The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY is United States’ newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. (US Coast Guard)

Situated on the western coast of Alaska, on the Bering Sea, Nome could not be re-supplied in the fall because tankers were unable to tackle the horrendous weather conditions (even by Alaskan standards). It was decided that, to prevent Nome from running out of fuel before spring, a new effort would begin in early January, something that had never been done before in mid-winter.

Despite one of the coldest Alaskan winters in years— nearly opposite to conditions in the lower 48—the effort has apparently succeeded, providing Nome and environs with a lifeline until spring.

To reach Nome, the rescue vessels had to traverse about 300 miles of thick sea ice under the most difficult of conditions. After insuring that all connections were secure, the Russian tanker is now pumping 1.5 million gallons of fuel oil to on-shore depots. So, although some of the most complex aspects of the whole operation are ongoing, officials are confident of success.

Ironically, exactly 87 years ago—in 1925--during a similar Alaskan January*, another crisis in Nome was narrowly averted—this one of a medical nature. It was called the “Great Race of Mercy,” the hastily arranged rescue operation to save Nome from a potential diphtheria epidemic.

Although it was unclear at first that diphtheria was the cause of the increasing number of respiratory illnesses and deaths, once the cause was established, time was of the essence--as it was this January—to obtain the desperately needed anti-toxin. Fortunately, a supply was located in Anchorage, about 1000 miles away, but transporting it to Nome in the dead of an Alaskan winter would be daunting, to say the least.

In the year 1925, only a few planes even existed in Alaska and they had been dismantled for the winter, so a flight to Nome was out of the question (not to mention the fact that no one had ever attempted to fly the Anchorage-to-Nome route in mid-winter). Since shipment by sea was also impossible (the current Nome crisis illustrates that well), only one option remained: ship the anti-toxin by train to the rail head at Nenana, and by dog sled from there to Nome. Even this had not been attempted in mid-winter before.

Arrangements were quickly made to transport the serum to Nenana, where it arrived by train on January 27. With a temperature of -50 degrees F, sled dog “musher”(the first of 20) “Wild Bill” Shannon was off, carrying his precious cargo on the first leg of a 674-mile journey. And on and on they went—one musher relay team after another in temperatures far below zero—until reaching Nulato, 355 miles away.

At Nulato, the last musher was met by a team which had traveled the 319 miles from Nome—partially over uncharted Bering Sea ice--and would make the return trip as well—in record time. The team was led by sled dog “Balto,” who would become world-famous for what was considered one of the greatest endurance feats of the day.** All in all, the entire dog team portion of the trip took only 5 and one-half days, a record still unbroken.

When the serum arrived, and was thawed, it proved quite effective and the Nome quarantine was lifted on February 21, about a month after the first signs of illness. Balto had saved the day, it would appear, although the honors given to Balto were controversial, to say the least.

Historic image of Iditarod trail. Source: Bureau of Land Management

* It was said that the 1924-25 Alaskan winter saw some of the coldest temperatures in 20 years

** Balto was destined to tour throughout the “lower 48” and eventually have a statue erected in Central Park, New York City.

Related: Fuel transfer from Russian tanker runs smoothly in iced-in Alaska city, despite bubble in hose