The Fan Hitch Volume 8, Number 3, June 2006

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue...

Editorial: Diversity with a Common Interest
FIDO: John Senter
Developing a Culture of Mushers
The Inuit Sled Dog Registry
Arctic Inuit Sled Dogs: Life in Retirement
Inuit Dog Thesis Update
In the News
Fan Mail
Kennel Tip: Taking the Heat Off
Book Review: The Lost Men
 IMHO: Filling the Woodshed

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Book Review....

The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party

by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Reviewed by Sue Hamilton

Disclosure: Seldom does The Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI) have the opportunity to witness the fruits of our many collaborations with professionals such as Kelly Tyler-Lewis. However, in this case, not only is there the chance to review her work, but also to note that the ISDI and individuals, including many to whom we referred the author for additional help, are specifically acknowledged in her book as information sources.

The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party is not about Inuit Sled Dogs. It isn't even mostly a story of the largely mixed breed, non-polar spitz, pathetic lot of twenty-four dogs that actually survived the voyage to the Ross Sea side of Antarctica and were expected to relay tons of supplies along a treacherous route to establish a line of life-sustaining depots. There is no doubt, however, that the hindsight of "what ifs" and "what should have been done" regarding the dogs loomed large throughout the pages of this book. 

The year was 1913 and a war soon to engulf the world was heating up in Europe. Nevertheless, Sir Ernest Shackleton would embark on his audacious plan. He was motivated by the death of his fellow countryman and nearest rival, Robert Falcon Scott, who froze to death while coming in second to Norwegian Roald Amundsen's stunning achievement, the first to reach the South Pole. In his haste and relentless pursuit of glory, Shackleton put together a flawed strategy. As the pages of The Lost Men flew by, I came to understand how Shackleton was no different from so many others of his ilk. While he had some fine qualities, he had a colossal ego and was unwilling to let such details as a looming world war, acquiring suitable transportation, finding qualified men, ensuring an orderly command and securing adequate funds stand in his way once his mind had been seduced by the prospect of his country's adulation. The vicious Antarctic weather, its wind-driven seas and massive ice pack, a blind adherence to British military ritual, and a lack of commitment to collect up the right dogs for the job helped ensure the mission's fate.

In a nutshell, the plan was for Shackleton, some of his men and the majority of the ninety-nine dogs, collected in Canada, to sail on the ship Endurance to one side of Antarctica while the Aurora and the balance of the crew and remaining dogs would navigate to the other side. The Ross Sea Party, ten men from the Aurora, would then be responsible for laying depots enabling Shackleton and his men to complete the first crossing of the continent, promoted as The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. And then everyone would triumphantly sail back to Great Britain on the Aurora whereupon Shackleton would be acclaimed as the hero. 

A fundamental plot of this story details the antagonism between Æneas Lionel Acton Mackintosh who, despite lack of any polar experience, Shackleton made Commander of the shore party, and Ernest Edward Joyce who, although assigned the role of Sledging Equipment and Dogs, enjoyed no decision-making authority regarding the care, training and use of the animals. Indeed it was Mackintosh who insisted on calling all of those shots despite having not one shred of skill or understanding of working sledge dogs, even though Joyce did. The odds were already against the dogs. They were sick, malnourished, parasite riddled, infected by fight wounds, not socialized into cohesive teams, unfamiliar with commands given by unskilled mushers who didn't know their original names. Putting a man like Mackintosh (who was not inclined to listen to the voice of reason and experience, let alone that of a subordinate) in charge of when and how the dogs were to be used, spelled disaster. Duty bound to follow Mackintosh's orders, right or wrong, the Ross Sea Party's success was in doubt. By the end of the first disastrous year, all but six of the dogs were dead, the depot-laying operation was far from complete and the men had no inkling of Shackleton's progress in their direction or if their failure to that point would spell doom for their commander-in-chief.

Providing adequate communication was another of Shackleton's shortcomings. Between the end of December, 1914, when the Aurora steamed toward Antarctica from Australia, and January, 1917, when the landing party's seven survivors and their three remaining dogs were recovered, neither Shackleton's contingent nor the Ross Sea Party had any idea of the other's outcome. It wasn't until their rescue that the Ross Sea Party, miraculously having fulfilled their leader's orders to lay the all his required depots, learned that Shackleton was never able to set foot on the continent in the first place.

Inuit Sled Dog enthusiasts will recognize that had Shackleton insisted on acquisition of more suitable draught dogs, and had given authority to a man competent in their training and use, The Lost Men might have had no reason to be written. Although it surely cannot be said that the right dogs would have all survived and would be singularly responsible for ensuring mission's success without enduring horrific hardship, the story of The Lost Men is a case in point of how not using the far better suited Inuit Dog can and has resulted undue suffering.

This is a splendid narrative, beautifully written, replete with minute details, background and history preceding Shackleton's failed expedition. It offers readers comprehensive understanding of what drives men to dangerous places, and the socio-political-economic forces affecting their survival. The reader becomes intimately familiar with the lives of the characters before, during the expedition and, for the 'lucky' ones, after their return to civilization. Kelly Tyler-Lewis leaves no stone unturned, including those elements relating to the dogs, in creating a yarn that will leave readers shivering.

The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party, by Kelly Tyler-Lewis; ISBN 0-670-03412-6; published 2006 in hardcover by the Penguin Group; 366 pages, including photographs, notes, a selected bibliography and index; $25.95 in the U.S.

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