TRAVEL: Travelers agree that Nome's golden lining is in its history

SCOTT MCMURREN
05-30-2004

Anchorage Daily News

Throughout Alaska there are pockets of our frontier history, particularly when it comes to flaky yellow metal. You know: GOLD!

The quest for gold blazed many trails here: up the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass near Skagway and over the glaciers north from Valdez. In fact, all across the Interior from Dawson to Fairbanks and over to Nome, gold fever kept many communities going for years.

When you land in Nome, you can look to the right off the runway and see one of the last working gold dredges in Alaska. Alaska Gold Co. operated the giant excavator until 1992. Inside Hank Irelan's mini-museum at Little Creek, you can see pictures of the giant Bima dredge, which operated for several years off the coast of Nome. It was about 14 stories tall and more than 800 feet long.

Although the Gold Rush in Nome started in 1898, there's still plenty of gold on the beach and in the hills. That is what keeps local folks dragging their sluice boxes down to the beach each summer.

Hank Irelan enjoys giving folks an in-depth look at Nome, including some World War II history, some geography lessons on surrounding towns and villages and a time line of key events. The weather, big fires and winter storms played as much a part in Nome's history as the Gold Rush.

Of course, disease also played a hand in Nome's history. In 1925, there was an emergency delivery of diphtheria serum which went by dogsled from Nenana to Nome. Today, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates that event. And every year, Nome fills up with visitors from around the world to cheer on the mushers following their 1,000-mile journey from Anchorage.

Everywhere you turn, there are remnants of the Gold Rush: dredges, buckets off of dredges, railroad ties and tailing ponds. Much of the land around Nome has been worked over several times for gold. Irelan relates that, during the height of the rush, it was hard to get anyone to work in the stores downtown. "Folks could make $10 to $100 per day working a claim on the beach. That was much more than they could make at their job," he said.

Irelan enjoys telling visitors about watchable wildlife in Nome. "You can see reindeer, musk ox and other mammals around here. There also is great birdwatching right here in town," he said. Sure enough, we saw several different types of ducks and loons in a tailings pond near one of the gold dredges in town.

Nome's claim to fame in World War II was its airfield, which was an integral part in the Lend-Lease program. Thousands of aircraft passed through Nome on the way to Russia. In Nome, Russian aviators would take the planes on through Siberia to the Western Front.

If you want to venture outside of Nome, there are several air taxis that will take you to the St. Lawrence Island villages of Savoonga and Gambell. Bering Air also runs several trips to Russia each week. However, there is plenty of paperwork necessary to catch a ride to Russia, including a formal invitation. Travelers need to prepare well in advance for a trip to Providenya or one of the other Russian communities.

If you are looking for local ivory carvings, Irelan can guide you to two or three stores which purchase authentic artwork for resale to visitors. Irelan runs his Nome Tour through the Nome Nugget Inn, right on Front Street.

If you are looking to save some gold on your next air travel purchase, keep an eye on the new markets opening up, including Denver and Minneapolis. Last week's sale to Denver has cooled off somewhat, but tickets still are available for less than $300 round trip. The rate to Seattle still is just $185. Last week there was a sale to San Francisco -- basically a battle between Alaska Airlines and United Airlines. Alaska was mad at United for offering a low fare to Denver, so it retaliated with an equally low fare to San Francisco. Then, as soon as United withdrew its fare to Denver, the San Francisco fare vanished as well. I felt a little guilty (but not too guilty) for getting a ticket from Anchorage to San Francisco for just $194.

Right now, eyes are on America West Airlines, which lands in Anchorage on June 1. Currently, the Phoenix-based carrier has a great fare in place between Anchorage and San Francisco: just $255. But there are no seats. I'm not saying the seats are scarce. There are absolutely no seats available all summer long. The first available seat I could find was on Sept. 5. That's hardly the way to make a good impression right before its inaugural flight. Hopefully the airline will rethink its pricing policy and open up some great fares to its popular destinations.

After all, it's not how much gold you make, it's how much gold you keep -- even in Alaska.