By Mary Logan
Thanksgiving week in America is a time of celebration of family, and of giving thanks. I feel very privileged to live at a time and in a place that is so entitled in terms of resources, security, culture, and opportunities. One way that I can attempt to live up to that privilege is through this blog, in ways that attempt to change the culture for the better for future generations. And one of the best ways to change culture is to make the alternative more fun. Bike touring is one of the low-energy habits that has become habit-forming for us, as it is inexpensive, it allows us to get out into nature and into new places that might be difficult to get to otherwise.
One photo that has been passed around from this blog is a surprising one. It is a photo of a previous bike trip to Salmon Lake, near Nome Alaska, on a tour with friends several years ago. This photo shows up repeatedly on my website statistics page as having been passed around all over the world–why is that? Are other people planning trips to Nome? Is it the beauty of the place, and the wide-open vistas of the arctic tundra? For Thanksgiving, I would like to share a photo essay of that trip, in appreciation of Alaska’s unspoiled wilderness. I give thanks for having access to one of the most amazing, pristine, unspoiled wildernesses in the world.
Nome, Alaska (or Siqnazuaq in Iñupiaq) is located on the Seward Peninsula of northwest bush Alaska, off of the main road system. You can only get there by plane or boat, except in the winter, when snow and ice also allow travel by dog team or snow machine. But Nome is also the hub for three diverging gravel roads; the Kougarok road to the northeast, the Nome-Council road to the east, and Teller highway to the northwest. These roads are perfect for bike touring, with about 80 miles of wilderness accessible from each road. Nome is notable for being the end of the Iditarod Trail and race, which commemorates the 1925 diptheria serum run by dog sled from Nenana to Nome, Iñupiat and Scandinavian heritage, and the Nome gold rush of 1898. Nome is at 64 degrees north latitude, in the arctic tundra, where summers tend to be short. The weather in Nome is moderated by the Bering Sea, with relatively warm, foggy weather in the summer. But if you pedal several miles inland, the fog quickly gives way to warm sun in the summer.
We chose to travel to Nome for the summer solstice during the week of June 21st, when there is a local celebration of the summer and the midnight sun. We flew into Nome and assembled our bikes at the airport, and we biked into Nome. We chose to support this ride with a sag, by renting a truck that the seven of us could sling our gear into, and take turns driving, but the trip could very easily have been done unsupported, too. The truck allowed us the little luxuries that one passes on when traveling in wilderness on foot or by bike. We camped on the beach in Nome, in the fog. Driftwood from the Yukon and elsewhere was readily available for beach campfires to keep us warm and dry. We shared the beach with several gold dredging operations, and some local campers. Provisions were readily available at several groceries, and there were a number of bars and restaurants. The most notable (and tastiest) restaurant was Airport Pizza, which gives a whole new meaning to the idea of pizza delivery by delivering pizza anywhere that Frontier Air flies in Alaska.
We began our trip by biking out the 80-mile long Kougarok road. The Seward peninsula is notable for its bird watching, as the roads encompass multiple ecosystems, including ocean dunes, wetlands, and high tundra. We stopped along the way to look for many unusual birds, along with musk oxen, caribou, and other mammals such as foxes. In mid-June, the mosquitoes were negligible, and camping was delightful. Our first camp was at Salmon Lake, which was an established campground with outhouses and fire pits.
The next day we rode on, and took the very rough side road at milepost 53.7 to Pilgrim Hot Springs. We camped the second night at the top of Golden Gate Pass 2.5 miles into the 7 mile side spur. We shared the campsite with a herd of musk oxen, and we had to brake for the herd on the road, when they refused to vacate. They hung around all evening, and we watched them as we cooked dinner. In the morning, we collected some of their soft, qiviut fur, which was attached to many tundra bushes where they had rubbed it off.
Pilgrim Hot Springs was traditionally used by the Iñupiaq, and was the site of a gold rush resort and later a catholic mission, orphanage, and boarding school, whose ruins are still on site. When we went, Pilgrim Hot Springs was semi-abandoned, with an old, rickety, algae-lined, deep wooden tub, filled with very hot artesian water. The springs were surrounded by a marshy river and cottonwoods that grew there due to the warmer micro-habitat of the springs. The springs were delightful. The property has changed hands since then, from the diocese to the Bering Straits Native Corporation, but access is probably still available through free permits from the BSNC.
Along the Kougarok road there were opportunities to hike to locations for accidental bird sightings from birds blown in from Asia, caribou, and ravens nests perched on bridge structures. We finished biking out to the end of the Kougarok road, and camped at the end, where the road stops at a river, and devolves into snow machine and game trails that travel further into the wilderness. We imagined going further on foot, with packrafts. Perhaps another time.
We rode back to Nome, reprovisioned, and snagged a meal at Airport Pizza. We had already been labeled by the people of Nome as “the biker people.” Everyone was friendly and ready to help, and as we traveled on the various roads, it was not unusual to be stopped and chatted up by the few cars that passed us each day. Why were we here and where were we going? People were very friendly.
We next headed east on the Nome-Council road. The Nome-Council road follows the beach for a while, so the wildlife and habitats are very different. There were big lakes with hundreds of tundra swans on them, and beaches with wonderful wilderness camping, native fishing camps with drying salmon, and historical ruins of old mining dredges and an abandoned narrow gauge railroad. We explored the dredges and old trains, and camped on the beaches. The road ended at a river crossing into Council. On the last day, our path into Council was opposed by a large Whimbrel in the road, who challenged us with a face-off in the road. While habituated to the occasional truck, it was clearly bothered by our unusual appearance on our bikes.
When we returned to Nome, we celebrated the solstice with a Midnight Sun Festival, with the people of Nome. The weekend included salsa lessons and a street dance with a salsa band who had flown up from Juneau for the Midnight Sun Folk Fest, carnivals, a Polar Bear Plunge in the frigid Bering Sea, and the Nome River Raft Race, pictured at right. The winners of the raft race became the proud owners of a perpetual trophy–a fur-lined honey bucket, which is the arctic version of a toilet. The people of Nome opened their arms wide to us, the biker people, and we readily joined in the festivities.
While we flew there using a lot of fossil fuel, travel to Nome could be supported in a low energy society via access by boat and Nome itself could be supported by geothermal heat from Pilgrim Hot Springs. But only if we plan for it. Portions of our existing culture can only be supported if the infrastructure for a renewable-based society is built using fossil fuels. Whether you go for biking and birding in the summer as we did, or berry-picking in the fall, or panning for gold, or late winter Iditarod-spectating, there’s no place like Nome.