NOME, Alaska (CN) - The winning team may have crossed under the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's famed burled arch, but the event is not officially over until the last musher is off the trail and snuffs the flame of the red lantern hanging at the finish line.
Just finishing the 1,000-mile race is an incredible accomplishment and for spectators traveling to Nome as well. As of Friday, There were still six sled dog teams still making their way to Nome. Sixty-five teams finished the race, 13 elected to scratch and one racer was withdrawn for lack of competitiveness or traveling too slowly down the trail.
Located along the Bering Sea just below the Arctic Circle in Northwestern Alaska, Nome sits a little over two miles soil-to-soil across the Bering Strait from Russia's Diomede Islands. The city's storied past centers around the 1899-1909 gold rush, dog mushing and the legendary serum run to quell the 1925 diphtheria epidemic.
There are 3,500 people living in Nome now, down from a peak gold rush era population of 28,000. With the price of gold still high, mining continues here albeit not quite at the fury of long ago. Other residents work with local Alaska Native corporations, for the school and hospital, and in tourism-related businesses.
There are many things to do in Nome no matter the season. Winter fun takes place the first two weeks in March, when for about 10 days to two weeks Nomeites host various activities to attract the attention and dollars of visitors following their favorite dog musher and team to the Iditarod finish line.
Iditarod also tends to coincide with Alaska schools' spring break, when village basketball teams converge on the Nome recreation center to compete in tournaments. Expect to be shoulder-to-shoulder at the small airport where Alaska Airlines operates the only commercial flights - unless you're coming from one of the smaller villages or race checkpoints on smaller air taxis, snow machines or sled dog team.
Between the sound of the village fire siren that alerts everyone when an approaching dog team is spotted about 10 minutes from the finish there are activities for everyone and every taste. The community puts together a calendar listing close to 100 events.
During gold rush era, there were five bars for every church. But the numbers are pretty even now and there are quite a few of both drinking and praying establishments. The legal-size event calendar, printed front and back, announces times for religious gatherings, AA meetings, musher and miner dances, make-your-own-fur-hat and regional history presentations, the annual wet T-shirt and "best buns" contests - being fair to both sexes, of course.
There's a mini-golf competition on the frozen Bering Sea in the Nome National Forest - a seasonal display as the trees do double-duty as Christmas decorations in Nomeites' homes and later pop up as a forest in time for Iditarod festivities.
There are arm-wrestling competitions, but make sure you know who the competitors are: last year three-time Iditarod race runner-up Aliy Zirke accidently broke the arm of her competitor. Mushers don't just sit on the sled and let the dogs do all the work. Many, like Zirkle, actually use ski poles to help the dogs up hills and keep pace.