Monday, September 22, 2014

Driving the Nome-Council Road--Alaska Day 1

Alaska 2014 continued:

On our first morning in Alaska we met with our full group for the first time for breakfast at the Coast International Hotel. I could tell this was going to be a fun group of people. Many were avid birders and had done tours before. My mother and my aunt were probably the least "birdy" of the bunch. Our tour leader, Bill Sweetman, had lead several tours in Alaska before, and it's one of the reasons I was happy to see Alaska for the first time on a guided tour--going to a new, vast place with someone who has been there before can put a person at ease.

Alaska showing Anchorage and Nome

We flew from Anchorage to Nome late morning, Friday, May 30. Most of the way was cloudy, and we had to circle the airport in Nome several times waiting for fog to clear. It gave me an opportunity to get some pictures of the coastline. Little did I know that we would be driving along the coastal road that very afternoon. 

Council Road, seen at the bottom. Above that is Safety Sound, still with ice.

There are no roads to Nome. No railroad. The only way to get there is to fly, or by boat. It's also the only way to move goods--or remove goods. It's a big deal in the spring when the Bearing Sea thaws and those first barges can get through. But because moving goods is so cumbersome and expensive, most of what ends up there stays there. Why pay to have stuff removed? It looks very untidy in places, with junked cars, snowmobiles and pretty much anything else you can think of piling up. My aunt made a good point, though, saying that those old machines and rusty bits might be able to be used to make repairs to other things.

There are three roads that lead from Nome--or converge at Nome, depending on how you look at it--and all are about 75 miles long. To the north runs the Nome-Teller Road, that leads to the Inupiat village of Teller.  To the northeast is the Nome-Taylor Road, also known as Kougarok Road, that leads to the Kougarok River Bridge. To the west, along Norton Sound and the Bearing Sea, is Nome-Council Road, which leads to the community of Council. While the roads in Nome are paved, they are all dirt outside the city limits.

We didn't waste any time getting on the road. We stopped at the Aurora Hotel to drop off our bags and get our gear together, the made a quick trip to the grocery store for lunch fixins, and we were off, driving west along Council Road.

Map showing the extent of our drive, from Nome to mile marker 40 on Council Road.

There were so many things about this trip that I was excited about, and seeing the tundra was certainly one of them. I admit that if I were planning a trip to Alaska, Nome and the Seward Peninsula would not be on my itinerary. But it was a fascinating landscape, and I'm glad I had the chance to experience it. The tundra is characterized by three essential things--it lacks trees, it contains permafrost, and it's relatively flat. Permafrost is a layer of soil below the surface that remains frozen year-round. It is the primary reason trees don't grow there--although winds and lack of sunlight six months of the year contribute to that. There are shrubs, some that reached well over six feet, but for the most part the view across the tundra is unbroken. (If you are interested in reading more about this landscape, I HIGHLY recommend Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams.)

We were birding in this region for one simple reason--it is loaded with birds in summer. Many species breed in the Arctic. There's lots of water and LOTS of insects, high protein nibblets that feed hungry young birds. The Seward Peninsula also offered another gem--three birds that come from across the Bearing Straight from the western Pacific to nest in Alaska. These birds--the Northern Wheatear, Bristle-thighed Curlew and Bluethroat--don't migrate through the United States, so the only opportunity to see these birds is in Alaska, or...Tahiti. Or Africa, in the case of the wheatear.

This day, however, we were looking mostly for waterfowl--loons, ducks etc. We kept a fairly frantic pace--many stops we did not leave the van (an 11-passenger Ford E-350), which proved problematic for someone with a camera (me) who was trying to record each bird we saw. We did get out now and then to search for songbirds, or to try to get a closer look at a raft of waterfowl.

Bill leads us into the tundra. 

The weather was ever changing, once sunny, then foggy. It was colder the three days we spent there (late May/early June) than it had been in January. They'd had a very warm 2013/2014 winter season, warmer at times than it was in Michigan. January 5th they set a record high of 51 degrees, and the region saw its warmest January on record. The average high for the season was nine degrees above normal. But by June 1st, the day we searched for the Bristle-thighed Curlew along Kourgarok Road, it was spitting snow.

Council Road looking west.

We passed by the Safety Roadhouse, which is located about 20 miles east of Nome. It is only open during summer (we must have been early) and for a brief time in March. It serves as the final checkpoint in the Iditarod dog sled race.

Quiet day at the Roadhouse.

Speaking of the Iditarod, these markers could be found along the road, and Bill thought they were markers for the race, as these roads are not plowed in winter.

Possible marker for the Iditarod.

Some thirty miles east of Nome is the ghost town of Solomon. Back in the late 1800's gold was discovered in the region, and small towns popped up all over the place. It wasn't long before someone decided a railroad would be a good idea, to move people around the region, and one day have it connect to Vancouver, British Columbia. The railroad was begun in 1903. But within a matter of years the gold stopped panning out, so funding dried up. Only 35 miles of track had been laid, and the train, including its three 1880's-style locomotives, were left to rot on the tundra. The Council City & Solomon River Railroad is now better known as The Last Train to Nowhere.

The Last Train to Nowhere sits in a rusty heap on the wet tundra. The Bendeleben Mountains are in the distance.

So fascinating to us are remnants of our past. We examine them like an elephant caressing the bleached bones of a dead relative. They remind us of the impermanance of not just our individual lives but also of the things we labor so hard to create.

The Last Train to Nowhere.

At Solomon the Council Road bends to the northeast and leaves the Bearing Sea. We drove along the Solomon River to mile marker 40. Along the way we saw more remnants of the past, like this dredging machine, which was used to scoop up large quantities of the river bottom in search of gold. One can only imagine the damage these things did to the river habitat. Things grow and change slowly on the tundra and there were still large plies of gravel and barren areas left by the dredging.

Along the Solomon River, Council Road.

Into the foothills of the Bendeleben Mountains we drove. We were too early for the explosion of tundra plants that would start in a few short weeks, so everything looked a bit drab. It made geological features stand out all the more.

Even though it was nearly mid-summer, there was still snow tucked away on the north sides of slopes. The days were astoundingly long to this Mid-westerner--the sun rose at 4:30 am, and set around 1:30 am. It never really got dark. But the angle of the sun is so low that snow clings to the protected areas in some cases all summer long.

Creek near mile marker 40, Council Road.

We retraced our steps and drove back to Nome, where we had dinner at Airport Pizza. It was jam packed, due in part to the presence of a "rival" birding group. My mom, aunt and I split a pizza. Remember what I said about the difficulty moving goods in the region? Well, that was no more apparent that in the price of food. Wow. A 15" pizza cost $29.00. But were where happy for it, and it was yummy, and nobody complained.

To read more about the Last Train to Nowhere, follow this link

To read more about the roads from Nome, check this out.

Next: The birds of Day One.

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