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 Sixty-five teams finished the race, 13 elected to scratch and one racer was withdrawn for lack of competitiveness or traveling too slowly down the trail.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.
Visitors are advised to keep an open mind and be able to go with the flow when traveling here and to most outlying villages and towns across Alaska. What are known as “bush” or Alaska Native, villages here are big on atmosphere and small on amenities. Traveling in this state is more about the adventure and not hanging out in a hotel room, and Nome is no exception.
Lodging can be scarce during big events like the Iditarod. There are a few places that have been lodging mainstays for years to decades. These are relatively clean but small – and don’t expect high-speed Internet. Be glad there’s Wi-Fi at all. Cell service exists, but it’s slow and when a lot of people are in town it gets overwhelmed and sluggish.
There are a few newer hotels and bed-and-breakfasts where the Iditarod bigwigs stay these days. They are a mile or more from the finish line, so either rent a vehicle or expect to hoof it back and forth a lot. Taxis are plentiful and $5 a pop from the airport to most anywhere, or from lodging to the finish line.
The older main street accommodations overlook the finish line, so a trade-off in modern amenities is a gain on location. For the more “wing-it” types, contact the Nome visitors center.
Longtime Nomeites leave town during Iditarod and rent out their homes and apartments to tourists and musher’s families. This is often a great way to save money and have decent accommodations. For those really willing to take a chance, there are rooms available at hostels run by some churches.
One bit of advice when staying in a private home: Hit up the grocery or warehouse store prior to boarding a flight. Stuff a tote or cooler with food to save money and to avoid eating at restaurants every meal. There is a grocery store in Nome, but the prices may bring on apoplexy.
Also, to guarantee the happiness of and a return invite from a private accommodation owner, gift them with a bulk package of toilet paper. The cost of supplies in Nome is based on the volume each takes up in the cargo hold of a plane or barge that transports the goods here. Something this basic and necessary can be extremely expensive to replace.
Those not into the bar or church scene should get outside. There are sled dog tours run by the world’s oldest dog-mushing organization, the Nome Kennel Club. Take a snow cat – a specially designed transport vehicle – or a helicopter to tour the area.
Tours go out to Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint 20 miles from Front Street, or up Anvil Mountain – which is really more like a hill – to look for musk ox and view the now defunct Cold War-era White-Alice radar site. At night, look up to the sky for active aurora displays. The Northern Lights put on quite a show and offer amazing photo opportunities, dancing above various gold rush-era relics on the tundra.
Residents are friendly and helpful. Some may view the invasion of mushers, dogs and tourists as a nuisance, but most enjoy having new folks to talk to, and businesses enjoy a welcome financial boost to their bottom line.
There’s a wonderful coffee and baked goods shop, the Bering Tea Co., where the friendly barista will whip up a flavored espresso and even offer recommendations on the various artists and crafters in town for handmade fur hats, mitts or Alaska Native carvings.
Stop in next door at Pingo Bakery and Seafood House for a filling breakfast, soups or a plate of King crab legs pulled fresh from the waters just offshore. Local residents will often take visitors out to check their crab pots under the ice not too far out from town. A successful catch will provide a nice feast at a reasonable price. The crab meat is so fresh and sweet that not a drop of butter is needed.
There’s also Airport Pizza, several pubs and multiple Chinese food restaurants that serve up a variety of choices from burgers and cashew chicken to sushi. Save money and support local charities and student-government trips to Washington by purchasing homemade caribou stew, cakes and cookies at the mini-convention center that serves as Iditarod’s Nome headquarters.
While partaking in community-made treats, chat with various race finishers who pass in and out with their families and listen in to the daily readings of works by the renowned poet of the great North, Robert Service, performed by Nome’s charismatic mayor Richard Beneville.
If you miss meeting the mayor here, just keep an ear open for Beneville’s characteristic “Hello Central!” greeting. He is seemingly everywhere about town, from meeting race finishers under the burled arch to entertaining visitors via the Internet while conducting a tour of the historic and beautifully renovated St. Joseph’s Church.
The church, located in the center of downtown, serves as a community center and is home to a week-long craft sale with amazing fur, beadwork and carvings from remote Alaska Native villages, colorful naturally dyed sled-dog fur hats and various paintings and drawings of local artists There are also opportunities for local food and even handmade sushi on the spot at the church as well.
Nome may be far from a big metropolis but the residents and businesses know how to welcome, entertain and feed visitors. This is only wintertime fun.
Soon Nomeites and the Bering Sea will thaw for a few months. Migratory birds and birdwatchers replace dogs and mushers. While seasons and visitors may change, Nome and its people will continue the tradition of offering up treasures to those willing to come and explore.
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