Where They Live - La Riviere
When Marguerite LaRiviere ’87 took her husband, John Earthman, to Nome for their 1997 honeymoon, John wondered what they’d do in this far-North outpost of 3,000 on the Bering Sea for five days. Three years later, they moved here, just below the Arctic Circle, where dogsleds share the landscape with moose and grizzly bears; where the nearest tree is 75 miles away; and where seasonal changes can mean the virtual disappearance—or total domination— of sunlight.
“My great-great-grandparents came to Nome in 1899 for the gold rush and had a mine up here, my mother was born here and my grandfather was a bush pilot during the 30’s, but my family left during World War II,” La Riviere says. Coming from a family of “sourdough Alaskans”—so named after the miners who carried sourdough starter to whip up a batch of biscuits or bread on a moment’s notice—she is proud of her Nome heritage and is compiling a book about her family history.
A world-class birding spot and the end point for the world famous Iditarod sled-dog race, Nome is home to a rich native culture. LaRiviere’s neighbors hunt seal, walrus and muktuk—Beluga whale—and it’s not unusual for the SLC alumna to awaken to the sound of a whale being filleted outside. Only natives may hunt whale or possess whale hides or ivory, used in native crafts; while state law requires that every part of the animal be used, culture dictates that everyone shares. LaRiviere—who works at City Hall, and whose husband, John, is Nome’s district attorney—remarks that muktuk and fresh fish care packages are common.Top left: traditional native Alaskan mask; above: downtown Nome; the tundra east of Nome in early fall photos by Nadja Roessek
In winter, the Bering Sea freezes solid. Since no roads connect Nome to other cities, all supplies are flown in, and charter flights make the 200 mile “hop” to Russia. People get around by snowmobiles—called snowmachines—and ATVs. The town buzzes with activities that keep residents’ minds off the darkness that lasts up to 20 hours daily. There are sled-dog and snowmachine races, a golf tournament played on the frozen sea, and numerous indoor activities such as the Iditaswim, in which participants have three months to swim 1,049 laps—one for each mile of the Iditarod Trail. On clear winter nights, the Aurora Borealis works its magic; LaRiviere calls the green and red Northern Lights “curtains of colors moving in the wind.”
As the sun begins its gradual reappearance, La Riviere realizes how much she has missed the light. “There is nothing so beautiful as looking at the Bering Sea at sunset during break-up time. The sea glistens as the ice floes pull apart, and the seals play among the ice floes.” Migrating flocks of swans and cranes return overhead, and children skip from floe to floe.
Soon the summer tundra is alive with fuchsia fireweed; while gathering blueberries with her three-year-old daughter, Ava, LaRiviere keeps a watchful eye out for grizzlies. Later, she will make jams and pies from old family recipes. Summer daylight – almost 24 hours at a stretch—is as difficult to adjust to as the long darkness of winter; people often lose track of time and stay up late. Each June, families celebrate daylight at the Midnight Sun Festival.
In the fall, people hunt caribou and moose to prepare for the long winter, and the hills of the tundra become hot with color. One would swear the photos are enhanced, but no: LaRiviere has seen the startlingly vibrant brush with her own eyes.
She was drawn to Nome by family history and was warmly welcomed by those who remembered her family. Here, “people have their blood family, but they also have their ‘Alaskan family,’ those people who become your friends and help you to survive up here.”
Her husband, a Texas outdoorsman, was the one who initiated LaRiviere’s move to Nome. “It is amazing to me,” LaRiviere muses, “that I would marry someone who would bring me back to the place that was so important to my family. It has been a great adventure to discover not only the beauty of this area and the warmth of the people, but also my own personal history.”
—Gillian Gilman Culff ’88