Turns out Kodiak is largest U.S. island, depending on viewpoint

July 31, 2010 

An item from The Associated Press in the Daily News on July 20 quoted former Gov. Sarah Palin identifying Kodiak as "America's largest island." The article gave the area of Kodiak as 3,588 square miles and 4,028 square miles for the island of Hawaii.

Call me a geo-nerd. It may stem from growing up in a place where, not having any Nobel laureates or famous inventors to our credit, big rivers and mountains are what everyone brags about. Besides, Alaska geography is really cool and cartography may be the art form that most closely reveals the real world. Take a look at the maps of Mount McKinley created by Bradford Washburn, whose photographs currently are the subject of an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum.

When I lived on Kodiak, folks there acknowledged it to be the second biggest U.S. island in terms of area, but No. 1 in coastline. I tried to get confirmation of those claims on the Internet, but it was a fool's errand. The sizes given for both islands were all over the map, so to speak.

I contacted the U.S. Geological Survey, who you'd think would be the ultimate arbiter. "I was unable to find answers," said the information officer who responded. But he did tell me that the largest freshwater island in America is Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

The USGS's source for this big island data? Wikipedia.

I thought Daily News readers deserved something a little more authoritative. So I went to Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition, "The Official Dictionary of The Associated Press." There on page 794, it gave the area of Kodiak Island -- not the archipelago or islands, plural -- as 5,363 square miles.

The 5,363 figure has been used by Webster's for at least 30 years, including in their geographical dictionaries. I sent an e-mail asking for clarification and sources to the book's publisher, Macmillan, but have yet to hear back.

I did hear back from Holly Ramer, the AP reporter who wrote the above story and who, in that story, identified her source for the Kodiak number as the Alaska Office of Economic Development. She sent me to the website where she found the information, www.commerce.state.ak.us/oed/student_info/learnabout geography.htm.

The site gave as its source as The Alaska Almanac, a compendium of tourist information published by now-defunct Alaska Northwest Books of Portland, Ore. Contributors included local satirist Mr. Whitekeys.

David Szumigala of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys was also listed as a contributor. I called him and he contacted state cartographer Alfred G. Sturmann, who gave the area of Kodiak as 4,908.90 square miles -- more than 800 square miles bigger than the biggest estimate for Hawaii. Before we start celebrating, note that Sturmann included both Kodiak "and surrounding small islets," of which Kodiak has many. "This number can vary depending on the accuracy of the data used. I wouldn't take it to court," he said and referred me to DNR's Division of Mining, Lands and Waters.

It was a good referral. Within a day they'd taken a fresh look at the numbers and recalculated the area of just Kodiak Island as 3,595.09 square miles, slightly bigger than the most common number found on the Internet. But no Hawaii.

However, for that other measurement, coastline, DNR gave me a ballpark figure of 1,343 miles for Kodiak. Hawaii's Big Island Visitors Bureau said the shoreline of their delightful island is 266 miles -- or was. Hawaii's size fluctuates, sometimes daily, as a result of lava flows and erosion. Anyway, Kodiak clearly wins the shoreline competition.

("Shoreline" and "coastline" are not always the same thing, but I'm using them interchangeably here.)

There's also the matter of what one assumes "largest" to mean. The official AP dictionary defines "large" as "of great extent or amount" (among other things). In the absence of further specifiers, it can just as easily mean shoreline as land mass or any other measurable feature -- like population. One can correctly say New York City is larger than the City and Borough of Yakutat, even though Yakutat's 9,459 square miles far exceed New York's puny 321 square miles. The largest island in America in terms of people is probably Manhattan.

For a discipline involving numbers, geography is not an exact science; perhaps no science is. As the Alaska Almanac says in its listing on geography, "it depends on how you look at it."

So, in the limited arena of words, one can legitimately call Kodiak the largest island in America without any refutiation from me.

Brag on.

Finding the middle

In speaking with state geo-folks about the above matter, I asked how they came up with their designation for the center of Alaska. In terms of distance, the midpoint between the state's most extreme east, west, south and north points is hundreds of miles southwest of that spot, northeast of Quinhagak, a feature named Breast Mountain.

But the official computation isn't determined by latitude and longitude. It involves a far more complex process entailing geometry, polygons, perimeters, fractoids and other mathematical concepts that make my head hurt.

"You could do it by hand, but it would take a couple of days. We use computers," geologist David Szumigala said.

When the computer looks at the Alaska mainland using the equal-area conic Albers projection, the "geographic centroid" is north of Mount McKinley and hundreds of miles from Breast Mountain. Centroid is defined as a "center of mass."

I remain of the opinion that the center of distance in Alaska is still Breast Mountain.

Alaskans in New Mexico

Getting back to more familiar arts stuff, on Monday the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., will open several exhibits, including two featuring Alaskans. "Oblique Drift" is a solo exhibition by Nicholas Galanin, which uses mixed media to reference the classic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis -- except in Galanin's version nude models wear Tlingit style masks made in Indonesia.

"Dry Ice" is a group exhibit by Alaska Native artists including Galanin, Brian Adams, Susie Bevins-Ericsen, Perry Eaton, Anna Hoover, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Erica Lord, Da-ka-xeen Mehner and Larry McNeil. It was curated by Julie Decker of Anchorage's International Gallery of Contemporary Art.

While the shows go on display Monday and remain up until Jan. 2, a free, public opening reception will take place during the week of Santa Fe's Indian Market, 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, at the museum, 108 Cathedral Place.

Kenai music festival starts

The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra's Summer Music Festival will start Monday and go for two weeks. The first week includes free noon programs at different locations and a recital by the Madison String Quartet at 7:30 Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. Next Sunday will bring the gala concert with food and champagne in Halibut Cove ($120 per person; call 907-235-7579 for information). Orchestral programs featuring Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante will take place in Homer and Kenai on Aug. 13 and 14.


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

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