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“Stroma and Skye” Courtesy of Mike Skidmore
Stroma and Skye:
My recollections and reflections
by Michael Skidmore
It's been a long time since I travelled with Stroma and Skye – forty-five years to be precise. As an artist illustrating Antarctic scenes, my memories of those days, and the days in their company, are kept alive. Here are some recollections of my time sledging with these two lovable old rogues.
The Falkland Island Dependencies Survey (FIDS) and its successor the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) operated with sledge dogs in the Antarctic for some fifty years. During this time the dogs provided the backbone of exploration and scientific fieldwork until the use of Skidoos became commonplace and dogs were withdrawn. This was a result of the decision to remove all alien species from the Antarctic continent by the year 1994. Some say that should have included the human aliens too! The last batch of dogs were 'repatriated' to Canada but despite appropriate inoculations all very soon succumbed to local infections and died.
Let me set the scene. FIDS established numerous bases on and around the Antarctic peninsula after World War II. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, an additional base was established by the Royal Society of London at Halley Bay, a creek in the Brunt Ice Shelf on the eastern coast of the Weddell Sea. Halley Bay was named after the great astronomer Sir Edmund Halley. After the IGY it was taken over by FIDS which later became BAS. The actual base was built some distance from the seaward edge of the ice shelf which was about 40 miles (64 km) from the main inland ice cap. In the early 1960s fieldwork began on the inland mountains and nunataks. Nunataks are areas of bare rock or isolated mountain peaks within or thrusting through an ice sheet or glacier. Survey and geological parties set out by dog sledge to explore these newly discovered areas. I was appointed geologist on one of those exploration teams in the 1967-69 seasons. Our objectives were to explore the Theron Mountains and the Shackleton Range to the south of Halley Bay. These were discovered in 1957 by Sir Vivian Fuchs’ Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The post-war period
up until the mid 1980s could be
regarded as the golden age of routine scientific exploration using
before the widespread introduction of motorised toboggans
supported by aircraft
in the field. During my days at Halley Bay there were tractors and
introduced Skidoos, but we relied entirely on dog sledging in the
supplies to the field area and then returned to base.
Huskies of the British Antarctic Survey
It’s interesting to note that all the huskies used by BAS had dog record cards. During this 50-year period, the records show that some 900 huskies were in harness at some time or other. Over the years, with dog movements, births and deaths, a wealth of doggy information exists on these cards. Genealogy software is currently being used which is able to cope with some of the incestuous activities of the dogs over the years! It is expected to establish a complete database as a permanent record of the huskies' contributions to our Antarctic heritage. The record cards detail each dog’s name, sex, siblings, father, mother, progeny, medical history, its character (whether good or bad), working history including journeys and distances travelled. Also, each dog had a code indicating the base where it was born and a record of any base transfers.
Recently there has been a large bronze statue of a BAS husky erected at BAS Headquarters in Cambridge, England1. It is a memorial to the dogs as they were the mainstay of BAS field and exploration activities for all those years and serves as a reminder of their contributions. It seems appropriate also that their genealogy should be recorded before the men who ran the dogs leave their mortal coils, lest the husky history and dog driving memories within BAS be lost forever. This might be regarded as important as is the Oral History Project which is being jointly run by BAS Club and the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. This project is recording personal reminiscences of BAS members from all walks of life about their days in the Antarctic.
With personnel on sledging bases breeding their own dogs, there were attempts to reduce or eliminate undesirable genetic traits in the population such as entropion and haemophilia. However the inevitable and numerous unscheduled doggy liaisons resulted in some offspring of questionable merit and these were not used for breeding! Happily, Stroma and Skye and their siblings were apparently 'designer pups.' On base, dog welfare was essentially in the charge of the field men and when breeding dogs, the human midwives usually had much to say about naming of the pups. However, proposed names had to be registered and approved by BAS HQ. This avoided duplications from base to base and subsequent complications over the years. Often names within a litter were themed and may even have had some link to the field man in charge. For example, British rivers - Esk, Wensen, Dove, Don and Tiefi; Scottish islands - Stroma, Skye, Barra, Staffa, Handa and Jura, or ex-RAF bases - Changi, Fedu, Seletar, Tengah, Luqa and Sharjah. Wensen is a misspelling of the River Wensum in Norfolk, England.
The Dogs at Halley Bay
It seems that my thoughts have been diverted from my recollections of Stroma and Skye. However I’ve set the scene in as much as can a brief resumé of the extent of husky husbandry and usage during the golden years, when dogs were the mainstay of BAS exploratory field work.
At Halley Bay there were some forty huskies on my arrival at the base in January 1967. After a successful breeding programme in 1968, this increased to some sixty or more on base by the time I left in early February 1969 despite necessary culling. This success was mostly due to providing adequate winter shelter for the whelping bitches. Deep trenches were excavated in the compacted snow surface of the ice shelf adjacent to our base and then covered over. New-born pups were housed in the warmer environment of an old generator shed supplying power to a temporary sledge workshop. More importantly the successful breeding was due to the dedication of several dog handlers, but I do not include myself amongst them.
In the 1967-68 field season there were enough dogs on base for three nine-dog teams and the pick of the available dogs were selected. Breeders, weaners and old crocks were relegated to base work and left behind. All the established dog teams on base had names. The team I drove with Peter Noble was called the Hairybreeks, possibly on account of the very hairy appearance of their breeches (breeks) or backsides. Then there was the Mobsters dog team. Whether they were so called after a cleft in the nearby ice shelf cliffs called Mobster Creek or on account of the unruly mob of dogs forming the first team, I’m not certain. The Beatles team was probably named after the emerging Liverpudlian pop group of the time. Latterly, the Hobbits dog team was founded in the second year I was on base 1968-69. The reading of JRR Tolkien was all the rage, so it is easy to see from where the Hobbits team name was derived. Indeed, Tolkien’s characters provided a number of the names given to several of the dogs successfully bred at Halley Bay - Bilbo, Frodo and Gollum for instance! With so many dogs available in latter years, a number of scratch teams were given temporary names for ease of reference only, such as the Treacleminers, named after Peter Noble’s skiffle group from his school days.
At the start of our summer fieldwork for 1967-68, supplies were hauled south on sledges 240 miles (386 km) to the Theron Mountains by Bombardier Muskeg tractors. In order to preserve the endurance of our dogs, individual wooden kennels were built on our larger sledges to transport two teams across the last 200 miles (322 km) of barren ice cap as far as the start of the field area. Here we were to engage on a full summer season of ground survey and geological work - or so we thought. The kennels were particularly successful in that the dogs arrived fresh for work after a week of being carried along all day. Not surprisingly, the dogs didn’t really like them and never really got used to the ride. Towards the end of the seven-day journey they seemed to reluctantly accept the kennels but, not surprisingly, they didn’t like being put back in after a night on the spans. Nevertheless we knew there was a lot of travelling and sledge work to do before the season was over. That the dogs returned to base fit and healthy, and not worn out was testament to this visionary approach! Furthermore on this subject, the dogs returned to base in a sleek condition, their coats, fresh, clean and shiny. All the matting from congealed blubber that they had acquired previously on the dog spans from the seal meat feeds was gone, and for once their fresh coats glistened in the bright sunshine.
Peter Noble and I drove the Hairybreeks dog team from about Christmas 1967 to March 1968. We replaced the previous geological party who used the team and then left to return home at the end of their two years on base. We then headed south from the Theron Mountains on a route-finding journey to the Shackleton Range accompanied for a while by our colleagues driving the Mobsters dog team.
We had set out to continue the geological exploration work in the Shackleton Range but unfortunately for me we found the mighty Slessor Glacier in our way. It was far more extensive and heavily crevassed than previously thought. A glance at the Slessor Glacier ice stream on Google Earth2 will give you some idea of what we avoided by turning easterly from our direct approach from the north! Our journey turned into one of reconnaissance for the following season’s work programme. For me it was professionally frustrating. I was a newly fledged geologist and my designated area of work proved to be just too far to safely reach overland, spend time in the mountains, and return to base in one field season. In the end, I just enjoyed the pleasure (most of the time) travelling behind these wonderful creatures who hauled our nightly home along for us! I shall not dwell on this journey – an excellent account of it and our temporary way of life during this field season has been written by my sledging companion and dog handler Peter Noble in his book Dog Days on Ice3. In it there are many photographs of the huskies of the Hairybreeks and Mobster dog teams.
Stroma and Skye and their brothers
Stroma and Skye were two middle aged husky brothers, each with an almost complete creamy white coat, who ran fourth pair in our dog team. They were born on 19th December 1961 at BAS Base D at Hope Bay at the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula. There were six male pups in the litter and all were given the names of Scottish islands. Their father was a 1960 Greenland-born husky called Nuga and their mother a Hope Bay bitch called Emma, born in 1957. By the time the Hope Bay base was closed in 1963, Nuga, along with Stroma and Skye and two of their brothers, Barra and Staffa, had been transferred to Halley Bay. This was in anticipation of the expected extension of the fieldwork from that base to investigate and survey the nearby mountains so recently discovered. The last two husky brothers, Handa and Jura, were transferred to other bases on the Antarctic peninsula.
Halley Bay records show that the four brothers were all good, strong, tough, hard-working and willing dogs (most of the time). However, with the four in one team a sort of ‘mafia’ or gang of four developed which led to much mischief. And so in the season I travelled with them they were split up, two in each team, at the rear. Colin Wornham who drove 'the mafia four' during a previous season recalled that despite a hard day's sledging they had enough energy left over to intimidate the rest of the team into a fight by growling at each other! Being younger and less experienced, the others would usually react to the verbal baiting. Now if the 'outside man' did not respond quickly enough to stop a fight developing, all hell would be let loose. As the dogs were all chained there was the serious likelihood of some injury amongst the twisted traces that linked the all but now virtually immobilised dogs to their night span. This happened on one occasion when, on returning from some survey station, the surveyors thought all was calm and peaceful as the dogs appeared to be all lying at rest. In fact they had tied their traces and themselves in knots and couldn't move. The only way to sort that lot out was to untangle one dog at a time. Barra, in particular, being perhaps the ringleader of the gang was the most aggressive. Once when badly injured in some fight he continued to growl and bicker at the rest of the team despite the fact that he was being carried along on the sledge!
The composition of our dog team, the Hairybreeks, for the 1967-68 season comprised Whisky, our lead dog, who had a dark grey coat with a straw coloured underbelly. He was transferred from Base D along with his brother Nuga, who by now had developed an extremely cantankerous disposition.
First pair was Shem whose brother Ham was in the other dog team, the Mobsters, which accompanied us on part of our particular journey. Friendly Shem had a light fawn–buff coloured coat and was the smallest male dog on base in contrast to his brother Ham who was definitely the largest – a transposition of genes no doubt! Shem ran along side the virtually all-white Chalky, his aunt, whom he attempted to mount on several occasions only to be rebuffed, probably due to her daily administration of anti-oestrogen tablets which prevented her coming on heat whilst out in the field. Shem later developed into one of the finest lead dogs known at Halley Bay.
Second pair were brothers Wensen and Esk, who together really dominated the other dogs. They were handsome, white dogs with a few irregular dark grey and dark brown patches. Their pictures appear in Kevin Walton’s book Of Dogs and Men4. Wensen became 'king dog', and supported by his loyal henchman, Esk, kept the others 'in order'.
Third pair were brothers Changi with a dark brown coat with a dark yellow underbelly, and Luqa, another fawn to browny-coloured cur. Their brothers, Tengah and Sharjah, were in the Mobsters. Incidentally, I have provided an account of Changi in an earlier edition of this esteemed journal5, when I sledged with him over two seasons before he became leader of the Hobbits.
Finally, fourth pair were the old gentlemen, Stroma and Skye. They didn't seem very interested in hauling the sledge as their traces were often slack and occasionally they had trouble keeping up. Perhaps our sledges were too light. We did have plenty of depots laid by the tractor party for our return journey. There were no really special incidents which singled out Stroma and Skye or any of the other dogs for that matter. However, when you got up in the morning and pitched out of the pyramid tent, you were warmly greeted with howls of delight. Was it the prospect of further running or just the warm companionship that can develop between man and dog? To me, they always seemed keen to be off, albeit across 20 miles (32 km) or more of totally barren ice cap following snow cairns built along the way during our outward journey; or was it the knowledge that each day would bring them a little closer to home and the dog spans outside base?
At the end of a day's sledging, most of the dogs were never released from their traces. They were separated from each other by setting out a night span at right angles to the sledge. The sledge and the two ends of the span were suitably picketed, which did present a problem in deep soft snow. So the positioning of the dogs on the night span was chosen to try and reduce any potential for nightly disturbances. We never let them roam free when in camp or at an overnight stop. As our lives depended on them, and being relatively inexperienced ourselves about the ways of huskies, we could not take the risk.
Once the pecking order in the team had been established there was usually no problem except at feeding time when they all got a bit excited. If nine dogs could easily pull a 900 lb (408 kg) loaded sledge uphill, then upending the pickets was no problem if they all rushed at once to the outdoor man who was bringing their nightly feed of dog pemmican. Discipline was required. No dog was fed until it was sitting down – a lesson learned with amazing speed! Their pemmican was a concentrated and dehydrated product called ‘Nutrican’, which came in one-pound blocks and was especially produced for BAS dog sledging rations. It came wrapped and most dogs would rip off the paper wrappers allowing them to be blown away in the keen wind. The dogs would then bolt the contents and gnaw at a second block if given to them. If the paper wrappers were to be found after this, some dogs would eat those too. It was observed that Skye, being dignified and elderly, would take his time, remove the wrapper, eat it first, and then the Nutrican!
Stroma and Skye's most effective contribution to the team was in low gear work up hill or in heavy snow conditions. The very opposite happened when it came to down hill travel - we had to let them off the trace as they simply could not keep up! They would be pulled over and dragged along, possibly under the swerving sledge as we tried to control the headlong dash down-slope. Unfortunately they misunderstood our magnanimous gesture in letting them off and they tried desperately to keep their place at the back of the team and immediately in front of the speeding sledge. Fortunately, the dire consequences you might have imagined never happened!
During this trip incidents were few and enforced lie-ups were infrequent. Travel was steady and the weather balmy most of the time. Our return journey to Halley Bay along with the Mobsters dog team, in which Barra and Staffa were running, was near enough 600 miles (966 km). Peter recalled the days we lay up for a rest in the Theron Mountains on our way home. In the low evening sunshine we would sometimes sit on sledge boxes in the shelter of the tent sipping a mug of tea, while reflecting on the day's travel or activities in this icy world. We regarded Stroma and Skye as two venerable old gentleman of the team and occasionally we would let them off the trace in the camp despite the protests of the other dogs. They would come to our open tent door and poke their noses in to investigate our world which comprised sledging gear, primus stove, sleeping bags on sheepskins on airbeds, a radio, books and chocolate bars! There was no problem re-attaching them to their place on the night span, so conditioned were they to their existence and position on the spans, unlike the other miscreants in the team!
the dogs except Wensen and Esk
appeared to relish close human company and really enjoy a fuss.
They would lick
your bare fingers and muzzle your clothing. I recall they stopped doing this when the sledging anoraks
and clothing we had been wearing for months reeked too much of
paraffin used in
the primus stoves. Then
we knew it
was time for a bath! There is a photograph to be found in Kevin
Walton’s Of Dogs and Men of
one of these more
intimate moments with Skye attending to Geoff Lovegrove’s bare
feet whilst resting
at the tent door. Similarly, in Peter Noble’s book, a tender
moment can be seen
showing him with his favourite dog Whisky.
In my retirement, I
have recently painted the
portrait of these two amiable ’gentlemen’, Stroma and Skye6.
Actually, it is Skye on the left, battle-worn and with a crumpled
in some long forgotten dispute, and Stroma on the right, but the
title of the
painting sounds better as ’Stroma and Skye’. The picture below
painting of our team the Hairybreeks, led by Whisky, crossing the
wastes of the Antarctic ice cap on our return journey from our
Peter is in the red anorak and I’m wearing the grey.
To complete my reflections of my four legged friends, I know that Stroma and Skye were not used in the Hairybreeks dog team during my final sledging season at Halley Bay in 1968-69. They were retained on base where they may or may not have been used on local sledge journeys with other temporary dog teams. Sad to say, they were culled with many other elderly dogs shortly before I left to return home in February 1969. To summarise, I can only praise these wonderful animals, albeit that they were on occasions the most difficult, annoying, infuriating and frustrating creatures on the planet…but they are forever a treasured memory of a privileged time in my life.
Author’s note: Any distances quoted are in statute (land) miles.
Antarctic Survey Sledge Dog Monument: Final Report: July 4, 2009;
The Fan Hitch; Volume
11, Number 4,
2Google Earth map of the Slessor Glacier.
3Noble, P H, 2009. Dog Days on Ice. Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Era. ISBN 1 873877 89 7
4Walton K, and R Atkinson, 1996. Of Dogs and Men. ISBN 1 897817 55 X
5Skidmore, M J, 2007. Remembering Changi; The Fan Hitch, Vol 9, No 4, Sept 2007
6Skidmore, M J, 2012. Paintings of Antarctica; Click on: Paintings of Huskies
He has also designed several sets of postage stamps, issued from 1996 to 2008, celebrating the Antarctic expeditions of Shackleton and Scott.Mike has been a full member of the Society of Staffordshire Artists in the UK. His Antarctic artistry of huskies, sledging, mountain scenery, ships, penguins and Antarctic postage stamp designs may be viewed by clicking on the various links at www.antarctic-paintings.com. His non-polar paintings can be enjoyed at www.mikes-paintings.co.uk.