NOME — The circus is in town.
Arriving here ahead of the frontrunners in the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race this week were hundreds of dog mushing fans, race officials, volunteers and news media following the 1,000-mile race across Alaska. With a winner expected late today or early Wednesday, assuming there are no wild surprises in the final legs, this city on the Bering Sea coast was bustling Monday like it does every year at this time getting ready.
Nome’s population of about 3,700 people swells during the Iditarod, and the visitors bring dollars with them, giving a much-needed economic boost — somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million in sales — in the middle of an often slow winter tourism season, Mayor Denise Michels said.
The race is vastly important in a cultural sense, too, Michels said.
“This is a great time of year for Nome. We share our culture and history with dog mushing and see old friends and meet new ones,” she said.
Nome owes a lot to dog mushing, said Michels, the mayor of 12 years. A relay that delivered diphtheria serum here in 1925 saved thousands of lives in the city and region, maybe all of them, she said.
“It literally saved the town,” Michels said. “The hardiness of the mushers and dogs, it had a significant impact on who we are today.”
On Monday outside City Hall, the famed burled arch that serves as the finish line for the Iditarod was standing on historic Front Street while a crew used a lift to put up the official race banner and flags of all of the countries from which mushers had come. The finish chute consisted of a load of smoothed out snow, as the rest of the streets here held only thin snow, ice and gravel.
Inside City Hall, engineers from Anchorage who work for KTVA-TV Channel 11 were putting the finishing touches on their makeshift control room. They had shipped 74 pieces of freight weighing about 4,800 pounds, said KTVA Director of Engineering Trent McNelly. They will run the public address system at the finish line and will operate five cameras at once for their live production, McNelly said.
McNelly said the TV station also is trying to pull off an Iditarod first: Live video from a helicopter of the first team coming into Nome, transmitted by microwave to race watchers in Alaska and around the world.
The days had been long, and the team had not been getting much sleep, McNelly said.
“I can’t complain. The mushers have it much worse than we do. But there’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
Also losing sleep was Nome resident Delia Ouzevaseuk, who works nights at the local homeless shelter and was selling crafts, including seal-skin slippers with beaver fur trim, during the day at the 16th Annual Iditarod Fine Art Show inside Old Saint Joe’s Church.
Beaded and knit gloves, seal-skin hats and homemade salves lay on other tables.
Ouzevaseuk, originally from the village of Gambell, said she sells more of her work in Nome than on the trips she makes to Anchorage. The sleep deprivation was only temporary, she said.
“It’s only for a week,” she said. “I can catch up on sleep next week.”
For many others, the trip to Nome was purely a vacation. And they came from all over. Standing in line to check in to the Polaris Hotel around the same time Monday afternoon were visitors from New Zealand, Mexico and Michigan.
On a packed flight in earlier, Des Moines, Washington. residents Lisa Malmo and her husband, Mike, were looking forward to seeing their third Iditarod finish. They also were thrilled to see the Seavey family — including Dan, an Iditarod veteran who is father of champ Mitch and grandfather of champ Dallas — on the same flight. Lisa pulled a bag of markers out of her carryon and went to get an autograph on an Iditarod patch.
“These guys are like rockstars to us,” Mike said.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and is covering the Iditarod this year. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.