Sidney and the Dogs

EARLY Tuesday while it was still dark I put on my minipockets and mukluks and fur-hooded parka and Persian-lamb-lined tie-down hat and a scarf across my beard to keep off the ice, and I tied bear-paws around my neck and looped an ice ax over my wrist and stepped out of my hut to walk the mile and a half to Scott Base to see Sidney. The air was still and dry. It was 72 below. It had been a bitter winter.

Sometimes we had to oil the sounding balloons it was so cold. Sometimes the co-ax just broke brittle in the wind. Sometimes my hand peeled raw on the door handle. Sometimes the case of Heineken’s under my bunk got goobers in the bottom it was so cold. And I wanted it all because when I was a boy I read the diary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy and I loved him.

No less a hero to me was the man I set out to see that Tuesday. I was a bored USARP biologist and I didn’t know any of the navy kids and the only one I really knew was Sidney. He was a Kiwi. They say he was a teller at the McDougal Street branch of the Bank of New Zealand in Christchurch before he volunteered. I think he was a good teller. When I knew him he was the dog driver.

The dogs were Greenland huskies. There were thirty-seven of them, and since February they had been chained to the ground out beyond Scott Base and a slab of seal meat thrown to them every other day. The men shot fifty seals with M-l’s in the summer when they broke the ice to sun, and they were stacked frozen in a shed and sawed up with a carpenter’s saw. There was no blood. The skins if good were sent over to us Americans to ship home for souvenirs. The dogs were fat and weak and anxious by August, and when it grew light Sidney began taking out one team a day. There was BrummePs team and Tukatok’s and Lepus’ and Charlie’s. They were wild. Sidney always went alone even though he needed weight. The dogs needed exercise, so the sledge was stacked high with boxes of pemmican lashed down to make it heavy.

I started down the flagged road through the Pass between Crater Hill and Observation Hill, with its weathered wooden cross facing south to the cairn over Scott’s frozen grave. I walked slowly to feel the cold and the quiet and the snow and the faint early light. In early August the sun had not yet broken the horizon, and for a few hours a day a pale blue air hung over the Antarctic ice, and the shadowless Royal Society Range rose again over the frozen sound. Erebus grew wide and white behind us, and its volcanic plume blew straight in the high wind. Spring came over that continent like a scared cat. We felt it ooze life into our wintersapped bodies bit by bit and splinter the crusting ice particle by particle.

From my book-cluttered prefab biology hut I could look out almost any early August day, and through the blue-gray noon I could see Sidney swing out from behind Gape Armitage a mile away riding the dog-sledge runners. I followed him out across the bumpy sastrugi of McMurdo Sound until the little black figure of the sledge grew so small I had to look through my field glasses to make out the dogs strung out and Sidney standing high in the back, and then I couldn’t see them anymore, I usually went to the chow hall for lunch then and rushed back. And alone in my hut again I pulled out my field glasses and searched the sound for the little blip that grew and grew until I could see the panting huskies moving slower now, pulling the heavy sledge, and Sidney still standing high in the back. Then they were behind Dape Armitage and I put my glasses away and went back to work. There really wasn’t any work, but I had early in the winter devised a routine to fill the dark long days.

I walked further down the Pass road to where high on the left the men at the transmitter hut poured their stinking warm pissbarrels over the top and down in a wall of yellowsmooth ice.

There had seldom been a day that August that I hadn’t run back from chow to follow the dogs. It was the only thrill I had for a year. And I did my work after, but I was really thinking about the dogs and Sidney and Cherry Garrard, Wilson, Evans, Bowers, and Oates of the Iniskilling Dragoons. By then I could do my work without thinking, and while I checked and rechecked the fish-tank thermometers and moved the beakers back and forth I was really bumping along behind a husky team.

THE Pass road swung left and steep up the side of Crater Hill. It was hard to climb because breathing burned my lungs. So I stopped to rest and I looked out across the blue shapes of the jagged edge of the ice shelf and the icebergs and the mountains. The dim light of the Cosray hut glowed up ahead. I went on climbing.

I kept a journal those days and wrote how the temperature was always 50 and 60 below, how the anemometer ticked off 80 mph some days, how hard it was after six months with the same faces, and how hard it was after six months without a letter. But what was really hard was that none of these was really hard. And I didn’t write that. Sidney was the only one who really had it hard. I envied him.

A smooth wind began blowing and the red flags on the Pass road snapped slapping the bamboo poles, and the wind carried with it the distant eerie sound of an occasional bark and howl in the murky blue dawn.

Ever since the Scott Base meteorologist frostbit his hands when he panicked in a whiteout, Brian the base leader insisted that no one leave the camp alone. Even Sidney could not ride the sledge alone. Sidney pleaded and said it would make the dogs nervous. But finally he called me and asked me to accompany him on a routine trip to work out Lepus’ team.

Standing finally by the Cosray hut high over the ice I could just see White Island and Minna Bluff in the gloomy gray of midmorning, and beyond, rising continuously, mysteriously, the bulk of the Polar Plateau that rose on and on to the South Pole. Then I jumped over the lip and down the south slope of Crater Hill, sliding bumping rolling down the hard packed snow to the bottom and the tangle of wires of the antenna field.

Scott Base was a series of a few huts drifted over early in winter, connected by a long unheated tunnel. I jumped down into the tunnel and walked to the other end and the sledge room. Sidney started.

“Ah, yes, Henry,” he said briskly. He always said it that way. “Ah, yes, yes, yes. Jolly cold day, ay. What say?” and through his cheery sounds his eyes stared hard at the wall. His sledge room was neat and ordered, his varnish tins labeled and stowed, and strip leather soaked in a bucket.

“Would you get the third team’s harnesses, ay?” he said, and I pulled the eleven canvas harnesses from the peg marked three. They were cut and made for each dog and had their names stenciled: Lcpus leading, Robin, Rupert, Marceline, Kopec, and Ticky left of the towline; Mirabu, Canopus, Arabella, Orion, and Liz on the right.

I sensed that Sidney was annoyed at taking a passenger. He mumbleshuffled around the little room snapping up rags from one end of his workbench and throwing them to the other end, then throwing them all back, shooting blinking glances at me. He looked at Tukatok, who lay dull on the floor with a ripped face.

“A bloody fighter that one,” he said. Sidney’s dried red face wrinkled around the eyes and with his long hair and fat red beard he looked out of place indoors. He wore a great red parka and high white mukluks and although he was not a tall man he looked big.

Then he gave me the briefing. “Now look, Henry,” he said without looking at me. “Don’t mind the dogs, ay. Big and harmless brutes is about all they are.” He clipped his suspenders to his minipockets. “Once in a while one breaks the tracer, but they always find their way back to camp.” He zipped shut his mukluks. “Now look, if I fall off the beastly runners and can’t catch up, don’t shout after me because the stupid dogs will think you’re driving them faster.” He snapped his hood tight. “Stand on the brake, ay. Just stand on the brake. And mind if we fall in a crevasse. Gut the bloody lot of them loose, ay. No worry. No worry.” And he slapped Tukatok, clipped his loop into his carabiner, dropped the nose-wiper harness over his head, stuffed a Cadbury bar in his parka pocket, and said, “Ah, yes, let’s go, what say.”

THE roaring kerosene furnace radiated white hot and I began to sweat under the clothes, and with the harnesses and ice axes and other gear dangling, I jammed the plunger in the tunnel and the thick heavy door popped and the icy numb air shot down my lungs. Erebus stood big before us, gray in the gloom of that crackling clear morning. The dogs heard our boots crunching. They howled with thirty-seven hooting voices in a ghastly din resounding in the great hollow of Grater Hill.

“Halooo boys,” Sidney called, and the big dogs strained hard on their chains, yelping madly. They were tied ten feet apart along a chain driven into the ice at the ends. They had been tied down through the dark of the winter, unmoving, restless. Coming over a small rise we were upon them and they jumped and yelped and we ran to them and they spun around on their chains, choking at us. They were big and stood to our shoulders and we walked down the line slapping each with a deep thump on thick white fur. Sidney pointed out the five dogs I was to harness, and we began.

Robin was my first and I pushed him down from my chest and straddled him and squeezed my knees as tight as I could around his waist and banged the frozen chain off his collar and pulled the harness over his head and pushed his front legs through the harness and grabbed the loop and let my legs go. He lurched, and I dragged behind. I got to my knees, then rolled and dragged and dug my heels in hard to keep him from the other dogs. Then we ran together until I fell again and pulled him finally to the towline and clipped the tracer to his harness. Breathing deeply the cold air to gain my breath I went back and got Rupert and Kopec and Ticky. Marceline was the bitch, and she didn’t pull. I was exhausted and lay sweating on the pemmican boxes on the sledge until my sweat chilled and I moved to keep the sweat warm.

Getting all the eleven dogs going and in the same direction was a delicate dangerous job. Sidney knocked the front picket out and walked slowly and smoothly to the back and the dogs swayed on the towline and Lepus far out front spread her legs out stiff to keep the line straight. But the line snaked impatiently and began wheeling around and Sidney knocked the back picket out with the mall and the whole sledge was free in that single electric instant.

“Hueeet up!” Sidney yelled in a long high pitch, and he grabbed the handles and with a sudden burst that stunned me the sledge snapped from the ice. I grabbed the ropes that lashed the boxes and we bounced hard over the sastrugi and the tidal crack and rolled and creaked and bumped over the ice at what I thought an enormous speed for a dog sledge. We hit the Nod well tracks and the dogs swung right and left and all the while Sidney kept up a steady yell of commands.

“Hueet up, you bloody bastards!” he called. “Arrrrrah! Arrrrrah!” and the team swung left. “Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” and the team swung right. Then back again and right and left and the runners swished when the sledge swung sharply and the fine snow sprayed over me from the flying dogs. Their wildness was gone, and quietly except for the pattering snowcrunch under their feet they hunched forward and they panted and they pulled and they pulled.

“Hueeet up! Hueeet up you bastards!” Sidney commanded. “It’s to keep them going,” he shouted to me through the wind. “Lepus! Lepus! Arrrrrah! You goddamn lazy animal! Lepus! Arrrrrah! Lepus! Rupert! Pull, pull, Rupert! You bloody bastard! Hueeet up!”

Slowly at first, then quicker, the dogs seemed to respond to Sidney. We were still on the tracks and when we saw them turn up ahead Sidney shot out the long loud command several times and the dogs began to swing around and we stayed on the tracks. Cape Armitage moved past, and I saw my little red hut high on the hill in another world. I remember letting go the ropes and spreading my arms and giving a low “Yipee!” into the wind.

We went west winding back and forth with the Nod well tracks toward the gray Society Mountains that loomed from fifteen thousand feet but never came closer. We were now a blip from the base, I thought. A blip I had envied for months.

The leather bindings on the sledge squeaked and the runners slapped swishing the ice. The wind cut my face cold and my nose turned white and I did not care. My feet dangling over the front ached cold and I did not care. My hands holding the ropes on the boxes under me stung to the tips and I did not care. My lungs burned from the blue ice air and I did not care. We cracked over the sastrugi further and further from Ross Island until it stood like a great gray triangle high behind, and Observation Hill and Castle Rock and Crater Hill and Hut Point bumps at the base. There was no person except Sidney in his blazing red parka standing high and straight on the runners; no sound except the muted panting and pattering and squeaking and swishing.

“Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” Sidney screamed, and the tracks grew fainter and the dogs slipped off. “Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” he screamed over and over and slowly the towline came around and we crossed the tracks.

“You bloody bastards!” he yelled, and he began a long series of commands to pull them back the other way. “Arrrrrah! Lepus! Lepus!” he cried. “Lepus, you bitch. Arrrrrah! Arrrrrah! Arrrrrah!” But he couldn’t get them back on the tracks. He jumped off the runners and ran up to the left. “Come on Lepus,” he called, and she saw him and pulled left and when he jumped back on the runners she pulled right again.

“Lepus!” he cried, shaking his head, and his mouth distorted. But she went on.

Then for a reason that to this day I do not know, with one united motion the dogs swerved sharply and the sledge leaned and skidded a few yards, then snapped straight again. We were headed directly south. Minna Bluff was before us and beyond it the ice shelf and the white white of the Polar Plateau that rose and rose on the South Pole somewhere hundreds of miles away. It seemed to me then that we were on different tracks, that with one common instinct each dog had in a single moment sensed the tracks of Scott’s doomed sledge, frozen deep into the ice for half a century.

“Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” Sidney yelled, but the towline quivered taut in a powerful straight line. “Bloody bitch! Houk! Houk! Bloody bitch! Bloody bitch!”

And the pattering paws pulled us further south, pulled us further into the coldest continent on earth, further into infinite whiteness, further into the stinging wind that grew colder and colder, further across the white ice shelf where Scott’s frozen body lay deep under the ice eleven miles from One Ton Depot. And Wilson’s arm was around him when Wright found them in the spring. His arm was around him when they froze in the night. It is better than being too comfortable, he wrote. The diary was by his body. Pretty good English, too, Wright said. “Right to the very end it was.”And only eleven miles, just eleven miles from One Ton Depot and Wilson’s arm around him frozen in the night.

“Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” Sidney never stopped calling even though the dogs ran wild.

And there was Chief Petty Officer Evans who was the strongest of them all, and he fell first on the Beardmore Glacier because his legs were frozen in his mukluks.

“Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!”

And there was Titus Oates of the Iniskilling Dragoons who walked out of the tent after supper for a walk. Just for a walk, he said. Just for a long long walk.

“Houk! Houk! Houk! Houk!” he kept calling loud.

And for eleven days it blew a white blizzard, the biggest storm they had ever seen. It might have blown more but they froze in the night. And only eleven miles from One Ton Depot.

“Houk! Houk!”

And it was only because he wanted to know. Through the frozen feet and the starvation and the gangrene and the death, it was only because he wanted to know.

“Houk!” Sidney coughed in a hoarse dead voice.

Kopec stumbled. His tracer sagged and the towline bent. Ticky snapped at him from behind but Kopec wouldn’t pull. Orion broke the muted silence with a quick sharp bark. Kopec cowered. Lepus spun around and the towline collapsed and the sledge swished still and stopped. Arabella shot at Kopec’s neck.

“Hueeet! Hueeet! Hueeet! Hueeeeeeet!” Sidney screamed, but through the grizzly gutty barks and growls and the whimpering yelps I barely heard him. I stared stunned at the heap of tangled beasts before me and I didn’t know what to do and I looked around to Sidney.

He still stood high on the runners and he leaned far over the back of the sledge so his face was only two feet from mine and he screamed with a scream that came from his bowels and his arteries stood pounding blue on his forehead and his head quivered with the force of his last command.

“Hueeeeeet up! You! . . . bloody! . . . bastards!”

The towline and tracers tangled in a vicious flailing attack. Kopec was under the pile, and when they dragged him I saw the splatter of bright red on the cold white ice. They fought to bite his neck and to bite his back and to bite his stomach and to bite the thick muscle of his loins.

Sidney stepped off the runners and crept up along the side of the sledge. His eyes were fixed on the dog at the bottom. With short cautious steps he nudged closer, quiet on the hard packed snow, and slow. Slowly sneaking erect to the beast heap where he watched dumb the slaughter. Slowly and with his eyes still fixed he bent low and kneeled and bent lower still until his red beard flattened on the snow. He peered through the snapping snarling to the one on the bottom and with his eyes wide and nostrils pulsing open steaming puffs he watched still and his chest heaved in and out in and out fast. Then with a long crying voice he repeated the name, “Kopec. Kopec.” And I saw his lips move in a helpless dying whisper. “Kopec.”

Then from deep under the heap Lepus let loose Kopec and looked at Sidney and Sidney prone on the snow looked at Lepus. The rest kept tumbling and biting and barking but Lepus looked at Sidney and his face was only a yard from hers and flat on the snow and he moved only his left leg back slowly and her nose wrinkled at the back and her tongue moved in and out between her teeth and she rumbled and growled slow and low and Sidney crawled slowly and smoothly back and back and looked at her and she growled faster and higher and her face tightened and her lip pulled high over her gums and she made little fast snaps and then leapt yapping out of the heap and drove at Sidney. He shrieked. He stood half up. He turned, and half bent, bolted across the ice. Lepus snapped choking at the end of her tracer. The dogs dropped Kopec and stumbled over the ropes after Sidney, and the sledge whipped around and the jolt knocked, me off the pemmican boxes. I had been watching it all without moving or breathing. I fell on the dogs.

I tangled in the tracers of the dogs beating to get at Sidney. I snapped the clip loose on Kopec’s tracer and he limped off to the north with a bloody white coat. I held them tight and dragged with them until I grabbed Lepus’ tracer and I dug my heels in and jerked the tracer so hard so many times I thought I broke her neck. I pulled her and kicked the other dogs as hard as I could but it hardly stopped the brutes. But I kicked and I pulled and I smashed my gloved hand across their faces and 1 beat at their soft underbellies and I cussed them until they stopped. I pulled Lepus hard and out of the heap and in front of the sledge and the panting huskies fell back in line with the tracers wrapped around their legs and necks and I held Lepus hard to keep the towline straight and I fell back on the ice in a hot wet sweat out of breath.

Then I saw Sidney. He stood twenty yards behind the sledge. I have never seen any man like that. His face was the face of a man just dead, It was frozen white in the cold cold air, and his arms hung stiff at his sides, and his eyes did not look at the dogs and they did not look at me, but they looked to the south beyond the Plateau to something I could not see.

Waves of hot blood swept up and down my sweaty body lying flat on the ice of the Ross Ice Shelf at 72 below.

Then I knew.

I stared. He was unmoving. His eyes did not even blink. Beneath his roaring red parka his chest seemed unbreathing. And I was a panting fool, unable to move myself. How I knew I cannot say, but the certainty, the overwhelming sureness was just there in that frozen red form. I was hot everywhere. My heart raced thumping in my ears and the boiling sickness in me rose and rose and into that numbing air I cried and the tears froze to my beard, I clung to Lepus and the dogs stood still and nothing stirred, not even the air, while I cried.

Behind him the tip of fat gray Erebus sparkled for a minute in deep warm gold and the wisping steam fleckled in the first sign that the sun was edging closer to the horizon in its giant golden and unseen curves.

“Sidney!” I called. He did not move.

“Sidney! Sidney! Get on the sledge, Sidney.” And still he did not move.

With all the might I had left I yelled to him one last time. “Sidneeeeeeee!”

He started and he looked at me and through his fat red beard he said, as he always said, “Ah, yes. Ah, yes. Gome on, Henry, get on the sledge and mind you don’t fall off, ay. Gome on.”

I pulled Lepus around so she faced east to Scott Base and I let go and Sidney called, “Huit up now boys. Huit up,” and the sledge shot off and I jumped onto my pemmican boxes as they whisked by.

We went straight east until we hit the Nod well tracks and the dogs locked on and when we saw a turn in the tracks ahead Sidney gave his little commands.

“Houk, now. Houk. Arrrah. Arrrah. Arrrah.”

The light still shone when we got back and clipped the exhausted dogs on the chain. Inside I took my gear off and dunked my head in a bucket of hot water to melt the glob of ice that cemented my scarf to my beard. Then I went to the little chow hall with the big picture of Robert Falcon Scott hanging on the south wall. Ivan the cook had kept two meals hot and he pulled them out of the oven and put them on the table. It was mutton and steaming baked potatoes. I waited for Sidney and looked out the small square window.

It looked south. It was growing dusky in midafternoon and the sun that had never come up was going. And from far beyond Minna Bluff, out further than beyond the Plateau, from somewhere far far to the south, a low cold wind was coming fast. It blew the loose gray snow and it poured from between the mountains and it smothered the surface of the earth in a smooth gray moving veil. And then it swished up and around the little window in swirling, diving, crashing eddies that engulfed the whole earth in a violent shuddering cold. And I couldn’t see out anymore so I turned inside and looked at the food and the rising steam billowing into the soft warm air.

I don’t know just why, but never in my life have I felt so happy.