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Nome, Alaska: Last Chance to Spot Musk Oxen, Kougarok Road

Also called “Beam” or “Taylor” road, the slick mud and gravel twists across colorful tundra and snakes up through the heart of the Kigluaik Mountains. We are sure to spot Musk Ox. These beasts have grown to a population of 2,000 after 70 of them were transplanted here in the last 30 years. Moose, reindeer, caribou and grizzlies could appear as well. We have 73 one-way miles to travel on a tundra blazing with rainbows.

Hunting, fishing and mining shacks sit in this nowhere. Road construction seems the only activity this August. Hard to believe that within 30 days the change in season will blanket the volcanic tundra with ice and snow.

All rental cars in Nome come with 4-wheel drive. We understand why. Especially after turning off on a side road a few miles beyond Salmon Lake. We’re climbing a road on top of black lava rock, which provides a dark contrast for bright flowers. Throw’er into 4-wheel on the way to Pilgrim Hot Springs.

Mare steps easy wearing those sexy water boots, through large puddles in front of the car. She makes sure of no really, really deep holes…could be funny to see her submerge four or five feet.

On the other side of the mountain the terrain transforms to lush forest. Looks like a lovely place for Musk Oxen. We park near a gate, and walk through the trees, surrounded by steaming ponds. A few geologists conduct research here.

“This machine drills 2-inch pipe 200 feet into the ground in 2 hours,” a worker says. We’re hoping to find a geothermal hot spot that could provide electrical power to Nome.”

The path leads to an abandoned church and some dilapidated buildings. The Pilgrim Hot Springs caretaker emerges from a shack. He explains that in the 1800’s a man farmed this land year-round. The boiling waters make it possible. When the farmer died, the Catholic church gained the ground and opened an orphanage for children whose parents were wiped out by the 1918 influenza epidemic. “They cut down all the trees for firewood, but you can see they grew back.”

Hot springs in the tundra? Mosquitoes zoom in on us and I notice a can of bear pepper spray dangling from a worker’s belt. Soon, we spot a platform supporting a steaming metal tub. I strip down, slap bugs, and try to submerge. Too hot! I feel blisters form on the bottom of my feet. Mare snaps a photo of me in my underwear, which will not be published here because it looks like a pathetic Viagra commercial.

We spin four wheels back through the small lakes and continue the quest to the end of the road. We turn around at the anticlimactic end, with one last chance to spot the Musk Ox during the ride back. Although we spot nothing but construction trucks, the tundra’s terrain puts us in a trance. 

Okay, back in town, we ask at the visitor’s center where to find the rogue gold panners? “Down on west beach. Past the containers.  They ran them off of east beach,” says the portly brunette. So we go, manuvering through the town, past cargo docks and around storage containers, through the mud and debris trying to find the beach. Whoopee! Not a gold miner in sight, but a whole herd of the ellusive magnificent beasts. Yes, after driving over 300 miles of tundra, we spot the Musk Oxen  a mile outside of town. They bring us to tears, resembling our deceased dog, “Runt” who had all but the tusks. 

We celebrate in a smoky bar until our eyes can take no more. Let’s take a six-pack, sushi and some spaghetti back to our luxurious room over-looking the Bering Sea.  Ron Mitchell

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. cool! those are amazing-looking animals. and that shot of the rainbow is gorgeous! the adventure continues! (did I use enough !!!?). BTW, we want to see the photo Mare took!

    September 13, 2011
  2. Ha! Alas I will miss you swinging south since I’m flying to Italy on 9/26….

    September 14, 2011

    When do you return to “civilization”??? (it will be such a downer!)


    September 16, 2011
    • Saw bears by our boat launch this morning. Soon, the only bears I’ll see will be fat old guys in the shower room!

      September 16, 2011
  4. Rlynn #

    I was at Pilgrim Hot Springs about 15 years ago while doing education research in Nome. The caretaker was walking the long road back with drinking water and we gave him a lift in our rented 4-wheel drive (which, incidentally, we used to pull a young salmon worker’s truck out of the ditch after he had been visiting the hot tubs). He (the caretaker) invited us to eat our fill of strawberries from the garden, strawberries almost as big as tennis balls and drippingly sweet. Slimed our backsides in the algae-lined tubs. I don’t know what all is still there, but I remember the seemingly endless above-ground cooling tubes that ran through defunct chicken coops (to keep the flocks happy even in cold weather) before reaching the tubs, and yet still scalding! Ahhh! yes, I remember it well. One of my favorites from the memory library…

    October 15, 2011
    • The slime in the hot tub remains. I stirred the scalding water with hope of cooling it some, but was too hot to enter. The caretaker said that somebody was supposed to stir the tub nightly…perhaps one of the research team, I’m not sure. We didn’t spot any crops, but lots of woods steaming with mosquitoes. What an amazing place…would love to see it in the middle of winter.

      October 15, 2011

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