When in Nome…

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7/30/19  Golden Nugget Inn, Nome, Alaska

What?  We’re in Nome??  Why that town wasn’t even on our trip plan, and here I am, near the end of the trip, writing a blog from Nome, Alaska.

My view of the Bering Sea as I Write

I never expected to be in Nome, even when planning this trip, because, well, there just aren’t any National Park bucket list items  in this part of Alaska.  But here we are, and there is a bit of a story about how we got here.

This is the first post on the last mini-trip of the Alaskan Odyssey.  I’m calling this the Arctic Circle Tour for a very good reason – our destination was the three parks that lie north of the Arctic Circle.  These three parks, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument are all located at least a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in the north and northwestern corners of Alaska.  These are all wilderness parks with absolutely no developed facilities and, especially, no roads into them.  Like most wilderness parks, the only way to really see them is to arrange a wilderness backpacking experience in the hills, or a float trip down one of the wild rivers in the area.  Since that effort is beyond our age and skill level, we knew that we would be seeing these parks from the air as a flightsee.  

The Nugget Inn in Nome

There are several companies up here in the frigid north who specialize in both outfitting outdoorsmen for wilderness experiences and flying them into their destinations and then picking them up days later.  Most of these same companies also now offer ‘park tour flightsees’ where they take you into one, or several, of these parks, land in a particularly exciting part of the park, let you play for a while and take pictures, and then take-off and return you back to the airport.  These flightsees aren’t exactly cheap, but they are about the only way us park collectors are going to see these remote charms.  We began conversations with one company about a year ago and have kept in touch with them periodically as the planning progressed.

Nome Town Hall (background) Visitor Center (foreground)

They were based in Kotzebue, a small, native (Inupiat or ‘Eskimo’) village located on a tundra covered peninsula in the Kotzebue sound.  The sound is where three rivers, (Noatak, Kobuk, and Selawik) drain, so it is a somewhat protected site allowing access to the interior.  It is extremely dry here getting less than ten inches of precipitation per year, and, lying 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is bitterly cold in the winter.  None the less, the Inupiat culture adopted this location as a winter camp thousands of years ago, and, after serving as a center for seal and walrus fur trading for the Russians, it became a permanent Native settlement town (much like Anaktuvuk Pass, which we visited earlier) when the US government began their efforts to ‘permanently settle’ the Alaskan native population and completely alter their nomadic life style.

So, anyway, since Kotzebue seemed like an interesting place, and especially since that is where we would catch our flightsee for our last two parks in Alaska, we booked a flight up to Kotzebue and planned to spend four days waiting for the weather to clear up enough so we could do our flightsee.  

For unknown reasons, the flight to Kotzebue was at an ungodly hour of 6:00 AM, and so we had to get up at 3:30 in order to check out and catch a taxi to the airport.  The flight to Kotzebue was uneventful, but we had wing seats, so we couldn’t see anything anyway.  And we arrived around 8:00.  

Where the Iditarod ends in Nome

I had been instructed by Golden Eagle Outfitters, our flightsee provider, that we should check in with them after we had landed.  So we collected our baggage at the Alaska Airlines baggage claim office, walked outside the building and googled Golden Eagle Outfitters.  Sure enough, they were two hangars over, so we hauled our two bags through the dirt over to their building.  There we waited about twenty minutes or so until someone showed up, a young man named Jason, who greeted us and said with a grin, ‘are you ready to go?’  I said sure, that’s why we had come all this way, and he said, ‘well, let’s do it then!’  A bit flustered I stammered, ‘you mean right now?’  

‘Local Character’

The weather was perfect Sunday morning with maybe some light cloud cover, but the promise of a sunny day – a perfect day for a flightsee.  Jason had been called in that morning specifically to take us on our trip, in part, because we were so anxious to do it, but also because the weather forecast suggested that Sunday was going to be the best day of the next several.  

So, bottom-line, is that within an hour of arriving in Kotzebue, we were fastening the seat belts in a Cessna 206, ready for the flightsee that, I was hoping, would be the climax of the trip.  (That it was! And I am going to write another post about our trip because I am still thinking and feeling about what I might want to say.)

Nome Port Activity

But the strange part about the whole thing is that by 1:30 on our first of four days allocated to Kotzebue, we had completed our mission.  Now, what do we do?

We got a ride over to our hotel, the Nullagvik.  This is, without a doubt, the nicest in town.  (Part of that might be because it is the ONLY one in town).  Our room had a king size bed, all the amenities, in a modern setting and there was a better-than-expected restaurant on the second floor with expansive views looking out over the seawater.  The hotel was built on Front street just off the pounding surf of Kotzebue Sound, part of the Bering Sea.  Because it is owned and operated by the Native American local corporation, it is also quite expensive – almost $300/night.

The Nullagvik Hotel in Kotzebue

After lunch we ran into a terrific couple who were also up there for a park flight see.  Tammy and Ron had flown up, I think on the same plane we flew up on, for a flightsee similar to ours, although they were there only for Kobuk Valley National Park.  It was fun to have someone, who was doing the same thing we were, to talk to.  And, later that evening, we arranged to have lunch the next day with them, and to go to the NPS visitor center so we could collect our passport stamps.  We’ve exchanged emails, and invited each other to our homes – they still haven’t done New Mexico, and they live in New Hampshire, so there is a good possibility of future visits.  Kind of cool to have someone else doing with the same park obsession that we have.

But, here is the thing – Kotzebue is a small town, actually of about 1500 people.  And, more importantly, it is a native town where the native Inupiat culture definitely dominates life here.  It is, at this point in time, a culture that isn’t exactly wealthy – and poverty is evident in the town.  It is also somewhat insular and while they welcome tourist money, and are reasonably friendly, there remains a cultural gap that is difficult to cross.

So, the big deal for Joan and I was that once we had visited the visitor center and collected our stamp, there just wasn’t much else to do in the town.  And with the weather turning, we didn’t see how we would stay cooped up in the hotel for the next three days.  And, here is the kicker, the hotel and all of the restaurants are dry – not even beer and wine.  Apparently there is a town-run liquor store, but you have to buy a permit and are limited in what you can buy.  But even if we bought something, there was no place to drink it.  Public consumption was strictly prohibited and the hotel had signs everywhere saying that consumption of any alcohol on the premises was punishable by up to a $2000 fine.  

So, what do you do in a town where there is nothing to do and you can’t even have a glass of wine?  For Joan and I the answer was obvious – you leave.  And hence, why this post has a Nome byline.  We found a motel in Nome, changed our flight arrangements, and flew here last night ( it is a 34 minute flight across the Seward peninsula.). 

We are no longer above the Arctic Circle, but now we have a view of the churning and cold Bering Sea out our window.  We have an ‘ocean view’ room at the Nugget Inn.  And yes, they have bars in this town as well as several restaurants that, so far at least, are serving fairly good food.  Nome is also a native dominated town, but is much more open and less insular than Kotzebue.  It also has a museum we can go see and is the end-point for the Iditarod an event that Joan is reading about in one of her books.

So, despite all our planning, we are ending our trip in a town we never expected to see.  Our last two nights, before we return to Anchorage, are in an old mining town (their gold rush was in 1900), that, while not exactly rich, is a little more active and with a social scene with quite the reputation for being kind of rowdy.  Maybe that will keep us going a while as we are winding the trip down.