Alaska – Long Read
Enough natural treasures for everyone
Hello Alaska, where the city of Nome was the center of the 1899 Gold Rush and still draws those in search of the wealth to be found on land or under the stormy waters of the Bering Sea. While some search for gold, or to make their fortunes fishing for crabs, this vast state holds enough natural treasures for everyone caught by the spell of its remoteness.
The slate grey sea ebbs and flows outside the Polar Café, which serves up good wholesome pot roast on tables decorated with just a bottle of ketchup. Jeff, a bearded man in bib-and-brace overalls, sits looking out of the window, perhaps dreaming about the gold he has come for. This is Nome, a city that beckons with the ultimate American dream, where each wave that washes the shingly shore brings in a fresh chance of finding riches.
Nome is a crazy city in northern Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle. Remote and savage, it is only accessible by plane or boat. In the summer of 1898, three prospectors who became known as the “Three Lucky Swedes”, discovered gold on nearby Anvil Creek. News of their discovery sparked a Gold Rush in the spring of 1899, the third largest in North America after the California and Klondike stampedes. Steamers brought in thousands of prospectors but there was no hope of most of them staking claims until one found gold on the beach. When news spread that anyone with a pan could make their fortune, the beach was soon lined elbow-to-elbow with gold seekers.
By 1900, Nome was a tent city spreading along the shoreline for nearly 50km and it was turning it into the biggest city in what was then the Alaska Territory. Three nuggets found in 1904, and worth almost $700,000 today, give an idea of the wealth to be won by the lucky. By 1905, Nome had rows of wooden houses, schools, churches, newspapers, electrical lighting and even the first wireless telegraph in the United States. Within a few years, however, the gold was worked out and the outbreak of World War I also helped draw most young men away.
The “golden sands” of Nome still catch people’s imagination, even if the numbers coming are now much smaller. I walk along the beach by the freezing Bering Sea, where the hopeful have set up big homemade tents in preparation for the planned months of hard panning ahead.
A frontier town surrounded by spectacular scenery
Inventive pumps, dredges and sluice boxes lie on the sand. Those who arrive are interesting, unusual characters and they make all kinds of contraptions in the hope of finding gold. Nome does not try to be beautiful but it is original and exciting, a frontier town surrounded by spectacular scenery. As the local saying goes there is “no place like Nome”.
Jeff was originally a truck driver from Oklahoma. “I built my own dredge and shipped it up here. I decided to come after watching a TV show on gold fever and thought ‘Heck! I’m going’,” he says. For weeks on end the sea can be too rough for gold and then it is just a matter of waiting for the weather to turn. Jeff came with two friends but they left, unable to put up with the harsh life. He was also ready to quit but then staying on and now goes crab fishing and caribou hunting with locals when it gets stormy. As the poet Robert Service writes about this part of Alaska: “You come to get rich, you hate it like hell for a season, it twists you from foe to a friend.”
Then there is Dan, the owner of a New York pizza company, who brings his son for a few months every year to dredge. Like Christopher McCandless, epitomized in Into the Wild, many others are here to escape. “They want to disappear from a past life, changing their name,” Dan says. Alaska is a law unto itself, wild country which does not feel like part of America. Inside Dan’s tent is wood for the burner, a camp bed, old chairs and scuba equipment to help look for gold under the sea. “Last month I found $18,000-worth,” Dan says. When I look along the stark beach at the haphazard tents, weathered men and the ramshackle equipment, it seems amazing that so much money can be made.
In theory you could walk to Russia
Nome is still the epitome of the Wild West: its front street is a line of wooden houses, all different colors and all stilted because of the permafrost, and a few saloons. Sledges and ski-doos are parked outside and “Gone Fishing” signs hang on many doors. The city juts out on a peninsula, closer to Russia than America. “The ocean is thick ice from November until May and in theory you could walk to Russia,” says one local, Andy. “Although I wouldn’t like to try it,” he adds with a chuckle. Many of the faces of the local Alaskan natives look Mongolian, perhaps unsurprising when their ancestors walked across the Bering land bridge from Asia long, long ago.
When I first arrive in Alaska, through Anchorage airport, it instantly feels wild; men in rubber boots are checking in, not a common sight at most major airports. There are snow-capped mountains outside and within minutes of wandering onto the street two moose, their antlers like overgrown coral, walk in front of me. Before flying in, I spent a night in Lake Hood Inn, a small, imaginative hotel overlooking a lake and tastefully themed around floatplanes. Vast stretches of Alaska’s road-less wilderness are only accessible by plane and flying is part of life for most Alaskans. On the wall are a propeller and old 1950s airline posters, a hostess trolley is used for books, and there are Russian airline seats in reception.
Only three roads lead out of Nome, to the small towns of Kougarok, Council and Teller, although all are closed off during the winter when Nome becomes snowed in. On the second day I drive out to Council. Fierce storms have driven driftwood high on the beaches. The surrounding land is startlingly beautiful, an open expanse of treeless tundra, giving a feeling of freedom similar to travelling through desert. The Inupiak have their fishing camps out here: with tepees and isolated fishing huts, the camps are all hotchpotch and handmade from local materials. I stop at one. It is immensely atmospheric, almost eerie due to the stillness. There is not a soul for miles; families just come at the weekends to fish. It is ice-cold, even though I am wearing a thick insulated jacket.
Why do we need to put things away?
Old caravans and a rusting car sit among the tundra’s dwarf shrubs. Sea gulls squawk and the camps seem abandoned, as if the owners left in a hurry. One camp has a stove outside, a US flag flutters and children’s toys are scattered on the grass. There is even a snowmobile lying seemingly abandoned in the middle of a path. “We have a different value system to you,” says a local later. “Why do we need to put things away? To us the outdoors is the same as indoors, and land ownership is not a familiar concept.”
Another camp I walk past feels otherworldly. There are pieces of driftwood, knurled and knotted, standing up like sacred totem poles, with hand-carved bird boxes, blue and red. Battered red and green leather sofas sit around a burnout campfire. One lone orange rests on a table. The whole is like a piece of modern art, as if Tracy Emin has just left. The family sleep in white tents with rustic tin chimneys. A couple of nets lie on the ground and there is a swing made from driftwood. From here I stride out along the white sands of the beach, where there is nothing but the sea, wind and silence for hours.
Walking back to my car across the frozen plain, I pass caribou herds and musk oxen. The oxen materialize out of the mist, evoking the moody moors of Wuthering Heights – I almost expect Heathcliff to appear. They look prehistoric, like extinct woolly mammoths, with their long shaggy coats and horns. They are one of the world’s oldest surviving herbivores, being one of the few large animals that outlasted the cold of the Ice Age.
I am staying in Cussy’s home, overlooking the Bering Sea, where she keeps a few rooms for guests. She is a charismatic lady who was born in Nome and has lived here her whole life. Her great grandfather first came from New York in the Gold Rush. Her house resembles a cozy, living museum, overflowing with old gambling machines, towering stuffed bears and wolverines (her husband is a hunter). Walrus ivory carvings and whalebones, antlers and snowshoes decorating the walls.
She buys most of her antiques on eBay
Cussy is fascinated by Nome’s history and collects photos from the Gold Rush days. She shows me pictures of men and women in Victorian dress panning for gold, illustrating the rich history of this city. “Many of my guests come here to dig up history about their ancestor’s lives,” Cussy says. As I get lost in imaginings about the past, she brings me back to the present by explaining that she buys most of her antiques on eBay. It is always a mistake to think of Nome as completely isolated from the world outside.
The following day I travel to Teller, one of Nome’s outlying villages inhabited by the Inupiak people. I take Richard as my guide, a man who is knowledgeable about the area and a real character. His wish to be an actor is evident in the dramatic way he tells his stories. “I was a successful singer and tap dancer on Broadway in New York, before alcohol destroyed my career,” he says.
“I nearly died but the far North saved my life. I restarted my life in Alaska, as many do. I bought a one-way ticket to Anchorage and from there headed to Nome. At first I was a salesman, before setting up my tour company. I’ll never forget my grandma’s words flooding back to me – she once told me I had such a gift of the gab that one day I would end up selling freezers to Eskimos and years later that is exactly what I was doing.”
We walk through the summer tundra, which unrolls a carpet of wild flowers. “Over 2,000 species of wildflowers grow on the Seward peninsula,” Richard says. The tundra is a botanical world in miniature, made up of numerous shades of green, colors that are beginning to turn as autumn paints its hue. While we walk, I observe its beautiful intricacies: a pattern on a rock or a small flower pushing through the ground. It is alive with Arctic poppies, purple dwarf fireweed and Eskimo potato plants. The light is strange and mystical, shrouding the beckoning mountains, streams rush through and the vast openness beyond is soothing and alluring.
Viagra has impacted the reindeer horn market
We drive on to Teller, passing tors and uplifted mountains carved by glaciation. There are next to no man-made structures, the road is remote and self-sufficiency is essential because there are no shops or gas stations. Brooks babble, and pink salmon leap from rivers. We cross Anvil Creek, where the gold was first found. Birds are everywhere; ptarmigan, blue throats and Arctic warblers. Coastal grizzlies and fox prowl this land, beaver lodges perch on lakes and we pass an abandoned pen for reindeer herding. “Reindeer are not native here, they originally came from Scandinavia. Their antlers were used as an aphrodisiac and sold to the Chinese but Viagra has impacted the market,” Richard says.
Teller is a small town of 260 built on a bleak spit. We visit Norbert, an Inupiak who lives with his sister, Sarah, the village postmistress. Their home, built of wooden slats, has no flushing toilet and they use ice melt water for their bath. “We used to live in the village of Mary’s Igloo but bears kept breaking our house so we moved here,” says Norbert. Children cycle along the rough track between the weathered houses, and boats, old pick-ups and barbecues sit outside.
Teller is surrounded by beach, along which fish hang to dry, ready for the winter ahead. One woman walks along searching for tusks from dead walruses, which she will carve and sell. Alaskan natives are the only people who are still allowed to hunt walrus, seal and whales. Jo, one of Alaska’s most famous husky dog trainers, lives in Teller. His beautiful dogs strain on their boxes, keen to get out on a run.
The annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race is one of the most important events on Alaska’s calendar, its toughness the stuff of local legend. The Iditarod Trail had long linked Nome to the railhead at Anchorage but the 1,049-mile race commemorates the 1925 serum run, when it carried anti-diphtheria serum from Anchorage to Nome during an outbreak of the disease. With planes grounded by some of the harshest winter weather in living memory, the now-famous lead dogs Balto and Togo ran blindly at times through the extreme conditions to help save the lives of thousands. The snowmobile has now replaced the dog sled but it still remains a popular sport.
Rivers gliding through vast plains and snow-capped peaks
The following day I walk through the Kigluaik Mountains, with views of glistening rivers gliding through vast plains and snow-capped peaks, and steam rising from hot springs, blissful to sit in despite the cold outside. That evening I go to Breakers, one of Nome’s saloons. Nome is known for its epic drinking, intensified by its extreme life. As one local jokes: “This is a drinking town with a mining problem.”
Breakers has a long red bar with weathered-faced men sitting along it. All the surrounding towns are “dry” so the Inupiak like to come into Nome, and sway drunkenly down the streets. At the back of the bar is a pool table and I play with David, a Mormon who now lives here, having turned his back on his family and religion. A picture depicting one of Robert Service’s poems The Shooting of Dan McGrew hangs above us, and smoke curls into the air. There are no smoking bans here.
A shot glass is put upside down in front of me, a sign that someone wants to buy me a drink. The locals are all friendly and ludicrously a group of us end up jumping into the Bering Sea for an evening dip (it is freezing) and then spilling out onto the street for a pizza late at night. And yet it’s still light – this is the land of midnight sun. I don’t see darkness for my whole trip and feel elated from the constant light.
Nome is a rash, paradoxical place where the unexpected happens. As Robert Service said it is not so much getting the gold, as the romance of finding it, and Nome certainly has this eccentric, lustful pull.
“I love Nome,” says photographer Gilles Mingasson. “In the U.S., it is one of the only remaining frontier towns, where you almost expect to see fights in the bars at night. People are there because they want to be left alone. That is why you move to Nome.”