Feeling Centered (or Close to It)

I have a history of sorts with centres of sorts.

In 2014, on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, the Big Guy and I visited a monument close to the equator. Not exactly at the equator, you understand, but close.

In 2016, on a trip through South Dakota, the Big Guy and I set out to visit the Geographic Center of the United States, with less than stellar results. We got close to it, you understand, but not exactly there. Or maybe we did get there. No one really knows.

So it was with some mixture of dread and empathy that I recently clicked on an article about visiting the Geographic Center of North America, widely agreed to be in North Dakota. There is less agreement over exactly where in North Dakota. Plus í§a change . . .

The author of this lovely nostalgic travel piece sums it up thusly:

You may be wondering:

What would it take to accurately determine North America’s geographical center, down to the nth degree? Why can’t this be figured out and finished, the crown officially given to one town, once and for all?

For starters, it would require time, money, and labor, none of which the respective organizations responsible for making such a declaration — the U.S. National Geodetic Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey — have any interest in spending, they say.

That, and the answer probably wouldn’t change all that much. The Geographical Center of North America would still be in north-central North Dakota.

I won’t say I was triggered, exactly, although I might have been, um, close to it. The article did bring back some frustrating memories from that 2016 trip.

Time to sum up. This activity [determining the geographical centre]:

      • Lacks a unique solution
      • Generates results with no scientific significance
      • Uses a method involving kindergarten skills
      • Has uncertainty factors ranging from 3 to 4 miles (for Hawaii) to 20 miles (for Alaska) to an unspecified mileage (for the contiguous 48 states)
      • Determines a combined balance point with an uncertainty “set at about 10 miles in any direction”

All right then. The “center of the entire [US] nation” doesn’t actually mean anything, but is around here somewhere. Probably.

While it never occurred to me during the thrill of the chase, what’s interesting to me — now that I’m not on the ground trying to actually, you know, get to a centre of any sort — is how illogical this desire is, to find (and to be) the centre of a hopelessly irregular shape. Indeed, how weird the whole concept is. As I consider the map of Canada, for example, I’m not so much stumped by the question of where the centre is, but of which part of which edge to use for the measuring-from. I mean, take a look.

Of course, someone has thought about this (hurray). The thought? Lines of longitude and latitude can tell us where the centre is. Of course, more than one someone had the same thought and got a different answer (boo). But only slightly different (oh OK). Life is just a roller coaster, isn’t it?

Anyway, using our eastern- and western-most lines of longitude (inclusive of islands), Winnipeg can claim the distinction of being at/near the east/west geographic centre of Canada. Indeed, it has so claimed: The TransCanada Highway sign marking The Spot is just east of Winnipeg. It’s also about 20 minutes of longitude east of the actual line according to the Atlas of Canada, which deals in such precise measurements. Sometimes.

Anyway. Using our northern- and southern-most lines of latitude and the afore-calculated east/west line, the Atlas of Canada puts the geographic centre of Canada in Nunavut, just south of Yathkyed Lake, somewhere west of Hudson Bay. I’m guessing it’s hard to get there from here. Or from anywhere, maybe.

Of course, in these slightly-too-well-wired days you can get a taste of Yathkyed Lake online if’n you want to:

          • You can view a satellite image
          • You can check its water level (the things our government gets up to, eh?)
          • You can check out its partly incomplete IAGLR profile (IAGLR stands for the International Association for Great Lakes Research, but you likely knew that already)
          • You can visit its completely incomplete Facebook page
          • You can even read about it in the Globe and Mail archives

So there you have it. If anyone has another method than lat/long for determining the Centre of Canada, well, just go with it. It’s a reasonably free country.

Inspired by the inconvenient position of Yathkyed Lake (What were they thinking?), I’m going to leave off my search for centers/centres and start looking into poles of inaccessibility.

Often it refers to the most distant point from the coastline, implying a maximum degree of continentality or oceanity. In these cases, pole of inaccessibility can be defined as the center of the largest circle that can be drawn within an area of interest without encountering a coast. Where a coast is imprecisely defined, the pole will be similarly imprecise. [Ed’s note: emphasis added]

Again with the imprecision. Who’s in charge of Geography, anyway? Maybe the same folks who are in charge of River Naming.

The Canadian pole of inaccessibility is allegedly (!) in Jackfish River, Alberta 59.03°N 112.82°W, a few kilometres up the Peace River from where the Jackfish River (one of six (!) Canadian rivers of that name) flows through it. [Ed’s note: emphasis(es) and exclamation marks added but what good does it do anyway sigh]

I like that “allegedly.” This is a subject in which you just have to embrace the caveats. I won’t say I’m there yet but I’m getting closer.


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12 Responses to Feeling Centered (or Close to It)

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I just consulted with my de facto resident expert on all probabilities: my Google Mini.

    Me: Hey, Google, where is the geographical centre of North America?
    Mini: Oliver County, North Dakota.

    The county seat for Oliver County is Center, North Dakota. Its population in 2010 was 571, and Center is the only incorporated place in Oliver County.

    That’s probably as close as we’re gonna get.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, North Dakota it is, clear as a bell. After that, it gets a little mumble-ly mouthed.

  2. Eric Hrycyk says:

    The problem is that you are measuring degrees, yards, feet, inches, meters, millimeters, centimeters…….difficult.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Eric – I think of this as part of the general fractal problem – the further down you go into the details, the more details you find. It’s like measuring a coastline – to what level of refinement?

  3. Ah, another complication is that Earth and land-forms thereon change shape – sometimes rapidly, sometimes very very slowly. This leads to the concept that all things are a form of liquid, or worse yet, since atoms are mostly space, solids are hardly there at all. Might as well search for the centre of the Earth. Or just relax and read Jules Verne. Nice to have something to think about on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith: LOL. I remember a dreadful sci-fi movie: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). Scenes that might have worked in a novel lost something when translated into cheesy visual effects. (I see that there was also a 1976 effort: At the Earth’s Core. When will they ever learn?) But you make a good point – you don’t have to know very much physics to be completely baffled by the world around us.

  4. So funny!

    I saw North Dakota’s claim to fame recently and asked many of the questions you have looked at more closely. Good for you for taking the deep delve. But why does it matter to the humans who live there or to anyone else to determine such a statistic? I may be unable to sleep tonight while swimming out of the vortex towards an answer to that question.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna: I think it’s a naturally seductive quest. Once the thing is named (“The center of . . .”) it sort of escapes notice that it doesn’t mean much. And maybe folks just want to be part of something that passes for notable.

      • But it’s a stretch to turn “center” into “hub,” which might be notable. Perhaps it’s like people in the Far North who kid about locating Santa’s workshop? This is definitely another later nighter. 🙂

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Laurna – I wonder if it’s a bit like editing: I know I usually just work with what I get from the writer. It’s much harder to see what might be there or could be there and isn’t. So these folks are in North Dakota and the Gods of Geography gave them a centre of sorts, so they run with it.

  5. Barry says:

    I just looked at Wikipedia to try and define North America. Sure are a lot of definitions there. Some include Greenland, Bermuda, Caribbean countries, Latin America. Some are eveything north of South America (that is simple) etc. etc. etc

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – Hahaha. Excellent. We can’t say “which edge” and we’re not sure “which countries” but yup, this here is the center/centre of . . . something undefined. Hysterical. At least folks haven’t taken up arms over this issue. Yet.

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