The weird, wonderful world of Nome after Iditarod

An MC at the Make Your Own Bikini contest at Nome’s Polar Bar, announcing the year’s winner and runner up (Photo – Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Nome turns into a bit of a carnival when the Iditarod winner mushes into town. For nearly a week, racers continue arriving before the banquet that officially concludes each year’s Iditarod. For some, that means days of free time. And plenty of fun, strange events to fill it.

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In the very back of a long, crowded bar, an MC auctioned off all kinds of random swag branded with booze company logos.

“Alright, we have a Budweiser poker set,” he called out, opening bidding at $15 and eventually working it up to $30. There were also coolers, beach-chairs, and a Fireball cornhole set.

The auction lasts nearly an hour, and the point is to raise money for an annual event inside the Polar Bar each Iditarod week: the Make Your Own Bikini Contest.

To wild cheers, a handful of contestants walk out of a back room, off a small stage, and down an improvised runway past the crowd. The outfits range from haphazardly last-minute to impressively inventive.

“Ace in the Hole,” the MC reads off, introducing a young woman in a dress made out of playing cards.

There’s also a bra fashioned out of two red king crabs. The winning contestant, whose stage name is ‘IditaFox,’ sports a two-piece ensemble from a pelt.

The contest is like a lot of Iditarod week in Nome: a mix of sordid and scandalous with crafty and community-minded. Visitors pour into the Bering Sea-side hub of 3,700 people for a kind of sub-Arctic Spring Break, a Cancun of the North. Restaurants, bars and seemingly every spare bedroom are filled. Schools across the region are on vacation, allowing for athletes and families travel in on discounted flights from surrounding communities for a huge basketball tournament.

Some of the annual night-time events are known for racy debauchery — like the “wet buns” contest. Others are grittier, like the arm-wrestling tournament at Breaker’s Bar, where two years ago Aliy Zirkle broke another competitor’s limb.

This year, a similar thing happened — though not with Zirkle. Tara Cicatello, a handler for Kristin Bacon who competed in the light-weight class, was watching the women’s middle-weight contest. After an elbow slipped, the two competitors re-set.

“As soon as they start to wrestle again, you just here this popping noise,” Cicatello recalled two days later. “The whole room goes silent, it was like a gunshot. And then, we look, and the woman’s arm is just hanging.”

Beyond the bars, beneath the season’s expanding daylight, the region’s unique culture and history is on display throughout the festive week. Snowmachines race along the sea-ice to check crab-pots. Rugged literary types listen to the poems of Robert Service, read aloud in a convention center. Musher Hugh Neff got married at an informal outdoors ceremony officiated by Nome’s mayor, Richard Beneville.

This year, the new Carrie M. McClaine museum, which opened last October, gave tours to 105 people by the week’s end.

“One of the favorite pieces in this case is this engraved ivory drill bow at the top,” Museum Director Amy Phillips-Chan said, standing in front of old tools collected from around the region, some etched with scenes of walrus, whale and seal harvests.

“Drill bows are really fascinating objects, because Inupiaq was primarily a spoken language, so the older drill bows that were used and passed down among carvers were actually used as mnemonic devices to record and then pass on oral traditions and stories,” Phillips-Chan explained.

As the museum tour wound down, a crowd filled up a library room next door to listen to a talk by Iditarod champion Martin Buser.

Not far away, behind the snow-dump, unrelenting wind is whipped up a ground-storm around a bunch of trucks and sled-dogs. Even by Nome standards, it was miserable weather — especially for a sled-dog race.

These aren’t Iditarod teams. The animals belong to local mushers, who are clipping three-dog teams to light sleds for the Nome Kennel Club’s Businessman’s Race. For a $150 entry-fee, amateurs hire someone else’s dog team to race a three mile loop. Ducking behind a truck for cover from the wind, race official Kirsten Bay said the 110-year-old Kennel Club aims to keep alive traditions of mushing — which, most years, includes putting on the Businessman’s Race.

“It’s totally fun and sport,” Bey said. “It’s to give people the opportunity to be a dog musher, to run a little team a few miles around a course and see what it’s like.”

As the tiny teams took off, they were quickly swallowed by the murky swirl of snow. Spectators and supporters huddled by trucks in the parking lot, while just a few blocks away, the back-of-the-pack Iditaroders kept arriving under Front Street’s Burled Arch.