Nome and Kotzebue may be tiny in size, but their historical interest is great

March 07, 1993|By Stu Bykofsky | Stu Bykofsky,Knight-Ridder News Service

ARCTIC CIRCLE, Alaska -- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The mosquitoes were ferocious, the sun beamed at midnight.

This is a tale of two American cities -- Kotzebue and Nome.

You have heard of Nome, of course, 200 miles below the Arctic Circle. It is ingrained in the American consciousness, perhaps in grade-school, as the country's rooting-tooting city of the north.

So you might be surprised, as I was, to learn that Nome's population is only 4,500 and that the city, just a thumbnail on the shore of the Bering Sea, is less than 100 years old, born as the result of a mammoth gold strike in 1898.

As every guide will tell you, gold was discovered by the Three Lucky Swedes (one was actually Norwegian), who took $1 million worth of gold out of the ground every month for 17 years. The area was so gold-laden that nuggets, some as big as plums, washed up on Nome's beaches, and to this day you will see tents on the beach occupied by prospectors dredging for gold.

On the other hand, Kotzebue (COTS-eh-bew), 30 miles above theArctic Circle, has been occupied for hundreds of years, maybe longer, maybe back to when the land bridge between Asia and the Americas ended. Some 3,000 Native Americans are trying to preserve their ancient Eskimo culture on the shores of the Chukchi Sea.

There are riches in Kotzebue, too, but the town's wealth lies beneath the teeming sea that has provided sustenance to the native people for untold generations.

It's not an easy life by any means, but, to hear them tell it, it's not a bad life, not at all.

You start with the weather, which ran a balmy 55 in July. The parkas (or parkys -- both pronunciations work) that are provided to tourists were not necessary. In the winter, which starts to arrive in August, the temperature will skid to subzero and stay there for months -- as will the darkness. In the summer, it is light 24 hours a day.

There's not one paved road in Kotzebue, which is maybe a mile long and half a mile wide. Pickup trucks and three- and four-wheel all-terrain bikes are the transportation of choice -- along with the snowmobiles you see in most yards. Many of the homes are little more than shacks -- but there are no igloos, which are used only as temporary shelters on hunting trips, "like a recreational vehicle," Vernette, an Eskimo guide, explained.

In keeping with a movement toward empowering indigenous people, tours to Kotzebue (by air from Anchorage, with an overnight stop in either Kotzebue or Nome, $419), are conducted by the Northwest Alaskan Native Association, which also arranges demonstrations of native crafts and skills in Kotzebue.

The last stop on the tour is at the Museum of the Arctic, where dioramas and a slide show explain native life, native songs are sung, dancesare demonstrated, and tourists get to help with the Eskimo blanket toss, by which a hunter is trampolined into the air to spot game.

The town is dry, unlike Nome, which has several saloons per block along Front Street, which is the main street -- and one of the town's two paved roads.

Nome, which still looks like a frontier town, is the center for shopping for walrus ivory art, with prices cheaper here than anywhere else in Alaska (although still expensive -- $125 for a 3-inch polar bear).

Nome is the finish line of the world-famous Anchorage-Nome Iditarod, a 1,049-mile dogsled race held in March that traverses some of the most challenging landscape in the hemisphere.

A highlight of a Nome visit is a demonstration and chat by Howard Farley, who has been a competitor in the Iditarod but who now raises huskies. Mr. Farley answers questions about the race, the dogs, the training, the weather and lets you pet his lead dogs (and hug a huskie puppy).

Also on the tour is a stop at the Little Creek Station, where the Scott family puts on a slide show about Nome's history and gives visitors a chance to pan for gold.

Since half the people in our group of 20 found gold (a flake or two) in their pans, I believe the soil supplied with the pan was "salted" with the precious metal.

Alaskans tend to be outgoing and friendly, which is ironic since most of the "sourdoughs" (old-timers) came to Alaska to get away from people and civilization, or so they say.

They love the solitude, the forbidding landscape, even the tundra.

What is tundra?

That's the treeless, spongy ground cover, dotted with wild flowers, that grows above the permafrost.

What is permafrost?

That's a subject for another time.

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