Nome is a community surrounded on all sides by either treeless tundra or ocean. This time of year, sled dogs and a wave of tourists flood the city’s streets for the annual Iditarod Trail Race. It is also the only time of year visitors will have the opportunity to wander through a truly unique kind of evergreen forest.
Three men repair and paint a variety of large plywood cutouts. There’s a duck, Mickey Mouse, and various other shapes scattered throughout a vacant garage. Painting is not Mitch Erickson’s normal weekend activity. Erickson is the ringleader of the group that is diligently preparing colorful decorations to disperse out on the sea ice. Volunteer Charlie Painter may not have found himself painting a large yellow duck if it hadn’t been for a particular motivation.
As Painter said,”I hope Mitch is going to look favorably on me and buy beer later.”
If you gaze out from Nome’s front street this time of year, you will see Norton Sound covered with ice that extends to the horizon. By this time next week, the giant yellow duck and the community’s old Christmas trees will dot the frozen ocean a unique site for a community surrounded by tundra peppered only with willows and musk ox. Mitch Erickson and the rest of the crew are trying to revive the Nome National Forest, a tradition that has all but died out.
Erickson says the forest began as a creative way for the community to discard their Christmas trees.
He states, “The history behind it is somebody put a Christmas tree out there and another person and another person. The next thing you know it became a tradition.” Erickson says reviving the Nome National Forest was Mayor Richard Beneville’s idea.
According to Erickson, their strategies for gathering trees has so far been, “The Mayor Drives around and says “Hey Mitch I saw a tree at so and so location go get it”. So I go get it and now ones shot at me yet.”
Mayor Beneville states his main reason for bring back the forest is, “Because I am Mayor and I want it, how is that for a reason that may sound egotistical but it, you know the mayor has some power.”
The original founder and a few organizers of the Nome National Forest passed away so there have not been trees on the ice for at least 3 years. Mayor Beneville believes re-establishing this event and others like it will draw more tourists downtown for the festivities that take place during the Iditarod Trail Race.
As he puts the finishing touches on a plywood ghost and listens to the radio, Charlie Painter, is not thinking of tourism but rather what the trees and cutouts bring to Nome’s view.
Painter reflects, “It’s a pretty cool thing I gotta admit. You look out on the ocean and there’s nothing to look at. Its just a sea of white and it is beautiful in itself, but its kinda cool to look at something and these cutouts are pretty cool to look at.”
Mayor Beneville wants this so bad that he has even created a radio add to ask residents for their discarded Christmas trees.Beneville hopes to rejuvenate this classic Nome tradition. The Mayor and the rest of the volunteers expect to set up the trees and cutouts in time for Iditarod spectators and dogs teams that will arrive in less than two weeks. The Mayor is already planning for the Nome National Forest to return next year.
He says, “Next year I want to get back up to 100 trees, Yeah! who else but a bunch of Nomies put Christmas trees out and a make a forest out of it. I think it is very cool.”