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.
My route crossed paths with all sorts of wildlife, some more wild than others as we rolled through endless terrain in a land largely devoid of people. We never pushed deep into backcountry so I didn’t see anything too exotic — and no rattlesnakes thank goodness, which were supposedly quite common — still our roadside trips and short hikes into state and national parks presented a decent representative sample of Northern Plains fauna. If you don’t have a soft spot for cute and cuddly animals you might want to skip this article and wait for the final installment of Center of the Nation in a few days. Or just look at the photos. I won’t take it personally.
See what I mean? Prairie Dogs were the very embodiment of cute and cuddly. They were as common on the plains as squirrels back home on the east coast. That shouldn’t have been too surprising I supposed, since prairie dogs were simply a type of ground squirrel uniquely adapted to the dry grasslands of the continental interior. We saw their burrows practically everywhere, in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at Wyoming’s Devils Tower, and many places in between.
Our closest personal observations took place at Devils Tower (map). A large prairie dog village ran along the main park road and that’s where most of the tourists focused their efforts. We went to the back side of the village instead and hiked along a trail that ran amongst the creatures that tourist hordes generally avoided. Prairie dogs popped in and out of burrows, stood on their hind legs, barked warnings of our impending arrival and behaved in their characteristic adorable manner. Signs along the trail warned visitors to keep a distance from wildlife though. Vicious behavior wasn’t the concern, it was a disease called tularemia that prairie dogs could pass to humans. They might also be able to spread the plague. With that in mind, cute still rang true although cuddly might need to be struck from the list.
We spotted feral horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map), that have "existed in the Badlands of western North Dakota since the mid-1800s." Their ancestors escaped from the original European explorers centuries earlier and adapted quite well to the plains. Originally the National Park Service thought of mustangs as pests that needed to be removed. However their opinion began to change by the 1970’s. Wild horses came to be considered an important part of what made this the Old West. Horses ran in small bands throughout the park. Originally I thought they must have belonged to nearby ranchers until we returned to the Visitor Center and learned that they were indeed feral.
Spotting a flock of Canada Geese outside of Bowman, North Dakota (map) wasn’t all that remarkable. I’ve seen plenty of geese in many places and I’m sure anyone living in North America has experienced much the same. I took notice only because they were flying south, an early sign of Autumn, of Winter looming just around the corner. We already felt a slight chill in the air on mid-September mornings. Winter came early in higher latitudes and grasslands would soon give way to snow. Our hotel in Montana even had metal posts at the end of each parking spot where guests could plug-in their cars to keep their engine oil warm. Like the geese, I felt we left at the right time.
I’d hoped to see Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park although that plan didn’t work out as intended. Our encounter would have to wait until we drove the Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We entered the park expecting the best and saw nothing. We feared a repeat of our earlier debacle until rangers told us the herd had migrated to the southern end of the park (map). Finally!
They were noble creatures, as magnificent as I’d remembered from years ago in Yellowstone. It was hard to imagine the great bands that once roamed the Great Plains freely, and then their near extinction as indiscriminate hunters pushed their population down to 500. Bison have rebounded to a degree, with a half million specimens today although "the total number of mature individuals in wild free-ranging and semi-free-ranging populations is estimated to be approximately 11,250 and only 5 subpopulations have more than 1,000 individuals." The great herds will never return although one can still get a sense of what it must have been like at a handful of state and national parks.
"Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day."
(from "Home on the Range" – 1874).
Custer State Park definitely became the place to see wild animals during our adventure, so once again a hearty round of applause goes to the Twelve Mile Circle audience for suggesting it (map). Custer mirrored Home on the Range although ironically the song labeled two of the major animals incorrectly. Bison are not technically buffalo and Pronghorn aren’t antelopes although they’re commonly called Pronghorn Antelopes. Pronghorn are the last surviving member of the family Antilocapridae. There used to a dozen North American species during the Pleistocene period (about 1.8 million years ago until the last Ice Age) and only Antilocapra americana — the pronghorn — avoided extinction. They adapted well and remained quite numerous on the Great Plains.
Trivia: their closest living relatives are giraffids (e.g., giraffes).
I wondered how burros differed from donkeys. I knew male donkeys and female horses produced mules. What might account for burros? A little Intertubes sleuthing showed that burro was nothing more than a Spanish word for small donkey. Mystery solved, I turned my attention to the burros of Custer State Park. Many called them the "begging burros." We lived through the begging firsthand (map). A burro would wander into traffic, slowing cars down. His buddies would then walk up to each window extorting handoffs.
These were not pets, they were feral. Entrepreneurs brought their ancestors here to carry visitors to the top of nearby Harney Peak, the South Dakota highpoint. Eventually tours were discontinued. Those in charge decided it would easier to simply set the burros free to fend for themselves. Decades later, the burros extract their revenge by hassling tourists as they drive through the park, an equine version of panhandlers.
I couldn’t resist taking a photo when I saw these wonderful folk art animal cutouts in Sundance, Wyoming (map). The race we attended that day took place on the town’s rodeo grounds. The cutouts were part of their annual celebration although we were entirely out of season.
Apparently pigs don’t have a predetermined number of teats although 12-14 would be good number and 16 would be ideal. The anthropomorphised cartoon version apparently had two, which she covered modestly with a bikini top. Neither sow nor boar saw fit to cover their nether regions though.
Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.
I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.
Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?
Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.
Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.
We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.
The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.
The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.
But Wait, You Also Get This
Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.
The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,
We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.
What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.