The gaze of animal life
The story of this expedition cannot be told until full tribute has been given to our magnificent dog teams. Each man — Wally Hebert, expedition lead, Allan Gill, navigator and cameraman, Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner, glaciologist, with the author serving as medic — was equipped with a sled hauled by a team of 10 dogs. During Christmas 1967, Gill and I had collected 40 huskies at Qaanaaq, Greenland, some 140 kilometres north of the United Stated Air Force Base Thule. These wonderful animals are powerful creatures with the endurance necessary to cover vast distances in extremely cold weather for months on end. Unlike their Alaskan counterparts, Greenland dogs are accustomed to working individually using a fan hitch (where each dog in the team is attached separately to the sled) to reduce the loss of momentum when negotiating moving ice fields and the rough terrain of countless pressure ridges.
Greenland’s Thule District is a remote land at the northern reaches of human habitation — an unforgiving place. In the darkness and raw cold of mid winter accompanied by the reassuring presence of local Inuit hunters, we set out over an uncharted track across the Greenland Ice Cap with our rag tag menagerie of dogs to USAF Base Thule. En route, with no other means of transport, we encountered a Danish school teacher who, when disoriented with hypothermia, had become separated from her party during a blizzard and sustained severe frostbite to her hands; and an impoverished young Inuit mother who had suffered disfiguring burns to her face and hands when she had inadvertently added gasoline from an unmarked container to her kerosene lamp. She saved her baby from the conflagration, but not without incurring considerable injury to herself. These women were lucky to be alive. Later, for both, there would be lifelong scars bearing evidence of their service to others.
It was a salutary prelude to the journey which lay ahead, to attempt the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean. We faced a prospect where mishap and cruel choices might dictate our success, our safety or even our survival.
Later we experienced a time of prolonged social isolation to test our mettle as we lived and moved across the sea ice on a journey which would extend over 476 days. There were no maps, only the unpredictable topography of unstable ice with impassable leads and churning pressure ridges advancing like a wall of lava; five months of darkness as we overwintered in the approaches to the geographic North Pole; an encounter with a rabid Arctic fox; a fire engulfing one of the tents; half rations; measured risks to be taken; incapacitating injury; and the unreadable expression of predatory polar bears with the stark confrontation of kill or be killed.
Out here, there is an intuitive living out of a gentler narrative:
That the needs of my neighbour best describe the coordinates of my neighbourhood.
That I am my brother’s keeper.
Out here, the human spirit,
responsive to the forces of nature, discerning of the past and creative with what lies to hand,
was more clearly perceived and more often witnessed
than in the clamour of our modern suburban lifestyles with their hurried rhythms
and the sophisticated appetites of a consumer society.
Out here, in the pristine beauty and immense silence of the Arctic
It was the mute constancy of our dogs, our beasts of burden,
Which shared and at times best conveyed the inspiring testimony of creation.
Out here, it is the gaze of animal life
Which reflects the conscience of mankind
In the stewardship of nature.