At the Stonington
Photo attributed to Roger Scott
Dogs of the Sledge Trail
by Ken Pawson
Somewhere to the south-west,
in the grey lonely emptiness of the Bellingshausen Sea,
a weather system was developing, producing an ever increasing wind,
which swept up the glaciers descending from the central plateau of
the mountain ranges, which form the jagged,
confused rampart along the west coast, guarded a remote and,
but for the mourning of the wind, a silent land.
Already the wind was of sufficient strength to pick up loose snow
and carry it along as low fine drift that hissed and swished
a foot or so above the surface of the plateau,
twisting little white whirlpools of ghostly mist
for a few seconds, before breaking out
into a curving gusty path into the distance.
It was a place never intended for man, for life,
for living things, for growth and fullness.
It was as a planet somewhere in the coldness of space
might be before it felt the warming energy of a sun,
or as it might meet its death.
It was a lonely place, a place where even death is absent.
Although there is nothing to die,
at least nothing born of this forbidding land.
Out of the drift they came, nine dogs pulling a Nansen sledge,
with the driver skiing alongside,
followed at a distance of a few hundred yards
by another team of dogs and its driver.
Twenty living things in all that wilderness.
It mattered little whether they were men or dogs.
They were just twenty living, breathing units
that passed over the land, changing it not at all
save for the tracks which would soon disappear.
Things which needed food to survive,
things which had to take in so much moisture, and so much time
which had to gasp in so much freezing air
into tortured lungs in so many minutes.
Things which needed so much warmth and blood and tissue,
things which had to cover so many miles in so many days or die.
"Ah boys!" The word was sufficient.
There was no need to apply the foot brake
The dogs were tired as were the drivers
and only too ready to stop.
A hundred feet behind, the second team stopped.
At once the dogs dropped in the snow,
half curled, heads on paws, facing downwind,
tails wrapped around themselves, furry tips covering noses.
There was none of the growling
and fight-readiness of fresh teams
These dogs had had it, but still, within each
was a willingness to pull a load,
that spark of adventure and daring of the unknown
that makes the husky different from other dogs.
The lead dog at the front was still on his feet
when the rest of the dogs lay down,
a smallish husky, white with black markings.
He stood there on widely braced legs,
breathing deeply, looking ahead towards the north.
No longer was his tail held defiantly curved up over his body
but drooped limply, ruffled by the snow-carrying wind.
Once, he turned his head and looked at the rest of the team and the
Then he too dropped down with the other dogs.
Even he, the lead dog on Number One sledge was close to his limit.
"They've had it, poor bastards!" said the driver of the first team.
The second man nodded his head as he crouched in the lee side of the
Eighteen miles south of base. These men didn't talk much.
They'd been on the trail too long
to waste energy, physical or mental, on unnecessary answers.
Each one sat hunched in his windproof, chewing the last bit of chocolate.
Too tired to relax and think of other places and other days,
when all is going well and bodies and mind are fresh.
Only one thought: those eighteen bloody miles that lay ahead
and the threatening blizzard to be faced with dogs
that were just about finished.
Eighteen miles that had to be covered,
for there was no food to sit out a blizzard.
After a few moments, the men got up without any word,
as if they both had known that this was the exact minute
at which they had to start out again.
But then after sledging and tenting with the same person for many weeks,
thoughts seem to pass back and forward
without any words being actually spoken.
In fact, words sometimes even seem to spoil the thought pattern.
Each driver gripped the handlebars of his sledge.
"Now dogs!" The team stirred, heads looking up and around,
An occasional dog staggered to his feet,
standing quietly, looking ahead.
"Get up, there!" Slowly, the rest of the dogs were on their feet
"Now dogs! Huiiit!"
With a twisting, lifting heave on the sledge from its driver,
each team once again slid off northwards.
Behind them the steady hiss of the drifting snow
and the moan of the wind were the only sounds.
Soon the tracks of men and dogs were filled with snow,
and again nothing lived in this land.
And yet, because for a few brief moments,
life had lived and breathed and existed here,
these snowfields could never be just as lonely again.