Tuesday, June 06, 2006

There's No Place Like Nome

Bob's truck rumbles into my driveway a few mornings after the flight safety class. We head out to the airport and pile ourselves and all of our gear boxes onto the 14-seater Beechcraft 1900 that's headed to Nome. These planes are the way to go. No security, no metal detector, no flight attendant, no W.C. It's just a 2-hr flight to Nome, a small coastal town on the Seward Peninsula that forms the U.S. side of the Bering Strait.

I have fond memories of Nome. I was here a few years ago at the terminus of a research cruise in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Nome is unusual for a small coastal Alaska town in that there are several roads that are maintained deep inland, up into the mountains. Gold was found here by the "three lucky Swedes" over a hundred years ago. Nome became an early engineering feat as hundreds of laborers dug water trenches for miles and miles deep into the mountains, to bring water to the mines. Gold dredges still dot the landscape. Apparently there were even competing companies who dug the water trenches and folks with claims who didn't pay up got their canal blocked off.

Three years ago, I'd piled into a beer-stocked van with my friends from the USCG Healy and driven out in search of the local hot springs. But, like many things in Alaska, this plan didn't quite work out. Twenty miles or so on our way the road had been washed out and offending creek had frozen in place. Despite the drunken jeering from the backseat, my responsible friend Ryan had decided against coaxing the rental van down into and more importantly back out of the icy hole where that section of the road used to be. And the tussock tundra on each side of the hole was impassible.

Despite this failure, we'd spotted some musk oxen up on a hillside and ventured up to see them. My friend Chris is a wildlife photographer. He set up his tripod on the ridge and waited an hour to get all the shots he wanted. Though it was only early October, it was far below zero with the wind blowing and light patches of snow everywhere. Few of us had brought our heavy-weight sea gear and only our drunkenness kept us huddled behind a rock staring down these squat, wooly, paleolithic survivors.

Later, we found a warmer valley with a lake connected to the Bering Sea. Here, misty rain lit up the tundra's brilliant colors and salmon carcasses were washed up everywhere around the lake. They had made their run and fertile eggs were waiting out the winter below what was already a thin layer of ice on the lake.

This trip to Nome has been every bit as enchanting. I really like this place. Spring has come late this year. The port is still frozen in with pack ice. The mountains are still covered in snow. Many of the roads are still closed by snow drifts and there's still river ice here on June 4th. But the light makes up for it. It plays in the maritime clouds and shines for more than all my waking hours; soon the summer solstice will be here. Still it's cold and windy, which stifles the carelessness of summer and leaves the heavy-weight of winter lingering.


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