Early attempts to use dogs in exploration were generally not successful since the explorers rarely had experience in handling them. Edward Parry, George Lyon (1820s), James Clark Ross and Elisha Kent Kane (1850s) all attempted to use them but tended to revert to man-hauling when no Inuit were available to help them. Parry also tried reindeer but they could not cope with the ice. Most British expeditions of the early 1800s were well-funded ship-borne expeditions utilising hundreds of personnel. By contrast, John Rae, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, adopted a more pragmatic land-based approach using fewer than 10 people, dog sleds and techniques learned from native Inuit.
Greenland dogs have been used on many expeditions by explorers, the most famous being Nansen recorded in his book "På ski over Grønland", Greenland dogs being used as working dogs by the Greenland Native. Nansen was a successful polar explorer and used dogs on his famous voyage across the Arctic Ocean in the Fram, during his North Pole attempt in 1895 although he chose, rather, to man-haul during his inaugural crossing of the Greenland icecap in 1888. Before then, the two most significant penetrations of the Greenland interior had been those of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1883, and Robert Peary in 1886. Both had set out from Disko Bay on the western coast, and had travelled about 160 kilometres (100 miles) eastward before turning back. By contrast, Nansen proposed to travel from east to west, on the basis that there would be no line of retreat to a safe base, so the commitment to the endeavour would be complete.
Dogs first arrived in Antarctica on the 17th of February 1899 when 75 were landed by the ship Antarctic of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898 - 1900 at Cape Adare in the Ross Sea area. The landing was followed by a four day blizzard which trapped seven men ashore, they had a large tent and survived by bringing all of the dogs in to lie on top of them to keep them warm, dogs in Antarctica proved their worth from the outset. In April, one of the dogs was thought lost when it was blown out to sea on an ice floe, it turned up in good condition and spirits ten weeks later demonstrating the ability of dogs to survive in Antarctica. Ole Must and Persen Savio, two Norwegian Laplanders of 22 and 21 years respectively were the first two people to drive dog teams in Antarctica.
The last dogs were taken from Antarctica on Feb 22nd 1994, a consequence of an environmental clause in the Antarctic Treaty that required non-native species to be removed. In the case of dogs, specifically because distemper (a disease of dogs) could potentially spread from the dogs to the native seals of Antarctica.
In between these times dogs usually huskies brought from Greenland or other places in the Arctic were an integral part of life in Antarctica. They were used sometimes well and sometimes badly, they played a fundamental part in the exploration of the continent and in the science that was carried out in Antarctica when the scientific age took over from the Heroic Age. Men and dogs relied on each other for survival and many of these loyal workers and companions paid the price with their lives.
They were there for the practical purpose of transportation by pulling sledges before reliable mechanized transportation was available. Reliable mechanized transport came quite late to Antarctica, much later than in the rest of the world due to the particular challenges posed by cold temperatures and rugged terrain.. Dog teams were used as the reliable transportation of choice by many nations through the 1960's and into the 1970's. After this time they were retained on many bases as a back-up to mechanized transport or for "ecreational purposes.
Dogs and sleds are quick, flexible and able to traverse most of the terrain that Antarctica has to offer, there are no roads or even trails in Antarctica thanks to ever moving snow and ice. Inevitably in time dogs were replaced by snowmobiles, though initially dog teams were more reliable. As technology and operating techniques progressed so the mechanical pullers of sleds outperformed the canine. There is also the fact that unused skidoos just sit awaiting the time when they are used whereas dogs need year-round feeding and care. From the 1960's on dogs were kept in Antarctica at an ever decreasing number of bases, Many generations of Antarctic personnel on scientific bases regarded their experiences in Antarctica as being greatly enhanced by the presence of the dogs and the possibility of recreational sledging trips with them.
The first significant sledging journey made in Antarctica was by Ole Jonassen, Otto Nordenskjold and Jose Sobral in 1902 during the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904. The three men made a 380 mile round trip in 33 days from Snow Hill Island at the Eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the first fully recorded dog sledge journey and for many years, the longest undertaken. Like many of the expeditions of the Heroic Age lessons were learned the hard way including the dogs finding the bag of the men's food which they promptly ate along with part of the sack.
Many of the expeditions of the Heroic Age at least experimented with dog teams. Early on Scott and Shackleton tried ponies too though they were found to be far less successful as they sank deep into soft snow, were more likely to break through crevasse bridges and very difficult to get out again if they did. Ponies need bulky food which had to be transported to Antarctica with no local source of supply. Dogs on the other hand could be fed on seals and penguins and if push came to shove (as it sometimes did) they could eat each other or provide food for the men who used them. Early experiments with the then fledgling technology of internal combustion engine powered tractor sleds were unsuccessful due to very poor reliability.Amundsen
Amundsen was the first explorer to successfully open the Northwest Passage in a three-year journey between 1903 and 1906, in a boat named Gjøa, with a crew of no more than six. He followed Rae’s example and learned about dog sledding and Arctic survival from the local people whilst over-wintering near Nunavut. This was something explorers had been attempting since Columbus and was a major first in exploration history. During the winters he had an open mind and learned a great deal from the local Netsilik people about Arctic survival skills that would stand him in good stead through all his life. Amongst other things, he learned how to use sled dogs and to wear animal skins in lieu of heavy, woollen parkas. When he cleared the passage, he skied 800km to Eagle, Alaska, to telegram his news and then skied back to his companions. (The first traverse of the Northwest Passage via dog sled was accomplished by Greenlander Knud Rasmussen while on the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–1924). Rasmussen, and two Greenland Inuit, travelled from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the course of 16 months via dog sled.)
Upon return, Amundsen had his eyes set on the North Pole. He asked his friend, a Norwegian called Leonard Seppälä, (of the Serum Race fame ) who was based out in Alaska during the time of the gold rush, to train a group of dogs to accompany him to the North Pole, so Seppälä trained a group of Siberian Huskies for the task.
The best demonstration of the effectiveness of dog teams for transport is from Roald Amundsen's Norwegian Antarctic Expedition whereby Amundsen led a team of five men to become the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. The use of dogs for transport was a vital part of Amundsen's success with rival Robert Scott's team of five reaching the pole though all dying on the way back from the effects of starvation, hypothermia and probably vitamin deficiency and dehydration. Amundsen's team all returned in good condition having actually put weight on during their trip. What is less well known however is that Amundsen set off with 52 dogs and returned with 11. The remainder were killed at stages along the way and were eaten by men and dogs alike (pictured at the South Pole, men pose, dog looks nonchalant). Helge was the infamous dog with the sad notoriety of being the one actually killed at the South Pole (as documented in our 'famous dogs' section). They covered 1,860 miles in 89 days going to and from the pole, 10 days less than they had scheduled for.
The eleven dogs that returned with Amundsen from the pole were given to the expedition of Australian Douglas Mawson in Hobart on Amundsen's return from the pole. These were taken down to Antarctica on the Aurora which had sailed back to Australia in the summer of 2011 for get resupply provisions and to escape the Antarctic winter. Mawson and most of his people were already in Antarctica as part of the scientific Australasian Antarctic Expedition which had the goal of exploring part of Antarctica between 1911 and 1914, (over 2 winters and 3 summers). On return from the pole therefore, Amundsen's dogs had sailed to Australia and then went straight back to Antarctica for a further winter.
The expedition was led by the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who was knighted for his achievements in charting the 2000-mile long coastline of Antarctica to the south of Australia. During the expedition, coastal and inland sledging journeys enabled the teams to explore previously unknown lands. In the second half of 1912, there were five major journeys from the main base and two from the western base.
Mawson was part of a three-man sledging team with Mertz and Ninnis who headed east to survey King George V Land. After three weeks of excellent progress the party was crossing the Ninnis Glacier, when Ninnis fell through a snow-covered crevasse. Mertz had skied over the crevasse lid, Mawson had been on his sled with his weight disbursed but Ninnis was jogging beside the second sled and his body weight is likely to have breached the lid. Six dogs, most of the party's rations, their tent and other essential supplies disappeared into a massive crevasse 480 km east of the main base. Mertz and Mawson spotted one dead and one injured dog on a ledge 46m down but Ninnis was never seen again and the ropes they had could not reach the closest ledge.
Intending to return by a different route, they had left no depots. Hence, Mawson and Xavier Mertz turned back immediately. Mawson's return was an epic of endurance during which Mertz died and the seven dogs, exhausted and emaciated, were killed one by one to save Mawson's life. Unfortunately, the killing of the dogs unwittingly led to the death of Mertz since, unbeknownst to Mawson, the liver of one dog contains enough vitamin A to produce the condition called Hypervitaminosis. When Mertz became incapacitated and incoherent, Mawson fed him most of the dog livers, which he considered more nourishing than the tough muscle tissue, in an attempt to nurse him back to health. After Mertz died, Mawson continued alone. He cut his sled in half with a pen knife and dragged the sled with geological specimens but very minimal food 160 km back to the base at Cape Denison. During the return trip to the Main Base, he fell through the lid of a crevasse and was saved only by his sledge wedging itself into the ice above him. When Mawson finally made it back to Cape Denison on February 8, 1913 the words of his first rescuer upon finding Mawson were, "My God, which one are you?" Unfortunately, he arrived only hours after a recovery party had left on the Aurora. Although the ship was recalled by wireless communication, bad weather thwarted the rescue effort so Mawson, and six men who had remained behind to look for him, wintered a second unplanned year in the South.
The dogs that were used in Antarctica were working animals, while they were given names by the men who cared for and used them for sledge travel, they should not thought of as pets, they were frequently described as being closer to their ancestral wolf than to what we think of as a domesticated dog as this passage demonstrates. Fights were very common and cannibalism not unknown if no-one was there to break up a fight.
On May 23 (1913) Lassie, one of the dogs, was badly wounded in a fight and had to be shot. Quarrels amongst the dogs had to be quelled immediately, otherwise they would probably mean the death of some unfortunate animal which happened to be thrown down amongst the pack. Whenever a dog was down, it was the way of these brutes to attack him irrespective of whether they were friends or foes.Peary
At this time, quite a lot of exploration was being carried out in Greenland and there was definitely a race on, for the North Pole. Not surprisingly, given their availability and locally available expertise, dogs played a particularly significant role in the early exploration of Greenland at the start of the 20th century. Peary was one of the big names from this time. Like Amundsen, he respected and learned from Native Peoples during his many Arctic expeditions.
He crossed Greenland with dogs and twice attempted to cross NW Greenland over the icecap. His 1906 North Pole attempt and also his challenged 1908-9 North Pole triumph were achieved with the use of sled dogs and native Eskimos. In 1906, he was thwarted by bad weather and turned back when his sled dogs began cannibalizing each other and his men were forced to eat all but one of the remaining dogs. In 1908, he had 133 dogs, 19 sleds and 23 men. However, he sent one sled after another back as supplies were used up, completing the final stage with only Matt Henson – a Negro who had been his expedition companion for many years – and four Eskimos. Whether or not he arrived exactly at the Pole, most people believe that he was definitely within 5 or 10km of it. He and his dogs had a dash back to land before the ice broke up around them.
Peary was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labours to the full extent when, upon returning to civilization, he learned that Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who had been a surgeon on an 1891-92 Peary expedition, claimed to have reached the Pole the year before. Whilst Cook’s claims are generally believed to have been false, many believe that Peary could well have achieved his goal. However, he was well ahead of his time in his adoption of native clothing and methods and this, in combination with an openly stated intention to make his fortune on the back of his success, made people dislike him and be less open to accepting or celebrating his success. He stated at the time, 'The charm of the Arctic is the appeal of the primeval world to the primeval man, stirring the last drops of the blood of the caveman in our veins. It is the physical lust of struggling with, and overcoming, the sternest natural obstacles on the face of the globe. It is association with Nature in her sternest and most savage mood, and no live man – no man with red blood in his veins – ever goes North, but that returning, he goes again and again’. Peary, 1909.
Regardless, since the claims had been made (and in part because of the First World War), Amundsen called the North Pole expedition that Seppala had been training dogs for, off. That group of dogs remained with Seppälä and he raced with them to victory in races across North-western Alaska. His line went on to provide winning racing dogs for decades to come, including the infamous Togo and Balto of Iditerod fame. Amundsen turned his sights, rather, South.
Early Antarctic explorers tried to use Amundsen and Nansen’s sled designs and knowledge. However, the Southerly conditions were quite different from in the North and explorers struggled to put them to good use for some time. As a rule, the Antarctic continent was colder than expected because of strong winds and the land was covered by ice rather than snow. This was harder for the dogs to grip and, whilst it would break the lighter sleighs, the heavier sleighs that could stand up to it would then become too heavy for the dogs to pull.
Everything from Samoyed-type dogs (Borchgrevink and Scott in 1902) to Kamchatka dogs (Drygalski) and a combination of Siberian dogs bred in New Zealand and men together (Scott) were tried. Shackleton, on his first expedition took Nansen sleds, based on his experience with Scott, and only 9 dogs and ponies. Otto Nordenskjold had experience of dog sledding from Greenland and so he took Greenland sledges and dogs of mixed and Greenland breeding and this worked well on the peninsula, at least. Nobu Shirase’s Japanese Antarctica expedition used Ainu dog handlers who were accustomed to working individually with their dogs, Akitas, who normally assisted their owners in pulling fish catches home on light Amur sleds.
Amundsen, by comparison, went South having planned his whole expedition meticulously around the use of his 97 Greenland sled dogs, skis and Eskimo-style clothing. He had chosen to use Nansen sleds, made from Norwegian ash, with hickory runners shod in steel. He also carried spare runners. When he set off in June 1910, in Nansen’s Fram (‘Forward’), his intentions were still a closely guarded secret from Scott.
Scott by comparison, took just 33 dogs from SE Siberia with him on this attempt (who, unfortunately, didn’t have long and fluffy enough tails to protect their noses and appendages at rest) and he also chose to use ponies. He planned to use the lightweight Amus-type sleds but he sent for a resupply of Nansen sleds after his first season. His decision was based on the fact that he 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 Samoyed dogs starving and dying on a ration of bad codfish. Hence, by taking tractors (which proved useless), Siberian ponies and different types of dogs, he believed that he was spreading his transport risks. He always intended to revert to man-hauling when these failed. He took only one person with him – Dimitri – who actually knew how to work with dogs so, considering this, he managed with them quite well. Two of Scott’s dogs deserving a place in the dog hall of fame were Osman and Stareek.
Amundsen’s first push in Sept 1911 was thwarted by extremely cold temperatures during which some dogs died. Some of the party who were unhappy with his methods were banished to a nearby island whilst he made a second push in October. This was still earlier than Scott could set out with his ponies who were less suited to the extreme cold. He took with him, four sledges and 52 dogs, intending to use the dogs for fresh meat along the way. Quoting from his book on his ascent to the plateau; "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 5750ft and covered nineteen miles and that night twenty-four of the forty-eight dogs were slaughtered.
On December 14, the team of 6, with their 17 remaining dogs, arrived at the Pole - 35 days before Scott’s group. Helge was the weakest dog at the time and she was the only one shot there. Learn more about Helge and the waypoints that commemorate the dogs and ponies of the Antarctic here. Amundsen’s party left a small tent and letter, stating their accomplishment, in case they did not make it back to the Fram, but they arrived back on January 25th, 1912, with 11 dogs. His success was announced in March when he made it back to Hobart, Australia. An understanding of dogs, their handling, and an effective use of skis all contributed to his success - as did his deliberate decision to take with him more dogs than they technically needed, so as to feed the weakest dogs to the strong ones during the voyage.
Scott, by comparison, did not understand the true value of dogs, whilst also finding it harder to view them as a commodity. He wrote, ‘In my mind, no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts.’ Unfortunately, the ponies couldn't handle the ice and snow and were shot en route so the men had to take over. The British finally arrived on January 17, 1912, just 34 days after the Norwegians. Tragically, they ran into a blizzard on the way back to base camp and all perished. Had they taken dogs, as Amundsen did, with the intention of sacrificing them, they may have lived, but at the expense of the dogs.
Scott's diary, which he kept till the bitter end, remains one of the greatest documents of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and is probably why he is considered so much more heroic than Amundsen who single-mindedly focused on the task at hand, and deliberately planned to sacrifice his dogs en route and who is purported to have taken only two photos, en route to the pole!
Following these momentous first explorations, sled dogs continued to have a long and vital association with Antarctica until all non-native species were banned in 1994 (in part because of evidence that the canine disease, distemper, was spreading to Antarctica’s seals). A good reference point on this subject is Kevin Walton's Of Dogs and Men, describing 50 years of dogs with the British Antarctic Survey. More information and dog stories from the Age of Exploration and beyond can also be found here.
Shackleton's remarkable escape and rescue of all his men from the Weddell Sea is well known. His Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), also known as the Endurance Expedition, is considered the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. The expedition failed to accomplish this objective, but became recognised instead as an epic of endurance.
Shackleton had served in the Antarctic on Captain Scott's Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and had led the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09. Having learned the lessons from the use of ponies and dogs in Antarctica, he had intended to cross the continent from coast to coast via the pole using dogs.
While his ship was beset by ice and later crushed and sunk, the dogs were valuably used in hauling men, lifeboats, equipment and stores across the ice of the Weddell Sea as the expedition tried to reach land and safety. The dogs helped keep the men occupied and entertained during long months of drifting, and Shackleton organised six sledging teams made up of the remaining fit dogs.
The teams and their leaders, were as follows:
McIlroy (8 dogs) Team Leader: Wolf
Hurley (8 dogs) Team Leader: Shakespeare
Macklin (10 dogs) Team Leader: Bo’sun
Crean (8 dogs) Team Leader: Surly
Marston (7 dogs) Team Leader: Steamer
Wild (8 dogs) Team Leader: Soldier
James is shown here, assisting Macklin with a sick dog, whilst Shackleton looks on...
Sadly for the dogs, there was a point at which Shackleton realised that his dream of crossing Antarctica was over, and that saving his men was his first priority. The fate of the dogs was sealed. They could not be taken in the lifeboats and first 'Sally's' 4 pups, pictured, (Roger, Toby, Nelson and Nellie) as well as 'Sue’s' (presumably pup), Sirius and McNish’s cat, Mrs Chippy, were shot at 2:55 p.m. on 30th October 1915 and then the dog teams of Wild, Marston, Crean and McIlroy were shot on the afternoon of Friday 14th January 1916 (30 dogs). On the afternoon of the following Sunday 16th January 1916, Wild shot Hurley’s team. This left just Macklin’s team and a team look after by Greenstreet. On Thursday 30th March 1916 the remaining dogs were shot, and a number skinned and eaten.
The dog’s had served their purpose and the men were genuinely sad that they had been forced to end their lives in such circumstances. Frank Wild, who’s duty it was to shoot the dogs recorded: “I have known many men who I would rather have shot, than these dogs”.
Information about Shackleton's dogs can be found here and a whole book has been written about the antarctic adventures of Mrs Chippy, the cat, which you can find on Amazon.
In a later expedition, he proposed to sail to the Weddell Sea and to land a shore party near Vahsel Bay, in preparation for a transcontinental march through the South Pole to the Ross Sea. A supporting group, the Ross Sea party, would meanwhile travel to the opposite side of the continent, establish camp in McMurdo Sound, and from there lay a series of supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. These depots would be essential for the transcontinental party's survival, as the party would not be able to carry enough provisions for the entire crossing. The expedition required two ships - Endurance, under Shackleton, for the Weddell Sea party, and Aurora, under Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, for the Ross Sea party.
Unfortunately, Endurance became icebound before reaching Vahsel Bay, and despite efforts to free her, she drifted northward throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915. Eventually, the ship was crushed and sunk, stranding her 28-man complement on the ice. After months spent in makeshift camps as the ice continued its northwards drift, the party took to the lifeboats to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island. Shackleton was a great animal lover and felt keenly his decision that Mrs Chippy (the ship’s cat) and their forty dogs should be put down, having hauled their life boats to the ice edge, but the dogs required too much of the scarce seal meat to be kept alive.
Shackleton and five others then made an 800-mile (1,300km) open-boat journey in the James Caird to reach South Georgia. From there, Shackleton was eventually able to mount a rescue of the men who were waiting on Elephant Island and bring them home without loss of life.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, unaware of their leader’s fate, an incredible drama was unfolding with the Ross Sea party which overcame great hardships in the process of fulfilling its mission of laying depots for Shackleton on the route of the transcontinental party as far as the Beardmore Glacier. Shackleton had hoped that they would meet the expeditionary party en route and assist it home. However, when he realised that it was impractical to try to set out during the first season, he failed to cable this change in plans to Mackintosh, who felt great time pressure to equip the depots. Many dogs died during their first landing, since the men were inexperienced. Later, the Aurora, their ship, was blown from her moorings during a gale and was unable to return, leaving the shore party marooned without proper supplies or equipment.
The party of six people and dogs under Mackenzie scratched around for stores left by previous Scott and Shackleton expeditions and killed seals for food. They then commenced 2000 miles of sled journeys during which one of their party died of scurvy and Mackenzie and Hayward were blown out to sea on the ice. Most dogs died in harness but Joyce and the surviving four dogs - Oscar, Gunner, Towser, and Con - succeeded in the daunting task of laying the last depot where Shackleton wanted it, at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The dogs pulled 745lb for their combined weight of something like 400lb. "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. It took a while longer for Shackleton to rescue the remainder of Mackenzie’s crew than it did for him to rescue those left on Elephant Island.
It was not until the mid-30s that the British established permanent bases for overwintering where they also bred dogs and passed on knowledge about how to handle them from one group of scientists to the next. Around that time, too (during the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934 – 37), John Rymill improved upon the basic Nansen sled design and the improved version was used for the rest of the time that dogs were allowed to remain in Antarctica.
The Scientific Age in Antarctica is the period following what was called the Heroic Age of exploration in Antarctica. This is when efforts were made to explore the less obvious geographic features and to discover more about what Antarctica is like, how it is the way it is and how it fits in with the rest of the world.
Dogs proved themselves and lessons were learned about how they should be treated with dog handlers training in the Arctic with experienced people about how to handle them and get the best from them before going to Antarctica. Techniques were perfected, the amount of work that could be done was understood and the amount of food needed by man and dog calculated to optimize health and work rate.
Dogs were used by many nationalities in all parts of Antarctica, they were the transportation method of choice as well as being invaluable for helping with morale at many bases for long after they were replaced by mechanical forms of transport. The British Antarctic Survey and Australian Antarctic Survey used dogs for longer than other nations and to good effect still even when some nations had gone exclusively over to mechanized transport. Dogs were still considered to be the most effective form of transport in mountainous areas into the 1960's when they were supported by aircraft which would land food to re-supply the teams in the field and take geological samples out with them.
In the 1950's the scientific method began to be applied to sledge dogs and sledging, especially nutrition. A scientist from Cambridge was appointed as a dog physiologist to the British Antarctic Survey base at Hope Bay. He found that a smaller more sturdily built dog could out-pull a heavier dog and came up with an "optimal" sledge dog:
Height at shoulder - 23" (58.5cm) Nose to tail - 60" (152.5cm) Width at shoulder - 10" (25.5cm) Width at hip - 8" (20cm) Weight, around: 90lb (41kg) A sledge load of 120 lb (54.5kg) per dog was considered to be a fair maximum, this was confirmed with strain gauges measuring the pull a dog could exert, though this could vary by 50% from day to day dependent on a number of factors such as temperature, diet, snow surface and even the mental effects of a long monotonous journey on the dog.
A dog team would usually consist of nine dogs often led by a bitch. Lighter dogs went at the front and heavier workers to the rear. The dogs gave the appearance of enjoying human company and attention and enjoyed their jobs pulling sledges. The center trace was most commonly used, though at other times a fan trace would be used to good effect. In good conditions a team on the Antarctic Peninsula might average 16 miles (26 km day).
Investigations into nutritional requirements were also made. Sledge dog food requirements were found to vary quite widely from dog to dog, an average requirement was around 2,500 kcal per day when idle and at least 5,000 kcal per day when actively hauling heavy sledges over long distances. These amounts are about 75% of that required by a human under similar conditions. The requirement for active sledging is about the same for a human and dog at 5,000 kcal per day each, though the men of course don't continually pull the sledge under those conditions, they do however frequently ski alongside or in front of the sledge and will get off and push the sledge through especially difficult terrain such as broken up ice and soft snow. Sledging with dogs is not the restful pursuit that may be imagined!
Where possible dogs were fed with seal meat which was found to be the best overall food, given with blubber and skin in the winter and when working and with less blubber in the summer months when less energy is needed to maintain body temperature. Both dogs and men would often lose weight and condition when out in the field travelling and camping daily. Each dog would be fed 7lb (3.18kg) of seal meat and blubber on alternate days in the winter months, that averages out to the equivalent of about 2 x 8oz. steaks + 5 x 8oz. blocks of butter per day.
Sled dog When travelling dogs would be given pemmican (dried ground meat with fat and other additives) at a rate of 1.25 lb (0.57 kg) per day which when supplemented with seal meat kept them in good condition. Dogs would not need as much food in the summer as they did to stay warm in the winter months. Pemmican was not such a good diet for the dogs, often leading to diarrhoea, up to 30% of the food was passed directly out in the faeces without being absorbed (measuring that was a project I'm glad I wasn't involved in!). Dog pemmican based on what humans would eat was replaced by a more dog-friendly version called "Nutrican" (a trade name) which itself underwent improvement with experience. Seal meat, fresh or frozen remained the optimal diet, though there is a difficulty in making sure that meals are uniform in terms of the size of the helping and relative amounts of meat, offal, blubber and skin.
Experiments from 1932 on treadmills showed that enough food could increase a dogs work rate by a factor of three. In one experiment a dog ran for 17 hours with a 5 minute rest each hour, covering 82 miles (132 km) and climbing the equivalent of 14 miles (22.4 km). With low external temperatures to prevent overheating and sufficient water and food, dogs could run virtually tirelessly when exercising aerobically. Poorly fed dogs in the field that were losing weight would often be reported to become more difficult to drive, to lay down exhausted at halts and more difficult to rouse at the start of the day.
Occupational osteoarthritis was found to be a major problem amongst sledge dogs which limited their useful working life to about 7-8 years. The result of continuous work led to erosion of cushioning cartilage pads in the hips and shoulder joints of the dogs from continuous exercise under the pressure placed by the sledge harness.
Antarctic Sledge dogs were slightly larger and stockier than those of the Arctic, they were required to pull heavier loads over more uneven terrain rather than at speed over flatter ice and snow as in the Arctic. Antarctic dogs were anecdotally more friendly and more docile due to a breeding out of the wolf traits which are more prized in the North.
Weights differ substantially between individual dogs with some up to 125 lbs being reported, In the Arctic, typically sledge dogs are 75-85lbs, in the Antarctic, they averaged around 95lbs (bitches were 10-20 lbs smaller), weights under 80lb or over 100lb were considered indicative of over or under feeding.
Antarctica is colder and windier than the Arctic, being larger gives a lower surface area to volume ratio and helped the dogs stay warm in extreme cold temperatures. Antarctic sledge dogs had long tails with thick fur that they could curl around themselves in particular to protect their face and muzzle. When the wind blew, snow would pile up around a sleeping or resting dog which helped protect it from the wind and snow, they could be very reluctant to stir themselves and destroy this hard won protective layer.
Some smaller Arctic bred dogs, Samoyeds used to smoother snow surfaces and warmer temperatures were taken to Antarctica by Robert Scott in 1911, they were not used well and their feed (dried fish brought with the ship to Antarctica) had started to rot so they were not used on the South Pole trip, though were used successfully from the base with lighter loads. Their tails were not long enough to protect them sufficiently when at rest and their paws bled on the cold hard surfaces that they were not used to or bred for.
It would be more than 40 years before the first crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole was achieved, by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1955–58. This expedition set out from Vahsel Bay, following a route which avoided the Beardmore Glacier altogether, and bypassed much of the Ross Ice Shelf, reaching McMurdo Sound via a descent of the Skelton Glacier. The entire journey took 98 days, travelling 2158 miles by Sno-Cat tractors, via the South Pole. It was the first expedition to reach the South Pole overland for 46 years, preceded only by Amundsen's and Scott's respective parties in 1911 and 1912. More information can be found here: .
In keeping with the tradition of polar expeditions of the "heroic age" the CTAE was a private venture, though it was supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States, Australia and South Africa, as well as many corporate and individual donations, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II. It was headed by British explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs, with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary leading the New Zealand Ross Sea Support team. The New Zealand party included scientists participating in International Geophysical Year (IGY) research while the UK IGY team were separately based at Halley Bay. The second overland crossing of the continent did not occur until 1981, during the Transglobe Expedition led by Ranulph Fiennes.
The existence of a landmass beneath the ice was established as part of the scientific endeavour of this expedition, which was led by Sir Vivian (Bunny) Fuchs. Although Fuchs is, therefore, associated with Sno-Cats, he is also associated with dogs and Fuchs was knighted for his accomplishments in Antarctica, where he spent a great deal of his life.
Less well known is the fact that many of his major Antarctic journeys were carried out with his lead dog, Darkie, a Labrador-looking dog, during an enforced three years at Stonington at the beginning of FIDS and BAS. His input led to 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 said: "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 in 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!
(Interestingly, Fuchs’ name is also linked to another great in the history of scientific research, since, as a young graduate from Cambridge, Fuchs had first conducted scientific research in Greenland and then in Africa, part of the latter in the company of Louis Leakey.). There is a nice memorial to Fuchs written by the Economist.
Anna met Fuchs in the 90s, as a relatively frail older man, when he entered the Expedition Advisory Centre of the RGS-IBG where she was working to greet her boss, the indominatable Shane Winser. She wasn't sure who it was, that Shane ran to get a seat for, and even afterwards she wasn't super aware of his exploits so she deserved the stern lecture on the history of exploration that she was then delivered, as a result.
Another polar hero from that time, who also crossed Anna’s path during her time working at the Royal Geographical Society in London, was Wally Herbert. He mapped on foot some 45,000 square miles of new country in the Antarctic in the late 1950's and early 60's and came within only 200 miles of achieving his first great burning ambition of reaching the South Pole with sledges and dogs. In the tradition of Amundsen and Peary, he believed in learning from the people of the regions in which he was interested. He went on to sledge several thousands of miles with some of the finest long-range hunters of the world's most northerly Eskimo tribe; retraced the routes of some of the greatest polar explorers (Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen in the Antarctic - Peary, Sverdrup and Cook in the Arctic), and earned his own place in polar history with his epic 3,800 mile trek with three companions and forty dogs - the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, which most historians now record as the last great journey on Earth.
That 16-month 1968/9 journey from Alaska to Spitsbergen via the Pole of Inaccessibility and the North Pole was hailed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, 'as a feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history', and an achievement, in the opinion of H.R.H. Prince Philip, 'which ranks among the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance.' The full historical significance of Wally Herbert's colourful career is however, only now, 33 years after he reached the North Pole, finally coming into sharper focus. No longer is there any question that of the three last great geographical firsts (the trilogy of the first ascent of Mount Everest and the first surface crossing of the South and North Poles) the longest and most hazardous was the latter.
(Interestingly, he reached the North Pole on the 6th of April 1969, the 60th anniversary of Peary's claimed attainment of that same elusive spot; he also sighted land at the end of his 16-months' journey at precisely the moment that Jack Young took the infamous photograph of the Earthrise from the Moon, and he touched land 16 years to the day, and even to the hour, after Hillary and Tensing reached the summit of Mount Everest.) All in all, Wally Herbert spent 15 years in the wilderness regions of the polar world, and travelled with dog teams and open boats well over 25,000 miles - more than half of that distance through unexplored areas that no human being had set foot on before.
In the 70's, Ran Fiennes came onto the polar scene with the audacious idea of circumnavigating the globe on its polar axis. It took him and his wife, Ginny, and their infamous Jack Russell Terrier, Bothy, 7 years to raise support for the expedition, and in 1979 they set out from Greenwich in a thirty-year-old ice-strengthened vessel, Benjamin Bowring, on the start of their 100,000-mile journey across the Sahara via Tombouctou, through the swamps and jungles of Mali and the Ivory Coast, over huge unexplored crevasse fields and an over-winter in Antarctica, through the inhospitable Northwest Passage, graveyard of so many famous venturers, and into the unpredictable hazards of the Arctic Ocean. Ranking alongside the journeys of Amundsen, Scott and Peary, the Transglobe endeavour was a truly historic voyage. Incidentally, years later, Anna was to compete with Ran during her adventure racing career and remembers fondly his ability to tell story after story in an effort to relieve the monotony of putting one foot in front of another for 100's of kilometres at a time.
On the other side of the world, since 1973, Victor Boyarsky has also been carrying out some remarkable expeditionary feats in the company of sled dogs. In 1988, for instance, he traversed Greenland from South to North with dogsleds. He was a Russian member in the International Trans-Antarctica dogsled expedition from 1989-90, crossing the entire continent of Antarctica,(6,500km in 7 months and one of the last great projects with dogs on that landmass), and he was the co-leader of the Trans-Arctic dogsled expedition in 1995, crossing the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada.