Alaska; Nome, Historical and Beautiful

Most certainly Nome was a gold-mining town. There had to be something special to get people to move here and for some of them to stay on after the gold dried up. The rivers have been dredged and sifted and the mountain’s quartz veins have been chipped. Today there are still many active mines but they are not always looking for placer gold and in many locations they are sieving tons and tons of crushed stone every day. There are a few other miners who suck up the sands along the edge of the Bering Sea hoping to find a pocket full of the heavy brassy mineral. This work is done from small floating platforms (boats) and uses centrifigal pumps. The sand is brought onto the boat and run through a sluice box which washes the sands back into the water while the heavier gold sinks into the washboard grooves of the sluice box.

That isn’t where I was going with this blog … but after a big storm it is common to see the local Nomeites (or Nomeians or Nomesters) with their own small sluices on the beach checking to see if the storm exposed a sand strata that has easy-to-get gold. The small one-person dredges sell for as little as $300 and who knows what you might find.

That is Nome in the top of the image. It is very coastal and just to its interior is the very wet tundra. There is no soil. There are no gardens. There are very few trees and those that are there are small and hardy. Large gold dredges dot the landscape reminding you that the lure of gold and wealth caused people to start all sorts of unlikely enterprises. Dredges like this one operated into the 1940’s and one was even maintained into the ’50s. They sit now like giant praying mantis’ abandoned in the old gravel-floors of the stream beds they scoured many years ago.
Nome doesn’t really have suburbs but houses have to built where they will remain reasonably dry throughout the year. Thus many of the old gravel ridges are where the residential sections are located. In between these sites is tundra or ponds or wet muskeg. There is one non-mountainous rocky outcrop right in  town and that is called Anvil Mountain. This is/was the site of radar towers (see image below) but now offers a grand overview of the town. We had thirty or more Musk Ox on our way up the hill and a couple pairs of Northern Wheatears preparing to nest on the rocky hillside. We returned here a few times, mostly for the view.
These structures are remnants from the White Alice Communication (WAC) system that was installed over the top of the world during the cold war; 1950’s. The antennae could pick up radio waves from 200 miles away and send the information another 200 miles further. The structures were also tied into the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line that kept an ear out for incoming Russian aircraft during the same era. In the years just prior to this installation communication in and out of Nome was very sporadic and still relied on dog sleds in the winter. This site has been cleared of asbestos but probably still has PCBs in the ground and lead paint throughout. There is/was a chain link fence around the site but that has long been knocked down in several locations. We had Red Fox, the Musk Oxen, nesting Ravens and American Golden-Plover while we were up on top.
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Gold was powerful. This abandonded train, actually three locomotives, weigh many many tons. About 1903 some Chicago investors felt that a railroad might be just what this remote gold mining area might need. They bought a disused train set (circa 1885) from the New York Elevated company and shipped it to Nome on the steamer Aztec. The ship also brought rails, ties, and fittings for the construction of the planned 51 mile long rail line. They got about 35 miles of track in place before they ran out of money and out of gold as well – the remnants remain very visible, and with a melancholic air, slowy sinking into the tundra out near the Soloman River.
The shore line around Nome is sometimes sandy and sometimes rocky. The coastal coves catch all sort of oceanic flotsam. Not only is there a huge amount of driftwood in this area (remember there are no trees within a couple hundred miles) but those tiny dots in the very upper right are a small group of Musk Oxen just hanging around enjoying a great view of the Bering Sea.
The vistas out on the tundra remind me of the great expanses of the East African plains. Here we have one Whimbrel watching over his nesting territory and no wildebeest at all. There was a continual grandeur to the scenery. It seemed that mountains always formed the outer edge of whatever view you took.  They lined the tundra views and ocean vistas as well.
It was pretty spectacular. There were patches of snow every here and there but we had hot weather – not warm, but hot. The tundra surface was wet pretty much everywhere and the streams were running nearly full. Where there were Alders and Willows they were in leaf and flower. Spring had come to Nome even with the snow still on the mountains.
We could walk all day and see nothing but birds and mammals. On this day we covered more than 150 miles round-trip and saw two other cars;  briefly saw two other cars. Fran wants me to do a blog page on the ancillary activity of this day and I guess I will. The next blog will be about sneakers and Arctic Warblers — don’t miss it.

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