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More than a century has passed since a great stampede for gold put a speck of wilderness now called Nome on the Alaska map, but gold mining and noisy saloons are still mainstays here. This frontier community on the icy Bering Sea once boasted 20,000 people during the gold stampede in the 1890s, but now has only 3,500 year-round residents. At first glance the town may come off as a collection of ramshackle houses and low-slung commercial buildings—like a vintage gold-mining camp or, because of the spooky abandoned monolithic microwave towers from World War II that sit atop Anvil Mountain, the set for an Arctic horror movie—but only a couple of streets back you'll find tidy, modern homes and charming, hospitable shopkeepers. In fact Nome is one of Alaska's greatest places, very much itself, the kind of town where the grocery store sells ATVs next to the meat counter.
Just 165 mi from the coast of Siberia, Nome is considerably closer to Russia than to either Anchorage or Fairbanks. And though you'll find 300 mi of local road system well worth exploring, to get to Nome you must either fly or mush a team of sled dogs.
For centuries before Nome gained fame as a gold-rush town, nomadic Inupiaq Eskimos seasonally inhabited the area in hunting and fishing camps; an archaeological site south of town has the remains of some round pit houses that prove the locals didn't much like corners. The gold stampede—far, far richer than the more famous Klondike strike—occurred in the 1890s and was over relatively soon, even though gold is still mined by both prospectors and open-pit mining productions.
What Nome is best known for, however, is the Iditarod Trail. Even though parts of the historic trail from Nome to Anchorage were long used as routes for the Native Eskimos and Athabascans, the full trail gained fame in 1925, when Nome was hit with an outbreak of diphtheria. There was no remedy in town, so the serum was ferried by the Alaska Railroad to Nenana, 250 mi from Anchorage, and then a 20-dog sled team ran it the remaining 674 mi in -50 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures over five days and seven hours; Nome was saved. In 1973, in honor of the original Iditarod (a word derived from the Athabascan word haiditarod, meaning "a far, distant place"), an annual race for dog mushers was started. The race begins in Anchorage and traverses snow and tundra for 1,049 mi, to commemorate Alaska's being the 49th state (the actual distance is give or take a few miles, of course; dog sleds don't come with odometers). Thousands of people converge in Nome to watch the dogs and mushers come over the finish line in March. Still more visitors come to Nome in the summer months to take advantage of the beautiful effulgent colors of wildflowers and green grass, its wildlife viewing and birding, and its marvelous end-of-the-world vibe.
Though at first there doesn't seem to be much to this town on the edge of the Bering Sea, there are many relics of the past in and around the area. There are 44 abandoned gold dredges, enormous constructions of steel that are scattered from the outskirts of town to the surrounding miles of tundra beyond. Just east of town on the road out to Council, a quiet summer fishing village inhabited by many locals during the summer, you'll stumble across not only fantastic marshlands for birding, but also the Last Train to Nowhere—a railway built to haul gold that was never finished—quietly rusting away. In the opposite direction, northeast of Nome on the road to Taylor, you'll come to the Pilgrim Hot Springs, the site of an old settlement including the former Our Lady of Lourdes chapel and orphanage for Eskimo children during the 1918 influenza epidemic. And directly north of Nome is the beautiful Native village of Teller, a subsistence village in Grantley Harbor, which may have one of the most perfect locations in the world, set on a buttonhook spit in a sheltered bay. Teller made the world news in 1926, when Roald Amundsen landed his zeppelin Norge here after the first successful flight over the north pole.
The roads to these destinations are unpaved but traversable, and mostly in good shape. From the road you might see herds of reindeer (they like to use the road themselves, since it's easier than running in tundra), musk oxen, grizzly bears, and moose, and a slew of different birds like the long-tailed jaegers, yellow wagtails, and the bristle-thighed curlew, rarely seen in North America.
Nome at a Glance
Elsewhere in Northwest and the Arctic
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Cape Krusenstern National Monument
- Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
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