In early March, Nome’s population swells by more than 1,000 as visitors cheer the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers and their dog teams as they cross the finish line in one of the world’s most grueling sporting events.
If Nome Mayor Richard Beneville has his way, there won’t be much relaxing. It’s party time.
Nome’s Iditarod celebration is getting a reputation as the “Mardi Gras of the North.” Nome means to live up to that this year with 100 events ranging from reserved (basket weaving demonstrations) to raunchy (wet T-shirt contests).
Of course, the race finish on Front Street is the main event. The city’s numerous bars are open until 5 a.m. to give visitors a place to relax until the arrival of the next Iditarod musher in the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
It was in one of those bars last year that musher Aliy Zirkle — after finishing fifth and getting a few hours’ rest — showed up for an arm wrestling match. She ended up breaking the arm of her opponent (a lawyer from California) and while mortified, cemented her reputation as one tough Iditarod musher.
Indeed, fans can get close, really close, to the Iditarod athletes, both human and canine, as long as they are willing to travel to either Anchorage or Nome.
Nome is not reachable by road. During the Iditarod, Bering Air in Nome offers helicopter rides to the race checkpoint in Safety, where visitors can view the mushers from the air making the final trek to the finish line. The trip includes a half-hour break at Safety so that people can meet the mushers and their dog teams.
For many, the Iditarod — begun in 1973 to commemorate the delivery by sled dog teams of serum that prevented a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome in 1925 — is a bucket-list event. The western Alaska city has an intriguing past. Gold was discovered there in 1898, which got the attention of Wyatt Earp, who moved to Nome, opened a saloon and got rich. Throw in the drama of the race across Alaska wilderness, spectacular scenery and a love of dogs, and the Iditarod is hard to resist, said Stan Hooley, the race’s executive director.
Like any other sport, the Iditarod has its die-hard fans, the ones who come to Anchorage each year to rub shoulders with their favorite mushers at the ceremonial start, a hugely festive affair of its own.
The newly refurbished Lakefront Anchorage hotel, just a few miles from the location for the ceremonial start downtown, serves as the official host hotel for the Iditarod. At Iditarod time, the hotel's parking lot fills with dog trucks, and there's a good chance of rubbing shoulders with one of the mushers in the hotel bar.
“The Iditarod people are dog lovers,” Beneville said. “They love Alaska, and the Iditarod is about as Alaska as you can get.”