Icebreaker slowly carves path for Alaska's emergency fuel

In the winter of 1925, long after this Gold Rush boomtown on the Bering Sea had busted, diphtheria swept through its population of 1,400.

STUCK IN ICE Renda, a Russian tanker, left, sits iced in, as an icebreaker, breaks up ice around it in the Bering Sea.  (Sara Francis/US Coast Guard via NYTMedicine ran dangerously low, and there was no easy way to get more. No roads led here, flight was ruled out and Norton Sound was frozen solid.

Parents still read books to their children about what happened next: Balto, Togo, Fritz and dozens more sled dogs sprinted through subzero temperatures across 674 miles of sea ice and tundra in what became known as the Great Race of Mercy. The medicine made it, Nome was saved and the Siberian huskies became American heroes.

Eighty-seven years later, Nome is again locked in a dark and frigid winter – a record cold spell has pushed temperatures to minus 40 degrees, cracked hotel pipes and even reduced turnout at the Mighty Musk Oxen’s pickup hockey games. And now another historic rescue effort is under way across the frozen sea.

Yet while the dogs needed only five and a half days, Renda the Russian tanker has been en route for nearly a month – and it is unclear whether she will ever arrive. The tanker is slogging through sea ice behind a Coast Guard icebreaker, trying to bring not medicine but another commodity increasingly precious in remote parts of Alaska: fuel, 1.3 million gallons of emergency gasoline and diesel to heat snow-cloaked homes and power the growing number of trucks, sport utility vehicles and snow machines that have long since replaced dogsleds.

For the moment, this latest tale appears less likely to produce a warm children’s book than an embarrassing memo, and maybe a few lawsuits, about how it all could have been avoided.

How Nome ended up short on fuel this winter is a complicated issue unto itself, but trying to get the Renda here to help has become a sub-Arctic odyssey – and perhaps a clunky practice run for a future in which climate change and commercial interests make shipping through Arctic routes more common. The learning curve has been steep. Since leaving Vladivostok, Russia, on Dec. 17, the 370-foot Renda has encountered a fuel mix-up in South Korea and storms that prevented it from going to Japan; it has received a waiver of the Jones Act in the United States (to allow the foreign vessel to finally pick up gasoline in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, before transporting it to Nome) and broad support for its mission from Alaska’s congressional delegation; it has been joined by the Coast Guard’s only operative ice breaker built for the Arctic, the Healy. It has had to alter its route to avoid the world’s most substantial population of a federally protected sea duck called the spectacled eider.

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