person but I certainly enjoyed climbing it vicariously.