NOME, Alaska — If you want to see mushers cross the finish line at the world’s most famous sled dog race in March 2014, better make your reservations soon.
There aren’t many hotel rooms available at the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, leaving mushers and their families battling with fans, tourists and volunteers for a place to sleep.
“Call early and get going,” advised Richard Beneville, a Nome tour company operator and chamber of commerce official.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race always starts the first Saturday in March in Anchorage with a ceremonial run. The competitive race starts the next day in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
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Both events draw huge numbers of fans since both cities are accessible on Alaska’s limited road system.
But getting to the end of the race might be as difficult for a fan as it is to a musher.
Mushers will travel with their dog teams a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) over treacherous Alaska wilderness to reach Nome, a Bering Sea coastal community located on Alaska’s wind-whipped western coast. The winner usually comes in about nine days after the Willow start.
For fans traveling to Nome, flights aren’t a problem. What is tricky, however, is finding a place to stay.
Nome, with a population of 3,500, has only three hotels. Altogether, there are 134 hotel rooms available.
All three hotels have varying policies when it comes to reservations during Iditarod week.
The Nugget Inn is located right in front of the burled arch, the famous finish line for the Iditarod on Front Street, a block off the Bering Sea — which in March is still frozen and often serves as a runway for small airplanes.
The inn has 46 rooms, but also serves as the home hotel for Iditarod officials and volunteers. Manager Thuy Nguyen said they require a stay of seven nights or longer for reservations made by Jan. 1. Then they will start accepting reservations for shorter stays.
The Polaris Hotel has 34 rooms, all of which but a handful have already been booked for next year.
Manager Tina Yi says the hotel, 20 steps from the finish line, has a sliding cancellation fee. It ranges from losing 25 percent of your deposit if you cancel more than 90 days out to no refund if the cancellation is within 30 days of the reservation.
The city’s largest and newest hotel is the Aurora Inn. They don’t open reservations for Iditarod week until April 1, and always sell out the same day.
Reservations for the inn’s 54 rooms are only accepted by email and on a first-come, first-served basis. The emails provide a time-stamp on the order that reservations come in.
“People pretty much at the stroke of midnight send their emails,” said assistant manager Sean Knudsen. “There’s a real narrow window.”
They do keep a waiting list, but Knudsen says he eventually closes it because it gets so long. Adding to a space crunch is that film crews are in Nome filming the popular cable show, “Bering Sea Gold.”
B&Bs are another option, but they also sell out quickly.
“After all the hotels are booked and the B&Bs, we go into Plan B, which is overflow housing,” Beneville said.
Beginning in February, once the commercial rooms are all taken, the Nome Visitors Center begins a file that will eventually match homeowners to travelers.
Townspeople call the center, saying they have space for rent that week and what their requirements are: male or female, smoker or nonsmoker, partyer or teetotaler. When people call in looking for a room, visitors center staff try to match them up.
Beneville described this makeshift hostelling as “kind of fun.”
Be prepared though. Experiences, the type of room or space offered and prices vary by homeowner. You might be sharing your space with a toddler’s toys, rowdy housemates or lots of pets.
If lucky enough to get a room, visitors will be able to witness the end of the rugged Iditarod race. Besides the winner, the race’s other mushers will trickle in for a few days.
But the Iditarod isn’t the only draw.
Nome is still a frontier type of town, where downtown bars are as popular now as when Old West lawman Wyatt Earp owned the Dexter on Front Street at the turn of the last century.
Beneville described the celebratory atmosphere of the Iditarod as “Mardi Gras with dogs.”
For those needing a break from dogs or the bar, there’s a huge Alaska Native art and craft fair that goes on during Iditarod week. The town also hosts its annual basketball tournament, drawing 70 teams from Norton Sound communities.
This year, Howard Farley, an Iditarod founder who helped establish Nome as the race’s finish, gave daily talks at the city’s library, drawing overflow crowds and repeat listeners.
Beneville, a former New York actor, has been known to don a top hat and recite the poetry of Robert Service — often called the “Bard of the Yukon” — to crowds at the Nome Convention Center waiting for the next musher to come in.
Tour companies in the past also have arranged visits to Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint 22 miles from Nome. Other winter tours take tourists outside town to look for musk oxen in the wild. You might even see the northern lights.
“Nome is a very cool place. Period,” Beneville said.