December 18, 2014

Safety to Nome

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This is the home stretch, but it can be tough at times. The trail usually follows the Nome-to-Council road from Safety to just past Cape Nome, then cuts down to the beach and generally parallels the road (crossing it a couple of times enroute). The trail finally climbs up the seawall at the east end of Front Street for the last ten blocks to the burled arch. An alternate route swings around to the north of Cape Nome but still picks up the beach trail in the same place. Either way, it’s ten miles from Safety to the beach cutoff, and another eleven to the end of Front Street.

The trail is completely exposed to the elements—there are no trees anywhere close to Nome unless you count the “Nome National Forest” of used Christmas trees on the ice behind Front Street. The road is normally not plowed past Cape Nome, but the surface can be blown down to gravel. The wind can blow very hard sometimes (especially around Cape Nome) and ground blizzards aren’t unknown even as you pull up the seawall to Front Street. You can get caught in the open on this leg just as easily as on the trip from White Mountain. Allow two to three hours for the run to the arch under normal conditions.

Detailed Description

From Safety you’ll run along the Nome-to-Council road for ten miles. The road is not normally plowed, but vehicles may drive on it. In any case it is a major snowmachine route and will be packed flat and wide. There is some apparently permanent road construction as you round Cape Nome, so watch for ditches, berms, and other obstacles. The wind can blow on this stretch, but it will usually be more or less at your back.

Cape Nome is a 675-foot hill on the shoreline. The road hugs its south side at sea level for a mile and then slowly climbs a couple of hundred feet on the west side. A small herd of wild musk oxen forages on top of the cape all winter; if they wander down toward the road your dogs will certainly let you know.

Depending on snow conditions, you may cut off the road a few miles from Safety, angle northwest across the tidal flats west of Safety Sound, and swing around the north side of Cape Nome. This involves a long, slow climb to a 400-foot saddle between Cape Nome and Reindeer Hill, just to the north have a better chance to see the musk oxen and maybe some caribou if you go this way. After the saddle you’ll descend back to the road, cutting it a mile or so past the summit of the cape. Whether you take the road or the back way, you’ll head for the beach just past Cape Nome. From here on your progress will be closely monitored by the KNOM radio spotter car; you might want to listen on your Walkman to see what they’re saying about you run along the beach or sea ice, or just inshore, for about five miles. Then the trail will angle inland to cross the road twice briefly before heading back to the shore.

In another mile you’ll dip down to cross the Nome River just south of the road bridge. The Nome River is a little more than three miles from the arch. Past the river you’ll be running underneath a sometimes-steep bank on your right see some tall radio towers to your right as well; you’re just abeam Fort Davis. Fort Davis Roadhouse on the far side of the road is the beginning of No Man’s Land if you want to start racing with somebody.

The road will be just above you on the embankment the rest of the way to Front Street. Finally you will swing sharply up the bank and find yourself at the east end of Front Street. The arch is at the far end of the street, half a mile away. You will usually have a police escort; hopefully the flashing red and blue lights won’t spook your dogs.

There may be enough snow to run down the middle of the street, otherwise you’ll have to pick your way along the sidewalk or else just scrape up the asphalt as best you can (but who cares by now anyway?). Finally you’ll pull into the fenced-in chute for the last couple of hundred feet. Stop your team when your leaders pass under the arch. Amid congratulations from everyone, the checker will inventory your sled. Once he’s done, you’re no longer a rookie and you can tell tales from the trail to next year’s crop of newbies.

After you finish, you get one last run with your team—one block from the arch to the big dog lot at the west end of Front Street, where your dogs will be bedded down and cared for by the volunteer staff until you’re ready to take them home. The lot is reasonably secure and your sled will be fine there. (Don’t forget you or your handlers must still feed your dogs—that’s why you were required to ship plenty of food to Nome for every dog.)

If you’re the Red Lantern driver, race officials will give you the lantern after you pull up onto Front Street (it’s not lit); you get to carry it all the way to the arch. Once you’re through with the formalities under the arch, you have one last, very special duty: You must go over to the Widow’s Lamp, a lantern which has been burning under the arch since the start of the race, and extinguish it. This signifies that the last musher and team are safely home from the trail. Only then will the Iditarod be officially over.