Nome bustles in preparation for Iditarod finish

NOME -- Front Street started to look a lot more familiar to Iditarod fans Monday as race organizers and volunteers installed the famous burled arch and finish-line banner over Nome's iconic main drag.

"We want to make it look cool for when they roll in," said Willie Kardis, Iditarod chief operations officer.

As he spoke, Kardis directed a handful of volunteers scurrying to and from the Nome Convention Center. Among the tasks was ensuring the giant banner was ready to be moved outside, where a crane waited to hoist it into place.

All around town, preparations for the big Iditarod finish – expected sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday morning – were ramping up.

Up and down Front Street, TV crews worked to get their equipment in place, volunteers handed out maps to curious tourists and workers strung fencing along the finish chute, where hundreds of people are expected to gather when the first musher arrives.

Located adjacent to the finish line along Front Street, the convention center was a hive of activity – and a cozy one at that. In addition to being a good place to buy a race T-shirt, the center was also the best spot to sample some Nome cooking, thanks to some local high-schoolers.

Bailey Immingan-Carpenter was among a handful of volleyball players dishing out hot soups and chili. The smell of moose stew, salmon chowder and musk ox vegetable soup wafted through the room, providing the scene with authentic Alaska flavor.

Immingan-Carpenter, a senior, said the volleyball team has used the Iditarod as a fundraiser for the past three years. She said the players' moms made the soups, which were going fast.

"I love doing this," she said. "I like seeing people trying new things."

Immingan-Carpenter said moose and salmon soups always sell well, but she recommended another local delicacy: "I personally like the caribou."

Organizers said at least 2,000 volunteers are needed to make the race happen. From security guards to dog handlers, Kardis said the race couldn't happen without a small army of volunteer workers.

Volunteer Deb Davis came from Ketchikan.

"Ketchikan isn't exactly a mushing community," she joked of the rainy Southeast Alaska city, but that doesn't mean she's any less enamored with The Last Great Race. Davis and her husband, Hunter, volunteer in Nome each year because they love dogs and love seeing Nome come alive with the excitement of Iditarod.

"It's our vacation," she said. "Most Ketchikanites go to Hawaii. We come to Nome."

The big draw is the dogs, which she called the true stars of the race.

"This is just our time to be out there and to hang out with the dogs. They're so mellow and friendly, they just want to be petted," she said. "It's a lot of fun."

Lon Keaton, 67, said he came from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to volunteer. He has helped for the past four years, doing odd jobs and lending a hand wherever he's needed.

"It's like a Chinese fire drill," he said of the frenetic preparations. "It's really busy, then you slow down, then really busy."

Keaton said he keeps coming back because he's in love with the state, and the Iditarod gives him a way to experience an authentic slice of life in the Last Frontier.

"I love the Alaskan winter," he said. "I just love the cold. Twenty below outside is just fine with me."

Not everyone who helps loves the cold. Joanne Potts is the assistant race director and has been with the race since 1982. But just because she's a longtime Iditarod employee doesn't mean she's a fan of freezing temperatures.

"I prefer to stay inside," she joked from the warmth of the convention center.

Potts said volunteers return every year because of the camaraderie and community spirit.

"I meet so many people from so many places," she said. "It just gets into your blood and becomes a way of life."

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.