Across Alaska: Miners, servers and birders flock to Nome as pandemic restrictions ease
NOME, Alaska (KTUU) - On Monday morning, John Handeland drove a white SUV down a dusty road in Nome. On his right, dozens of musk ox stood lazily on an airport runway.
“Maybe he’s here to shoo them off,” Handeland said as an airport security truck sped toward the lumbering herd, horn blasting. The animals took off running.
Handeland is a lifelong resident here. Like many in Nome, his parents came in search of gold.
When he was a young man he left for school Outside, but the lure of his hometown was always there, and he came back to work and start a family.
After a career as an accountant, he’s now the mayor of Nome.
“Nome is an interesting community,” Handeland said. “I always say that you either love it or you hate it and there is no in between.”
Handeland has been at the forefront of pandemic restrictions that began in 2020.
“There wasn’t total agreement on how the situation was being handled,” Handeland said. “And you have the folks that do take this very seriously and there are those also who consider it a hoax. And we tried to balance the needs of everybody: both in ensuring folks we’re safe and then, you know, we did have some business that we were required to shutter for a period of time. You know, our restaurants and liquor establishments, and we now have turned the circle on that and we don’t have any current restrictions.”
The restrictions did impact the finances in Nome. Restaurants took the brunt of the impact, Iditarod celebrations were smaller or cancelled and gold miners say they also suffered.
As of Thursday, according to the state vaccine monitoring dashboard, 68% of Nome residents age 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
California resident Nate Strohmaier said this is his fourth season dredging for gold in the Bering Sea, but he was unable to work last summer.
“Pretty much shut me down. I wasn’t able to come up and mine, just too many restrictions on travel and we weren’t sure what was going to happen back home, if we were going to have enough money to feed ourselves at home or come up here to work,” Strohmaier said. “So we just decided to stay home.”
The body of his dredge, “X Wife,” is a small yellow school bus. It doubles as the sleeping and driving quarters. A large monitor hangs on the front of the bus where Strohmaier can see the five cameras below the water’s surface.
“We run all the hydraulic controls from the recliner,” he said.
Thursday afternoon, gold was close to $2,000 an ounce.
“I’m hopeful this year we can get enough hours in with the good weather this year,” Strohmaier said. “Might be able to stay the season and make it work.”
Nome, which is also a thriving tourism town, relies heavily on Iditarod visitors and a summer cruise ship season. It’s also a vital hub for Northwest Alaska.
Birding season is now in full swing, with some hotels booked solid as people search the skies for a chance to snap a picture of birds only known to frequent Nome.
Airport Pizza, with its pizzas, nachos and Korean-style dinners, is seeing a steadier crowd of people now that it’s open for dine-in services again.
“Things will get better,” said Jelma Chang, a server there. “I think the worst part is just about over.”
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