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The Gaze of Animal Life:
Memories from the British Trans-Arctic Expedition, 1968-69
by Dr. Ken Hedges
"There is no record of a longer sustained dog-sled journey in the history of Polar exploration."
Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, December, 1970
On Easter Day, 6/7 April 1969, four men (Sir Wally Herbert, Dr. Fitzroy 'Fritz' Koerner, Allan Gill and Major Ken Hedges) with four teams of Greenland Huskies, reached the North Pole during an expedition that would enter 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 the North Pole on foot;
• The longest sustained dogsled journey on sea ice in the history of Polar exploration.
The story of this expedition cannot be told until full tribute has been given to our magnificent West Greenland Huskies. Each of us was equipped with a sledge hauled by a team of ten dogs. During Christmas 1967 Allan Gill and I had purchased forty huskies at Qaanaaq, some 140 km north of the USAF Base at Thule. These wonderful animals are powerful creatures with the endurance necessary to cover vast distances (6,000 km) and able to thrive in extreme cold weather (averaging -40 degrees C) for months on end. Unlike their Alaskan counterparts, the Greenland dogs were trained to work individually using a fan hitch to reduce the loss of momentum when negotiating the rough terrain of countless pressure ridges.
This remote land, at the northern reaches of indigenous human habitation, was an unforgiving place. In the darkness and raw cold of winter and with the encouraging companionship of local Inuit hunters, we now retraced our steps southward to Thule over an uncharted track across the Heilpren Glacier. En route, with no other means of transport in this bleak and desolate waste, we encountered a Danish school teacher who, when disoriented with hypothermia, had become separated from her party during a blizzard and sustained severe frostbite to her hands; and an impoverished young Inuit mother who had suffered disfiguring burns to her face and hands when she inadvertently added gasoline from an unmarked container to her kerosene lamp. She saved her baby from the conflagration but not without incurring considerable injury herself. They were lucky to be alive. Later, for both women there would be lifelong scars bearing evidence of their service to others.
Out here, there is an intuitive living out of a gentler narrative:
That the needs of my neighbour best describe the coordinates of my neighbourhood.
That I am my brother’s keeper.
Out here, the human spirit, responsive to the forces of nature, discerning of the past and
creative with what lies to hand, was more clearly perceived and more often witnessed
than in the clamour of our modern suburban lifestyles with their hurried rhythms and
the pervasive appetites of a consumer society.
It was a salutary prelude to the journey which lay ahead, to attempt the first crossing of the surface of the Arctic Ocean. We faced a prospect where mishap and cruel choices might dictate our very survival. Later there would be a time of prolonged social isolation to test our mettle as we lived and moved across the sea ice on a journey that would extend over 476 days. There would be unpredictable encounters with a rabid arctic fox; and half rations; and measured risks to be taken; and injuries; and predatory polar bears with the stark confrontation of kill or be killed:
Out here, in the immense silence of the Arctic,
it was the mute constancy of our dogs, our beasts of burden,
which shared and at times best conveyed the inspiring testimony of Creation.
Out here, I would come to discern that it is the gaze of animal life
which reflects the conscience of mankind
in the stewardship of nature.
"The gaze of animal life: Memories from the British Trans-Arctic Expedition, 1968-1969" first appeared in the World Wildlife Fund-Canada blog and appears in The Fan Hitch with the kind permissions of both Dr. Ken Hedges and WWF-Canada." Ed.
* * *Ken spent his early childhood years in the Fiji islands. With the outbreak of WW2, Ken's family returned to the UK where he completed his schooling, graduating in 1951 from the training ship, HMS "Worcester". (An earlier alumnus, Lt. "Birdie" Bowers had joined Scott of the Antarctic and tragically succumbed with him in their fateful return from the South Pole in 1912.) Ken later switched careers and graduated from the University of Liverpool Medical School in 1962. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps for twelve years culminating in his appointment as Senior Specialist in Public Health at Army Headquarters, Northern Ireland. Ken completed six operational tours including four with the Special Air Service (SAS). It was from the SAS that he was invited to join the British Trans Arctic Expedition. On the successful completion of the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean, members of the four man crossing party were invested at Buckingham Palace with the Polar Medal, (distinctive for its white ribbon) the citation for which reads: "Conferred upon those who took an active part in an expedition which made notable advances in the exploration of Polar Regions and underwent the hazards and rigours of severe conditions in excess of 12 months."
Ken subsequently moved to Canada where he now lives in retirement just a few miles shy of 45ºN, almost exactly half way between the Equator and the North Pole!