Table of Contents
Dogs in Greenland
The Contribution of Dogs to Exploration in Antarctica
Page from the Behaviour Notebook: Raising Raven
Physiology of Sledge Dogs
The Qitdlarssuaq Chronicles, Part 2
Blue Eye update
Product Review: DirectStop®
Book Review: Carved from the Land
Tip for the Trail: Re-lining Water Jug Caps
IMHO: Preservation vs. Saving
Admirals resting with Cape Bertaux behind. Gibbs photo
The Contribution of Dogs to Exploration in Antarctica
a September 2002 presentation in Paphos, Cyprus to
the Corona Society,
by Peter Gibbs
Antarctica, a continent that has never known war between peoples, is indeed where all nations have worked peaceably in the interest of science and exploration and where husky dogs were often the peacemakers between strained explorers.
Dogs are a subject dear to my heart, and rather particularly that breed of husky that we are seeing more frequently these days in Cyprus, perhaps due to immigrants from Russia. And one coffee morning we were all doting on this 8-week bundle of husky fur found in the deposit box, a pure bred pup if ever one can be defined. But next morning his Yeroskipou owner claimed him. I hope to interest you in this quite incredibly tough and loving dog whose role and sacrifice in the exploration of this continent has never been properly recognized until the publication of Kevin Walton's Of Dogs and Men, describing 50 years of dogs with the British Antarctic Survey.
It just so happens we live in a moment of geological time when this huge continent of ancient Gondwana is centered on the South Pole so that nearly all of it is contained within the Antarctic Circle. Seventy percent of earth's fresh water is locked up in ice, which over much of the continent is two miles thick. Huge glaciers and ice streams flow from the high plateau through mountain ranges up to 17,000 ft high and fill the embayments with shelf ice. One the size of France is the Ross Ice Shelf, called The Barrier, and featured in much drama in the heroic age and the race to the South Pole. Others are the Ronne, Fitchner and Larsen, recently in the news for its partial breakup. Getting to the coast is difficult even at the end of summer due to shore fast ice and pack ice which expands the area of ice cover twofold in winter - as Shackleton's Endurance expedition found to their cost and others. Ice cliffs as well prevented landings so that many bases were established on offshore islands necessitating sea ice travel. Sometimes an island would be partly overridden by a mainland glacier. This was the case at Stonington where we were in my second year, though now that glacier has retreated to deny access inland.
No life lives year round on Antarctica except some lichens near the shore. Antarctica is the windiest continent on earth (as Mawson described in his book Home of the Blizzard), with temperatures down to -77°C and conditions seriously difficult for life. Only man, dogs from the Arctic, and a few cats have been alien intruders into this pristine wilderness. Since 1994 and the banning of dogs as a foreign species, just man with his noisy mechanical machines, highly insulated ships, houses or cabooses treats Antarctica as a scientific laboratory or takes in the coastline as a tourist.
The contribution of the huskies lasted some ninety-six years, from the first expedition in 1898 under Borgevink to 1994 when the last dog team (the Admirals, the very team that was mine for two years though not the same individuals) was flown out and driven the last 300 miles to an Inuit settlement in Arctic Canada. Intruders we were but we traveled with reverence for the scenery, understanding for its dangers, a great partnership between us and our dog teams.
All the main players in the so-called heroic age of exploration took dogs - Scott, Amundsen, Mawson and Shackleton. Scott had been disappointed in the performance of his dogs on the Discovery expedition of 1902 when they only reached the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, the dogs starving and dying on a ration of bad codfish. He spread his transport risks on the second expedition in 1909 by taking two useless tractors, Siberian ponies and some forty dogs, but intending all along to rely on manhauling when these failed. In fact his dog teams did remarkably well considering that there was only one man, Dimitri, that knew how to drive them to start with.
Frank Debenham, Scott's young geologist, tells some interesting tales of two remarkable dogs, Osman and Stareek, who were strong, old and experienced lead dogs in the Russian postal service. And the story of Osman reveals Scott's courage and compassionate character towards dogs. All twelve dogs except Osman the lead dog fell through a crevasse and Osman, strong that he was, valiantly held them while Scott abseiled on a rope. Four were fighting as they swung together and one fell out of his harness to a ledge below. Scott was lowered down to get them all above to safety whereon the saved ones immediately attacked the second team seriously delaying the rescue process - typical opportunist huskies! Osman had been washed overboard from the Terra Nova during the storm that nearly sank the ship a couple of days out of Lyttleton. But Providence be praised, thinking of this episode, he was washed back on deck again! Debenham also recalls the time Osman took charge of a young scratch team and one day did all he possibly could to help Debenham prevent this young team from chasing some penguins and causing mayhem. "Here indeed was a dog of dogs, enduring beyond belief and worthy of a small niche in the temple of canine fame."
Stareek is described as similar to Osman with a fine head and more of an Inuit dog look. Described by Ponting as "gentle as a lamb with a lovable habit of licking his lips and wagging his tail wildly and lying on his back with his tongue out and pawing his face whenever anyone conversed with him." On the southbound depot laying journey across the Ross barrier, Scott decided he was too old for the job and should return North with the first party but they would have to feed him from their own rations (at least he was not put down to feed the other dogs). He was duly swapped and commenced north but felt this a great slight on his character always out front and breaking trail, he chewed through his trace and ran south. There was nothing to be done (no radio) and the party continued north back on their tracks. Eighteen days and 200 miles later imagine their surprise to find Stareek lying on the sledge in the morning, at least twenty days with no food and so weak he could barely walk. "That," Debenham wrote, "is a feat that should be preserved in the annals of travel."
As we all know the whole of Scott's polar party died. Had they taken dogs like Amundsen they may have lived, but at the expense of the dogs. Amundsen succeeded, totally committed to the pole but planning from the start to sacrifice his dogs. He found a route to the plateau up the Axel Heiberg. Quoting from his book, "The dogs seemed positively to understand that this was the last big effort that was asked of them; they lay flat down and hauled, dug their claws in and dragged themselves forward." That day they climbed 5750 ft and covered nineteen miles and that night twenty-four of the forty-eight dogs were slaughtered. Only fourteen returned from the pole - what sacrifice to be first to the extremity of the earth.
Three years later Mawson too owed his life to seven dogs. With two sleds, he and companions Mertz and Ninnis were 300 miles out across difficult crevassed coastal country. Mawson took the precaution of putting all supplies like food and the main tent in the second sledge. He and Mertz were sitting on the lead sledge computing a sun sight waiting happily for Ninnis to catch up, but he didn't. The whole team with Ninnis and supplies had gone down a crevasse over 150 ft deep and there was no rope longer than 100 ft. Intending to return by a different route, they had left no depots. Mawson's return was an epic of endurance. Mertz died. The seven dogs, exhausted and emaciated, were killed one by one and thereby saved Mawson's life, just.
Shackleton's remarkable escape and rescue of all his men from the Weddell Sea is well known. He was a great animal lover and felt keenly his decision that their forty dogs should be put down having hauled their life boats to the ice edge. But meantime quite unaware of their leader's fate, an incredible drama was going on the Ross Sea side of the Antarctic laying depots for Shackleton to find on his crossing. (The book Shackleton's Lost Men has been published from diaries.) The Aurora, their supply ship at Cape Evans, was blown out in a storm with virtually all supplies so the party of six under Mackenzie scratched around for stores left by previous Scott and Shackleton expeditions. They also killed seals for food. They then commenced 2000 miles of sled journeys in which one of their party died of scurvy and Mackenzie and Hayward were blown out to sea on the ice, having been invalided back on the sled by Joyce and the surviving four dogs, the others having died in harness. Joyce succeeded in this daunting task of laying the last depot where Shackleton wanted it at the foot the Beardmore thanks to those four dogs Oscar, Gunner, Towser, and Con. They pulled 745 lbs for their combined weight of something like 400 lbs. "It's incredible the vim they put into their work, they seem to realize what is required of them. These dogs are Trojans," Joyce wrote. Elsewhere he described Oscar as the strongest and best lead dog he had known, Oscar apparently lived to a very old age of twenty something in a zoo in New Zealand and was much admired for his enormous contribution.
Jumping thirty years to 1946, another hero, Sir Vivian (Bunny) Fuchs, carried out some major journeys with his lead dog Darkie, a Labrador-looking dog, during an enforced three years at Stonington. This was the beginning of FIDS and BAS and a more planned and partnership-based future with huskies for the next fifty years. Describing Darkie's leading technique when crossing a bridged crevasse, "He advanced cautiously in the fashion of a heraldic lion each paw extended as far as possible to test the surface in front of him. In this way he found every crevasse and successfully crossed the majority." He didn't say what happened on the occasions he didn't cross successfully, but was certainly saved because he performed leading the team in the Festival of Britain in 1951, and was then homed by Bunny to Cambridge, England where he pulled him on his bicycle, jumping the white lines in the road. It was said that the RSPCA nearly charged him for cruelty to animals! In Of Dogs and Men there is a picture of Darkie and Sister in a sitting room environment watching over Kevin Walton's three baby children.
One Antarctic crevasse rescue illustrates so well the concern for the dogs’ welfare. It's the story of Droopy as told by his brave rescuer Mick Pawley. It took place on that rugged island Pourquoi Pas. Mick and a companion had decided to sled across from the island to the hut on Horseshoe Island in order to bake a loaf of bread for which they were craving. Unfortunately, the dogs fell into a crevasse and as they hung there started a fight as if to say "Damn this is your fault and I'll teach you!" Droopy dropped out of his harness and out of sight. Mick and his companion hauled the others out and, thinking Droopy needed finishing off, Nick abseiled 150 ft down with a pistol in his anorak pocket. At the end of the rope there was Droopy straddling the narrow walls on all four paws. But some twenty feet to one side, Mick could not get to him. Forget the pistol, he was alright and Mick commenced to save him. This meant untying his own rope and traversing across, getting the dog and traversing back to the rope, tying him on and himself and perhaps with help from his mate up top getting him to the top, a rescue which I think deserves the highest recognition. (I looked up Poulson's Medallic Record and was pleased to note that Pawley, who served some four years at Stonington from 1969 to 1973, was awarded a Polar Medal.)
In my two years (1957-59) the Admirals were my transport. They taught me much about their outlook on life and I taught them about mine. We got on just fine. I threw away the whip at once and Caesar thought that was a positive gesture. From then on it was just his name and a command. He was an incredible lead dog - over 3500 miles and no one leading out front but him. We never dropped the whole sled into a crevasse. He sensed where to cross. Babe may have passed advice just behind him. The big boys like Frankie and Buster and Alpha didn't have to use their brains just their weight and they did so like a team. We were out two winters running in conditions as exposed as you could imagine but I never once heard a whine of complaint (not that you would hear much in a blizzard) even though they generally got drifted over. That could be a danger if drifted too deep, as were crevasses and breaking sea ice which caused the losses of other men and their teams. The Admirals survived to be the last team of some forty teams and were flown out to Arctic Canada in 1994.
Huskies were remarkably able to survive calamities like the complete blow-out of the bay ice on May 28, 1958, when three men and two teams of fourteen dogs had set out to the Dion Islands. There was no radio contact and a search for the men and dogs could not be conducted far afield until new ice formed, which we then did to islands fifty miles out over the following six weeks. We covered 400 miles in search journeys using the few twilight hours of daytime. Like polar bears, ten of the fourteen dogs, floe-hopped and swam back to the mainland. They found base or we found them. The ten dogs that returned from the lost party were then made up into a team we called The Moomins driven by our doctor, Henry Wyatt. They served us very well the rest of that year, had a miraculous rescue from a crevasse three years later, took part in a 1200 mile journey to get home when an aircraft crashed, and then suffered a most bizarre and tragic end in 1963 just twelve miles up the glacier from Stonington. They and their two drivers died in a ferocious blizzard buried under deep snow, held down by their traces. The one man was found frozen standing at the entrance to a snowhole, inadequately dressed, with spade in hand. It is presumed that he was shouting to guide the second man who had gone out to see to the dogs and got lost.
In March 1958, heavy pack ice prevented the base on Detaille Island from being resupplied and so a sledding party went out to meet the ships. Once there, a husky named Steve decided to stay and would not be caught. Everyone mourned his loss. Three months later in the middle of winter, he bounded up to the front door of the occupied hut at Horseshoe Island very pleased with himself after his lonely journey. He had covered twenty-five miles up Lailemand Fjord to a glacier snout, then twenty-five miles or so over the Heim glacier, then crossed the Jones Shelf ice to get to the little hut on Blaiklock Island where he may have hung around hungry, wondering if anyone would arrive; then thirty miles down the last two fjords. He had done the journey once only two years previously in the reverse direction, not in my team but accompanying in one from Detaille Island, also in winter.
As well as having a built-in direction sense, huskies, like other dogs now tested by research, exhibit a strong telepathic morphic connection with their own pack or their master. When they give vent to emotion and in unison croon to the sky, it is started by one and others take it up. But it stops abruptly without a conductor. It is a pack response. Ken Blaiklock described his memorable experience of a solar eclipse. As it grew dark and a corona formed, his team let out a howl for the duration. A great day to end twenty-five miles and the discovery of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains on their way to the pole supporting Fuchs' crossing.
Lest anyone gets the wrong impression that a husky's life was without humor, let these dogs have the last word. Angus Erskine's team on glare ice could get no grip so one dog jumped on the sled. In a moment they all followed and Angus had to pull the team home! There is a cartoon drawing of the dogs sitting on the sled and Angus pulling.
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. Peter invites ISD enthusiasts who may have occasion to visit Cyprus to look him up to chat about a shared love of that "super dog the Qimmiq". He is also inviting The Fan Hitch readers who may be interested in supporting the building of the "Husky Pen", a component of the new Paws Dog Shelter, to send a contribution, made in the name of a favorite dog, to: Paws Dog Shelter, The Husky Pen, CAPCA Paphos, PO Box 61349 Kato Paphos 8133, Cyprus.
Peter's live presentation was accompanied by a 28 minute film of life with dogs in Antarctica. This will soon be available in VHS format through the Inuit Sled Dog International.