In This Issue....
Hwfa Jones and The Hobbits sledging at Halley Bay, 1971 Photo: Ricky Lee
A Time to Remember the Dogs
by Hwfa Jones
For some, it is a cold day, a snowstorm, the smell of a primus stove, the evocative aroma of rum in cocoa or even the sight of lumpy porridge. Now and again I get a little twinge in my right knee which makes me remember. It's a long time now since I went sledging with dogs, and little did I think at the time that I would clearly, so clearly remember my first outing. As the sledge was being loaded I was hiding a limp from jumping a tide-crack which was just too wide for me while skiing behind a couple of the dogs (who had no trouble leaping the gap). I had cleared it but on landing I smashed the cheap wooden skis issued to us by the parsimonious storekeeper G.A. (General Assistant) and fell awkwardly. I had to walk back three miles to base with a torn knee cartilage. Cartilage problems were commonplace. I didn't complain as the week before I watched Mike, the doggy man, silently manipulate the cartilage in both his knees back into position with sweat from the pain spontaneously soaking his forehead. When mine 'went', I generally screamed. But nothing was going to stop me from going on this trip, so I kept quiet. We were off to find a new route south to the Antarctic inland ice; two dog teams, four men, and three injured knees. Thank God the dogs knew what they were doing!
I have, over the years, largely forgotten the personal pain in my knee on that trip and I suppose Mike has too. But what all of us do remember are the dogs who got us safely through the crevasse zone and gave us a full life, a life denied to them, for within two years of our trip they died on that same route, falling without trace hundreds of feet deep into one of the huge hinge zone crevasses that littered the route.
This was my personal experience, remembered every time I scratch my knee. When I mentioned this at a recent reunion, it initiated a 'show of scars' similar to the scene in the movie Jaws. Fids (Falkland Islands Dependency Survey, the old name for the British Antarctic Survey whose members were called 'Fids') were rolling up their trouser legs and unbuttoning their shirts to show the mementoes they earned from sledding with dogs. Mostly the name of the dog that bit them was etched in their memory as deep as the scar. "That b- - - - Mitral did this one," said Pete, displaying a round white canine puncture mark in his leg. "Booboo did this one," said another, as he revealed a long healed gash on his forearm, physical manifestations of interactions long past. Of course it was almost unheard of for a dog to deliberately bite one of us. We usually got bitten accidentally when trying to sort out a dog fight or a 'punch-up' as we called them.
All men who sledded out there remember their dogs, now long gone, but apart from the vivid tales of aging drivers with a few scars there is little else to commemorate the huskies who opened up Antarctica. For almost a hundred years travel by dog sled was the only means of mapping and exploring the territory. Our pains trifling and our scars fading, it was about time there was some more substantial monument to the real heroes. And so the fund for a dog memorial was born.
To coincide with the Halley Bay 50th Reunion in October 2006 and on fairly short notice, I wrote up the story of that trip and it became The Doggy Men. I am using this book as a means of 'kick-starting' the Sledge Dog Memorial Fund.
At the reunion, I was touched by the countless stories of so many sled drivers recalling their experiences with their dogs and how many had felt guilty of being harsh with them, perhaps not relating this to the great stress they were under in sometimes life threatening situations. In many cases it came as an absolute shock to young men who had never before seen even a glacier, yet there was to my knowledge never an instance of any Fid refusing to travel despite the very real danger of crevasses, sea ice, blizzards and exposure.
To this day, Fids are adamant that it is a disgrace too long "kept quiet" - the long distance order issued by politicians - fallaciously claiming 'environmental reasons' (see Behind the Madrid Protocol: The real reason dogs had to be removed from Antarctica in the December, 2003 issue of The Fan Hitch) directing the mass shootings in 1973 of over one hundred dogs and pups at Stonington, and sometimes even ordering by wireless, the tearful drivers to shoot all their dogs just before the conclusion of their long field trips (and they would be flown back to base).
From everyone I have spoken to the support for a memorial is overwhelming.
The Antarctic Sledge Dog Memorial Fund
The public has almost completely forgotten that the true 'first to the Poles' were not those now listed in the history books but the sledge dogs who dragged the loads and our heroes to glory! Neither Amundsen nor Scott (who used dogs to lay so many of his depots) would have reached the South Pole without dogs. In the early days these magnificent animals were often treated abominably. They were beaten, starved, slaughtered and even eaten. British Antarctic Survey sled drivers treated their dogs well and had a great affection for them, tinged now with guilt over the mass shootings. Virtually all of British Antarctic Territory was surveyed and mapped by scientists working as teams with dogs, which are now forever banned from the continent.
The Antarctic Sledge Dog Memorial Fund has been set up by men of the British Antarctic Survey, the Fids, to mark the outstanding contribution of our polar dogs to exploration. More than one hundred people have contributed so far. From discussions at the fiftieth anniversary reunion, the most popular option is likely to be a full size bronze statue of a typical strong shouldered 'British Husky' together with a plaque listing all the British dog teams that worked in Antarctica. The cost from one sculptor is estimated at £3,500 to £5,000. We should perhaps have a target of £6000 and there could even be a competition for the design. The location most favored is Port Lockroy, from where much of the sledding started in the early days. Now a great tourist attraction, it is accessible to almost everyone who visits Antarctica today. Most Fids going south would be likely to drop in at Port Lockroy at some time and be able to see the memorial.
While this memorial is important to so many individual Fids, as a country it is about time we joined so many other nations in Antarctica in remembering the contribution of our sled dogs.