Tag Archives: Nome

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.

What’ll You Have? A Brewed Awakening in 2014

When a local pub ran an ad touting PBR for the special price of $1, I was puzzled. What was PBR? Peanut butter and raisins? Unlikely.

I turned to my 30-something daughter for help. She immediately knew what it meant: Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Was Pabst Blue Ribbon still around? Really?

Growing up in the ’50s, I remember Pabst Blue Ribbon thanks to its incessant TV commercials and their memorable jingle: “What’ll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon…Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.” I associated it with a bunch of other blue-collar beers brewed in Milwaukee, and I even have a dim memory of touring a Milwaukee brewery with my family–either Pabst or Blatz—when I was a kid.

It seems that PBR’s sales slumped badly between their peak of 18 million barrels in 1977 and less than one million about 20 years later. But after this two-decade slump, sales began to revive in the early 2000s, largely because of its increasing popularity among “urban hipsters.” Who knew?

My re-encounter with Pabst Blue Ribbon inspired a host of other beer-related memories to emerge from my subconscious.

First, I remember watching my father occasionally drink beer. I once asked to taste it, and when he obliged, I was shocked to find that it tasted awful. Tasting Daddy’s beer is stashed among many treasured memories of my father, who died when I was 12. Among them: His singing “Peg o’ My Heart” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to help me fall asleep. His leaning back on his favorite olive-green upholstered chair, leaving a Brylcreem mark that must have infuriated my scrupulous-housekeeper mother. His impromptu soft-shoe dance across our living room floor when he was in a particularly ebullient mood. His fondness for smoking a pipe–although he usually smoked cigars (probably why I’m a rarity among women; I don’t mind the smell of a cigar).

I didn’t learn to drink beer till my law school years, when I happily joined my male classmates in convivial gatherings over steins of beer. Suddenly I found it palatable. It must have been the testosterone-laden atmosphere that induced me to change my opinion. I’m pretty sure my taste buds hadn’t changed.

One male classmate took me out for a beer in the basement of The Wursthaus, a Harvard Square institution…until it wasn’t. (It closed in 1996.) Before the beer arrived, he told me it would taste like raspberries, and indeed it did. I’ve since learned that it was a German beer called a “Berliner Weisse,” a lightly carbonated white beer infused with raspberry juice. Although I could have drunk much more raspberry-flavored beer, which was vaguely reminiscent of soda pop, for some reason I never did.

After leaving school, I usually preferred a different beverage, but I occasionally quaffed a beer or two on dates. And when I met and married my husband, we often had a beer together, especially with pizza or Mexican food. But even before the PBR slump began around 1977, we chose brands like Michelob, Heineken, and Dos Equis, never Pabst Blue Ribbon.

When my daughters were born, I took up the challenge of feeding them the old-fashioned way, via my breasts. Folklore had it that imbibing beer was a good way to speed things along. Although I may have sipped on a beer or two, I found I didn’t need any help and abandoned the idea pretty fast. Luckily, as it turns out. Medical experts now advise against even a small amount of alcohol for breast-feeding moms.

Thanks to my travels, I’ve sampled unusual beers found in distant corners of the world. In Cardiff, Wales, for example, I tried a local beer called Brains. It tasted just fine, but above all, I loved its slogan: “it’s Brains you want!”

More recently, I’ve encountered a whole new world of beer. When I traveled to Alaska with a beer-loving friend, he introduced me to a hefeweizen in Anchorage, and we shared an Alaskan Amber and an Alaskan White in a small pizza joint in Nome (yes, Nome). On another trip, this time to Denver, we sought out Wynkoop Brewing Company, a brewpub founded in 1988 by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and friends, where we sampled deliciously spicy pumpkin beer.

Now my son-in-law has taken up beer-brewing. A techie with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, he brews beer at home, then bottles it with his own labels. It works for him because it combines his interest in science with a complicated recipe that requires a dedicated focus to the task at hand. He finds it a welcome departure from his demanding computer-science work. And, like a chef who prepares fine food using a cookbook like Julia Child’s, he enjoys sharing the result with his family and friends.

I don’t follow the trends in beer-brewing very closely. But almost every day I read about new varieties of beer, from winter IPAs to nitros. All these new varieties had surely shoved aside the old blue-collar beers like PBR. Or so I thought.

But here comes PBR, rearing its foamy head among the new guys.

“What’ll you have?” Whatever you choose, bottoms up!