by John Wright
It’s often said that The North is part of the Canadian identity, but, perhaps the country’s links to the far South aren’t as well known. The Arctic and Antarctic recently came together in North Grenville with the arrival of an important artifact destined for display at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. John Wright, a former Field Guide with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and a Senior Polar Tourism Guide explains.
In 1944, Britain started a program of scientific work in the Antarctic, and, in 1945, twenty Inuit sled dogs from Labrador were taken south. These dogs formed the nucleus of the teams that would support all the British scientific work in the Antarctic till 1974. After this time, mechanised transport took over and the dogs were kept mainly for recreational journeys until 1994 when, due to being an alien species, the last team was removed as a requirement of the Antarctic Treaty.
For one final season, in 1993-94, the last dogs undertook a scientific field season, after which they were flown out to the Falkland Islands and then to the UK, where they were quarantined.
Considerable thought had been given to finding a suitable home for the dogs, and it was decided that they should return to their ancestral homeland. In March, 1994, the dogs were flown from the UK to Boston, then trucked to the road head at Chisasibi on the eastern side of James Bay. From there they were driven north by their BAS drivers in company with Kevin Slater, a guide from Maine, and his team to the Inuit community of Inukjuak on the eastern side of Hudson Bay. Over the years, for unexplained reasons, many dogs in the area had been culled, and a number of elders welcomed the BAS dogs with tears in their eyes. Although the BAS dogs have long gone, their arrival sparked a renewed interest in traditional Inuit sled dogs in the area and there are now a number of teams.
Although the dogs remained in Inukjuak, the Nansen Sled that they had hauled during their last field season in the Antarctic, and that they had taken north to Inukjuak, did not. Possibly, it was thought that it was more appropriate for the dogs to be introduced to the traditional Komatik sled. The result was that the Nansen sled returned to Maine with Kevin and was stored in his barn. Realising the historical significance of the sled, it was initially intended to return it to the Antarctic for display in one of the historic bases now visited by cruise ships. However, the logistics were challenging, to say the least, and the sled sat gathering dust.
In January last year, I was handing over my guiding duties on an Antarctic cruise ship to a former BAS colleague, and the subject of the sled came up. I had recently become a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and it occurred to me that, with the dogs’ connection to Canada, the RCGS would be a very appropriate place to display it.
Fast forward through a few hurdles involving transfer of ownership and freighting from Maine to Ottawa, and the sled arrived at my property in late November.
Having used Nansen sleds during my time in the Antarctic, I’m very familiar with them, all that was lacking was a team of dogs! The sled is constructed from ash and held together with hide and flax lashings, which allow the sled to flex. They are so adaptable that they are still used for scientific work in the Antarctic, though, regrettably, pulled by skidoos rather than dogs. Setting the sled up on trestles in my garage transported my mind back to my sled workshop on base in the Antarctic over forty years ago.
Apart from a thick layer of dirt and broken handlebars, the sled was in very good condition and we decided to perform only a light restoration, leaving it looking much as it did on its retirement 26 years ago. The lash lines and tow lines were removed, the dirt cleaned off the sled, and a light coating of linseed oil applied, just as would have been done on base during the Antarctic winter. The handlebars were replaced using methods that could have been improvised in the field, and the lash lines and tow lines were reinstated.
Just before Christmas, the sled was carefully wrapped to prevent it receiving a coating of Ontario winter road dirt, and taken on a flat bed trailer to Ottawa, where it was delivered to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The society has great plans for the sled. Once the Covid restrictions are behind us, it will form the centrepiece for a lecture evening and an exhibition telling the story of the Inuit sled dogs in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Everybody is delighted with Canada and, in particular, the RCGS as the location to display the sled, and a number of former BAS dog drivers have expressed an interest in coming over to Canada to attend the lecture evening – and no doubt try to find a dog team to drive for old times’ sake.