Sunday, December 26, 1999

Running with the dogs

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Dogs. Roald Amundsen sped to the South Pole behind them. Robert Scott couldn’t get them to work. Shackleton’s men, unable to feed them, shot them.

Peter Cleary, now Scott Base’s operations manager, took care of Antarctic dog teams and worked with them for three years. One of those years, in the late 1970s, he was at Scott Base. For the other two, in the mid-1980s, he was with the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula.

“My main job was field support,” Cleary said. In 10 summers on the Ice, this is his second season actually stationed at a base.

He remembers the dogs fondly. He was the handler for two teams of up to 12 dogs each in the summer of 1978-1979 and the winter of 1979. The dogs were big West Greenland huskies, bred for stamina rather than speed.

Though not used as extensively in the late 1980s as they had been in earlier years, Cleary said the dogs were involved in work on the sea ice and in crevasse areas.

The dogs were slower than vehicles, which gave them a safety edge. “Some of them became
aware of things like crevasses,” Cleary said. They would stop rather than go into a dangerous
place. Others, he said, would fall into any hole that happened to be in front of them.

The dogs were around mainly because they always had been. “They were a historical artifact,” Cleary said. “Psychologically, they were really good on the base.”

In winter, during the few days a month with constant moonlight, running the dogs was easy. In darkness, though, it was tough.

Just before Winfly, Cleary would take a team to Cape Royds, partly to get them into condition for the pulling season, but also to check out the sea ice conditions, which were sometimes treacherous.

“You can always pull a wet dog out, shake him a bit, and make him run around a while,” Cleary said.

Handling dogs was a challenge for Cleary, who had some experience with farm dogs in New Zealand, but considered his work on-the-job training.

After three years, he said, “I could consider myself a mildly competent dog handler,” but gave more credit to the dogs than to himself.

The dogs, he said, were very much individuals and had to be understood. Notes from previous years’ handlers were helpful, but experience was the real key.

It was a chance Robert Scott never gave himself. Dog handling, Cleary said, is a hard thing to learn.

Scott was versatile and tried dogs, ponies and motor vehicles. But he had particular problem with the dogs.

“They’re not pets and never were,” Cleary said. That was likely part of Scott’s problem. Scott was unable to think of the dogs as workers. Instead, he thought of them as companions on the journey.

“If he’d put as much effort into maintaining his dogs as he spent maintaining the ponies, he would have had a lot more success with the dogs,” Cleary said.

Cleary had a good measure of success, traveling up to 1,300 miles in a single season, over to White Island, up the Blue Glacier, and to Cape MacKay. But he stresses that those trips were low-key compared to sledging seasons in the heyday of dog teams, which saw multiple journeys of over 2,300 miles throughout the summer.

They always wanted to work, which often made for a bit of an exciting start to a trip.

“In the morning there’s always this insane first half mile,” Cleary said. But mostly they were
slower than vehicles, which wasn’t all bad. “Sometimes you need to slow down around here,” he said.

The dogs also pulled pranks, Cleary said. “Their favorite thing was to cock their leg on people’s legs and piss in people’s mukluks.”

But the dogs became a political issue. During the summer, they ate the food waste from McMurdo and Scott Base. But during the winter they ate seal. The meat was good for its high
fat content, but killing seals became unpopular.

In 1984 at a meeting in Madrid, the countries with Antarctic programs decided to phase out the use of dogs.

In 1986 New Zealand’s dogs left Scott Base for good. “I think at the time we didn’t really realize it was the end of an era,” Cleary said. “The whole business of their removal wasn’t just with the Scott Base dogs.”

The British, who had used their dogs very intensively through the early 1970s, didn’t take their dogs out until 1993.

When they left, Cleary said, “it was a sad day but it had a degree of inevitability. I regret they’re not here.”

He still misses one of his favorite times with the dogs, “listening to them in full throat on a moonlit night.”