Experiencing the Iditarod in Nome – An Iditafan’s Guide
Nome – Growing up, the Iditarod was something I looked forward to every year. My grandparents volunteered with the race in some capacity or another from 1978 until 2012, when my grandmother died. Grandpa still follows the race, but it was really Grandma that was the Iditarod fanatic. Like me, she counted down the days till the start and took volunteering seriously (though to be fair, my Grandfather was the drill sergeant of our crew of volunteers). At the age of five I became obsessed with the Iditarod after receiving the book Danger the Dog Yard Cat written by 1985 Iditarod Champion, Libby Riddles, and Shelly Gill. In college I worked for champion-level Iditarod mushers, and continued that work after I moved back home to Kenai. I kind of fell into those jobs working with competitive mushers, and if I wasn’t obsessed before, they certainly made it official.
Dan Seavey, one of the original trail breakers and Iditarod racers says becoming an Ultimate Iditafan is a three-step process:
1. Attend the Ceremonial Start – I’ve done this … time and time and time and time again.
2. Attend the Restart – I’ve attended the restarts in Wasilla and Willow. I haven’t made it to Fairbanks, but it happens so rarely that I’ve given myself a pass.
3. Attend the finish in Nome – In the process…
As I type this story I’m sitting in my hotel room in Nome. After all the years spent volunteering, working with mushers, and being obsessed, I’ve finally made my first trip to the Iditarod finish line. We booked our flights well before Fairbanks was declared the location for the restart, so we arrived a little early. I did the best I could to plan well for our trip, but there were so many unknowns. It’s incredible how little reliable information is out there. A lot of opinions, but not much in the way of letting visitors know what to expect. So here’s what I’ve learned so far about being an Iditafan in Nome for the finish.
Book early, but only the hotel. While it would seem that booking a plane ticket as early as possible would be your safest option, it’s not. That’s how we got stuck coming in a day and a half too soon and leaving at least a day too early. I’m not suggesting waiting until February to book, but give yourself a buffer on each end so that you aren’t too early or too late to see the finish.
This is a no brainer, but make sure you know the hotel/B&B/apartment cancellation policy. Our hotel can make changes up to the day of arrival. And don’t always believe what you read when it comes to reviews. Most of the hotels are very old and do the best they can. None of them are going to be the Hilton, and most will feel more like a Travelodge or Econolodge… but with the Hilton price tag. It is what it is. I’m staying at a hotel that has the worst reviews. We were expecting a nightmare, but are actually quite pleased with it.
Remember: you’re coming during the biggest week of Nome’s year. Supply and demand. Prices go up. You’re coming for the experience, not to be pampered. Keep in mind this is SMALL town Alaska. I grew up in Kenai, which is considered a small town, but it’s huge in a lot of ways compared to Nome. People are friendly and there’s a sense of celebration in the air. We’re in Nome early enough to experience the anticipation people are feeling for when the winner will get here. Everyone has a theory. This is Iditarod’s town.
While we’re on the subject of money – food is pricey here. My recommendation? Pack a bag with snacks and water if you can. A case of 40 bottles of water costs over 40 dollars. The same case in Anchorage costs about half the price. If you can swing it, do it. You’re coming up on a plane that is half cargo, half passengers, so they can handle you packing extra (and you get three free bags on Alaska Airlines if you have their miles card or are a Club 49 member). This town doesn’t sleep and you can get food at just about any of the bars (there are so many), but you’re not always going to want a full-on meal. A large snack bag of chips is about six dollars. Something to keep in mind–you can always leave what you don’t use, as I’m sure the hotel staff will be able to use it.
The food you find in the restaurants won’t disappoint. Some places have larger portions than others. So far Yelp reviews have been pretty spot on, so do a little research. There’s surprisingly more options in Nome than there are in Nikiski/Kenai/Soldotna combined. You can get Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Asian Fusion, American, Italian–you name it, they probably have it. There’s one place that puts halibut and crab on pizza. Who does that?! Nome-ians do, that’s who!
Don’t expect a strong internet connection, especially once the finish gets close. In the hotel we have sporadic strength (though overall it’s been fairly decent). I have GCI which gives me pretty good service here at the edge of the world. My travel buddy has Verizon. She is basically at the mercy of free wifi wherever we are because she’s not getting much coverage out here (she can’t hear you now). Most of the restaurants have free wifi for diners and it’s usually posted somewhere in the entry way.
The visitor center, while seemingly small, is incredibly informative on the daily happenings, and the staff are friendly. There are a lot of Iditarod fans checking in, so it’s a great little welcoming party. If you have questions, they have answers (you can also email them ahead of time to keep in the loop, find housing, etc). Make sure to stop in on your first day in town (and they ARE open the Sunday before the finish, don’t believe their Facebook page!).
Note: That’s what we’ve learned in just the short day and a half we’ve been on the ground in Nome. More to come as I’d like to find time to share our “misadventure” in getting here.