There’s No Place Like Nome

Although many tourists travel to Alaska every year, very few visit the small city of Nome. After I traveled there with a friend a few years ago, I recorded my impressions of the place. Here’s what it was like.

At the beginning of June, when we visited Nome, the sky never really turned dark. According to statistics, on June 1st the sun sets in Nome at 1:08 a.m. and rises again at 4:50 a.m. But whenever I awoke during the night, the sky was still light, no matter what time it was.

Explanation? In Nome, the sun is so close to the horizon that, from mid-April to mid-August, it seems as though there are 24 hours of daylight. In July, you can expect to have as much as 21 hours and 20 minutes of absolute daylight in Nome, stretching your days to a delicious length that allows you to see and do much more in natural light than you could do almost anywhere else.

So close to the Arctic Circle (only about 100 miles south), Nome sounds forbidding, but it really isn’t. The people living there are warm and friendly, and the air temperature from June through September is pretty warm, too. In July, the warmest month, the average high is 57.3, while the average low is 45.1. A high of 86 was actually recorded in July—once.

It’s hard to imagine, but Nome, now a quiet city of about 3,000 people, was once a rip-roaring frontier town of 20,000. Three men known as the “Three Lucky Swedes” discovered gold in a Nome creek in 1898, and a gold rush began. After gold was also discovered in 1899 in the sands of the beach that runs along the Bering Sea, and steamships from San Francisco and Seattle could finally break through the ice, thousands of gold-seeking miners arrived in the spring of 1900.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Nome actually became the largest city in Alaska, reaching a population of over 12,000 in 1900.

Nome today is a tourist destination, primarily for birdwatchers and those hoping to see native wildlife like musk ox, reindeer, moose, and bears. I tagged along with a “birder,” and we succeeded in seeing a large number of birds he’d never encountered before. For a birder, that’s a genuine triumph. We also encountered reindeer and otters but disappointingly never saw musk ox or moose, or the grizzly bear that had been spotted not far from downtown Nome.

The best way to see birds and other wildlife is to pile into a four-wheel-drive rental car and take off down one of the three roads that lead from Nome, each in a different direction. These roads take you to the even smaller towns on the Seward Peninsula.

The Nome-Council Road goes east for 72 miles, ending in the small town of Council. We followed it as far as Solomon, an abandoned gold-rush town, in search of birds and that elusive grizzly. Stopping at a number of rivers and wetlands, we came across a pond filled with a large gathering of trumpeter swans. It was thrilling to see so many swans, happily swimming in their natural habitat, occasionally taking off into the air as gracefully as…well, swans.

We took the second road, the Nome-Taylor Road, for a while, but we didn’t go as far as reputedly beautiful Salmon Lake, and we couldn’t go as far as Pilgrim Hot Springs (which boasts a wooden hot tub filled with mineral water) because snow still blocked the road.

But our favorite route was the Nome-Teller Road, which runs 73 miles west from Nome and is reportedly the westernmost road in North America. One sunny day, we set out on this route, stopping at the Sunik River, a great place to spot rare birds. We also caught sight of a pair of otters mating on the ice still floating in the river. But because we never got back on the road, we regretfully missed our chance to see the Inupiat native village of Teller.

Nome has appeal beyond the search for wildlife. Perched between the vast Alaskan tundra and the Bering Sea, it’s a haven for anyone seeking a quiet and tranquil spot, far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban America—in short, a genuine throwback to the simpler existence of an earlier time. We caught a glimpse of this earlier era by simply strolling down Front Street, Nome’s main drag. Because of a devastating fire in 1934, none of the buildings date from gold-rush days, but a visit to the local museum gave us a vivid picture of what life was like in the early decades of the 20th century.

The Visitor Center on Front Street was a pleasant place bursting with information about local events and places of interest. The helpful staff cheerfully proffered buttons that say “I ♥ NOME” and offered advice about where to eat, where to stay, and where to track down wildlife. Their helpful handouts included one that provided “gold panning instructions.” Yes, there really are people who still pan for gold on the beach.

While looking for birds, we met one such character, a friendly fellow named Ray. He confided that he spent one entire summer panning for gold on Nome’s beach, calling it “the best gold beach on the planet earth.” Ray said the gold runs down from the surrounding mountains via the local rivers, then enters the Bering Sea and lands on the ocean floor. In a storm, the ocean “coughs up” the gold and deposits it in the sand. Ray told us he collected five ounces of gold, reaping $5000 by the end of the summer.

The Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum, also on Front Street, is named for its founder, who began collecting Nome memorabilia in the 1940s. One display case featured the “mounted” (preserved by taxidermy) figure of Fritz, a sled dog who’s credited with saving the children of Nome during an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925 (he was one of the lead dogs that brought lifesaving serum to Nome). Other exhibits included gold-rush-era photos and examples of Eskimo culture.

Nome’s Front Street is also the official finish line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins in Anchorage and ends 1,049 miles later in Nome. This now-famous race commemorates the delivery of serum by the dog team led by Fritz in 1925. As we traveled around Nome, we saw lots of Alaskan huskies like those that pull sleds in the Iditarod. Local residents told us they like to “mush” in the winter because dog-sledding is an easy way to get around in the snow, often easier than driving an SUV.

Would I return to Nome? Probably not. There’s a host of other places I’d like to see first.

But accompanying my friend to Nome and seeing the wildlife surrounding us in all-day-long sunlight was truly memorable.

There really is no place like Nome.

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