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.
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 Mare snaps a photo of me in my underwear, which will not be published here because it looks like a pathetic Viagra commercial.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