Dog Days in Antarctica



Photography by David Burdeny

Poems by Marion Starling Boyer

The Sledging Commences
                       

                                     A golden shovel for William Carlos Williams
                  
Ernest Joyce, January 24, 1915

In his great rush Mack’s risking our dogs, that I
know are unfit, and the men’s lives, as none have
any sledging experience. So, after we’d eaten
yesterday, I gave the team a serious talk on the
blisters that freeze in their hands like black plums,
about snow-blindness and scurvy, frostbite that
goes gangrene. They all know of men who were
here before and died, who starved and froze in
their tents. I told ‘em it’s my seventh journey to the
Minna Bluff and I’d see them through this icebox. 

Mack’s also decided to winter the Aurora here and
it’s damned foolish rot. I say, send her north, which
means she won’t be iced in or worse!  But you
don’t argue with the Skipper. Then, after we were
all asleep, a few dogs got free and fought, probably
due to their wolf strain. One was hurt beyond saving.
I’ve insisted we be exact about packing supplies for
ourselves into bags which each hold a breakfast,

lunch, and dinner for three men. No one will forgive
a mistake when he’s done in and cold. It’s down to me
to figure out each sledge’s load careful so that they
carry all required but can still be hauled. And, if it were
needed they’ll eat seals and decide they’re delicious,
by God, when they’re hungry. It’s come time now, so
we gather ‘round and raise the toast to wives and sweet-
hearts, and that they never meet. Three of us men and
seven dogs harness up and the others cheer, call out, So
long! Good luck! Then we bend hard into the wind and cold.

Dead Dog Trail

The men of the Ross Sea party hauled
a load averaging 300 –335 pounds each.
They had no idea the weight was unprecedented.

                            – Kelly Tyler-Lewis, The Lost Men

March 2, 1915

Wild names it, haunted by
the rise and fall of howls
bleeding outward in limitless
white at the bottom of the earth,

sound ancient as a sacred bell
or thin mountain air
keening through the ruined stones
and skulls of a vanished race,

the hollow bone song of the near dead.

One by one the nine dogs perish.
Pinkey is last. She rode for a time
on the sledge with Wild, whose feet
are foot-shaped lumps of raw meat.

Mack, Wild, and Joyce manage five miles
every ten hours. Finally, they lay Shackleton’s
depot at 80ºS and turn back for Hut Point,
one hundred sixty miles to the north.

They have provisions to last one week.

White Earth and Ruins

It all belies our existence; we wait, and are still denied.
We are folded together, men and the snowy ground into nullity.
There is silence, only the silence, never a sound or a verity
to assist us, disastrously silence-bound. 

 – D.H. Lawrence, from “Winter Lull”

Ernest Wild, February, 1916

It’s 30 below. I roll a tea cigarette, Sing.
We’ll return for you in four days, Joyce said.
It’s our fifth day. No sign the storm will subside.
Food’s gone. No fuel. God knows how the padre
lives on. Mors certa, hora incerta, he reminds me.
Mack’s sullen. Merciless winds howl outside.
In this half-light, days and nights bleed together.
I read. The padre wakes from a dream and asks
after the weather. Shrieking, the blizzard replies.
It all belies our existence; we wait, and are still denied.

Day six. All is nothing but this tent, and the white
continent, though Padre mutters, faith. To keep him
lucid, I argue God and he answers with such sincerity
of heart I cannot bait him any more. His body’s melted
a foot down into the bloodied puddle beneath him. He prays. 
I sing. Before his frost-bitten hands lose all dexterity,
Mack scrawls a page, reports the job done, says farewell
to all he loves, then drops back into his sodden bag. Scott
and his team died near here. Facing that possibility
we are folded together; men and the snowy ground into nullity.

The seventh day. Katabatic winds. Banshees all about.
Scurvy’s blackening my legs. The padre lies still
but for spasms which now, thank God, are a rarity.
When he speaks, if at all, it is to ask after Mack.
Mack drifts in and out, dazed, until something odd
rouses him. I am slow to recognize the new peculiarity
but he shifts up onto his elbow, listening. The tent’s
gone limp. An uncanny quiet. The stillness is so dense
I worry snow’s sealed us up and crawl outside warily.
There is silence, only the silence, never a sound or a verity

except I see the black rag tied high on the pole
has fallen slack. All around the world’s expanded,
stretched to an emptiness made more profound
in this deathly calm. I dig out the tent until the lull
is over. When the winds come on again, I go in
to sleep, spent. And then – how long? – a faint sound
pierces my crazed dreams and the droning wind –
Dogs yelping! I gather up a harness, crawl out, totter
toward Joyce and the others who’ve come ‘round
to assist us, disastrously silence-bound.

Ernest Joyce Drinks to the Dogs

June, 1918

Oscar’s died, you say? Draw that drape, would you,
so I can take off these dark glasses. Snow-blindness
played hell with my eyes. Sit with me and we’ll raise
a glass to the old boy. Without him and Gunner,
Towser and Con, I’d be dead and done myself.

They were sporty, those four.. Powerful, nasty,
ready to kill each other, though they hated Con the worst.
He was odd one out, a Greenlander, descended
from one of Amundsen’s Inuit dogs. That first year
none of the dogs were fit. They’d been crated and carted

over three continents, then chained on deck in cramped
kennels. Sodden, miserable. Mack was hell-bent
to start sledging immediately. We had words, I’ll tell you.
The dogs needed exercise, time to be trained up,
hardened a bit. He would not tolerate a subordinate’s

advice and, I’ll say it plain, the Skipper had no damned idea
how to manage dogs. We lost every one sledged that season.
They ran off, froze asleep, or dropped in harness.
Mack whipped them something cruel. Oscar was a brute.
One of the men said he had the low forehead of a criminal.

He was a bit shambly, but, the second year, after three
days without a scrap of food, Oscar lowered his lion
head and, by God, he pulled. Hayward went mad
and set out to eat one of the dogs until I stopped him.
Towser, now he was the dog Mack called hopeless.

The mongrel was lazy, I grant you. Towser’s wolf howl
could raise hairs on a skeleton’s spine. Con was a bit
of a lord with his white Samoyed coat. In the end, the three
Newfoundlers ganged up and savaged Con – ripped his throat,
tore a hole in his groin. We never could stop the bleeding.

The public was fascinated with the dogs after we got rescued
but it was an outrage to put them on exhibit in the Wellington
Zoo caged alongside the likes of King Dick, a shabby
circus lion, and Tahi, the one-legged kiwi. The zoo kept
one of Captain Scott’s lead dogs caged, too. Terrible.

Wrote to that zoo several times, didn’t I? Pains me
to think now Oscar’s died there. Ah well, it’s good my wife
and I brought Gunner home to live with us here, in Sydney.
Yes, he’s still with us. That’s Gunner just there, by your
chair. I had his skin made into a mat for the house.

Marion Starling Boyer at EIL

Dog Days 2020

Golden shovel poetic form at Writer’s Digest

“This is just to say” by William Carlos Williams at Poets.org  (Compare the Williams poem to the right edge of Boyer’s poem “The Sledging Commences”)

More Art by David Burdeny