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February 01, 1987|JIM LEVEQUE | Leveque is a Philadelphia free-lance writer.

Alaske is epitomized in the community of Nome, 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle, about the same distance east of Siberia, and much closer to the end of the last century than to the beginning of the next one. This has always been a frontier town, both in geography and attitude,and nothing makes the mental isolation and physical separation more obvious than freeze-up in the fall.

Not that it makes any difference: There aren't any roads into Nome in the summer either, and nobody ever comes up by ship anymore. But when the Pacific freezes solid, well, you know you're out there somewhere on the edge of nowhere.

If your new car didn't come in on the last boat, you shrug and make do with the old one until next summer. And if that last boat got frozen out by the Bering Sea's barricade of ice, well, there's going to be a shortage of beer and that means air-freighting it in or going dry.

This being Nome, they'll definitely use the plane and swallow the extra cost with a beer chaser.

Nome is bush, and in the very best sense of the word. The town is 60% Eskimo (or Inuit, as they call themselves). Alaska Airlines is the best-known airline to touch down here, and the other outfits running in and out carry the names of the people who own them--Ryan, Foster, Harold's.

Neckties are worn mostly at weddings and funerals, and always the same ones. Native women come in from the villages of Savoonga, Koyuk and Little Diomede to have their babies. The husbands arrive to sell ivory and have a brew before another couple of months out in the middle of the Far Northern nowhere.

From the Outside

"Sure, it gets cold," admits John Kreilkamp, who came from the Outside (what Alaskans call everyplace else) and has no plans to leave. "But a lot of people don't realize the average temperature in January is 4 degrees above zero. Heck, that's sunbathing weather."

Kreilkamp isn't here for the lush forests. The two trees in Nome were hauled in from 70 miles away, both so stunted that you'd think they started smoking cigarettes when they were mere saplings. Movies aren't the big draw either, because there's no theater in town.

What does appeal, though, are things such as seeing a sign on the general store that says, "We buy furs." And inside, standing behind an elderly Eskimo woman with blue tattooing on her chin, while directly in back of you there's a native kid with a portable radio perched on his shoulder.

Banana Belt or not, you don't want to turn any metal doorknobs without your gloves on. And you don't leave your pickup without turning on the head-bolt heater. Those engine-saving devices require a plug-in, and at midnight every vehicle in town is tethered to its owner's house like a sled dog to a kennel.

Those furry canines are really what Nome is all about in winter. After all, this is where the world-famed Iditarod sled-dog race ends each March after the 1,100-mile, several-week run from Anchorage way down south.

"We don't even call it March anymore," notes another transported Outsider, Lois Wirtz. "Ask a pregnant woman when she's expecting her baby, and if it's around then she'll tell you it's due in early Iditarod."

When the end of the race draws near, the town's population of 3,000 jumps as much as 25% as people arrive for the partying.

"They arrive from everywhere for Iditarod," says tavern owner, ivory trader, car renter and boat leaser Jim West. "Things keep building from the day the dogs leave Anchorage until they come across the finish line here on the main drag. It's a time of year when there is very extensive, very intensive frivolity."

So caught up in the spirit--or spirits--of it all are the visitors and the townspeople that they don't even seem to mind that the beer is not the freshest. The entire year's supply gets here in September and brew just doesn't age all that well in a can.

Nome has nine bars in which to evaluate the deterioration and 13 churches in which to repent any overly ambitious research.

Opens Its Doors

With the Polaris Hotel usually filled with transient work crews, that leaves just the seaside Nugget Inn for race visitors. But no problem. The town throws open its doors to all comers and a couple of bucks will get you into a spare bedroom, onto a couch, or at the very least camped out in a sleeping bag on somebody's floor.

Increasingly, feminists are becoming big Iditarod fans: The last two races were won by women. In fact, one of the better T-shirts of recent years reads: "If you want it done right, get a woman." Then just the word "Iditarod."

Howard Farley, one of the founders of the Iditarod, raises and races dogs. Part of the way he makes his living in the summer is putting wheels on the sleds and giving tourists a ride.

"It's good training," he says, "running them through the sand like that." His dogs each eat up a pound of food a day. Somewhere in there has to be a miles-per-fish equivalency, but nobody's doped it out yet.

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