For a hot time in a cold town, there's no place like Nome, Alaska. During Iditarod week in March, the gold camp community on the Bering Sea packs in more activities per capita than most cities. It's a safe bet that Nome is the best place in the United States for folks from 21 to 85 to be for fun.
Several action scenes go on simultaneously: the glitz and sweat that end the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (this year's race started Feb. 29 and will end sometime this weekend); around-the-clock partying in the bars by workers from Prudhoe Bay to Dutch Harbor and all frontier settlements in between; and the excitement, rivalry and clan-gathering at the Iditarod Basketball Tournament, which runs today through Saturday. Throw in an Ice Golf Tournament, a blizzard with a wind chill index of 70 below zero and fire sirens that wail before each mushing team comes in, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The plane from Anchorage arrives by 10 a.m. on a Tuesday last March with every seat taken. Outside the terminal, the 40-degree temperatures of February are just a memory. Now, the sidewalks are covered with a half-foot of packed snow; solid drifts cover much of the parking lot.
Taxivans quickly distribute passengers to their lodgings in Nome, a mile away. Travelers needing housing are taken to the Visitors Center on Front Street. The six-sided building is the hub of Nome activity -- where everyone goes for daily updates of the weekly calendar, videos on Alaskan history and stacks of albums to leaf through. It offers hot coffee and hospitality, tea or sympathy. In short order, director Lois Wirtz and assistant Connie Irrigoo make calls, and everyone has a place to stay. Nome has only 3,500 residents and few official lodgings, but beds and sleeping bags seem to be in endless supply. No one is turned away.
West of the Visitors Center, the 1991 race headquarters in the mini-convention center is full of volunteers and news media types. People come and go 24 hours a day, checking the message board and buying caps, cups, buttons, T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia. A battery of phones rings non-stop. Rubbernecks surround machines spewing current race information and peruse the large wall map graphing the latest locations of individual racers. The mood is upbeat.
East of the Visitors Center, in the National Guard Armory and the Recreation Center, two eight-hour sessions of basketball, starting at 8 a.m. and ending at midnight, are being held. Here, 54 teams from native villages and corporations compete in the largest tournament in the United States.
Teams from Noorvik to Nome see action. Every village high school has a gym; basketball is played all year long. As an incentive for kids to stay in school, only high school graduates can play in the tournament.
Harold Bell, in town from Anchorage, started the tournament 17 years ago with only five teams. It is a yearly get-together for the 700 folks who participate. Volunteers run the entire event. Only the referees are paid.
Brisk sales of tournament T-shirts with a computerized picture of the wearer and a personal message on the back rival the action on the court. The halls and cafeteria are full of groups of people meeting, greeting and catching up on the year's news. Teen-age boys and girls eye other and start to get acquainted. Several young-looking couples have infants with them.
At the Polaris Bar on Bering Street, the 6 p.m. crowd -- brawny, whiskered oil-well roughnecks and crab boaters, joined by a few sturdy women -- sits close to the stage, the choice seats for the wet T-shirt contest starting at 8 p.m.
They have big money, big appetites and big energy. The Polaris and other bars stay open 22 1/2 hours a day to slake their thirst for firewater and fun. Nome is the only place within hundreds of miles where a person can buy a drink. The Arctic Circle is dry, and so are the villages. Waitresses keep bartenders busy with drink orders, and $100 bills are the medium of exchange.
Everyone is friendly. Dave from West Virginia works on a crabber out of Dutch Harbor. "I wear pantyhose under my wet suit when I'm working," he confides. "They keep me real warm. The winds out there toss the crab pots around like feathers. If I fall off, I'm a goner before the boat can swing around to pick me up. But my buddy from home made $42,000 in three months up here last year," he continues, "and I'm aimin' to do the same."
On Wednesday morning, visiting seniors converge on the Visitors Center and get acquainted. "Hank" Weeda from Anchorage and her "baby" brother Keith Marsden, 67, from Bothel, Wash., report the free daily lunch at the senior center in City Hall is tasty and hearty. Meeting Eskimo elders is an extra dividend. Nome is 60 percent Eskimo.