NOME — It’s been a few years since things felt normal on Front Street.
“It’s great to be back in Nome, man,” said Aniak musher Richie Diehl, just after crossing the finish line in Nome on Tuesday night. “It feels really good.”
This year, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s 50th race ended in Nome with a traditional finish, after two years of pandemic precautions got in the way.
In 2020, mushers who had left the start in Willow returned to a changed world as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. Both the city and Iditarod asked race fans not to visit Nome that year amid growing fear and precaution over the virus.
In 2021, the finish skipped Nome altogether, taking a different route and concluding instead at Deshka Landing in Willow, north of Anchorage.
But this week, the siren that heralds the arrival of each musher to the town of roughly 3,700 served to announce something larger about the city: Nome is back.
“Iditarod was never gone, but it just seems so alive now,” said race marshal Mark Nordman.
This year, as in past years, every time a musher approached the finish of the nearly 1,000-mile sled dog race, the siren sounded throughout town. Teams of dogs and their mushers then popped up from the Norton Sound coastline, ran in front of the local Subway sandwich shop and bounded down Front Street.
After the teams passed under the burled arch, race officials checked for mandatory gear in the mushers’ sleds and dogs gnawed at congratulatory snacks — chicken breasts or frozen hunks of meat.
At all hours this week, family and fans greeted mushers with embraces and cheers. Windburned mushers leaned into the microphone and answered a few questions about their teams, the weather and the trials and tribulations of the race.
And the fans were back to greet them. Helen Hillicker, 52, from Anchorage, stood with friends near the finish chute one crisp Wednesday evening waiting for more mushers to fly down Front Street. For Hillicker, the trip to the Seward Peninsula was a birthday party delayed, but not denied. She wore a sparkling tiara.
“In 2020, this is what I was coming to do for my 50th birthday and obviously (it was) canceled,” Hillicker said. “And then the next year my wonderful friend and I tried to do it again, and couldn’t — again COVID, and so year three, we’re celebrating my 50th birthday in Nome for the Iditarod,” Hillicker said, grinning.
Across the chute, Berta Tokeinna, 41, who lives in Nome, and her mom, Barbara Weyiouanna, 64, were cheering incoming mushers that evening.
Tokeinna said it was strange to not have the finish in the city in 2021.
“It’s great for the people, they’re excited,” she said of the race’s return.
Even veteran musher and race legend Aliy Zirkle showed up in Nome this year as a spectator. She stood near the chute, taking photos with fans and chatting with mushers after Martin Buser and rookie Joe Taylor cruised into Nome Thursday afternoon.
“I know Nome is happy to have people back,” said Erica R.J. Pryzmont, chef and owner at Pingo Bakery and Seafood House, a restaurant a few blocks up from Front Street.
She said in 2020, that year’s Iditarod champion Thomas Waerner was one of the restaurant’s customers before indoor dining was closed down by officials.
“I think people are mindful of the fact that it is the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod, which just shows how meaningful that the race and the history behind it have been for people in Nome and in the communities in Alaska that it travels through,” Pryzmont said.
The pandemic hasn’t gone away yet, however, and officials are continuing to take precautions.
Iditarod race officials required vaccinations for mushers and other participants, including volunteers. Between sled checks and congratulations, mushers had their noses swabbed for another COVID-19 test in the chute.
City Manager Glenn Steckman said Nome has offered masks and testing to visitors.
“We’ve tried to address any concerns that anybody would have with people coming into the community, but also for people coming into the community,” Steckman said.
The Iditarod, along with a basketball tournament, the Iron Dog snowmachine race, and the Arctic Eagle military exercise, all taking place over the last several weeks, provided a boost to the community’s spirit and its economy.
The Iditarod event brings in some $2 million dollars into Nome that it would otherwise not see in March.
Steckman looks forward to an even bigger and better Iditarod party next year.
“I look at this as an opportunity for the community to enjoy it, get back into the swing of things, and this is the starting back of normality for us here in Nome.”