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Nome National Forest pops up on the ice outside Nome each year. NWS photo.

A small forest of evergreen trees and exotic animals brightens the otherwise stark landscape outside of Nome each winter. Oddly, this forest sprouts on top of the frozen ocean. 

About 25 years ago, two community leaders decided to gather people’s old Christmas trees and put them on the ice in an attempt to trick visitors who traveled to Nome for the Iditarod. They repeated the practical joke the next year, this time complete with a hand-painted sign declaring it the Nome National Forest. It’s been around every year since. 

Charlie Lean, a longtime Nome resident and member of the Rotary club, is now keeper of the forest. In a typical year, the forest has about 100 trees and 50 animal figures made of plywood and paint. “I think that it’s kind of whimsical and fun,” Lean says.

When he puts up the forest each year in early February and takes it down before the ice breaks up, Lean doesn’t tackle the task alone. A cadre of community volunteers helps put up the trees and animals, including forming a bucket brigade to freeze everything in place. The animals only last a few years before the elements destroy them, so residents take it upon themselves to make new ones. Some of the animals are more like science fiction creatures, Lean says. Several years ago, a mermaid appeared. 

Once the forest is in place, visitors and residents alike take walks among the trees and snap photos with the animals. “It’s pretty funny,” Lean says, “and people get a big kick out of making the figures.”

Author

Alexander Deedy is the assistant editor and digital content manager for Alaska magazine.

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