Seeing the great state of Alaska, one village at a time

Several weeks ago I went to Nome, Alaska, to see firsthand what life is like in the Bush, where I spent three days there with a family I did not know.

When I first got off the plane I was greeted by the long, flat tundra of Nome, stretched out in every direction. It was quite a contrast to the mountainous, tree covered terrain I’d grown accustomed to in Anchorage and Southeast Alaska. I was in a different world; a small Bush town with only three dead-end roads out.

I only had a second to worry that I might be dreadfully bored on my trip. Mike, a National Guard Blackhawk mechanic, his wife, Gale, and their two young boys, 3 and 6, were my four enthusiastic tour guides. They saw to it that every waking minute was filled with adventure.

The following is my account of Nome on the third day.

Day 3: Landscape

On my third day in Nome, I was already feeling comfortable with my surroundings, except for the nasty knot in my stomach that had been there since the first day. In fact, we all had the same mean knot. We reckoned it was from the reindeer sausage we ate for breakfast at Airport Pizza Restaurant and Cafe. It was the only thing our stomachs had in common. We just decided to consume a lot of club soda and saltine crackers and continue with our adventures.

We had one more day left.

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I woke up that Sunday, microwaved my half-finished coffee from the day prior and trudged out to the truck with Mike. We were going flying. Out on the runway the wind whipped at us, freezing my ears and nose as we waited for our pilot, Chip, and his wife, Leanne, to arrive. We were flying out to Serpentine, an old settlement that supposedly had nicer, maintained hot springs than Pilgrim. It’s in the Bering Land Bridge Preserve, and the only way to get there is by small plane. Chip said that Serpentine is also accessible by snowmachine or four-wheeler, however you could only get there halfway and would have to hike the rest of the way in.

We took off without a hitch. I sat in the front, Leanne and Mike in back. As we flew, Chip pointed out different jagged peaks and gutted valleys. The terrain below had endured some of nature’s cruelest treatment. Volcanoes and glaciers had ravaged the land, churning it up and spitting it out, leaving in their wake endless tundra and treeless mountains.

Air traffic control had reported clear skies before takeoff, but as we neared our approach we realized the flaw of relying on weather reports from afar; Serpentine was socked in with heavy cloud cover, making it impossible to land in such a small plane, even with a GPS unit.

Chip turned his plane around and told me to keep an eye on the ground, as I was sure to see bears. I didn’t. No hot springs, no wildlife.

Ten minutes into our return trip Chip asked me if I would be interested in flying the plane for a bit. Never one to say no, I let him instruct me on how to use the rudder pedals and the flight yoke, respectively, the foot pedals and the steering wheel. I was petrified at first; images of nose-diving into a mountaintop ran through my head. Chip assured me that he was ultimately in control. As I finally relaxed into the process of reading the controls of speed and altitude, a voice cut through my headphones.

“Chip, could you please take over.”

It was Leanne and she didn’t sound happy. He looked over at his wife and mouthed to her that he was in control. I turned and looked at her and felt how awkward the moment was; she was irate to say the least.

“We’ve had this conversation before,” she said, gritting her teeth. She had turned a pale shade of green.

“It’s OK,” I said, trying to lighten the weight. “I’m done.” I released my death grip on the flight yoke and sullenly looked out my window, down at the bearless tundra. So much for finding my calling as a pilot.

As it turned out, Leanne suffered from a tremendous case of airsickness. I found this interesting, since the year before they had spent six months flying all over the Lower 48 for their honeymoon. It was not my job to call her out on the oddity of it, so I kept my mouth shut.

After we landed, I invited Chip and Leanne to join Mike and I for coffee. In a rather unpleasant way she declined for both of them. It was probably for the best, since after our uneventful flight Mike and I went and corralled the rest of his family and took the long drive out to the last destination the roads out of Nome had to offer. It was time to see Council.

Like all the other surrounding areas of Nome, Council was once home to thousands of people. However, now it is only a summer getaway for a couple hundred Nome residents who wish to spend the season hunting, fishing and living completely off the grid.

There is not much to see in Council at the end of the summer season, but it did offer a different terrain. Inland from Nome the land is set in low-lying mountains and covered with spruce trees and shrub – a relief of sorts to the seemingly endless flatlands of tundra.

En route to Council I saw a grizzly bear, a posse of reindeer, a herd of musk ox, a flock of ptarmigan and a lone porcupine. It was my birthday, and I reveled in the idea that each sighting was a gift.

I had gone to Nome on a whim and what ensued was a fascinating trip through history, culture and entertainment.

As I boarded the plane that night and said farewell to my new friends and fellow adventurers, images of wildlife, flat tundra and Native celebrations filled my head. Three days was hardly enough time to say I’d experienced life in the Bush, but it was enough to have a much larger understanding of the differences between rural and urban Alaska.

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of three. To read Days 1 and 2, go to www.thenorthernlight.org.