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Wally Herbert’s dogs – the Norwegian connection
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Trek of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition of 1968-1969. 476 days covering an estimated
6,000 km from Alaska to our extrication by helicopters from HMS Endurance some 12 days
after Allan Gill and I had crossed a maelstrom of unstable ice to make landfall, on 29 May
1969 on a small offshore island to complete the first crossing of the surface of the Arctic Ocean.
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society
Wally Herbert’s dogs – the Norwegian Connection
by Gisle Uren
At the end of John Wright’s wonderful article, “The Restoration of a Historic Nansen Sledge” in The Fan Hitch PostScript #6 , there are some comments about the dogs of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition (BTAE – February 21, 1968 to May 29, 1969) across the top of the world. What especially interests me is where did the dogs end up after the expedition? Being an Inuit Dog enthusiast and polar history nerd, I like to delve into things like this.
In the creation of Wright’s article, Ken Hedges commented, “As a matter of interest they were vaccinated against rabies and during the work up period they killed a fox. Analysis later proved the fox to be rabid so it was a wise precaution.” Hedges further explained, “At expedition’s end, the dogs went into quarantine for six months in Spitzbergen. Ken's team then went to the Norsk Trekhund Club - The Norwegian Mountain Rescue Club. The remaining teams remained in Spitzbergen and presumably found new homes. It would be nice to think that the genes of these dogs live on in Norway and Spitzbergen.”
I had previously heard and read a bit about these dogs, both in Sir Wally Herbert’s book, Across the top of the World but also from a few other sources. As Ken Hedges mentions, some of these dogs came to Norway after the expedition. Knowing this I wanted to find out more about all the BTAE dogs, but especially Ken Hedges’ team, and how they may have influenced the present bloodlines of Greenland Dogs in Norway.
The dogs remaining on Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Norwegian Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. During the last 100 years or so it has had a fairly large population of sled dogs. Originally a large quantity of these were pure Greenland Dogs, and some of the earliest dogs were donated by Roald Amundsen around 1913. Svalbard has sadly also had a great number of non-Inuit Dogs, both used as sled dogs, but also as ordinary companion dogs and family pets. Over the years the number of pure Inuit Dogs has dwindled, and though there are still several hundreds of sled dogs in Longyearbyen (the city which is the administrative center of Svalbard), most of these are now mixed breed huskies. The largest number of dogs today are found in kennels providing sledding adventures for tourists, but a fair amount is also found on private teams.
As we learned in John Wright’s article, three teams from the BTAE remained on Svalbard after the expedition. These were most likely widely used, both for sledding and also as breeding stock. Sadly, there are very few records of what happened to these dogs and their offspring apart from the odd bit of text in old books and diaries. One recorded fact I have found is in Det magiske landet – fortellinger om Svalbard (The magic land – stories about Svalbard). Published in 1989, the book was written by Norwegian glaciologist and explorer Monica Kristensen (now Monica Kristensen Solås). She wintered in Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard as a scientist in the mid 1970s. In her book she mentions a large orange/yellowish male called Sennep (Norwegian for Mustard) who was owned by one of the previous crew members at Ny-Ålesund. Sennep had been a part of the crewman’s dog team and was said to originally be one of Wally Herbert’s dogs. In Kristensen’s book he is assumed to be around 14 years-old at the time and is mentioned as a free roaming pensioner in Ny-Ålesund. It is even mentioned that he fathered a litter of puppies that winter, with a young Greenland Dog bitch, possibly a descendent from Herbert’s other dogs.
Using the fan system, each dog would pick its own path through rough ice conditions.
In these circumstances the driver's main task was to rush forward to free any dog which had
become snagged in the broken ice field before the sled came crashing down on both dog and
driver. In the way, forward momentum could usually be maintained...in contrast to the tandem
system used in the western Arctic when, if the lead dog stopped, the entire team stopped.
The dogs sent to Norway
From an old list of dogs imported to Norway, it seems the following BTAE dogs were brought to Norway and judging from Ken Hedges’ comments in John Wright’s article, were all from Ken’s team:
Only the first six dogs on the list are found in the Norwegian Kennel Club (NKK) online database - Dogweb. There could be several reasons for this. Maybe they were the only ones used for breeding and were registered for this reason. During this period it was common to only register one or a few dogs from a litter, most likely the ones used for breeding, or that had a particularly conscientious owner.
Another possible reason, and the one I personally find the most likely, is that all the dogs may have been registered upon arrival in Norway, and possibly also used for breeding, but only these six were digitalized from the old analog archive. Digitalizing old archives is both costly and time consuming, as every single letter and number must be manually punched into the computer. I also imagine that Dogweb has been constructed by starting with present day dogs and then working their way back through each dog’s pedigree as far back as there would have been legible records. As a result, mostly the dogs that have currently living progeny are found in the digital database. So, out of the original fourteen dogs brought south from Svalbard, these six should still have living relatives today.
Several of the names are probably not the original ones, and some might be original but incorrectly spelled. For instance, Mads is a Scandinavian version of Mathias/Mathew from the bible. Gry is a common Norwegian woman’s name that means the start of the day, equivalent to the English word/name Dawn. Ole Brumm is the Norwegian name for Winnie-the-Pooh.
Mapping out all living progeny of these six dogs turned out to be too big a task, but out of personal interest I took a deep dive into my oldest living dog, Eqqo’s, pedigree. Going back about 10-12 generations I find that five of these six dogs are her ancestors. Since Eqqo is mother and grandmother to the rest of my current team, this means all my eight dogs are related to Mikisoq, Fox, Nipper, Plop and Mads. Not that this is very important in the scope of things, but being the enthusiast and nerd that I am, it give me great joy none the less. And it also proves that the genes of Ken Hedges’ team live on in Norway even today, close to 50 years after their arrival.
Gisle’s team taken April 2020. Eqqo, the lead dog nearest to the camera, is mother/
grandmother of the rest of the team, making them all related to Ken Hedges’ BTAE team.