Text, Video & Photos by Markus Bauer
Nome, sweet Nome
Alaska | Documentary | 2014
"Hello, I’m Markus. For my bachelor’s thesis in design, I traveled to Alaska to tell you about a small town called Nome."
THE LAST FRONTIER
"When my heart beats, the sound of my heartbeat is Nome, Nome, Nome, Nome..."
There are a lot of of stories where the city’s name originally came from. Some say that the first settlers asked the natives what this piece of land was called. “No-me” was the answer, which just means “I don’t know”. What people do know, however, is the adventure-filled past of Nome. It was used as a hunting ground for the Eskimo, when the “three lucky swedes” arrived. Inspired by the Klondike-Goldrush, they founded the Pioneer-Mining-Company and to everybody’s amazement, actually did find gold – a lot of it. Of course, as soon as the word was out, the population figure exploded. From 1901 to 1907, Nome grew from 0 to 30,000 inhabitants. Unlike the nearby gold strike town of Solomon, which was completely wiped out, Nome is still inhabited by about 3,500 people today.
"From coast guard cutters, Russian fuel ships and ice breakers, to cruise ships and gold platform dredges, all combine to make Airport Pizza a crossroads of men and women from unique walks of life"
One of the reasons I came to Nome is Airport Pizza. Back in 2006, there was a CBS article with a short video about the restaurant. Ever since I stumbled across the video online, I wondered if they could really stay in business with delivering pizzas by plane. Wouldn’t this be way too expensive? Don’t the pizzas get cold? How do you even get all of the ingredients to Alaska? I really enjoyed the reindeer pizza. You don’t usually get to eat reindeer in Germany, so of course I had to try it. The taste is somewhat similar to grilled Vienna sausage. A bit more spicy, but very delicious.
"Nome’s about gold, plain and simple. That’s why we’re here, that’s why Nome is here. It’s all about the gold."
On my first day, right after I met him, Bill, the current owner of Airport Pizza, took me to see one of the old dredges. It was quite dark and we had some beautiful backlight, so this massive structure just sat there, like a giant dinosaur skeleton. It was destroyed in the mid 70s, by some children who set it on fire.
To my surprise, a lot of people in Nome really make a living from searching for gold. Most of them have their own little dredge, or team up to build a bigger one. It is really fascinating, that no two dredges look alike. Just like the houses in Nome, there does not seem to be a preferred way of building them. There are even dredges which drive around underwater.
One of the more common designs are basically very flat boats, with a hose attached to a pump. In the winter, those boats are carried out onto the ice. The hose is put through a hole in the surface, and a diver in a heated suit has to go down and vacuum the ground for gold, while the crew on top filters it out.
"Don’t worry about the damn color of the truck. You won’t miss the reindeer sitting in the back of it"
Velvet is quite famous in and around Nome. I don’t think that there are a lot of other places where you can see a reindeer riding around on a truck. There are Youtube-videos, newspaper articles, and certainly a whole lot of pictures of her. Apparently, she gets most of her food from the grocery store. Velvet gets to eat all of the vegetables they would have thrown away, including the cuttings or food they cannot sell. So, if you’re looking for Velvet, this is a good place to start.
"The Ucon Quest is just that - a race. The Iditarod is based on a humanitarian act and saved lives [...]"
The Iditarod is the longest and hardest sled dog race in the world. In early march, the mushers and their teams of 16 dogs race from Anchorage to Nome, where the finish line is. This takes about 9 to 15 days, sometimes even longer. They frequently race through massive blizzards, with temperatures that reach down to -73 degrees. What makes the Iditarod so special is not only the danger, but because it’s based on a very famous event, called the “great race of mercy“, which saved the population of Nome in 1925. The dog mushers and even their dogs seem to be big celebrities in the local museum. Balto, for example, was the lead dog to arrive in Nome with the serum. They even did a movie about him, which competed against Disney’s Toy Story in the cinema.
CLIMATE & WILDLIFE
"We’re gonna get some weather..."
There are three big problems with taking pictures in Alaska. The first one is the impact on the equipment. According to the camera service, the camera is supposed to work until thirty degrees below zero. Too bad, nobody told me that all batteries die at about 15 degrees below freezing-point, and they will reach that temperature fast. Your only chance is to carry a number of batteries close to your body to keep them warm, which gives you a few additional minutes. The second problem is condensation. Just like with glasses, when you take your camera back into the warmth, water will stick to the lens, to the sensor, and basically anything that’s cold. Water and electronics are rarely a good team, but when the water turns into ice, it can really do a lot of damage. The third, and perhaps most obvious impact is the one on the human body. It can get quite stormy here, so in addition to the low temperatures, just keeping your eyes open is a real struggle at times. Of course, when you plan a trip like this, you make sure to have appropriate gear to prevent you from shaking. Still, when temperatures are really low, it will get uncomfortable – no matter what you are wearing.
"The Eskimo people had to sue for a right to fish in their own ocean"
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there;
I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not here; I did not die.
-Mary Elizabeth Frye