In the first installment I discussed various Louisiana Parishes that shared the same root name, differing only by the addition of an east or a west directional prefix. I noted that sharing of county or county-equivalent names in this manner was surprisingly rare in the United States. The only other place where one sees this happen is in Alaska, and even there it requires asterisks and explanations.
Aleutians East and West
View Larger Map
This would seem on the surface to be the most clear-cut Alaskan example of the phenomenon. The Aleutian Islands form a 1,200 mile (1,900 kilometre) chain of volcanic isles extending west of the Alaska Peninsula, separating the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Imagine the difficulty of administering such a long, skinny, sparsely inhabited region. It seems to make some intuitive sense to split it into pieces.
While the units have similar names, pay particular attention to the difference too: (1) Aleutians East Borough (map); versus (2) Aleutians West Census Area of the Unorganized Borough (map).
Alaska is the sole remaining U.S. state where the tertiary level of government continues to form. There are occasional county changes in the Lower 48 too (the creation of Broomfield County in Colorado in 2001 comes to mind) but by-and-large it’s rather static. A different situation exists in Alaska. Early in its statehood, Alaska passed the Borough Act of 1961 which created a single unorganized borough that covered the entire state. Slowly, from within the vastness of that great landmass, boroughs emerged and continue to be born.
Acreage not falling within a borough remain within the unorganized borough, an area that’s larger than any state besides Alaska itself. Local government does not exist except for a few school systems and a handful of widely-scattered incorporated towns. The State of Alaska provides basic services to residents of the unorganized borough directly in all other areas of life.
The Federal government and the State of Alaska decided to break the unorganized borough into several sections for purposes of the 1970 Census, a practice that continues today. The designations exist solely for statistical purposes. Each Alaskan Census Area of the Unorganized Borough is considered a "county equivalent" unit. However, they still do not represent units of governance.
Thus, it’s hard to say if Aleutians East and Aleutians West actually reflects the referenced geo-oddity since Aleutians West is part of the unorganized borough. We’ll have to see if the name carries forward should it ever split from the unorganized borough.
An interesting point of trivia I uncovered about the Aleutians East Borough during my research: they don’t have a sales tax and they don’t have a property tax, but they do have a 2% raw fish tax, which serves to demonstrate the underpinning of their economy.
Southeast Fairbanks and Fairbanks North Star
View Larger Map
A similar and even more tenuous situation exists for Southeast Fairbanks (map) and Fairbanks North Star (map). The Southeast Fairbanks Census Area is another designation of convenience within the greater unorganized borough. It doesn’t have much of a reason to organize anytime soon, either. There are barely 6,000 residents and it doesn’t have any incorporated towns.
Fairbanks North Star is anchored by the City of Fairbanks. The metropolitan area located within the borough includes about 100,000 residents. That’s a huge deal in interior Alaska. Still, the northern designation in its name refers to the star rather than to Fairbanks proper. Thus it doesn’t even conform to the model we’re seeking for this little geo-oddity.
Steve from CTMQ is planning a state highpoint trip that will include Oklahoma. In his research he’s learned that it’s located in Cimarron County, and further that "Cimarron is the only county in the United States that touches five states: Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and its own, Oklahoma."
I think that’s pretty amazing. Can anyone confirm or refute that?
Oh those intrepid Googlers, the source of so much amusement and adventure as I relentlessly review their keyword searches captured in my access logs. What would a weekend morning be without a cup of coffee and a pile of raw statistical data to be mined through? Some people prefer the New York Times’ Sunday crossword puzzle. Not me. I travel to faraway places through the curious wanderings of my fleeting visitors who stop by only for a moment, never to return. I value each and every one of them and would never question their wisdom and insight. I’m sorry, I have to pause for a moment; I can’t even type that with a straight face. Check out these two totally real queries from viewers I’m sure must be future Nobel Laureates:
- is hawaii actually part of the us
- what state borders hawaii
I can imagine a context where either query might be considered rational. It’s all about context. The first question arrived right around the time of the Inauguration. Obviously it was a last-ditch attempt by the Twelve Mile Circle’s secret admirer (ya betcha) to undo the election and throw the results to the runner-up. If Hawaii wasn’t actually part of the United States then Barack Obama couldn’t be president, correct?
The second question can be repurposed, and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t actually result in something interesting. What the viewer really meant to ask but didn’t articulate well, was: What state is closest to Hawaii?. Well, excluding Hawaii itself of course, the surprising answer: Alaska.
View Larger Map
As usual, the answer appears instantly when it’s drawn on a map even with a quick eyeball examination. Most people don’t conceptualize the amazing length of the chain of Hawaiian Islands which stretches about 1,500 miles. The northwestern or leeward part of the chain, with the exception of Midway Atoll (an unorganized, unincorporated territory), belongs within jurisdiction of the state of Hawaii. From Kure Atoll it’s only 1,576 miles to the southernmost spot in Alaska, Nitrof Point on Amatignak Island using the Great Circle Method of calculation. That makes Kure Atoll about the same distance from the Big Island as it is to Alaska!
Now I know what you’re thinking,
OK, Mr. Smarty Pants. Enough with the trick questions. Nobody really cares about a two-hundred acre speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, although admittedly it’s pretty cool because it’s the northernmost coral atoll on the planet. Tell me, what’s the closest state to "normal" Hawaii where the people live and the pineapples grow?
I can do that. Let’s take a look. Using the Howder Draws a Bunch of Lines between Hawaii and California Method of calculation, it appears that the shortest distance between Hawaii and the so-called Mainland happens between the Big Island and California. Specifically it’s between the northeastern edge of the Island of Hawaii near Hilo and the Flumeville / Point Arena area of California about 120 miles up the coast from San Francisco. Here the total distance between Hawaii and California is about 2,285 miles. I thought originally that the distance would have been shorter from nearby Cape Kumukahi (the easternmost point in Hawaii) but once I mapped it out I saw that it’s several miles longer due to the way the two states orient. There’s also a spot in Maui that is perhaps only two miles further away, too. Either way, right around 2,285-2,288 miles.
Now let’s turn to the northernmost spot in the southeastern or windward islands, the part of Hawaii that people generally think of as "Hawaii" even thought we all know it’s a false assumption. That spot marks the location of the Kilauea Lighthouse on the island of Kauai. Draw a line up to the closest point in Alaska and it arrives at Samalga Island, the westernmost of the Fox Islands group in the eastern Aleutians. It’s one and a half square miles of uninhabited glory. However just a sliver away further and right next door is Umnak Island and the 39 inhabitants of its only town, Nikolski. This island once housed Fort Glenn, a strategically important site during the second world war. It also features Mount Okmok, a volcano that erupted in 2008. Neat stuff!
Oh, the total distance between Kauai and Samalga Islands? 2,175 miles. It’s still shorter to Alaska than the west coast of the Lower 48, even using the cheater approach. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. When I was in Anchorage several years ago on business I noticed a flight waiting at one of the gates with a Honolulu destination listed. Now I know why.
That assumes you believe his Birth Certificate rather than one of several conspiracy theories. Otherwise I’d have to withdraw my attempt to make the question sound intelligent and you would need to reach your own conclusion about the mental capacity and/or education of the person who submitted it.
We’ve been having great fun with comments posted on my recent entry, East Coast Sunsets over Water. Matthew kicked things off when he wondered whether the opposite condition might exist anywhere within the United States, a West Coast sunrise over water. Scott Schrantz, who has followed the Twelve Mile Circle for awhile, later solved the mystery by providing definitive evidence.
I’ve been out of town all week but now that I’m back I’ve been able to review the candidates and offer an assessment. First, lets take care of the obvious. Hawaii. Yes, it’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean so there’s going to be lots of places where the sun rises over water. Also Alaska:
View Larger Map
Much of land along the western edge of the Gulf of Alaska — Kenai Peninsula, Alaska Peninsula and down to the Aleutian Islands — would have unobstructed eastern views. Some of the crags on the peninsulas along Alaska’s western coast and various nobs and bumps along the northern slope might also qualify when the water isn’t frozen.
Then things get difficult. There are two major geographic conditions with the western coast states of the Lower 48 (Washington, Oregon and California) that inhibit this phenomenon:
- There aren’t many significant peninsulas or other protrusions jutting from the mainland and there’s a distinct lack of barrier islands offshore.
- A series of tall mountains, the various Pacific Coastal Ranges, run all the way from Alaska to Mexico. Mountains extend the horizon considerably so that someone will have to be much further away over water to no longer see land.
Efforts focused on the the northwestern corner of Washington, the Olympic Peninsula. It’s the only sizable peninsula along the western coast so it seemed like a worthy candidate. However sunrises would definitely be impacted by the Cascades Range that rarely dips below 5,000 feet. Referring to Wikipedia’s horizon chart, a viewer would have to be at least a hundred miles west of the Cascades to no longer see a continuous ridge across the horizon in clear weather. This completely eliminated anything along the western shore of Puget Sound.
I thought, well perhaps the Strait of Georgia might hold promise. There’s little of the United States with an eastern view along the strait, but Point Roberts, one of my favorite geo-oddities does have the proper positioning. No dice, though. It’s still too close to the Northern Cascades. That was confirmed by a photo I found on Picasa. It’s a gorgeous sunrise and substantially over water but we’re looking for perfection here, 100% over water. Sorry, Point Roberts, you’re eliminated.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca became another likely candidate. This separates the Olympic Peninsula from Canada’s Vancouver Island. It’s long and broad, and held the promise of uninterrupted horizons. However it runs southeast so an overwater sunrise would likely be dependent upon both the positioning of the surrounding landmass and the time of the year. Scott Schrantz posed and confirmed the theory by finding conclusive evidence of a sunrise over water at Port Angeles on Flickr.
Here I’ve attempted to recreate a similar scene from the Port Angeles city dock using Google Earth. This image faces directly towards the eastern horizon at eye-level with 3D turned on. I’ve added the sun just south of east to approximate the date of the Flickr photo, March 6. From this I can deduce that while the headland is visible to the right, the shoreline plain forming Dungeness Bay must be below the horizon since otherwise the sun would be rising over it. We can speculate that sunrise over water would definitely occur between the vernal equinox (late March) and the autumnal equinox (late September) for sure, plus probably another month on either end. Theoretically the situation should only improve as one moves further along the top of Olympic Peninsula towards the Pacific Ocean since it takes a decidedly northwestern slant after Port Angeles.
I could find only one other spot along the coast where I positively identified a sunrise over water: the Channel Islands off of southern California. The mountains behind Los Angeles could be seen from the preponderance of on-line photographs from Catalina Island and its primary town, Avalon. However I did find this single example on Flickr. I think it’s probable that it occurs only during certain parts of the year when the angles line up just right, similar to what we discovered on the Olympic Peninsula.
Indeed there are west coast sunrises over water, however they are relatively rare compared to their reverse counterparts on the east coast. This was a fun entry to compile and I particularly enjoyed the group effort. If anyone has other topics to explore, please feel free to post them and we can get the discussion started again.
 Matthew writes the prullmw weblog. One of his interests is what he calls "concept travel" which seems to track pretty close to what I call "strange geography." For example, see his article on The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM).
 Scott Schrantz publishes several guides and blogs including AroundCarson.com and The Computer Vet. The latter one is his "miscellaneous" file where you’re more likely to see geo-weirdness or anything else that strikes him as offbeat. In that vein, he has a recent entry on Boulder City, Nevada, Las Vegas’ overlooked neighbor.