Nome, Alaska to Council Expedition – No Place Like It!
Distance sign in the center of town shows 141 miles to the Arctic Circle, 1,968 to Seattle, and 2,871 to Los Angeles, all in a straight line.
‘There’s no place like Nome.” So says the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau
. After five rides around the globe and 1,000,000 miles, I had to admit in the first hour the town was far different from any other I had passed through. Looking at the mileage post on Main Street, reading that Denver was 3,402 miles southeast, and Siberia was 164 miles west across the Bering Sea that lapped the shore only a few yards way, I knew I was not in Kansas.
My first stop was the Visitor Bureau office to inquire about cheap sleeping. The screaming green Kawasaki
KLX250S, yellow High-Viz Darien jacket from Aerostich and yellow Nolan helmet made me a highly visible target on Main Street in the town with a population of less than 4000. Before I had taken off my helmet an attractive and energetic reporter from the Nome Nugget newspaper headquartered across the street ran out the door and over to my parked motorcycle where she asked, “Hi. Who are you and what are you doing here, and what kind of motorcycle is that?”
The old lone wolf traveler that I am, I have learned that a pretty face asking pointed questions can lead down several paths, some good, others to a disaster. My cautious response was, “I’m trying to get to Russia on the cheap from up north at Teller.”
This portable gateway was the end of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, nearly 1,200 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
She thought for a few seconds, looked my motorcycle over and then at me again, and said, “I work for the Nome Nugget, Alaska’s oldest newspaper. Can I take your picture and interview your for an article?”
The path this time I chose to follow was a good one. I first spent a profitable half hour in the Visitor Bureau finding a reasonably inexpensive room for the night, versus sleeping on the beach for free in the wind and rain. Walking across the street I saw the portable Finish Line for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race that the organizers pull across Main Street in early March. As I took a photo of the sign on skids I tried to imagine how cold it would be in early March as the entrants mushed into Nome after 1,200 miles of the torturous event from Anchorage. “Cold enough to freeze your nose hairs!” was what I had been told at the Visitor Bureau. I decided then that while Nome looked like a friendly city, one that did not have a stop light and I had already met one pretty lady, it was not where I wanted to be on my motorcycle other than the particular time I happened to be there, the end of June. It was their “high season” with a normal high of 58.6 degrees and low of 46.
The Nome Nugget
publisher was working at the front desk when I entered. When I asked about circulation and some history she proudly told me they were the only newspaper for over 500 hundred miles in any direction and were published every day, except for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
This is the location of the former home of the Dexter Saloon owned by Wyatt Earp. The new building houses the City of Nome’s government offices.
The interview appeared with a photo on Thursday, so my 15 minutes of fame in the Nome area lasted for a week. In the interview I said I was interested in meeting people and asked that they stop and talk to me, which they often did after reading the article and seeing me.
After my interview I took several photographs of where the famous Dexter saloon used to be located, the ground on which now stands Nome City Hall. When Wyatt Earp (yes, the one from Tombstone and the OK Corral) owned the Dexter in 1897 it was the only two-story building in town. This was during the Alaska Gold Rush, and the town swelled to over 28,000. Earp returned to the states in 1901 with reportedly $80,000, none of which he had to dig out of the ground or sift off the beach. One could say he had mined the miners.
Pictured here is The Board of Trade Saloon, the oldest saloon in Nome, “Headquarters For The Sin City of Nome.”
While I was taking photographs of the street the bartender of the Board of Trade Saloon came out and took a few photographs on my parked Kawasaki, and then of me taking photographs of the saloon. The Board of Trade Saloon was one of eight saloons in town. It was also the oldest, being first built in 1900, and had printed on the front “Headquarters for the Sin City of Nome.”
Today the Board of Trade is not only a saloon, but also houses an ivory and artifact shop, pull-tab room and upstairs a large bingo hall with free food on bingo nights. Leon, the friendly bartender, told me the owner, Jim West, had seen me walking on the street and wanted to meet me.
When I started to lock the Kawasaki Leon laughed and told me no one would steal it. He said, “Where would they hide it? And with that color they couldn’t ride it if they did take it without the police immediately spotting it. Don’t worry, but I’d lock it at night; someone might want to take it for a test ride.”
Proprietor West proved to be a most likeable person, with many stories and wild tales of Nome, having lived there more than 50 years. He had come to Nome from Arkansas and started working as a house painter. Today he hires house painters to paint some of the numerous houses and apartments that his son manages around Nome.
He asked Leon to give me tour of the facilities. After we finished the walk through the buildings, West gave me an ivory Billiken for good luck, carved in the image of a small smiling person. He said, “If you are going to be riding that motorcycle and hanging around here you’ll need the luck to keep from getting run over by drivers, bears or caribou. Keep an eye out for the women too. Rub the Billiken belly for luck.”
This was a pet caribou that rode around town in the back of a pick-up truck. These girls were not sure if it would bite, but finally ended up petting it. It did not bite.
Before I left I stopped in the bar, drank a soda and chatted with Leon who gave me some of his artwork, comics that he created on his computer. As I was leaving he reached into a large glass jar behind the bar and scooped out a handful of multi-colored packets that he handed to me and I pocketed. He said, “You can use those if you’re hanging around here for a few days.” Two days later when I fished one out of my pocket to snack on while driving to Council, thinking it was wrapped candy, I discovered they were flavored condoms! I had not been in town two hours and already discovered most of the people were not only friendly but had a good sense of humor. West had me rubbing the belly of the Billiken for luck and Leon was outfitting me with condoms.
Maps and printed material boasted over 350 miles of a road system in, around and out of the Nome area. These included several miles of pavement, more miles of gravel roads and then some tracks and trails. The Kawasaki had been set up for whatever I thought the area could throw at me, so I decided to ride every mile of road, track, trail and
This is the treeless road to Council, with snow alongside in July.
beach I could before my schedule became tight and I had to reach Teller, there hopefully finding a way to cross the Bering Straits to Siberia. I also wanted to learn about the motorcycling community, if there was one 141 miles below the Arctic Circle.
For the next ten days I used Nome as a base, riding out to the ends of the three main roads, and then poking my way back while exploring any trail or track I saw. Everything I needed I carried with me, from extra gasoline, to food, tent and sleeping bag. I also packed all spare parts I thought I might need like inner tubes and master link for the chain. I knew if I broke down in the bush it could be 80-90 miles from Nome, well off the main road, and a long walk out.
I planned to return to Nome every two or three days, buy more food and gas and then go back out into the bush. After two days in Nome “discovering” the town and making friends, I left for my first target, the small village of Council, 57 miles southeast of Nome. While it is described as an abandoned village, there are numerous summer homes with
This was another dead gold dredge deep in the bush, long silenced and rotting. When alive it made a thunderous sound as it ate rocks, brush and muck in search of gold.
part-time residents. With the summer fishermen and birders the population sometimes reached 50-100 on a busy weekend. In the late 1890s, before the rush to Nome, there were as many as 15,000 residents in this now sleepy village.
The first leg for 30 miles was littered with dead gold mining equipment, trucks, cars, snow machines, ATVs
and squatter summer houses along the beach. I soon learned that nothing is thrown away in this remote part of Alaska. If a truck died, it was not sent to the crusher 1000 miles away. Likely it was sold for parts to another resident or kept for possible resurrection. The same applied to ATVs, snow machines and even airplanes. The numerous abandoned giant gold dredges that had chewed their way through the tundra, sifting out the gold and stopped when the dredging was no longer profitable, were in stark contrast to the lush green scrub brush of the tundra.
This was a roadhouse and last Check Point on the Iditarod Race Course. I was their only customer at this time, mid day.
Much of the early section of the road from Nome to Council was hard pan that in winter was the last miles into Nome for the Iditarod Sled Race. There was a road house (bar, restaurant) where I stopped for my last cooked meal. Inside were hundreds of photos on the walls of famous and not-so-famous racers. The roadhouse during the race was the final checkpoint before the last dash into Nome. During the race several hundred dogs, racers and fans would be milling in and around the roadhouse. On my stop in June I was the only person inside besides the lady, who was the cook and barkeeper, and her two children.
When the road turned inland at what was once Dickson and away from the Norton Sound, I was surprised to see three dead steam train engines and several flatbed cars slowly sinking into the mud where they had stopped more than 80 years earlier. The rest of the road to Council was loose gravel and hard pan over barren hills and through
I found these three dead steam engines where they had stopped, the railroad having long since gone out of business.
some valleys. Streams had good bridges over them until the road ended at the Niukluk River, across which were an air strip and the small village of Council.
The river was wide, but in late June only about two to three feet deep at its deepest point. In the winter it would be frozen and easily crossed, but in June it would be a submarine test for any motorcycle or ATV that had an air intake below the three foot level. Being an old global traveler has some advantages, one being my learning curve is nearly flat, knowing that crossing deep streams 57 miles from the nearest town and ending up on a river bank trying to dry out a hydro-locked motor and wet electrics while bears feed on salmon nearby was not an adventure I needed to experience again. I waited until a Council resident arrived from Nome in a four wheel drive pick-up truck and let him ferry me across the water.
I found this murdered Honda deep in the bush, RIP. Notice the real bullet holes in the gas tank, not the fake paste on ones sometimes seen on motorcycles.
While I was interested in the town of Council and the area around it, what piqued my adventure lust was the dotted line on the map described as a “winter trail” following Ophir Creek that went northeast out of town. In the summer the locals told me I could get as far as 17 miles up the road before it became impassable (mud) and my likelihood of seeing bear or moose would be quite high. While I saw no bear, I did see a dead Honda motorcycle with bullet holes through the gas tank and found half a moose antler. I also found thick clouds of mosquitoes, a light rain all night and cold sleeping on the ground.
The next night I was back in Nome, sleeping indoors, dry and away from the bugs. I bought gas and provisions for the next expedition out to the end of the Taylor Highway to Serpentine Hot Springs, or as far as I could ride.
While I was in Nome a KTM
rider stopped next my Kawasaki KLX and asked about the price if I wanted to sell it. I told him what I would ask, but added that I wanted to ride the Taylor Highway first, and then up to Teller. He asked if I would like company on the Taylor Highway for the ride towards Kougarok, where his family owned a summer house. He had a friend with a Honda
650XR that could go with us and we would make an afternoon adventure. He verbally painted a fun picture of the secrets he knew of the road, so I decided to make it a trio and let the locals drag me along.
The Dexter Roadhouse is pictured here. Hours of operation are: Thursday Night-Friday Morning: 2:00 AM – 5:00 AM, Friday Night-Saturday Morning: 3:00 AM – 5:00 AM, Saturday Night-Sunday Morning: 3:00AM – 5:00AM, Sunday: 2:00 PM – 10:00 PM.
When I asked him what would be interesting for my Nome evening he said there were the bars (which I had already seen once and at $5 for a beer, once was enough). I told him I would pass. He then suggested the small movie theatre, which I sloughed off thinking ‘I did not come to Nome to go to the movies.’ Finally he said, “Given what you have seen around the world, maybe you’d find the Dexter Roadhouse interesting.”
I asked, “What and where is it?”
He said it was a saloon about fifteen minutes from Nome, outside the city limits. It opened after the saloons in town closed at 2 or 3 a.m. I asked, “Who goes out there at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. in the morning?”
He laughed, then said, “Some local people I think you would find very interesting, and the owner rides an old BMW motorcycle
Mike West, owner of the Dexter Roadhouse, was the owner of this 1966 BMW R60, his “daily runner.”
That night I woke up when the saloon below my sleeping quarters closed at 2 a.m. and the swillers and spillers stumbled up the stairs and down the hall to their rooms. I dressed in my warmest clothes and rode over the hill in a cold fog to have a soda at 3 in the morning at the Dexter Roadhouse. My new KTM friend was right; it was an interesting group, some of which were intent on keeping their festivities going that had started earlier in Nome. The owner and I traded BMW R60 tales and tips on where to get parts until 4 a.m. when I had consumed enough cola and coffee to keep me awake for the rest of the night. From my room in Nome at 5:30 in the morning, I could see and hear some of the people I had met earlier at the Dexter Roadhouse coming back to their Nome starting points.
As I fell asleep at six, going over my mental check list for things I needed to do before heading towards Kougarok and then the Serpentine Hot Springs, the one statement that kept going through my head was, “There’s no place like Nome.”