The Fan Hitch PostScript
Number 5, posted
January 2020
In this Post

From the Editor

The Aboriginal Dog as a Domesticate

Neuroanatomy and Behavior Correlations

Specialized Sledge Dogs Accompanied Inuit Dispersal Across the North American Arctic

Cold Case Reopened and Other QIMMEQ News

Langsomt på Svalbard (Slowly on Svalbard)

Frossen Frihe (Frozen Freedom)

Restoring a Historic Nansen Sledge

Media Review: Kamik, an NFB documentary

IMHO: A View from Across the Divide

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              Editor: Sue Hamilton
              Webmaster: Mark Hamilton

The Fan Hitch Website and Publications of the Inuit Sled Dog– the quarterly Journal (retired in 2018) and PostScript – are dedicated to the aboriginal landrace traditional Inuit Sled Dog as well as related Inuit culture and traditions. 

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Contents of The Fan Hitch Website and its publications  are protected by international copyright laws. No photo, drawing or text may be reproduced in any form without written consent. Webmasters please note: written consent is necessary before linking this site to yours! Please forward requests to Sue Hamilton, 55 Town Line Rd., Harwinton, Connecticut  06791, USA or
North Pole water colour by Wally Herbert.
Left to right: Wally Herbert, Roy Koerner, Allan Gill, Kenneth Hedges
This stunning print and many others are available at Polarworld
Courtesy of Kari Herbert; Copyright of the Wally Herbert Collection

The Restoration of a Historic Nansen Sledge

by John Wright
with input from Dr. Ken Hedges

The Fan Hitch Journal Vol.12, N4, September 2010 detailed the memories of Dr. Ken Hedges relating to the British Trans Arctic Expedition, 1968 – 69.

The Expedition comprised of Wally Herbert (Leader), Allan Gill (Navigator and cameraman), “Fritz” Koerner, PhD (Glaciologist) and Major Ken Hedges (Physician seconded from the British SAS).  Herbert was to receive a knighthood some thirty years after the completion of the expedition in the 2000 Millennial Honours List for services in polar regions.  The crossing was recorded in contemporary editions of the Guinness Book of Records as:
  • The first crossing of the surface of the Arctic Ocean.
  • The first undisputed expedition to reach and return from the geographic North Pole across sea ice.
  • The longest sustained dogsled journey on sea ice in the history of Polar exploration (covering an estimated 6,000 kilometres over 476 days).
From Sir Wally’s book Across the Top of the World: "The expedition was supplied with four komatiks and four wider, heavier and much stronger sledges based on the Nansen design by Skeemaster Limited of Great Yarmouth."  The 4-man crossing party, each equipped with his own team of ten Greenland Inuit Sled Dogs drove both types of sledges and Ken thinks that the heavier komatiks may have been used earlier in the expedition when pressure ridges were a bigger problem.  He said the komatiks were extremely heavy and very rugged and would be difficult to break but the Nansens were a more engineered design and were probably stronger weight for weight but not so rugged.

Replacement sledges were air dropped to the team with the second resupply. It's clear from photographs taken at the end of the expedition that at least one komatik was helicoptered onto HMS Endurance.  However, it was a Nansen that Ken left behind to make a dash with Allan Gill across shifting ice floes to scramble ashore on Vesle Tavleoya, a small island in the Svalbard archipelago, thus completing the crossing. Ken suspects that at this point they had two Nansens and two komatiks.

Ken hauling his boss dog "Uncle Wal" out of a pool of open water towards
 the end of the expedition.                              Photo courtesy Ken Hedges

After reuniting with their sleds and the remainder of the team, all were picked up by helicopter and flown to HMS Endurance which then returned them to the UK. Ken’s sledge and part of its load went into storage at the Royal Army Medical Corps Museum and over the years became largely forgotten.

Fast forward to 2013. Ken had first visited Canada in 1937 (at the age of two) from his childhood home in the Fiji Islands. He subsequently migrated to Canada with his bride, Dawn, in the 1970s. In 2010 he became the first Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Medical Service appointed by the Minister of National Defence to serve at the Canadian Forces Health Services Training Centre, Canadian Forces Base Borden.
Ken and I are old friends, having met when I was a British exchange officer at Borden.  Like Ken, I subsequently moved to Canada.  He contacted me to say his sledge had been transferred to the Canadian Forces and was to form the centre piece of an Arctic display at Borden.  Would I help him to refurbish it?

Having experience with Nansens through the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and working with Roger Daynes who produced Nansens in the UK, it was a great opportunity to help conserve a piece of polar history.

Polar medalists Hon. Col Ken Hedges (Right) and
Maj (Ret.) John Wright consider the restoration of
 Ken's BTAE Sledge.   Photo courtesy of: Canadian
Forces Health Service Training Centre.                 

The sledge had already been delivered to the entrance hall of the Health Service Training Centre.  Such a public work area, coupled with the presence of their Honorary Colonel and the unit photographer ensured plenty of interest in our work.
It immediately became apparent that this was no ordinary Nansen. It had the same general construction as a standard BAS dog sledge but it was wider and generally of much heavier construction. The bridges were laminated and deck of the sledge was slightly swept up at the front. Boards had been fixed under the bridges to protect the entire underside.  The handlebars at the rear were perhaps a little lower than usual and there was a platform below them to give another option for positioning the driver who would usually have to run or ski alongside.

The sledge looked as though it had just come off the ice and it showed signs of hard wear. Some damage would no doubt have been repaired in the field were it not for the imminent pick up by helicopter. In particular the joints on one of the bridges were so worn that it was almost detached from the runner and the cow catcher was detached and broken. Wanting to present the sledge as it was used on the expedition, we restricted our restoration to repairs that we could have made in the field. These consisted of replacing a few broken lashings, splicing broken components and re-fixing the loose bridge and cow catcher with hide lashings supplied by Roger Daynes. The result is a sledge that with the addition of a dog team could still cover a few miles.

When we started work on the sledge Ken casually mentioned that it had been returned complete with part of its load, consisting of a few sledge boxes and a tent but he hadn’t yet examined them. On doing so we discovered a few cooking pots and a primus stove but the real treasure lay in the tent.  It was a standard BAS Scott pyramid tent and I suggested we should erect it.  We did so in front of a crowd of bemused Medical Service personnel and I suggested that Ken should be the first into the tent.  As he disappeared into the tunnel entrance, I jokingly suggested that he would probably find his old socks hanging in the top. A moment later he reappeared – complete with a collection of socks, gloves and a hat!

After 44 years since his tent was last unpacked and erected,
Ken Hedges emerges with his well-worn socks, gloves and hat!
Photo courtesy of  Canadian Forces Health Services Training Centre

Their evacuation from the ice had clearly been a hasty event!  The tent and sled boxes now sit on the sledge as part of the exhibit and except for the lack of a dog team it looks ready to go.

Restoration complete, Police Inspector Johnnie Kelsall stands by Ken Hedges'
Nansen sledge                                                                   Photo: Ken Hedges

John Wright worked for the British Antarctic Survey as a GA (Field Guide) from 1976 to 1979. He wintered at Halley and worked on the Polar Plateau and in the Shackleton Mountains.  Due to bad weather and difficulties with aircraft he spent a second, enforced winter at the Argentinian Belgrano Station.

On return from the Antarctic John taught outdoor pursuits before joining the Educational and Training Services Branch of the British Army. He climbed and skied in various parts of the world including the Arctic and later transferred to the Canadian Army. He was awarded the British Polar Medal with Arctic and Antarctic clasp in 1999. He retired in 2012 and now runs a small Polar Supplies company and guides on cruise ships in the polar regions.

Ed: As many readers may be curious about the dogs, here is what John Wright quoted from Sir Wally Herbert’s book:

“The forty Greenland Huskies had been purchased on behalf of the expedition by Inspector Orla Sandborg over a period of several weeks from the many isolated Eskimo villages which are in his care and jurisdiction in the Thule District of North-West Greenland and these were collected by Allan and Ken over the Christmas period of 1967.

They were collected from the air force base at Thule by RAF Hercules on 6th Jan 1968."

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.”

Read a review of Across the Top of the World here. Copies are available on the secondary market from online booksellers