By Lana Creer-Harris
Known in Gold Rush days as one of the wildest towns in Alaska, Nome still lives up to its reputation. However, claim jumpers, crooked judges and light-fingered saloon dollies are things of the past. Now the wild time is provided by real wildlife. Nomeís road system provides a rare opportunity to see wild, free roaming Muskoxen. Over 300 miles of Nome roads give the nature observer ample opportunity to find everything from butterflies to bears.
Three roads lead out of Nome: each about 80-miles long. Vehicle rental agencies, tour guides, charter vans and cabs are available for the seeker of wildlife. Each road usually takes a day to explore to the end, but many travelers find the scenery, birds, or wildlife so enthralling they need more time to take it all in.
Council Road heads East out of Nome, parallels the coast through Safety Sound, then turns inland to the historic mining town of Council City. The drive to Council provides varied habitat, from barrier-island to Spruce forest, replete with photographic opportunities, wildlife and bird watching. Abandoned turn-of-the-century steam locomotives sit rusting on the flood plane at Bonanza channel, just as the road turns toward Solomon. This much-photographed sight is just one of many fascinating remnants of gold rush history scattered along the Seward Peninsula road system. Nomeites do the drive in 45 minutes; birdwatchers may take all day. Now dotted with summer cottages, Council sits on the far bank of the Niukluk River. It is not a good idea to drive over the river, unless you know the location of strategic sandbars. Locals do it all the time but it is not recommended for neophytes.
Kougarok or Taylor Road, (named after a river and a mining camp) travels into the interior of the Seward Peninsula. This road climbs through photogenic scenery and past a Bureau of Land Management campground at Salmon Lake. Travelers cross Grand Central River, Pilgrim River and the Kuzitrin River. One of the bridges began its life in Fairbanks, Alaska as the Cushman Street Bridge, and still bears that sign. This is a confusing thing for travelers, but an amusing one for locals. Recently a wedding was held on this bridge, and it was decorated accordingly. Some maps indicate the Kougarok road goes all the way to Taylor, a mining enclave; that portion of the road was never completed.
Teller, a Native Village, sits at the terminus of the third road. The citizens practice subsistence activities year-round: hunting, fishing, gathering. This road, low in elevation, is often the first open in the spring. Passing through rolling, coastal hills, the Teller road crosses multiple rivers open for fishing. A reindeer herd roams the vicinity of Teller, as do Muskoxen. Like the other two, this road offers good wildlife viewing opportunity, but as an added bonus, it ends at Grantley Harbor, one of the few place you might glimpse puffins and other sea birds. The Teller sand spit is private property. It belongs to the Teller; the residents use it for subsistence activities. The serious, hard work of catching, cutting and drying meat for the winter occupies the Teller community all summer. Please be courteous and refrain from trespassing on their privacy. Request permission to photograph people and property. There are no gas stations or restaurants in Teller so plan accordingly. There are two markets, that carry basic groceries and often stock locally made crafts, such as fossil mammoth ivory carvings, ivory jewelry, and sealskin slippers.
Wildlife managers speak of "charismatic mega-fauna" which translates to large, furry, attractive mammals. All three of Nomeís roads supply plenty of these: Muskoxen, moose, Brown Bear, reindeer, fox, beaver, and porcupine. Because of the way Nome is situated on Norton Sound, whales do not frequent these waters in great numbers. But, there is a chance in spring to see seals basking on the ice edges at Safety Sound, or Gray Whale spouting in summer waters of the Sound.
Muskoxen were reintroduced to the Seward Peninsula in 1971. These shaggy remnants of the ice age might be on all three roads, either in family groups or as single animals. Over 1,800 Muskoxen roam the hillsides and they are cooperative enough to hang around for photographs. Muskoxen are not normally aggressive, but it is wise to give them a fair amount of personal space, they are large and horned and have survived thousands of years. They do not suffer fools gladly.
Moose are not to be trifled with either, especially mother moose. As the Texans say, they will stomp a mudhole in your middle and stomp it dry. Any mother animal will fight vigorously to defend her young from threat, but moose because of their size are really dangerous to cross. Nobody would think of sneaking up on a Brown Bear and her cub for a cute family portrait, bears are well known for their ability to punish, but the moose, with itís gangly, goofy look doesnít seem dangerous. It is.
Alaska Brown Bears, also known as Grizzly bears make their home on the Seward Peninsula. They emerge from their winter dens, hungry. Arctic Squirrels, locally known as parky squirrels are central to their diet until the rivers open, fish begin migrating and berries ripen. Bears are fun to see from the road, or a safe distance. But they are not an animal who likes surprises. When in the country it is a good idea to keep a look out for bears, contrary to popular belief they see well and their hearing is good. Make people noise, sing, talk, or yodel.
Reindeer, domestic animals originally brought from Lapland as meat for the Eskimos, range freely on the Seward Peninsula. Visitors can enjoy them at one of Nomeís eateries, or as the object of scenic photographs. Itís up to each individual. Visitors in late May or early to mid-June may be treated to the sight of a Reindeer handling, as the roundups are called. Reindeer are herded into a corral, often with the help of a helicopter, where they are vaccinated against disease, and the still velvet covered horns of select adults are harvested for sale to the orient for medicinal use. There are no resident Caribou on the Seward Peninsula. Caribou and Reindeer are related, and share some traits, including the clicking sound they make as they walk. Listen carefully as the animals move in a group, what sounds like them kicking small pebbles is really the click of hock tendons. You may obtain a Checklist of mammals at the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau
Birdwatchers flock to Nome, as their quarry does, in the early weeks of June. Birders will be amply rewarded from the first week of June to mid-August. Near the end of August many birds have finished raising their young and begin migration. The 24-hour day allows avian parents to complete the task of raising young in a short time. Small sandpipers normally arrive in mid-May and begin to leave by mid-August. With fall weather comes pelagic and migratory species. Birding Nome, is weather dependent, if the ice does not leave the rivers or move offshore then nesting may begin later, and different species may turn up. Spring 2000 Stellarís Eiders and Northern Hawk Owls, species normally considered rare or accidental were seen in large numbers. A few hawk owls hung around for the summer, probably encouraged by a bumper crop of lemmings and voles. Yellow Wagtails, Wheatears, Bluethroats, Arctic Warblers, Bristle-thighed Curlews, Common Eiders, Pacific and American Golden Plovers, and many other North American and Beringean species nest where birders have a good chance to see them. Bird checklists are available on request from the Nome Convention and Visitors Center.
Butterfly watching is a new and growing sport. Nome boasts 41 species, half of the species known for Alaska, according to Dr. Kenelm W. Phillip, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Butterfly enthusiasts will get a thrill identifying species this far north and west. Just like birders, butterfliers can get a checklist of species from the Nome visitor center.
There is no way anyone interested in fauna can ignore the bountiful tundra flora. Wildflowers bloom as soon as the snow melts on the high spots and continue blooming into August. Some species bloom early, like the forget-me-not, Alaskaís state flower, other species provide their show later. Alaska Natives gather many species of plants as medicine or food. Surah, as Felt Leaf Willow is known, provides an early spring salad spiced with Sour Dock and dressed with seal oil. For the novice, it is wise to consume only what they can accurately identify. There are some of the most attractive and deadly plants growing around the Seward Peninsula. Even careful identification does not guarantee safety. The dreaded water hemlock grows near the Wild Celery also known as Cow Parsnip, and according to botanists the two may mingle, making the benign celery as toxic as the hemlock.
The many rivers of the Seward Peninsula offer fly-fishers some of the best water anywhere. The bane of fly fishing, over-hanging trees, are not a problem on Nomeís rivers. This is tundra, trees do not grow tall, nor do they overhang the water. Fly fishers have been treated to the sight of beaver swimming along side them as they quietly waited a strike. The same pool on the Solomon River provided a fisher with thrilling views of fox coming down for a drink. Gin clear water gives wildlife watchers the chance to see salmon in their spawning struggle, or trophy size Grayling flashing their dorsal fin in the shallow eddies.
Fish are a staple of the subsistence diet of Seward Peninsula Natives, and the harvest is hard work. Fish camps clustered at water edges all have rows of translucent salmon fillets drying in the sun. Each fillet, joined at the tail and looped over a pole, is scored perfectly as if cut by a machine instead of by a hand wielding an ulu. Ulus, either commercially or locally made, are for sale in local shops. These handy curve bladed knives are the utility tools of the Eskimo.
No matter what natural history interests a traveler might have, Nome,
Alaska will provide an opportunity to experience wildlife from the extensive
road system. Ample visitor accommodations and services are available in