Nome welcomes its first cruise ship in three years
The visitors clad in red coats and yellow hoods came ashore under the cover of gray rain clouds. Most had white hair. Many spoke in French, German or Canadian accents. First there were just a few, but by Saturday afternoon, the town was bustling with hundreds of cruise ship passengers either ending or beginning an 18-day trip between Nome and Vancouver aboard the M.S. Roald Amundsen. Their visit marked the first cruise visit to Nome since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The ship, which is operated by the Norwegian company Hurtigruten Expeditions, pulled into harbor on Saturday morning with more than 300 people on board and left with another equally large group later that day.
Nome Discovery Tours coordinated the transfer from ship to plane – and vice versa – and organized a host of events and activities that passengers could take in during their few hours to explore the town.
Unlike the 5,000-person, skyscraper-sized cruise ships that stick to the picturesque Southeast Alaskan destinations like Skagway and Ketchikan, the M.S. Roald Amundsen appeals to a different type of traveler: one with more disposable income (packages for the trip start around $8,500) who seeks destinations where tourists don’t typically venture. A planned stop in Savoonga was cancelled due to the stormy weather, but the itinerary also includes stops in places like St. Matthew Island and remote parts of the Aleutian chain.
“We like traveling quite a bit, and I’m very glad we took the trip that came up here because the other Alaska you know,” said passenger Peter Aellig, of Switzerland. “The coast from Vancouver up to Anchorage, everybody talks about it, it’s where the glaciers are. I’m very glad that we had this added piece that is unknown to many people.”
Aellig and his wife Barbara hopped on a yellow school bus that took them to Bill Potter’s gold shop near East Beach during a break in the rain. Under calmer conditions, Potter explained, visitors would have seen gold dredge boats on the water. He gave a demonstration of how a sluice box works and showed off the proper technique for gold-panning. With a heavy dose of self-deprecation, Potter pulled out all the gold he found last year: a whopping total of one ounce. “But it’s good exercise,” he said. He told his visitors that the best way to leave Nome with a million dollars is to come with two million.
Bering Tea catered lunch inside Old St. Joe’s. Maruskiya’s gift shop was packed throughout the day. Dog-lovers gathered around the mushing team of the Arctic Sky Kennel. At a craft fair inside of the Church of the Nazarene, vendors sold handmade jewelry, dog collars, baked goods and other wares. Alice Bioff of Naataq Gear said she had a good mix of visitors and locals stop by the shop. “Stories were exchanged!” she said. For example, one visitor was surprised people here ate walrus; meanwhile Bioff and her daughter learned what an ibex goat was. “Regarding sales, on Saturday, we had the most transactions since Christmas,” she said. “Cruise ship visits are exciting. What a great opportunity to meet folks from all over the world and see the boost in our local economy.
The Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum counted 163 visitors on Saturday. “The majority were cruise ship visitors, but we did see several local families as well as regional residents who had flown into Nome for the craft fair and to pick aqpiit,” said the museum’s director Amy Phillips-Chan. Inside the Mini Convention Center, Parker Kenick and Alanna Johnson demonstrated athletic feats to the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” of the passengers while NYO Coach Vanessa Tahbone explained the meaning of various events in the Native Youth Olympics.
Despite the plentiful activities available, some passengers were on their own quests. A lone birder stood around the harbor with binoculars around his neck. He had seen some red-throated loons, a long-tailed duck and short-eared owl among a few other species, but he lamented that he didn’t have time to make an expedition up the Kougarok Road to Curlew Hill to knock a bristle-thighed curlew off his life list.
“The guests were just very happy with what happened here,” said Robin Johnson of Nome Discovery Tours, who was thankful for the town’s ability to come together to support the vessel. Johnson said the day went well despite the bad weather, schedule changes and flight delays. Lunch times and airport transfers and check-ins had to be rearranged on the fly, but passengers were, for the most part, very good-humored about it, she said.
Although the cruise ship had required passengers to be vaccinated and test for COVID-19 before they boarded, several of the tourists had tested positive during their trip and had to quarantine. Only one passenger had to continue isolating after the ship came to Nome, though she had no symptoms. “We’ve been working with Norton Sound and the city manager, and we had a plan in place for what we do if we have an issue with COVID,” Johnson said. She explained the passenger was transferred to an apartment to isolate in until she could meet the CDC requirements to board a plane.
Last week, the CDC announced it would revoke its program that allowed the public to monitor reports of infections of cruise ships. The federal agency said travelers now have enough information to make their own decisions about trips, and that cruise operators now have the tools they need to make their own mitigation plans. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski applauded the decision. “I have been pressing the CDC for months to be reasonable and not single out one industry with undue burdens,” Murkowski said in a statement. Still, last week, Alaska’s Department of Health reported that the largest COVID outbreaks remain in non-residents on cruise ships.
The M.S. Roald Amundsen departed Saturday evening, but the ship is coming again later this summer with another group cruising up the Alaskan coast from Vancouver in late August. When those passengers depart from Nome’s airport, a new set will arrive to begin a 26-day journey through the Northwest Passage, ending in Halifax. Packages for that trip start at around $27,000. School will be in session during that next visit, meaning Nome Discovery Tours won’t have access to all the school buses it was using on Saturday, but Johnson said she hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. “We hope that the weather cooperates and that the flights are on time,” Johnson said.