We arrived in Nome on July 11 after the 460 nautical mile passage from the Pribilofs. The town’s slogan is “There’s no place like Nome!” and they’re certainly onto something – the place is full of character! We got our first taste as soon as we tied up to the dock.
Our first impression of Nome, however, was the warmth, which initially sounds strange considering it’s only 140 miles from the Arctic Circle. Even before we’d entered the protected (and very shallow – only 7ft of water) inner harbor, our winter jackets and hats were coming off. Turns out mainland Alaska can really heat up in the summer (okay, it was probably 65*F) and we weren’t used to it after chilly and windy St Paul and the even chillier Bering Sea.
The apparent incongruity of this actually makes sense: most of mainland Alaska is not within the 50*F summer isotherm – considered one of the boundaries of the Arctic – while the Bering Sea and Aleutian chain are. There are actually three different boundaries that define the Arctic: the Arctic Circle (where the sun never sets on the summer solstice), the timberline, and the 50 degree isotherm (where the highest summer temperature never surpasses 50 degrees F or 10 degrees C). Richard Sale, a leading arctic scholar, considers the isotherm the best measure for defining the Arctic, and after feeling the difference between the Bering Sea and mainland Alaska, we had to agree!
The harbormaster sent us to a spot on the end of the floating dock, just across from a burly, heavy displacement motor-sailer called Necton. She was 46ft long, with very high freeboard and two smallish equal-sized masts. She was flying the Dutch flag, so we were doubly curious to meet her sailors and hear about her voyages!
“There’s no place like Nome!” showed its truth as soon as we walked down the dock past a motley assortment of homemade craft – pontoon boats of the type people use on lakes, with plywood huts built onto them and big hoses that looked like the exhaust hose from a clothes dryer looped about them. Some were brightly painted, others sported moose antlers, and they all had fun names like Honey Pot.
Turns out they dredge for gold just off the beach! Not being TV watchers and not having seen Bering Sea Gold, we’d both assumed the gold rush was over (it’s been going since 1899…), but no! These boats go out with at least two people on board, one to dive down (breathing from a supplied air hookah) and direct the big vacuum hose and the other to monitor both the diver and the flow of gravel that gets sifted through a pan in the plywood hut.
After cleaning up ourselves and Celeste, we went for a walk into town. Our route took us down Front Street first, which gave us a rather bleak impression – a wide, dusty street lined mostly with saloons. But it also spilled us into the little tourist office where we met some friendly and helpful people, particularly a man called Leon. As soon as I mentioned Pat and Sue, friends of friends whom we wanted to look up, Leon shepherded us out of the tourist office and into a souvenir shop next door where Sue’s sister worked. Pat and Sue were away for the weekend (at a cabin down the peninsula) but she said she’d let them know about us as soon as they came back.
We wandered a little more, heading into the heart of town where we found the statues of the Three Swedes who first discovered gold in Nome and started the rush and subsequent founding of the town.
After a quick stop at the (surprisingly well-stocked) general store, we headed back to Celeste for dinner. Not too long thereafter someone knocked on the hull and a man introduced himself as Pat!
Pat and Sue take wonderful care of the sailors that come through Nome (and also quite a lot of the Iditarod competitors at the opposite time of year). Pat made a staggering journey through the Arctic in an umiak – an open walrus-skin boat – in the late ’70s with renowned archaeologist and sailor John Bockstoce. They traveled all the way from Barrow to Resolute in Arctic Canada, camping in the same places that the Inuit and even older Native cultures made their camps in times past. And Pat’s mother was the first woman ever to sail the Northwest Passage from west to east! Pat’s wife Sue is an incredibly resourceful and self-sufficient Alaskan woman, who’s an avid fisherman and who manages to grow her own vegetables despite the very short season and low temperatures.
The time just flew by as we chatted with Pat and Sue on their porch after we’d finished dinner on Celeste and it was after 1am before we finally went to bed. (The sun, of course, wasn’t even that low in the sky.) Needless to say, we were just exhausted after the long passage and then a busy, fun day!