Monday, February 7, 2011

blogAlaska: Nome--First Impressions.

     Nome is a place that is full of contrasts and contradictions.  When we decided to move here and  I came up from Southeast Alaska for a visit it was the middle of December.  It was cold, dark and ugly--a winter wasteland.  I won't lie, I cried about it. For me, the town of Nome itself holds few of the picturesque charms of the southeast.  No turn-of-the-century houses painted bright and cheerful, no boardwalks and twisty stairways clinging tenaciously to steep rock faces. No dense, mysterious stands of cedars shrouded in thick green moss, so quiet you can hear the sound of each raindrop falling on the thick umbrellas of Devil's Club. 
     Nome has its own historical relics and quirks, but the buildings are made to be functional, practical.  Many of the residential areas are HUD homes, which give a nod to the tract housing of suburbia, except in lieu of lush green lawns and manicured yards there are patches of mud with mangy dogs chained to weathered boxes. Rusting carcases of cars or snowmachines litter driveways and yards. Here and there you see the evidence of children at play: a balding doll half submerged in a puddle, a cheaply made plastic three wheeler missing a wheel and a handlebar, mittens, hats and other odd articles of clothing forgotten and pancaked the muddy streets. There is always garbage blowing in the ever-present wind--either tossed on the ground or pulled out of dumpsters by the mischeivous ravens.

     My first impression of this place was one of abandonment and neglect.  After living here a while I see that that is not the whole story.  It is hard to grow a lawn and flowers in a place where winter lasts 8 months of the year.  The cost and availability of building materials means that function trumps form nine times out of ten.

     That year I moved to Nome in July after graduating from my Masters program.  The days were endless, the ocean was open and so were the roads.  Loren and I drove all over the place, and the scenery outside of town was breathtaking.  We would go fishing or hiking in the middle of the night and the sun would just be be beginning to set at 2 am as we drove home.  In August I discovered blueberry picking on the tundra, and I decided I could learn to love this place.

     Nome continued to grow on me as summer turned into fall.  The ever-present greens of the southeast were replaced by the riot of color that is the tundra in fall. You wake up one day to a chill in the air and the faintest smell of frost-nipped plants and all of a sudden you are surrounded by a lush quilt of textured golds and magenta and a sky that is the brightest blue there is.  I love the energy of the fall here; it might be my favorite season. There is so much to do, picking blackberries and cranberries, smoking fish and butchering moose. There are few feelings as satisfying as watching the first snow fall with a freezer filled to the top with ziploc bags of glossy berries and packages of meat wrapped neatly in white butcher paper. 
    And then it is winter again.  Slowly, quietly and without pretense the ocean slows, then freezes.  The thermometer drops and the wind howls around the corners of buildings.  Snow drifts pile up against buildings and in other places the wind scours the landscape down to the bare brown earth. The sun disappears. Outside on Front Street drunk people stumble around and scream their anger and frustration into the wee hours of the morning. Now there is time to sit down to delicious moose or muskox dinners with friends, to read a good book, to sew a kuspuk or crochet a hat.  It is a time to savor a cup of black coffee with a fresh blueberry muffin. But really, we are all just waiting, waiting for the sun to come back and for the ocean to break free from its icy prison and fill our souls' longing for color with its brilliant, endless blue.


  1. great post and so well written! i saw you tagged 'blogalaska' in old posts so i went back and read the winter one from november. you have such a good outlook on what so many people would see as doom and gloom (dark winter months).

  2. Very cool to read this post! I love reading firsthand accounts of parts of Alaska I have never been to. Our state is so huge! There are so many different "looks" and it's really cool to see them all. I'd love to go up to Barrow sometime and explore out west, where you are, and drive more through the Interior. Our state is so awesome!

  3. This is an an amazing post. Our winters are nothing like yours here in Unalaska. It rarely drops below 25 degrees here, and we have as much rain and sleet as snow. The Bering Sea here doesn't freeze, and our lakes rarely do either. I love autumn here to. We try to get out whenever it is not raining here. We have spent the last 2 months stocking the freezer with salmonberries, blueberries, and cranberries along with salmon and halibut. No moose here. The biggest animal on the island are foxes. Can't wait to read more.