Tundra Town Is More Than Huskie Haven

Alaskan outpost has reindeer potlucks, hoops, arm-wrestling; but sensible attire is recommended

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MARY LOU WHITNEY stood in the frenzied center of the world's most famous sled-dog race, with perfectly coiffed blond curls held in place by a hot-pink headband that matched her lipstick.

Is this raw frontier town of 4,500 near the edge of Siberia any place for the 70-something heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune? Apparently so.

''I come to Nome quite often,'' said Ms. Whitney, watching as winner Jeff King and his six eager dogs mushed into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finish chute Tuesday. ''Whenever I have any friends or guests who have never been to Alaska before, I always fly them up to Nome. It gives them a really good flavor. It's really different from Anchorage.''

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Legend has it that this famous gold rush town's name comes from a map notation of ''? Name'' that was misread as Cape Nome. Another story has it that Nome derives from a native word meaning ''I don't know.''

During the peak of its 1890s gold boom, it was home to more than 20,000 people who came here by dog sled, steamship, and even bicycle to find their fortunes. Among them were lawless hordes that gave Nome the reputation as ''the wickedest city in the United States,'' according to one 1900 account.

Hardrock mining is still a major industry here, but Nome's modern-day fame derives from the Iditarod and its accompanying festivities.

''You'd be surprised how many people call us, thinking they're talking to the capital,'' says Myrtle Kinna, receptionist for the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau, as her colleague assists a television crew from Seoul, in town for the Iditarod finish.

It's clear that Nome tourists are not drawn to Alaska's famous snow-mantled forest landscape. The town, little more than a smattering of buildings on the roadless tundra, is no garden spot.

This far north, about the only visible winter vegetation is the so-called ''Nome National Forest'' - a stand of leftover Christmas conifers thrust into the ice outside of Fat Freddy's Restaurant. Over the years, the man-made forest has grown to include the placement of outsized plywood animals. This year's menagerie includes a walrus and a penguin.

Away from the Wild West facades along the Bering Sea beach, the architecture here is strictly utilitarian. The streets are at best gritty and at worst - with their numerous public inebriates - intimidating. And the weather, with stiff winds off the Bering Sea, can be among Alaska's most severe.

But each March, Nome draws visitors from around the world. The Iditarod festivities and the frontier atmosphere prove a great equalizer. A native-crafts show, a reindeer potluck dinner, and a well-produced theatrical melodrama get equal billing here with Iditarod arm-wrestling matches.

Although churches outnumber bars in modern Nome, few residents seem embarrassed by the city's historic hard-drinking notoriety. But Paul Ivanoff, an employee of the local native corporation, concedes that many residents do too much drinking.

While outsiders flock to Nome for the Iditarod, this time of year locals spend as much time watching hoops as they do huskies. The 64-team Lonnie O'Conner Iditarod Basketball Tournament is billed as the world's biggest indoor single-city basketball contest.

For some villagers in the basketball-crazed Alaskan bush, the Iditarod tournament, now in its 22nd year, is a homegrown version of March Madness. This year's teams bear such names as the Savoonga Hunters, the Shismaref Northern Lights, the Point Hope Papa Whalers, and Respect Your Elders.

The bleachers are packed with players' relatives, wearing a mix of NBA paraphernalia and traditional beaded and fur-lined native garments. Fans come back year after year.

''We've seen some Iditarod babies grow up,'' says Pete Larsen Jr., an aficionado in the stands.

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