“There’s no place like Nome”. “Nome, sweet Nome”. “Nome is where the heart is”. There are so many sayings like these that have been tossed around, but they all ring true. There really is no other checkpoint like Nome.
Nome is the end of the Last Great Race and the place where I got to spend a full week during the 50th running of the Iditarod. Because race leaders Brent Sass and Dallas Seavey were battling for the grand prize, I wanted to make sure I was in Nome ahead of the winner to catch this historic moment in person.
However, Nome is special not just because it is the location of the finish line for the Iditarod, but also due to its rich history. First, Nome became one of the main destinations during the gold rush era after the “3 Lucky Swedes” found gold there while walking along the beach one day. This sent prospectors rushing to the area, hoping to find their own fortunes. Nome was also where the diphtheria outbreak of 1925 began, which resulted in the “Serum Run” relay bringing life-saving medicine to the people of this small remote town on the coast of the Bering Sea, and gave us the stories of Balto and Togo. Several mushers like Leonard Seppala, Gunnar Kaasen and Scotty Allen called Nome home, and it was even where famed gunslinger Wyatt Earp and his wife established and ran the Dexter Saloon for several years before leaving in 1901.
For me, there was plenty to do for 7 days in Nome; and I made the most of every minute because as one of my fellow finalists told me in 2020, “You can sleep when you’re dead”! Ha!
When I arrived in Nome in 2022, I carried with me an understanding and appreciation for the importance of the city and its history. I also knew I wanted to make the most of my time there, and soak in every moment of the finish line experience. There is nothing quite like the excitement and buzz around Front street when a musher is coming in. It is palpable. Of course, the crowds are bigger for the top finishers, but the fan favorites, big names, first time finishers, and everyone in between all have loved ones waiting under the burled arch for them to arrive. I made it to almost every finish that year, and experienced all of them (except for top 3) standing directly under the arch. Talking with and observing the mushers’ families, handlers, and friends as they make their way to the finish line was unforgettable. I remember watching Nic Petit reuniting happily with his team after Jeff King took them from Anchorage to Nome when Nic tested positive for Covid just days before the race. In turn, Jeff celebrated with the team at the finish.
The other amazing part of the finish is the camaraderie amongst the mushers. This feeling has a ripple effect, that makes this race and the entire mushing community unlike any other I have experienced. For example, despite his exhaustion, Brent Sass was there in person for many of the finishers, including all of the top 10. Martin Buser came out for a number of his friends and colleagues, as did Pete Kaiser, Ryan Redington, Dallas Seavey and many others.
There were many personal highlights during my time in Nome as well. I was able to backfly to White Mountain with IAF pilot Wes Erb to pick up several returned dogs. I then rode to Cape Nome and back in the bed of a pickup truck to pick up other returned dogs and return them to town. I also had the amazing opportunity to get on a sled and run my own team of 3 (which was plenty of power) over a 3 mile loop. I met Howard Farley (a musher in the first Iditarod, and Nome organizer for the inaugural race) and listened to his stories about the early days of the race. I was also able to sit and listen to Martin Buser talk about his time on the trail and share his thoughts about all aspects of the race; past, present and future. And these are just a few examples of the amazing experiences that I had during my time in Nome.
However, the highlight of all of these experiences had to be passing the ACTUAL red lantern to the last place finisher as they came up off the beach and onto Front Street. I had been walking the streets near the finish line waiting for the siren to announce Apayauq Reitan’s arrival when Jane Holmes came up to me and said “We have been looking for you! We have a special job for you!” When we got back to “the Mini” (Iditarod HQ in Nome) she, and a couple of the other volunteers asked if I wanted to hand out the Red Lantern. I couldn’t believe it, or say yes fast enough.
We checked the lamp for fuel, grabbed a lighter and headed out the door to the end of Front Street. When we got there, the siren went off, and then we waited to see the bouncing of a headlamp coming towards us. There was a small gathering of people there who were also waiting. Some took pictures of the lantern, and we all anxiously waited. Finally, we saw Apayauq and her team in the distance, heading towards the finish. The moment had come.
As she made her way up onto front street, I gave her clear, concise directions on the move and made the handoff. We watched her round the slight corner and head to the finish line. Being able to hold, light, AND hand off the Red Lantern is a moment I will never forget, and one I was excited to share with my students. I teach a lesson to my students every year based on the Red Lantern. The Red Lantern is a very symbolic part of the Iditarod. It is always given to the last place musher (yes, last place gets a special award) for showing grit, determination and not giving up on their goals. During the Iditarod unit I do in my classroom, I have my own Red Lantern which is given to one student each day during the race who exemplifies these same characteristics with their classwork. It is a wonderful motivator and connection to a very meaningful part of the race. Click here for the full lesson plan: Red Lantern Award Lesson Plan
If you are interested in applying for the Teacher on the Trail (an experience of a lifetime) check out the following link here: https://iditarod.com/edu/iditarod-teacher-on-the-trail-application/