On Nome’s famed Front Street, the snow is packed down and the famous burled arch -- the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- is in place. The race's leader, Kotzebue musher John Baker, is out of Safety, 22 miles from Nome.
As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, Baker and his closest competitor, Ramey Smyth, were the only mushers to pass through Safety, the last checkpoint before Nome. Baker was more than an hour ahead of Smyth, leaving at 6:48 a.m. versus Smyth's 8:13 a.m. departure time. Hans Gatt and Dallas Seavey, the only other mushers to have passed White Mountain and its mandatory eight-hour layover, left at 3:34 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. respectively.
With the rest of the field nearing the end of the race's 1,049-mile route, Nome is engaged in a flurry of preparation for their big moment: During Iditarod week, the population of this Northwest Alaska town can nearly double as it hosts volunteers, mushers and visitors from around the world.
For locals, it’s a chance to share their remote town with everyone from a group of students spending their Texas A&M University spring break volunteering to tourists from South Africa, Belgium and France.
“There’s always quite a mix of visitors,” said Cheryl Thompson, who works at the downtown library and museum and who founded the popular Iditarod arts and crafts fair, where local artists sell everything from homemade kimchi and chocolate zucchini bread to ivory carvings and sea glass jewelry. “I met one woman who said it (seeing the end of the Iditarod) was on her ‘top three list’ of things she wanted to do during her lifetime.”
For many locals, the Iditarod is also an opportunity to make extra income. Thompson’s husband Roger was busy taking tourists on snowmachine treks onto the Bering Sea ice and to a see a local herd of musk-oxen.
With limited hotel and motel space, some locals rent out spare bedrooms and even couch space to visitors, charging anywhere from $400 for a home that sleeps six people to $20 for a spot on a couch.
The down economy hasn’t kept the visitors from coming, she says.
“I thought maybe when the economy had so many problems, I thought maybe people wouldn’t come,” Thompson said.“But it seems like everyone still keeps coming.”
On Monday morning, a solemn group of volunteers watched as the flags of mushers’ home countries were raised next to the burled arch, and a pickup truck full of cases of beer was unloaded into a nearby liquor store.
Down the street at the Nome Visitor's Center, tourists wearing Iditarod paraphernalia ate Girl Scout cookies while looking at maps. Mary Straub is a retired postal worker who was born and raised in Nome and who now works two days a week at the center. She says the Iditarod is much more commercialized than it used to be, but is still a bright spot on the calendar for locals, as well as a sign of warmer things to come.
“When the Iditarod’s over, it means spring is on its way,” Straub said.
Nome’s reputation for raucous nightlife -- a holdover from its days as a Gold Rush haven where Wyatt Earp was among the ranks of local bar proprietors -- is also boosted by Iditarod celebrating.
At the historic Board of Trade Saloon -- the oldest of the town’s half-dozen or so bars -- bartender Betty Haugen was filling containers of orange and cranberry juice in preparation for the night while Phil Collins played on the stereo.
The veteran Nome bartender said Alaskan Amber beer sells well during the Iditarod, and another bartender had invented a special drink for this year: “Heather came up with an Iditabomb shot, with Jack Daniels, cherry vodka and Red Bull,” Haugen said. “Sounds pretty rough. I’m not sure I’ll try it.”
Edna Attatayuk bartends and works door security at the Board of Trade. She says the biggest and wildest night comes after the first musher arrives, and with mushers on pace for a record-setting finish early Tuesday that could be soon.
Check KTUU.com for a live stream of the Iditarod finish from Nome Tuesday morning.