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Life Below Zero

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Frozen tundra of the Bering Sea

Leaving Nome is hard. Literally.

A fog rolled in during the wee morning hours on the day I was supposed to leave and it never lifted, cancelling my flight out that evening.

Finding another flight that would get me all the way from Nome to El Paso? Well, let’s just say, it ain’t easy.

The end result? Another full 24 hours in Nome.

Not that this was a hardship by any means.

I spent the morning as I had every day since arriving – walking on the frozen Bering Sea as the sun rose, turning the snow and ice various shades of blue and violet while golden light danced across the landscape.

Western Alaska is a special place.

Honestly, it was not on my list of vacation spots, so I’m thankful to Davis for being there to give me an opportunity to visit. Even in the coldest season.

But, truthfully, I didn’t mind the cold. Dressed in layers every time I ventured out, I barely noticed it. That is, until Davis took me out on a snow mobile.

I asked him to take me, so I have nobody to blame but myself. It’s just that I hadn’t taken into account that zipping across the frozen Bering Sea at nearly 40 miles per hour – I asked him to take it easy on me – was going to make the air just a little bit colder.

Somehow, frigid air managed to make its way up the cuffs of my coat, chilling my wrists and arms, while the wind whipped against my legs as I sat on the back of that machine, holding onto Davis as tight as I could. Wearing my thick, insulated gloves, it was hard to even feel his waist. Whenever we’d hit a bump of ice, I’d pop off that seat and pray that I’d land safely back on. By the time I told him I needed to stop, my knees and quads felt like blocks of ice.

It felt exhilarating and a bit frightening at the same time.

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Favorite mode of transportation in Western Alaska

Not only was this my first time on a snow mobile, but I’d never raced across a frozen body of water while my breath fogged up my sunglasses and ice crystals formed in my hair.

Here are some other first-time experiences I had in Nome:

Cross-country skiing on the Bering Sea. This was a rather awkward and slow event since I’ve not been on skis since I was 22.

Snow shoeing up Anvil Mountain – although I didn’t make it all the way up. I had to yell to Davis, who was far ahead of me – no need to wait for mom, after all – to stop and wait up.

I tried to explain that trudging up a snow-covered mountain in heavy snowshoes, in sub-freezing temperatures, while bogged down with extra layers of clothes, is not the same as climbing the dry, dusty Franklin Mountains in El Paso in 70-degree weather. Nor like hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Nor like anyplace I’ve ever hiked, for that matter. I suggested we stop and take in the view.

Paying double and triple the usual amount for an onion, bananas, tomatoes, and spinach at the market. Produce gets shipped in from the lower 48, and it’s costly.

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Eating freshly caught Alaskan King crab. The plentiful amount of fresh crab, salmon, and halibut more than make up for the above inconvenience.

Hearing a language I couldn’t recognize. Inupiaq – the native language of the region’s Eskimo people – is spoken on the radio and even sung in church.

Nome wooden Eskimo

Constantly seeing heavily-bundled Eskimo children playing outdoors, whether climbing mounds of snow, throwing Frisbee with their dogs (no kidding), or ice skating down the middle of the street. You can do this when the streets are covered in slick coats of ice and the main mode of winter transportation is snow machines.

But my undebatable favorite was capturing sight of Aurora Borealis – the northern lights. Two nights in a row I was lucky enough to venture out after midnight and see this majestic, mystical, surreal event. It looks and feels like a spiritual presence hovering above the dark images of the mountains as the light eerily changes shapes and glides in and out of view.

Yes, life is challenging in Nome, but the generosity of the people and the freedom of the open landscape, the closeness to Nature, and their simple, sustainable way of life, offer something unique. Something precious. Something that despite the challenges, not only makes the natives want to stay, but brings visitors back to settle.

The day I finally flew out of Nome, I spotted a young man in the airport wearing a hooded sweatshirt depicting an outline of the state of Alaska. The words “Life Below Zero” were plastered in the center.

I smiled.

Whereas before coming to western Alaska, I would have seen those words and thought they represented something harsh, unappealing, a sort of penance. But not now. Now, I knew. I’d discovered yet another secret about what makes life worth living.

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Sun rising on a morning walk across the Bering Sea

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