The final article of 2015 felt like an appropriate time to reflect upon my personal geographic sightseeing adventures during the past year. I accomplished a lot in 2015, more than typical, and I recalled my travels fondly. Plus I figured that readership always dropped way off during the slow week between Christmas and New Years so it didn’t really matter what I published. This seemed as good a time as any for a clip show where I could take a little mental break while offering an opportunity to wax nostalgic and share a few favorite photos. All images in this article were my own for once.
Great Allegheny Passage
Mason & Dixon Line
It seemed like ages ago when I climbed atop my bicycle and set off on a 150 mile ride (240 kilometres) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland with a couple of friends. I kept reminding myself that it was only last April. The quest seemed daunting although we spread it over multiple days, and we pedaled a nice, easy pace. The Great Allegheny Passage trail followed rivers for the most part, the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Casselman, pushing through mountainous valleys and woodlands. The passage also crossed a couple of notable geographic features including the Mason & Dixon Line at the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the Eastern Continental Divide (photo) where water flowed either to the Atlantic Ocean or to the Gulf of Mexico.
Cape Cod and Nearby
Geo-oddities weren’t a primary objective of my adventures along Cape Cod and Nearby although I supposed the closest object that fit the definition might have been Plymouth Rock. I’ve talked before about its dubious historical claim and its underwhelming presence. Still, it was Plymouth Rock for cryin’ out loud. That counted for something. A large glacial erratic known as Doan Rock (photo), perhaps the largest Ice Age wanderer on Cape Cod, actually impressed me more. The trip wasn’t a total geographic bust by any means. I did manage to snag several new counties including two requiring ferries (Nantucket and Dukes) and I finished the remaining counties in Rhode Island.
Oh, and I also experienced a lot of great stuff that had nothing to do with geography.
Western North Carolina
North Carolina Highpoint
Some journeys seemed to lend themselves better to collecting notable geographic peculiarities. For me, that wonderful confluence of events happened naturally during July’s trip to western North Carolina. I captured two new state highpoints, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. Neither required anything special beyond minimal "climbing" from parking lots near their respective summits. That was a real bonus for someone of my sluggish tendencies. I also ate lunch at Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant that may or may not have actually straddled three county lines simultaneously (photo).
Yes, of course I realized I strayed across the border into Tennessee so it wasn’t technically a trip dedicated solely to western North Carolina. In my defense, the boundary between the states cut directly through the summit of Clingmans Dome. The mountain was tall enough to be considered Tennessee’s highpoint although not for North Carolina. Mount Mitchell reached 41 feet (12 metres) higher than Clingmans Dome and it was also the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. I needed to visit both of them.
Really? I didn’t actually need to visit both of them, and I probably wouldn’t have if they’d been more troublesome.
Center of the Nation
Center of the Nation, north of Belle Fourche, SD
Naturally I’d expected something particularly significant from a Mainly Marathons event named specifically for a geographic feature. The Center of the Nation adventure didn’t disappoint. Indeed, I was able to experience one of the more notable "centers of the nation" in South Dakota which tend to vary depending on how one defined center. I also saw a completely false center established at a more accessible location a few miles away at a park in the town of Belle Fourche (photo) just for good luck. If that weren’t enough I then drove through the nation’s smallest county seat of Amidon, North Dakota (photo) although it had been eclipsed recently by an even smaller county seat in Nebraska.
Collecting my final county of 2015
I had a banner year for County Counting in 2015. I don’t recall exactly how many new counties I added and I’m too lazy to figure it out although a quick scan led me to believe it was probably somewhere around fifty. My travels were good enough to bring my lifetime total up to 1,302, or 41.4% of counties in the United States. The final capture of the year happened only a few days ago. I had to get out of the house for a couple of hours while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin. I actually have great in-laws — that wasn’t the problem — I still needed to wander somewhere after sitting around the house for five days. You know how that goes. I drove just far enough to cross the border into a doughnut hole county that had been tormenting me for several years. Green Lake County, you were mine!
The final geographic moment actually didn’t happen this year, it happened in 2014 when I visited Ireland. However it made its screen debut in December 2015 so I counted it as an achievement for the current year. We’d traveled to remote Skellig Michael (map), a rocky islet jutting from the sea a few kilometres from the southwestern edge of the Irish mainland. That same spot was visited coincidentally by a filming crew for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens a few weeks later. Skellig Michael appeared in the movie when it was released a year and a half later.
I won’t provide any spoilers for the one or two 12MC readers who may not have seen the movie. However, I will note that Skellig Michael served as the setting for the very final scene at the end of the movie (and will likely appear again at the beginning of its sequel). I marveled at how the crew managed film around thousands of puffins that made the island home because those birds were literally everywhere. Viewers can see scattered puffins flying around on a few shots in the distant background of the movie, and I swear I spotted at least one puffin burrow that the editors somehow missed although I couldn’t be sure. I’ll have to look more carefully the next time I watch it.
Thank goodness for random search queries that land on Twelve Mile Circle. This time our unknown visitor wanted to find Alaska’s southernmost mainland airport. I didn’t know why they wanted to learn and it didn’t really matter. It became an intellectual exercise, and considerably more complicated than I expected. I’m not completely confident in my answers although I think I came reasonably close to the right solution after a fairly thorough search through a series of maps.
One needed to start with a premise that aviation in Alaska connected far-flung communities where roads didn’t exist. Pilots sometimes made their own spur-of-the-moment airfields on any reasonable surface, whether water, land or snow. I needed to winnow the possibilities. Thus I concentrated on recognized commercial, general and public airports included on Wikipedia’s List of Airports in Alaska.
Adak appeared to be Alaska’s southernmost airport although it failed a vital condition of the query; it was built upon an island on the extended Aleutian chain (map). It was so far south that Adak fell on approximately the same latitude as Oxford, England (just a little bit of trivia for 12MC’s UK readers to help them understand the immense stretch of Alaska from north to south). Adak didn’t provide a complete answer although it offered a clue. Maybe this was a trick question. Most people would naturally consider southeastern Alaska and forget about the western side of the state extending down the 500 mile (800 kilometre) Alaska Peninsula. I should begin by checking there.
King Cove was the final town of any significance at the southernmost knob of the extended peninsula just before where the Aleutian island chain began. There was also an airport nearby (map). It wasn’t much, in fact wasn’t even paved, although it had a runway maintained by the state and available for public use. King Cove Airport handled more than a thousand aircraft operations per year. Its latitude equated to about 55.1° North.
A little to the west and only slightly farther north stood a much larger airport at Cold Bay. This one had been a US Army Air Force installation during the Second World War before its conversion to civilian use. It included two paved runways that handled nearly ten times the number aircraft operations per year than King Cove. Cold Bay registered a latitude of about 55.2° North.
The bar had been set at a very promising southern point on mainland Alaska. Would that be far enough south to beat Alaska’s better known panhandle on the eastern side of the state?
Alaska’s Panhandle featured a distinct lack of mainland. Large islands composed most of its square footage. The mainland portion formed a narrow ribbon hemmed-in by the Canadian border to the east and the Inside Passage to the west. Even more confining, mountains practically jutted directly from the sea providing very little elbow room for mainland airports. Communities made due with their geographic limitations however, and some towns turned to seaplane bases instead. Hyder was the town farthest down along Southeast Alaska’s mainland. It was a bit of an anomaly anyway, accessible by road only from Canada (as were Haines and Skagway farther up the coast). One could use Hyder Seaplane Base (map), a state-owned general aviation facility if arriving by air. One could also use a paved runway just a few minutes away in adjacent Stewart although that was just across the border in British Columbia, Canada so it didn’t count for this exercise.
Hyder certainly challenged King Cove. It would be close, I thought, as I eyeballed the latitudes. My measurement for Hyder came to 55.9° making it just slightly north of King Cove and Cold Bay. Indeed, I’d encountered a trick question. I believe the southernmost mainland airports in Alaska were indeed found on the western peninsula at King Cove (unpaved) and Cold Bay (paved).
The puzzle may have been solved although I continued with the game. I felt a seaplane base cheated somewhat even if it hadn’t been far enough south to win the contest anyway. There were plenty of formal land-based runways within the panhandle although most of them were built on islands. The next thing I knew, as I crossed-off possibilities from the list, I was looking at Juneau (map). I’ve flown in-and-out of Juneau a couple of times and it was a large airport with regular jet service. That’s why I was a bit surprised. Certainly it felt like there should have been another paved runway somewhere on the mainland between Juneau and Hyder, and yet I could not fine one.
That was enough Alaska airport trivia for one day.
The analysis of landlocked national lowpoints amused me so much that I decided to extend the exercise to individual states within the United States. Once again I found a perfectly matching Wikipedia page so I didn’t have to recreate my own, a List of U.S. states by elevation. Only two states included elevations below sea level, California and Louisiana, and both featured seacoasts. Thus, I only had to search for states with positive elevations, which by process of elimination would have to be landlocked. If the District of Columbia ever became a state it would lead the pack with a single-foot lowpoint at the spot where the Potomac River exited the nation’s capital. However, setting that aside, there were three states with impressive lowpoints all falling beneath a hundred feet (30 metres).
The delta of the Mississippi River drained an incredibly flat plain although it still surprised me that it extended all the way into Arkansas. It had the lowest elevation of all landlocked states. Arkansas was a solid two hundred miles (320 km.) from the nearest seacoast at the Gulf of Mexico. Yet it offered a lowpoint where the Ouachita River crossed from Arkansas into Louisiana at an elevation of only 55 ft. (17 m.). The Ouachita joined the Tensas River, forming the Black River, commingling later with the Atchafalaya River and eventually intertwining with the Mississippi River. The whole mass of bayous, sloughs and waterways formed an immense tangled delta reaching far inland.
Native Americans thrived in the swamplands for hundreds of years during the Pre-Columbian period, building large settlements and ceremonial mounds.
The major Indian tribes that lived along the OUACHITA were the Washita, Caddo, Osage, Tensas, Chickasaw and Choctaw… The Spanish explorer DeSoto recorded in 1540 the existence of an enormous mound built on the banks of the OUACHITA. This site was named "Anilco", and was located at the present site of Jonesville, Louisiana. This mound was tragically destroyed when a bridge was built over the site in the 1930’s. This mound was one of the largest ever recorded in North America.
Priceless cultural artifact or second-rate highway bridge? Apparently priorities differed in the 1930’s.
The actual Arkansas lowpoint (map) occurred at an interesting intersection for followers of modern geography, directly upon a county quadripoint. Four counties (parishes in Louisiana) joined where the Ouachita River left Arkansas and entered Louisiana: Union County, AR; Ashley County, AR; Union Parish., LA and Morehouse Parish., LA. The two entities named Union were referenced previously in "Adjacent Counties, Same Name, Different States."
Arizona also surprised me although maybe it shouldn’t have seemed all that counterintuitive once I considered the situation some more. Arizona was such a large state and it seemed so far away from a seashore. Yet, if one looked at a map it became abundantly clear that its southwestern corner fell pretty close to the Gulf of California. One would have to travel through neighboring México to accomplish that though, and perhaps that was why I tended to overlook it mentally. The quickest path to the Gulf followed the course of the Colorado River, making Arizona’s lowest elevation 72 ft. (22 m.) where it exited the state at San Luis.
Oddly, that hadn’t happened much in the last half century making the lowpoint a dry, empty riverbed instead. A series of state compacts, international treaties and dams strictly parceled the Colorado’s waters to variously prescribed residential and agricultural purposes. The final dam built on the river at a place straddling the U.S / Mexican border between Yuma and San Luis — the Morelos Dam (map) — took what little flow remained and channeled it into croplands in surrounding areas of México. That converted what used to be a wonderfully diversified estuary and turned it into just another patch of Sonoran desert sometime around 1950. Environmentalists on both sides of the border began to wonder what might happen if the Morelos Dam opened periodically and allowed the Colorado River to flow naturally to the sea for limited times. Thus the notion of the "Pulse Flow" came to pass and it actually happened in March 2014:
… officials released an experimental pulse of 105,000 acre-feet of water from the Morelos Dam on the United States-Mexico border, and on May 15 the river once again flowed into the sea. The eight-week water release, though small, was enough to cause a 43 percent increase in green vegetation in the wetted zone and a 23 percent increase along the river’s borders…
Actually all three of the landlocked states with elevations of less than a hundred feet completely fascinated me. Third on the list went to Vermont — literally the Green Mountain — where one would expect higher elevations instead of lower ones. Certainly Vermont included impressive peaks within its boundaries although it also bordered on Lake Champlain (map). Its lowpoint coincided with the lake, a diminutive 95 ft. (29 m.) flowing into the St. Lawrence River and onward towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Champlain served as an important transportation corridor during colonial times and the early days of an independent United States where difficult overland travel took place on muddy, rutted roads. It was a lot easier to navigate a boat inland wherever that was possible instead of turning to horse and wagon. Lake Champlain became Vermont’s access to the outside world. It was no wonder that the lake figured prominently in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Forts such as Ticonderoga and Crown Point appeared along its shorelines. British and American naval forces battled upon its waters. The United States fortified Lake Champlain’s shoreline even after the wars, including the infamous "Fort Blunder" placed on the wrong side of the border by mistake. Canals later connected the lake to the Hudson River watershed and the Erie Canal system, creating a vast superhighway over a large swath of the continental interior.
This was one of the more enjoyable article series I’ve written in awhile. Lowpoints seemed to offer more untold stories waiting to be discovered than highpoints.