Land of the Midnight Sun

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After a long and dark winter, the people of Nome eagerly take advantage of 20-plus hours of sunlight during summer months. Since the few “non-light” hours are still as light as dusk, it is not uncommon to see young children playing basketball or riding their bikes outside until well after midnight. Each year, the Midnight Sun Festival is celebrated throughout Alaska on the weekend closest to the summer solstice on June 21. Nome celebrates the solstice throughout the week, and I was grateful to be a part of it!

The festival events started as early as Wednesday, with Eskimo games proceeding under an overhead tent on Front Street. The first game was called “High Kick.” Traditionally, the coastal whaling villages would use kicks as a form of communication. When whale or other game was captivated, a messenger would run back to the village to jump and kick both feet into the air, signaling the people of the village that a whale or other wild game had been caught and to prepare to help harvest it. The game consists of a participant trying to jump and kick a suspended object and land on the floor, demonstrating balance to the floor officials. The objective is to successfully kick the suspended target at the highest mark while maintaining balance.

The second game was called “Arm Pull” and was developed to display the strength of an individual, useful when pulling whales or game out of the ice. Two athletes sit on the floor facing each other with one leg over and one leg under their opponent’s leg. Using the arm on the same side of the leg that is over the opponent’s leg, the athletes lock arms at the elbows. On a signal from the official, they begin straight back with no jerking, re-gripping or twisting. The athletes must pull their opponent’s arm straight or pull them over.

According to the locals in the audience, Eskimo games are a popular form of entertainment in Nome and the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics are held in Fairbanks, Alaska, every year. Everyone from young children to elders were participating in the games!

While walking down the street on Thursday, I noticed children flying in the air and wondered if someone had set up a trampoline. As I got closer, I overheard people calling it the “Eskimo Blanket Toss.” Although I have been in Nome for nearly three weeks now, this culture continues to surprise me. A child–or an adult every once in awhile–would sit on the blanket made of tanned walrus skin, while many others gathered around the perimeter of the skin, took hold and tossed him or her into the air. Nobody knew how old the walrus skin blanket was, but the material was hard and durable. Some of the kids were tossed 8-10 feet up before landing in a splat back on the blanket and grinning ear to ear. Originally, blanket tossing was used by hunters as a means of sighting game animals at faraway distances in the flat lands. However, today it was purely a source of amusement for the community. I gladly took my turn on the perimeter of the blanket, tossing kids–a few of which I recognized from Summercise–into the air!

Saturday was the official Midnight Sun Festival and also my coldest day in Nome so far at a chilling 46 degrees! The day kicked off with the Gold Dust Dash 5k along the shoreline.

The event was free for anyone to walk or run, but due to the frigid temperatures, only 25 participants took part. Since I was not one of the interns assigned to work registration at the dash, I decided to run in it!

By the time I crossed the finish line, my face was red with windburn and my shoes were caked with sand. It was all worth it when my name was called as the raffle winner of a small, but genuine golden nugget!

At 11 a.m., the rest of the interns and myself took part in the festival parade. Each year, two out-of-town visitors are chosen from the crowd to be on the three-member judges’ panel who are dressed in a full wig and court robes outfit.

We walked a total of three blocks holding a sign that read CAMP (Chronic Care, Active Management, and Prevention) and a cardboard rainbow painted and covered with various colorful fruits and vegetables.

After coming up short all week in trying to find clementines to pass out to the kids, we ended up throwing out individually wrapped dried prunes. Nature’s candy! I don’t think the prunes would have seemed so bad if we weren’t following a float tossing out sugary pixie sticks!

While we didn’t win the overall honor for the best float, the judges did award us with a certificate for the “Most Colorful!”

The annual bank robbery reenactment hosted by the Nome Historical Society kicked off at high noon. “Bad guys” with guns strode down Front Street with the goal of robbing Wells Fargo and escaping with the loot. “Wyatt Earp”–a man who came during the gold rush, and ended up opening one of the largest saloons at the times–came to save the day. One of our fellow Summercise interns, McKenna, joined a handful of community members to dress up in cowboy hats and old-fashioned dresses and play the part. At the end of the show, the money bags were tossed up into the air and candy flew out into the crowd for the kids to enjoy!

In most places, mid-June is a great time for a swim. The 26-degree water and white caps don’t seem to stop the people of Nome, because the most anticipated part of the Midnight Sun Festival is the Polar Bear Swim! I was freezing just standing on the shoreline wearing nothing but my swimwear and I hadn’t even gone in the water yet! On the count of three, we ran toward the icy waters, only to be knocked down by a wave. My body ranged from exhilarated to painful to numb in a matter of seconds! Needless to say, we got back on our feet and sprinted even faster out of the water! A few brave kids lingered in the water to prove their toughness! After picking up our “Polar Bear Swim” participant certificate, we bundled up and sipped hot chocolate next to the roaring pallet fire. The rest of the night was spent warming up and walking around the town.

The Midnight Sun Festival activities were a tremendous way to bring the community together before the daylight hours shrink and turn to 20 hours of darkness during the winter months. It was encouraging to see people of all ages celebrate their culture and being grateful for the daylight. I am equally as thankful to be here, celebrating the annual traditions and quaintness of Nome!


Jackie Braun ’18 is a dietetics major and psychology minor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.