NOME — The measure of how challenging it can be to live in Nome starts with a dollar sign.
There are plentiful, painful reminders all over this Bering Sea coastal community. At the grocery store, it’s $39.25 for a 12-roll package of paper towels. Toilet paper costs $37.85 for a 36-roll package.
Want a 2-liter of Diet Pepsi? It’s on sale this week for $4.49. At a restaurant, breakfast for one will run about $16.
And the price for a gallon of gas is well above the national average, at $5.96 a gallon.
If there’s any good news for the 3,500 residents of Nome, it’s that gas is cheap compared to what it could have been.
One of the two main fuel suppliers for Nome didn’t have the last barge arrive before the Bering Sea froze for the winter. Bonanza Fuel considered flying in fuel from Anchorage, but the cost would have made gas prices jump to $9 or $10 a gallon.
Instead, Bonanza arranged for a Russian tanker to make a 5,000-mile journey, and with the help of a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, it made the first-ever winter delivery by sea to Nome when it brought in 1.3 million gallons in early January. The painstaking delivery played out as a worldwide media drama.
When the Coast Guard vessel Healy and the Russian tanker Renda sailed off, everyone waited to see where Bonanza would set the price of their fuel, fearful that Bonanza’s parent company, Sitnasuak Native Corp., would pass on the costs.
Sitnasauk CEO Jason Evans wouldn’t disclose how much the international effort cost (they filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the company that didn’t deliver before the freeze, and have been countersued), but said market pressures dictated $5.96 a gallon, two cents below its competitor.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Mayor Denise Michels said from her City Hall office, located on the site where Wyatt Earp — he of Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral fame — owned a bar during Nome’s heady gold rush days.
For the hardy residents of Nome, high prices are just a way of life.
“There are times we wonder how we can live here, too,” joked Leo Rasmussen, 70, a former mayor and business owner.
Nome, located about 535 miles northwest of Anchorage, is whipped by wind from the Bering Sea in winter. Front Street, the town’s main drag, is right on the coast and serves as the backdrop for the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race each year in March. Just outside town limits, the winter landscape is rolling hills of deep snow along the frozen, treeless tundra.
It’s not uncommon to see small airplanes using the frozen Bering Sea as a runway, or to see people riding ATVs or cross-country skiing on the ice near mushers finishing the Iditarod. Once the sea melts, floating dredges can be seen along the coast, with crew members diving with suction hoses, hoping to pull up gold from the sediment. A new TV reality show, “Bering Sea Gold,” prompted state officials to send information to people inquiring about dredging. It starts with the salutation, “Dear Gold Seeker,” and asks them if they “are prepared to find very little gold compared to what you’ll spend to find it?”
Nome — like most Alaska communities — is not on the state’s road system and goods have to be shipped or flown in, increasing the prices.
Greg Hetu, 52, is a cook at the hospital. “It’s really difficult, actually,” he said of dealing with the high prices in Nome.
He said dishwashers make $16 an hour, but that’s barely a livable wage in Nome.
“I came up from Florida a couple of years ago; 16 bucks an hour, people would be standing in line for the job. Nobody will even take it here,” he said.
Matt Savard, an unemployed ironworker, says he literally threw a dart at the map and wound up in Nome last December, taking a job at the city’s recreation center, where the town’s basketball tournament is held at the same time as the Iditarod. The tourney’s official logo this year featured both the Healy and the Renda in honor of the winter delivery.
“The rent here is a lot more than what I’m used to, and the cost of living is a lot higher,” the Boston native said. “I was not prepared for that.”
Hetu will drive if he has to, but prefers to walk — even in subzero temperatures — to beat the high gas prices. “Zero is nice after 35 below every day in January,” he said.
But he admits he doesn’t pay that much attention to the price of gas.
“It’s one of those things, you got to buy it so you just go buy it,” he said.
Townspeople say Nome is small enough that one doesn’t need to drive around much, and, besides, most cab rides in town cost $4 a trip, $6 to the airport. The cabs are large passenger vans and people just jump in when they need a ride.
Some homes in Nome show the wear both from the salt from the Bering Sea, and the storms it produces. Still more share a feature common in Alaska villages: most have snowmobiles sitting outside the front of their homes, some next to snow-buried cars.
One is likely to see a string of snowmobiles in city traffic, or a rider pulling up to the fuel pumps.
Scott Tallon says not only is it cheaper to drive a snowmobile in Nome ($80 for 13 gallons lasts him a month), it’s a lot more versatile during winter months.
“And we got a lot more winter months here than we do summer months,” he said.
Rasmussen, the former mayor, says Nome is literally on the edge of the world, and it’s difficult to explain how hard it would be to live here if something were to disrupt either the energy or food supply.
“It’s a fantastic place to live, but you never have to worry about to being overcrowded because a majority of the people don’t have the guts to live here,” he said.