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Steve (l) and Porgy at Base W Photo: Robin Perry
Steve’s Solo Journey
It was early March 1959. The John Biscoe under Skipper Johnston was due to relieve the four of us from the southern most Stonington Island Base. But the ice in Marguerite Bay on the west-central side of the Antarctic Peninsula was shore-fast to the horizon. Doc Henry Wyatt, Pete Forster, Keith Hoskins and I battened down the old hut windows and door and loaded up five sledges to the four teams of dogs. With my team, the Admirals, hauling two of the sledges, we quickly sledged some thirty miles up to Horseshoe Island’s Base Y on weathered but wind-blasted ice. The Admirals showed off their amazing capabilities as if knowing it was my last journey.
Satellite image of Antarctica with the peninsula circled in red.
Orthographic projection of NASA's Blue Marble data set,
Dave Pape/Anna Frodesiak. Modified by Agis Fasseas.
The Americans heard of the Biscoe’s fast ice difficulties and sent the icebreaker Northwind and two helicopters to assist. In spite of her power Northwind could not smash a passage through four-foot ice into Horseshoe Base without difficulty and delay and the four of us were flown forty miles out to the ships, leaving the four dog teams at Base Y. Over the next two weeks Northwind very slowly broke a passage from the edge of bay ice at the southern end of Adelaide Island up its west coast with the Biscoe having to be towed by steel cable at times in the icebreaker’s wake. By the 31st of March the two ships reached the Matha Strait to pick up all the men and the six dog teams of Base W Detaille Island (under Brian Foote) that had been closed by policy. They sledged to the ships some forty miles away, the last three teams arriving at the ships just north of Adelaide Island ice piedmont at 0230 hours on the first of April. I was asleep but with some others was awoken to help tether the teams and get them and the kit aboard...quite simple with obedient husky co-operation. However, one of them, Steve, did not trust these strange guys with their entreaties and slipping his harness he scampered free. With temperatures dropping to +10F (-12C) and new ice forming Skipper Johnston could not risk being beset so he ordered passage northwards while those of us at the rail watched Steve’s wolf-like forlorn figure getting smaller until out of sight but not out of mind. None of us thought he stood a chance, although we had worked with these dogs for two years and witnessed ten of the fourteen dogs survive a fatal break up of winter ice that killed three men from Horseshoe on their way to the Dion Islands. Yet with Base W closed we assumed Steve had sealed his own fate.
We underestimated the incredible resourcefulness and staying power of the husky. Steve turned up about three months later at Horseshoe Island, paws bleeding and sore but tail wagging and tongue lolling as the new base personnel had to believe their eyes. Robin Perry was the new leader at Horseshoe Base. This is his account:
“A few days before the feast of midwinter (1959) a strange dog was noticed creating a hullabaloo among the teams out on the spans. I had no difficulty in recognizing Steve. He had been on the loose for nearly three months and seemed pleased to find people again. I attached him among the Spartans where he was not exactly well received at first! We found he was a good 20lbs above his normal weight, but in excellent form. I speculated that he had gorged himself on the seal pile left at Base W then felt the need for the company of the pack. He had done the journey from Base Y (Horseshoe) to W the previous year so that may have helped him find his way over the glaciers and sea ice.”
Steve’s Probable Route (click here to see a larger version)
Map courtesy of Peter Gibbs
This is the story of Steve’s journey, surmised from the midwinter round trip travels Doc Sandy Imray and I did from Horseshoe Island to Detaille Island via the Blaiklock Island Refuge, the sea ice having now set to enable this. Having celebrated one mid-winter party at Horseshoe, we accompanied Angus Erskine and Jim Madell who had completed an autumn journey on the plateau and were returning to their Base W. Steve was not a lead dog but a recollection of this more southerly base and the route that was taken must have stayed in his mind.
The first forty miles from the ships across good ice with fresh tracks to Detaille Island was swift and Steve could follow the scent of pee marks on many bergy bits. Not having worked out that the base was closed with no men or dogs there to welcome him back to his home, he was indeed bemused to find nothing but a boarded up hut and silent spans and chains. He sat on his haunches and let out a prolonged wolfy howl.
Evensong at Adelaide, an un-named husky giving vent to emotion.
Photo: Geoff Renner
from Of Dogs and Men by Kevin Walton and Rick Atkinson;
Published by Images of Malvern, 1996
A few seconds later the silence was broken by the echo of his own wail from Liard Island to the west and the buttresses of Murphy Glacier on the mainland to the east. He pricked up his ears looking one way then the other. It had never been so calm and quiet to notice before these echoes like ghost dogs. He could not settle and traversed the island sniffing the air and looking. Maybe one of the base party was still here or they would come with a team of his mates. One big consolation was the seal pile. The carcasses were not hard frozen and the night of his journey had given him an appetite. Skuas had opened up the hide of the topmost seal. Steve tore at the carcass, lunging at the skuas who glided noisily just out of reach. Satiated, he lay down by the steps to the hut where the drifted snow of winter had thawed and left a shelter partly under the hut.His journey was over. He deserved to feel proud but that is a human sentiment. He had covered at least 140 miles.
I wish to thank Denis Goldring for details of the Base W exit and to Robin Perry for comments and the photo of Steve and look-alike twin Porgy.