'Why do you go to Nome?' -- the most asked question about my adventures on the frozen coast of the Bering Sea. My answer…'there’s no place like Nome'. Nome, born of the gold rush, was everything and nothing that I’d expected in 2004 when I ventured there to volunteer at the end of the greatest long distance race on earth. The small town of approximately 3,000 people stole my heart. What a great place to be! That’s why I went back this year to once again volunteer my time for the Iditarod.
The flight from Anchorage to Nome is a venture in itself. My flight left the Anchorage Airport about 30 minutes late (nothing unusual for airlines in Alaska). There were other volunteers and Iditarod officials on board, which made the flight entertaining. We flew first to Kotzebu (an Eskimo village within the Artic Circle) to take some cargo and pick up high school basketball players, both boys and girls, that had played in a tournament there and were on their way back to Anchorage.
Landing in Nome is uneventful. The excitement is being able to land at all. My airplane on Sunday night, March 13, was the last flight that was able to get into Nome until Wednesday afternoon, March 16. You see only scattered buildings as you approach the landing strip. As we disembarked, you immediately notice the difference between the Nome Airport and what most of us are accustomed to in the lower 48. As you emerge from the airplane and down its stairs into the cold and wind, all you can see is a lone one story building surrounded by the machinery of flying, but hardly welcoming. And yes, you exit down a flight of steps at the back of the airplane onto the frozen ground. There is most always cargo in the front of the airplane. Upon entering the terminal (that’s also questionable), you are welcomed by stifling heat and a crowd of folks standing about waiting for their luggage. It’s a little uncertain as to where baggage claim really is at the Nome Airport; it’s wherever the handlers decide to put your bags and up to you to find them.
Nome will definitely leave an impression on you. There are no tall buildings, the streets are icy and the tires occasionally spin as they strive to grip the road. I was picked up in a van driven by another volunteer (Rudy) who has volunteered at both the beginning and the end of the race for years. Rudy put 5 of us in his van, told another 5 to wait; it would not take him long to drop us off. Of course it would not take long, the town is so small, you could actually walk from the airport if it were warmer, the roads not icy and you had no luggage to haul! The building above is where I worked most of the time. It is the recreation center for the village and is located on the main street of Nome (Front Street) with the frozen Bering Sea behind.
My hotel this year left a lot to be desired! It was built in the early 1900’s and was probably built originally as a bordello or rooming house…I think the first. I had been warned about the hotel, but staying cheap was my goal this year since I knew I would be working most of the time. I changed rooms three times before I settled on a room I felt was in the quietest area. Because the hotel is very cheap…there are a lot of natives that stay there for Iditarod week. Of course they are there to “party” not work, so they stay drunk for the week. One morning I was accosted by a native woman in the very tiny lobby of the hotel. She wanted to buy drugs. After explaining that I was there to work and did not have any drugs, she allowed me to leave the hotel. Another morning I had to tip toe around a drunk passed out on the steps leading down to the lobby. And another morning there was yelling in the hall about 4:30am which of course did not set well with me since I had to be at work at 7am. Finally on the last day four natives were checked into the room directly across the hall from me. I had enough so I checked out of that hotel and went to another very old hotel, but well maintained and not noisy, for my last night in Nome. I needed a good nights rest because I was leaving at 6:30am the next morning, had an 11 hour layover in Anchorage which I planned to spend with my friends, and then an overnight flight home, so I knew I needed a good nights rest. It was also good to have my own bathroom (had to share in the other hotel) and have a television and telephone. I felt like I was in a Ritz Carlton after the first hotel. Needless to say, I will not be staying there again!
The photo above is where I spent all but one night of my stay this year. Hopefully next year I will be sharing an apartment with the parents and sister of one of the mushers, my friend Aliy. We met last year at the Bed and Breakfast where we both stayed, and then this year I worked some with Aliy’s mother. We will start to look for an apartment soon as all the better places fill up fast. There are not many options. The mushers stay with host families in the village.
This is me with Aliy and one of her lead dogs, Dugan. Dugan retired this year and is going to a good home to become a 'couch potato'.
Most of the volunteers make do with foot power in Nome. We truck from hotel rooms and apartments to the finish line and to the headquarters, all hours of the day and night, often alone, something most of us would not do in the “real world”, shivering in the cold with layers of clothing, only to break out in a sweat as we move indoors. This year was much warmer than usual in Nome. It got up to 30-35 degrees during the day, which is not good for the dogs and mushers. And as it turned out, the weather was not good for me either. On Wednesday, March 16, the teams started coming into Nome. One of my jobs during the week was to work security at the finish line. I would walk about a quarter of a mile down the street when they come into Nome, to get the spectators back from the street and away from the dogs. Then I would run up the street with the dogs to keep people from trying to pet them or get in their way. Then when they got to the finish line, I would have sometimes one to two hours before the next team. I got hot running, then cool down, then hot again. As a result, I came home with a really bad case of laryngitis and a head cold. I could not talk above a whisper for more than a week.
This is a picture the morning the winner came in of me working security at the finish line.
Many of the mushers came into Nome with colds. And some of the dogs got pneumonia from over heating in the daytime and then the cold at night. They were just not used to it being that warm. There were 14 teams that dropped out due to the weather conditions their dogs were not used to. The dogs really do well at not more than 10-15 above zero and down to 30 below.
Fans, volunteers, mushers and Nome residents all blend together during Iditarod. Without names, you quickly begin to recognize faces. The first few days are considered the learning curve. Last year was mostly learning, although I still felt I was an asset to the volunteer staff. This year the lessons I had learned were: cell phones do not work in Nome, airplanes are never on time, sometimes no one gets in or out of Nome for days due to blizzards, and the place to hang out and get some really local food (notice I did not say GOOD local food) is Fat Freddie’s.
Nome certainly reflects our past. The town is still isolated in some ways. There are two scheduled flights per day in and out of Nome, but those are always subject to cancellation or delays due to extreme weather or they may have to fly somewhere else first to take cargo that is not normally on their route. There are no roads and it is too far to do much traveling by sleds or snow machines. All you have to do is look out at the frozen Bering Sea just a short distance from the finish line to realize how frail human structures can be.
Nome has withstood the onslaughts of wind and snow for many years and yet it is still there clinging to its foundations. You can close your eyes and see history there. It is more the old way of life than in Anchorage and villages surrounding the bigger city. You can literally imagine yourself on the runners of a dog sled and for a moment you are transported back through history, seeing Nome as it may have been in 1925 when Leonhard Seppala and the other musher heroes and their dogs saved the lives of Nome’s children by getting the serum there to treat the diphtheria epidemic.
The most fun job this year was getting the information area organized and training new volunteers to work the area. Last year was a little frustrating due to my being new and it being totally unorganized. I communicated with the Nome coordinator this year beginning in January. I emailed my ideas on how to make the area more organized so upon arriving in Nome on the evening of the 13th, I was handed a stack of written material (everything you could possibly want to know about the Iditarod and the mushers this year) and told to organize it for the information desk. After doing that my first morning there, I set out to recruit volunteers that I could train to cover the position when I was working in another area or just simply needing a break. In doing this I met and became instant friends with three people from the Anchorage area. One was “Will” and his wife 'Zuleen'. Will is the flight doctor for bush pilots in Alaska, Zuleen is a nurse. Their friend Kandy is a Merle Norman Beauty Consultant. All three were so much fun and easy to get to know.
This is me updating the “leader board” in the recreation hall. We have every mushers name on the board with all the checkpoint locations. We log in time they arrive in a checkpoint and how many dogs they have. Then we log the time out and how many dogs. The board is for the spectators, friends and family of the teams. We keep all the times using military clocks Since we use military time in the radio world, I am accustomed to it and have no problem translating for those not familiar.
Most of the regulars were back to work the souvenir merchandise sales, so I stayed away from that this year. I found it much more interesting to be in the information area answering questions for spectators in person and people from all over the world calling with questions about the race or where their favorite dog team was at that moment.
Here I am with Charlie Boulding…a real character! He is originally from North Carolina but moved to Alaska in 1983. He lives with his wife in the bush in central Alaska. They have no running water and no electricity. They hunt and fish in the winter for their food. This was Charlie’s last Iditarod and unfortunately he had to drop out because the weather was too warm for his dogs. He plans to volunteer now and maybe run some shorter races.
I spent a limited amount of time in the dog lot. If I had not gotten a slight head cold and a bad case of laryngitis the last three days I was there, I would have worked there more. It was enough however, to fall in love with 'Heidi' -- a sweet, good natured mixed breed that finished this year in 11th place as part of Aliy Zirkle’s team. Each year I fall in love with lots of dogs but there is always one that stands out as being truly special. Heidi wanted to come live in North Carolina, but her musher said she needed her to race a few more years, so we parted with a big hug from me and a sloppy kiss from her. Now to answer the question “why do I go to Nome”? Heidi and several hundred dogs like her are the reason I go. I feel like I am doing something for them. All you have to do is be there to see them at their kennels get so excited when their musher or handler comes into the lot with harnesses. They jump into the air barking as hard as they can. This is their way of saying “please choose me today…I want to run”. Or come to Nome just one time to see the dogs come across the finish line. They are so happy and still eager to run even though they have just run over 1100 miles on the most rugged trail in extreme weather conditions.
This is Heidi and I am currently using her picture as my screensaver at work. Below is another sweet face. I wanted to show you the igloo built by the handler of this dog. The igloos were ready for the dogs on this team when they got into Nome. They were built with large balls of snow and positioned so they cut off the wind which was very strong much of the time.
This is Zoro with the beautiful blue eyes. And below are a couple more sweeties.
And this is Blossom…another of my favorites!
I hope that answers the question many of you have asked me several times…and the question my husband continues to ask every year. I go because I love the dogs…I find the mushers extremely interesting and a joy to get to know…and…there’s NO PLACE LIKE NOME!
The best long distance runners
eat raw meat
and lay in the snow
(From an Alaska Airlines t-shirt)
Dallas Seavey coming into Nome…the youngest musher to ever run the Iditarod. He turned 18 one week before the start on March 5. His father, Mitch Seavey, won Iditarod last year. His brother Tyrell, 19 years old, ran this year and finished 16th. Their dad finished 3rd.
Not your average great-grandmother, huh? -- Dalton Hammond