SCOTT & The South-Pole

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10 - "Dogs and Ponies"

In advance, Meares and Bruce (Scott's brother-in-law) travelled to the other side of the world to secure dogs and ponies. The pair went to Siberia to buy the dogs34 and the ponies, we read where the animals were bought from the Arctic people located in the lower Amur River region. It was there that Meares met and recruited Dimitri Gerov. Dimitri was an experienced dog driver. He helped in choosing the dogs. Meares also recruited another Russian, Anton Omelchenko to deal with the ponies35, and, exactly where they were purchased, I am not sure. But, the animals and the four individuals, just mentioned, all came together at Vladivostock.

The ponies were brought from Vladivostok to New Zealand "by cargo steamer." The animals and their handlers, including Meares and Bruce, left on July 26th, 1910. On August 4th they took another ship, one that was a passenger ship. Aboard this second ship, the dogs and the ponies were not much appreciated: "... though we did our best to keep everything as clean as possible, the dogs were far from savoury, and quite frequently would howl in unison in the middle of the night, keeping it up for quite a long time."36

The second ship continued on, calling on Hong Kong and other ports in New Guinea, then finally the ship reached Sydney, Australia. The news of the live cargo seem to run ahead of them, for, as the journey advanced, crowds would come out to see the ponies and the dogs; though, "they were only very ordinary ponies, and rather exceptionally fierce dogs."

In turn, the animals were brought down to New Zealand to join up with Scott and to be brought aboard the Terra Nova. Though the "grooms" had their hands full in the transport of the dogs and the ponies from Vladivostock, especially when loading and unloading the ponies -- nervous and skittish they were -- all came through, so to join the men of the expedition. On the comparatively short sail from New Zealand to the Ross sea, as we have already seen, two ponies and one dog were lost overboard in a storm.

At New Zealand, it is clear, that 19 ponies were brought aboard the Terra Nova. The number of dogs have been variously reported, likely it was 33. "The thirty-three, all Siberian dogs excepting the Esquimaux [Canadian] 'Peary' and 'Borup' ..."37 Scott did not use the dogs as extensively as likely they should have been (Amundsen ran with a pack of them all the way to the South-Pole, and back again.)

So what was it like for a man to have a team of dogs, in harness, out ahead, hauling a sledge? Meares and the two Russians that he brought with him were experts; but, certain of the other men in the expedition did get a chance to run with the dogs. Debenham was one of them; he wrote, in his later years, a most touching story of his experience.

"Every expedition which has employed dog transport will testify to the valiant work performed by their teams and will be ready with stories about their more notable dogs. They will tell of dog heroes who pulled a taut trace to their last breath, of dogs who lost heart early in the journey, of shy dogs and bold dogs, of those who were popular with the whole team and others against whom every fang was turned. Dog personality is, in fact, one of the first things a driver learns and the better he learns it the better he will be."38
The dogs might be quiet and curled up, but just let a man emerge from the tent and the whole line would come instantly awake. They would leap forward "with a full throated demand to be selected. The few dogs who could be trusted off the chain would race up and these would try to wriggle their heads through the dangling loops of the harness." Like all dogs, going for a run was an event they very much enjoyed.

Dr. Wilson wrote in his Journal:

"The dogs run in two teams and each team wants two men. It means a lot of running as they are being driven now, but it is the fastest and most interesting work of all, and we go ahead of the whole caravan with lighter loads and at a faster rate; moreover, if any traction except ourselves can reach the top of Beardmore Glacier, it will be the dogs, and the dog drivers are therefore the people who will have the best chance of doing the top piece of the ice cap at 10,000 feet to the Pole. May I be there!"39
One of the difficulties of driving a harnessed team of dogs is humorously described by Wilson:
"Occasionally when one pictures oneself quite away from trouble of that kind, an old seal will pop his head up at a blowhole a few yards ahead of the team, and they are all on top of him before one can say 'Knife!' Then one has to rush in with the whip—and every one of the team of eleven jumps over the harness of the dog next to him and the harnesses become a muddle that takes much patience to unravel, not to mention care lest the whole team should get away with the sledge and its load and leave one behind to follow on foot at leisure. I never did get left the whole of this depôt journey, but I was often very near it and several times had only time to seize a strap or a part of the sledge and be dragged along helter-skelter over everything that came in the way till the team got sick of galloping and one could struggle to one's feet again. One gets very wary and wide awake when one has to manage a team of eleven dogs and a sledge load by oneself, but it was a most interesting experience, and I had a delightful leader, 'Stareek' by name—Russian for 'Old Man,' and he was the most wise old man. We have to use Russian terms with all our dogs. 'Ki Ki' means go to the right, 'Chui' means go to the left, 'Esh to' means lie down—and the remainder are mostly swear words which mean everything else which one has to say to a dog team. Dog driving like this in the orthodox manner is a very different thing to the beastly dog driving we perpetrated in the Discovery days. I got to love all my team and they got to know me well, and my old leader even now, six months after I have had anything to do with him, never fails to come and speak to me whenever he sees me, and he knows me and my voice ever so far off. He is quite a ridiculous 'old man' and quite the nicest, quietest, cleverest old dog I have ever come across. He looks in face as if he knew all the wickedness of all the world and all its cares and as if he were bored to death by them.
There were also innumerable subsidences of the surface—the breaking of crusts over air spaces under them, large areas of dropping 1/4 inch or so with a hushing sort of noise or muffled report.—My leader Stareek, the nicest and wisest old dog in both teams, thought there was a rabbit under the crust every time one gave way close by him and he would jump sideways with both feet on the spot and his nose in the snow. The action was like a flash and never checked the team—it was most amusing. I have another funny little dog, Mukaka, small but very game and a good worker. He is paired with a fat, lazy and very greedy black dog, Nugis by name, and in every march this sprightly little Mukaka will once or twice notice that Nugis is not pulling and will jump over the trace, bite Nugis like a snap, and be back again in his own place before the fat dog knows what has happened."
The use of dogs and ponies in the Antarctic was questioned by Scott from the first, though, as we have seen he did bring these animals with him; and, with considerable difficulty.40 In the end, Scott preferred "Man Hauling." While not using them in the final stages of his run for the pole in 1911; Scott did use them in the laying of the "One Ton Depot" in 1910, and, too, at the first of the three stages of his 1911 trek to the pole.41

Scott did not get an early fix, or any at all, on his transportation methods. Eventually, it fell into a combination of motor sledges (the two did not keep going for long); Dogs (in spurts); ponies (worked well in the first stage, 450 miles south across the Ross Ice Shelf); and men in harness hauling a sledge in fur boots or skis, which they did for the last two stages and the long journey back. At times he was quite taken up with his ponies and dogs. On his way to the "One Ton Depot", he observed:

"The ponies pulled splendidly to-day, as also the dogs, but we have decided to load42 both lightly from now on, to march them easily, and to keep as much life as possible in them. There is much to be learnt as to their powers of performance. ... all the party is cheerful, there never were a better set of people. ... The dogs are doing excellently -- getting into better condition every day."43
Just getting the animals to the Antarctic was the initial challenge. Aboard the Terra Nova which brought Scott and his group from New Zealand, there were 33 dogs chained to stanchions and bolts between the many other things needed for the journey, lashed here and there all over the upper deck. And stored somewhere below, 5 tons of dog biscuits. As for pony food: 50 tons, consisting of hay, bran, crushed oats and oil-cake (compressed seeds left after pressing out so much of the oil as can be extracted).

The first real try at working the ponies and dogs hard was when 12 men (including Scott) set out on January 25th, 1911, directly south. Eight ponies and 26 dogs were harnessed-up and travelled miles hauling great quantities in order to set up a major depot of food and supplies (One Ton Depot). This depôt, to quote Cherry, "was just a cairn of snow in which were buried food and oil, and over which a flag waved on a bamboo. There is no land visible from One Ton except on a very clear day and it is 130 geographical miles from Hut Point."

At one point when the party was setting up the first of many camps, and just after being blizzard-stayed for a couple of days, Scott wrote, the ponies "cannot stand more blizzards in their present state. I'm afraid we shall not get very far, but at all hazards we must keep the greater number of the ponies alive. The dogs are in fine form -- the blizzard has only been a pleasant rest for them." At another point in his journal, Scott wrote, "The way in which they [dogs] keep up a steady jog trot for hour after hour is wonderful. Their legs seem steel springs, fatigue unknown -- for at the end of a tiring march any unusual incident will arouse them to full vigour." At another time Scott wrote, "they trotted steadily with a wonderfully tireless rhythm."

In respect to Scott's comment on the dogs in a blzzard, as being "a pleasant rest for them." This is what Cherry wrote: "These fairly warm blizzards were only a rest for them. Snugly curled up in a hole in the snow they allowed themselves to be drifted over. Bieleglas and Vaida, two half brothers who pulled side by side, always insisted upon sharing one hole, and for greater warmth one would lie on the top of the other. At intervals of two hours or so they fraternally changed places."

The dogs and the ponies did not set out together and followed along in the tracks left by the advance men leading their ponies. If they timed it right, and usually they did, the dogs come charging into the new camp just after the lead group had arrived. The main reason was that the dogs, though they could not haul as much, were very much faster. Another reason is that the dogs would attack the ponies with the least bit of an excuse.44 In setting up the "One Ton Depot," Scott and his men spent 23 days getting to a point south, 130 miles away. The eight ponies, at the end of it, were tuckered-out, indeed, three had to be sent back before they had reached the position at which they built the "One Ton Depot."45

Ponies in the Stable

Incidentally, after their 260 mile journey, out and back from the "One Ton Depot," there were, out of the seventeen landed, but ten ponies left. These ten wintered over with the men in the stables built for them at Cape Evans.

Scott, in his journal, described quite a number of incidents involving the ponies; most of them quite humorous. For Example:

"Another accident! At one o'clock 'Snatcher,' one of the three ponies laying the depot, arrived with single trace and dangling sledge in a welter of sweat. Forty minutes after P.O. Evans, his driver, came in almost as hot; simultaneously Wilson arrived with Nobby and a tale of events not complete. He said that after the loads were removed Bowers had been holding the three ponies, who appeared to be quiet; suddenly one had tossed his head and all three had stampeded -- Snatcher making for home, Nobby for the Western Mountains, Victor, with Bowers still hanging to him, in an indefinite direction. Running for two miles, he eventually rounded up Nobby west of Tent Island and brought him in. Half an hour after Wilson's return, Bowers came in with Victor distressed, bleeding at the nose, from which a considerable fragment hung semi-detached. Bowers himself was covered with blood and supplied the missing link -- the cause of the incident. It appears that the ponies were fairly quiet when Victor tossed his head and caught his nostril in the trace hook on the hame of Snatcher's harness. The hook tore skin and flesh and of course the animal got out of hand. Bowers hung to him, but couldn't possibly keep hold of the other two as well. Victor had bled a good deal, and the blood congealing on the detached skin not only gave the wound a dismal appearance but greatly increased its irritation. I don't know how Bowers managed to hang on to the frightened animal; I don't believe anyone else would have done so. On the way back the dangling weight on the poor creature's nose would get on the swing and make him increasingly restive; it was necessary to stop him repeatedly. Since his return the piece of skin has been snipped off and proves the wound not so serious as it looked. The animal is still trembling, but quite on his feed, which is a good sign. I don't know why our Sundays should always bring these excitements."
Scott, being Scott, followed along in his narrative:
"Two lessons arise. Firstly, however quiet the animals appear, they must not be left by their drivers; no chance must be taken; secondly, the hooks on the hames of the harness must be altered in shape.
I suppose such incidents as this were to be expected, one cannot have ponies very fresh and vigorous and expect them to behave like lambs, but I shall be glad when we are off and can know more definitely what resources we can count on."
Another humorous example that concerned the ponies was written up in Scott's journal, dated July 31st, 1911:
"The ponies are getting buckish. Chinaman squeals and kicks in the stable, Nobby kicks without squealing, but with even more purpose -- last night he knocked down a part of his stall. The noise of these animals is rather trying at night -- one imagines all sorts of dreadful things happening, but when the watchman visits the stables its occupants blink at him with a sleepy air as though the disturbance could not possibly have been there!"
As the winter closed in, on May 8th, Scott wondered and discussed with his men his ideas as to how best to get the pole. "I gave an outline of my plans for next season ... Everyone was interested naturally. I could not but hint that in my opinion the problem of reaching the Pole can best be solved by relying on the ponies and man haulage. With this sentiment the whole company appeared to be in sympathy. Everyone seems to distrust the dogs when it comes to glacier and summit."



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Peter Landry