The book is a study of the sledge dogs which accompanied 19th century American explorers on their expeditions in the Arctic and eventually in their race to the North Pole. I came to the subject after extensive research for two earlier books dealing with the Arctic, Disappearance: A Map and Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition. I was particularly interested in two of the earliest explorers, Elisha Kent Kane and Charles Francis Hall. As I studied their writings, I became increasingly aware of allusions to dogs. Further research confirmed that there was a storyline, though a faint one, that portrayed the role of these valiant animals. It had never been told and deserved to be. These little “camels of the north” needed to be named and remembered and, like the Sherpas of the Himalayas, to be given their rightful place in history. Without them there would have been no success for Americans vying for the Pole.
I wanted to highlight the American explorers because they are less well known than polar explorers of other nationalities such as Stefansson, Amundsen, Rasmussen, Nansen, and Shackelton. Some of them, like Frederick Schwatka, are almost forgotten. Also, the American explorers built upon one another’s experiences in a relatively consistent manner, forging a route to the North Pole which, over years and countless adventures, led to success. The “American Route” is a logical sequence to follow. The Americans, too, quickly adopted the methods of the Inuit people, early on learning the importance of dogs. Moreover, though inconsistently, they wrote about the dogs in such a way that they left at least a faint trail to follow. Some went further, not afraid to express emotional ties with the animals upon which their lives depended.
Dogs guarded against predators—polar bears and wolves; helped in the hunt, particularly with caribou and musk oxen; located seals under the ice; warned of strangers approaching; found their way in storms; gave alarm at the edge of the sea ice; provided warmth in emergency conditions; and, when all hope for success in hunting was gone, provided meat; in death, they contributed skins. Perhaps most importantly, they provided companionship and distraction from the rigors and depression of the arctic winter. In some cases their companionship was the only means of fending off the horrors of the long, ice-bound winter which could propel both man and animal into madness.
The better dogs were treated, the better they performed. But good treatment, as we judge it today, was not always possible. At times there was simply no food to provide them and many miles to cover, often in fiercely stormy weather. Also, diseases such as rabies and distemper could sweep through villages, killing all teams. The most “successful” American explorer, Peary, did what he thought right for his dogs but considered them tools of his campaign to reach the Pole, carefully calculating how many needed to be taken along for food.
The British, unwilling to adopt the methods of indigenous people, thought it was more proper to put men in harnesses to pull boats and sledges rather than dogs. It was only during the search for the lost John Franklin expedition that they began to use dogs for hauling. The few exceptions, such as Francis Leopold McClintock and John Rae, succeeded where others failed miserably, suffering starvation, scurvy, cold, and exhaustion. Kane and Hall, the two earliest American explorers, quickly recognized the value of adopting the ways of indigenous people, including the use of dogs for transportation and hunting. Their success with native ways established the precedent that eventually enabled the Americans to achieve the Pole.
These dogs, who worked so bravely and thanklessly for their masters, deserve recognition. At a time when dogs are now being recognized for military and civilian service and monuments are being established to honor them, these dogs of the 19th century Arctic need to be remembered for their unspoken role in enabling American explorers to be first to reach the Pole. Since a number of the American explorations in which they served were military or quasi-military, there is even greater reason to acknowledge them as military working dogs. They played a vital role in enabling Americans to “win” the North Pole. Now, as nations vie for the natural resources of the Pole, that accomplishment matters more than ever.