The call of the wild

A hundred years ago, the small Alaskan town of Nome was in the grip of prospecting fever. Jeremy Atiyah finds the biggest excitement in town these days is a dog-sled race

Even by Alaskan standards, Nome is
weird. It is on the American mainland (just), but you can't reach it by road. It has a mere 4,000 inhabitants. It is only a hundred miles from Siberia and unspeakably cold. Hardly anyone ever goes there. But once a year it fills up with television crews and the whole of the United States wants to see it.

A hundred years ago, the small Alaskan town of Nome was in the grip of prospecting fever. Jeremy Atiyah finds the biggest excitement in town these days is a dog-sled race

Even by Alaskan standards, Nome is weird. It is on the American mainland (just), but you can't reach it by road. It has a mere 4,000 inhabitants. It is only a hundred miles from Siberia and unspeakably cold. Hardly anyone ever goes there. But once a year it fills up with television crews and the whole of the United States wants to see it.

Why? Because Nome is the terminus of the annual Iditarod: the 1,000-mile dog-sled race from Anchorage that grips the nation each March.

I'm more interested in the off-season. That's why I am boarding a flight to Nome in mid-winter - and I get the feeling that I am leaving the US and heading for a foreign country. Suddenly people with Asiatic features surround me. On one side, an exotic-looking woman removes a fur-trimmed coat to reveal a toddler strapped to her back with a shawl. She tells me she's a whaler. On the other side, a man tells me he has just been to a meeting in Anchorage to discuss tribal issues.

"Me," he adds, "I'm a caribou hunter. But we need to understand corporate USA or we'll be left behind."

When we land at Nome there's a gale blowing and it's minus 20C. I check in at a madhouse called the Polaris Hotel, which, like most cheap hotels in the US, doubles up as a hostel for bums. There is an empty whisky bottle blocking my toilet.

The next morning I take a stroll along the promenade in pitch darkness. It's 10am, and stars are shining from a black sky. Saloon bars line the main drag. Two gloomy natives approach me, asking if I can spare a dollar. "I'm from St Lawrence Island," says one, gloomily. "I'm from Diomede," says the other. Diomede? Ah yes, that tiny island in the middle of the Bering Strait - just three miles from Russia.

The proximity of Russia is something I am trying to get used to. Later, I'll walk to the airport to visit the office of Bering Air, the only airline currently offering local flights and sightseeing trips across the Bering Strait. I speak to a Russian woman working there, who turns out to have been born and bred in Chukotka, just across the strait.

But having made the big step to the US - I ask - wasn't she minded to travel a tiny bit further than Nome? Didn't any other place in the vastness of the North American continent take her fancy?

"Why?" she replies, puzzled. "Here I have the best of both worlds. I'm in the US, but I'm not far from home. It's perfect for me."

Come to think of it, she could even walk to Russia from Nome's beach. The Bering Sea is frozen solid at this time of year. From Nome itself the Russian coast is not visible, but from the 2,300-foot-high Cape Mountain, at Prince of Wales Cape (to the north of here), Siberia's hills loom bright and clear.

Which is not to say that walking the Bering Strait is a particularly good idea. In the middle of the strait the ice churns and buckles all winter long. Crossings between Alaska and Russia, on skis, sledges or amphibious vehicles, are perilous and rare.

And I find it hard to imagine things any other way. During the Cold War we got used to the idea of a world divided implacably down the middle by the Bering Strait. For decades barely a ship was seen here, let alone an aeroplane; and of course no umiaks or kayaks, the Innuits' own boats.

But strangely, it was not always so. Back in the late 18th century, when Captain Cook first charted these waters, the straits were busy. Indigenous peoples crossed between America and Asia as a matter of routine, using reindeer sledges in winter, boats in summer. The crossing time was not more than a single day.

After Captain Cook's voyage, it would not take long for the white man to sweep those old native trading networks away forever. Travel across the straits virtually ceased. By 1890 the Reverend Hudson Stuck could dismiss the whole Seward Peninsula as "a savage forbidding country... uninhabited and unfit for habitation; a country of naked rock and bare hillside and desolate barren valley, coursed with a perpetual icy blast."

And that might have been the end of all human interest in this part of the world, had not two Swedes and a Norwegian came prospecting for gold in 1898 and struck lucky.

Before long, it was discovered that Nome's beach contained pebbles of gold. By the time next summer had come round, thousands of amateur prospectors were stepping off steamers from Seattle carrying shovels. Tents lined the shore for upwards of 20 miles. In the wake of the prospectors, Innuits arrived selling knick-knacks and carved mammoth tusks. Within two years, Nome had become the largest town in Alaska, with shops, schools, restaurants, hotels, brothels and dentists.

The only losers in the story were the Russians, who, 30 years before, had sold Alaska to the US for a pittance: if only they had known that gold lay in the sands right across the water from their own Siberian mainland! Meanwhile, in Nome, frontier necessities were soon making way for Victorian opulence. Those in search of a night out could find card parties, gambling halls and even music recitals. Characters as diverse as Jack London, Roald Amundsen and Wyatt Earp were seen in town.

None of this was to last. By 1920, the fun had died down, never to return. "Nome in 1920 was a fading gold camp," wrote one young adventurer; "it had shrunk to a few hundred die-hards. False-fronted saloons, once staffed with gamblers and painted ladies, calling newly-rich prospectors in off the street, now stood empty and forlorn."

In 2003, I confess that Nome seems as dead as a doornail. The treeless tundra, which begins a few minutes from the town centre, is colourless and frozen solid. At these latitudes - across Alaska, Canada and Siberia - the scenery is the same all the way round the globe. Only in the brief summer and even briefer autumn, will it blaze into colour. Then, for a month, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries, blackberries and rosehips will suddenly be available by the bucket-load.

I take a breakfast of hot milk and waffles with a couple of hunters. "You're a tourist here?" one says, peering in suspicion. "In mid-winter?" He is wearing a red checked shirt that bulges tight. "For us Nome is a big city," he goes on. "We come here to stock up on food." They live out on the tundra somewhere and are in town for the weekend. They belong to that group of Americans for whom Alaska represents the final frontier - the place you flee to when the rest of the US seems too crowded. Outside, they show me the antlered caribou heads in the back of their pick-up. Later I go for a leisurely lunch at the Polar Club restaurant, where I get talking to some more beardy men in checked shirts, over a reindeer burger. One tells me that he came to Nome bringing a small dredger with him about five years ago. I say: "So people still come to Nome looking for gold?"

"They sure do. There's about 15 people who come here every summer to sieve on the beach. You can make a living like that. Not a good one, but it's enough to live on."

Moments later the miners are joined by a little old man with a tufty beard. He is a practising doctor. But he turns out to be a hunter and a miner too - as most people in Nome do. They all chat awhile, in a boyish kind of way, about dredgers and hydraulic nozzles and sluice boxes and picks and shovels and bigger stuff that I can't understand. When I ask the Swiss professor if he too came to Nome with his private dredger, he looks me up and down.

"Hell, no," he says. "I employ 400 men. You looking for work?"

I mutter something about not having the right experience. "You don't need it! You just need to be able to move heavy equipment! And it's hot down there. T-shirts off."

For a minute or two, sitting in bright sunshine by the window, beside the frozen sea, I am strangely attracted by the idea of a new life as a gold-miner in Alaska.

A woman comes in and sits down. "Sometimes I just can't stand it any more, that's when I have to start drinking," she says to the doctor. She goes on, in a pleading voice: "You don't ever get depressed, do you?"

With a wag of that tufty beard, there comes the answer that she dreads most of all. "Oh yes I do, sometimes. Oh yes. My years are running out and I got too much to worry about. I don't want any drama, but it follows me around."

"Oh, but I just need drama," gasps the woman.

I seriously doubt that she'll find it in Nome.

SURVIVAL KIT

GET THERE

The lowest airfares - around £800 return - are likely to be available on Northwest Airlines from Gatwick via Minneapolis/St Paul and Anchorage.

TOURS

Try North American Highways - The Alaska Experience (01902 851138, www.northamericanhighways.co.uk)

HOTELS

At the Polaris Hotel (001 907 443 2000, polarisent.inc@gci.net),reckon on $50 (£30) a night for a single room.

MORE INFO

Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 907 443 6624, www.nomealaska.org/vc)

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