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Stareek, 1911 photo: H.G Ponting
Stareek and Tsigane
by Peter Gibbs
About 60 years ago when this Earth had not been fully explored and young men like me admired the heroes of the ‘heroic’ age and were in search of remaining wild places, I used my 500 cc single cylinder Ariel to motorbike up to Cambridge from Oxford in England to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute, not just to see Oats’s caribou skin sleeping bag and other relics of polar exploration but also the founder of that museum, Frank Debenham himself and his dear wife, who very kindly invited me to tea. He was a young geologist from Australia about twenty years old when Robert Falcon Scott recruited him to join his 1910 expedition to the Antarctic. He was a fund of stories about his and others adventures as we sat eating muffins in front of a log fire, but in no way retired as he was then professor of geography at Cambridge and busy also writing books about his time down South as well as about explorers like Livingstone.
He told tales of the sledge dogs that helped pull supplies across that featureless 500 miles of the Ross Ice Barrier. There is nothing to spark either men’s or dogs interest, especially when there is low cloud and a ‘white out’ like being inside a ping-pong ball. No wonder that after 300 miles or so two of the older dogs were showing signs of strain. These were Stareek and Tsigane. Amundsen would have fed them to the other dogs but Scott said they could return with two men of the support party though no dog food could be spared; they would have to share the men’s rations. Stareek had no wish to return North. He chewed through his lashing and started back to rejoin the south-bound teams. The men could do nothing about that as they only had just enough food for their trek back to base.
So they sledged on northwards with Tsigane sharing their rations and making him comfortable at night with a bed on the sledge. Eighteen foot-weary days later and some 200 miles from where they had left the polar party, they were disturbed in their sleeping bags at night because Tsigane kept barking and moving about. In the morning when they crawled out of the tent they saw the reason for the disturbance. There was Stareek curled up in Tsigane’s bed on the sledge. He was barely recognizable so thin and exhausted he could hardly walk. For some days he was hauled on the sledge while fed part of the men’s rations to give him strength.
Consider what he had done. Already weak he was dispatched back with these two men. But having chewed through his trace he probably followed his old comrades south for some way, at least 20 miles but could not catch them up so turned around and headed north. For eighteen days and 200 miles he followed their tracks with the determination and grit that only huskies exhibit and, at last rewarded by the sight and smell of the camp, he had just enough in him to turn Tsigane out of his bed on the sledge and curl up exhausted. In the last of those three years when the base party now knew that the pole party was not returning Debenham made a scratch team of seven dogs with Stareek as leader to take him on his local journeys along the ice front.
Stareek was admitted to that Hall of Canine Fame thanks to Debenham and his observations and memory. In a future issue of The Fan Hitch I will tell another husky journey story about Steve, a FIDS* dog.
* Before being known as the British Antarctic Survey, Antarctic exploration and research was performed by what was first referred to as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey or FIDS; and the heroic men of the FIDS were themselves referred to as “Fids”. Ed.
Peter Gibbs has always loved wild places. He had done some mountaineering and canoeing (including across Lapland) before beginning his surveying career in Antarctica in 1956, where, traveling by dog team, he "filled in the blank spaces" in the continent's mountainous interior. Since that time, his career has taken him to some pretty wild parts of then colonial Africa, Northern Rhodesia, Bechuanaland and Ghana, the Scottish Highlands and islands, Iraq, Libya and Oman. In 1998 Peter, with his wife semi-retired to Cyprus where some technical writing, sailing, gardening and above all helping the local animal charity with its homeless dogs shelter, keeps him fully active.