Derek Grzelewski


Growing out of New Zealand’s links to Antarctica and our dependence on huskies for the exploration of the South Pole, dog sledding has transformed into a local sport with a passionate following.

Written by       Photographed by Derek Grzelewski

It happend so fast and so suddenly that the whole incident seemed unreal, even during the days of shock and mourning that followed. One moment we were contemplating dinner, the next I was sprinting across the garden, towards the open driveway gate from behind which had come feverish cries and swearing, cut off by the squeal of tyres, a synchronised gasp, followed by the thump of metal hitting flesh and an inhuman cry of pain.

As I ran, my first thought was a prayer of denial. Please, don’t let it be. From the sounds, I guessed that one of my host’s dogs must have been hit by a car in front of his eyes. This, I knew, he would take hard. The two endearing mongrels were like surrogate family.

In a way, my prayers were answered. Lying flat on the road, unmoving and surrounded by a semi-circle of onlookers, was my own Airedale terrier Mops, my insepa­rable companion for the past four years. She had followed my friend out as he went to close the gate, and another dog across the road was too much of a temptation, at the worst possible moment.

We rushed her to a veterinary clinic but she was dead on arrival. The speeding Subaru had driven right over her chest, mashing the ribs and lungs. For a few moments she had tried to eat the air, biting at it feebly, but then this too had stopped. Blood trickled from between her limp lips and from under the tail. Even the vet cried as she turned off the oxygen.

With each animal pulling at a different speed and sometimes in a different direction, running a large team of dogs takes great concentration.
With each animal pulling at a different speed and sometimes in a different direction, running a large team of dogs takes great concentration.

The following day, I buried her on our favourite stretch of Lake Wanaka beach, and turned around to face the void her departure had left, the sudden absence of that unde­manding, eager-to-please and happy canine who until now had shadowed my every step.

For a time, I found myself gravitating towards people who still had dogs, a lame attempt at the continuity of my own dog experience. It was ultimately unsatisfying be­cause each bond between the human and beast is as unique as its participants and does not lend itself to any sort of ménage à trois. But then the dog circus came to town and changed everything.

It came as a convoy of utes and trailers, pausing briefly along the lakefront to gather and re-group. Every vehi­cle and trailer was a mobile dog kennel, furnished with rows of identical wooden boxes, each partly filled with straw and housing a restless animal. The dog’s name was stencilled above each door—names like Cheech, Jasper, Charlie or Bean—and on top of each kennel there was a wooden sled or two mounted in the way people carry their skis. The entire procession moved in its own soundscape of howls, barks, baying and yapping as it headed up the snowfields of the Pisa Range.

You could tell the dogs knew. Running on real snow was clearly what they lived for. They had trained and waited the entire year and now were so close they could probably smell it. To my ears and heart this cacophony was like music. Dogs. So many dogs.

Without preamble, I fell into easy “dog-talk” with Tony Turner, one of the mushers. He wore a mountaineering outfit and “deep-freeze” boots—the kind favoured by Canadians in the distant north. His Eskimo mukluks were not quite seal­skin but plausible look-alikes, and his face was still tinged red by the morning’s frost. “Come on up the hill,” he said. The event on Mt Pisa’s snowfields was the national championships and the largest annual gather­ing of sled dog enthusiasts from around the country. “Every man, woman and their dogs are going to be there,” he added, as if I needed more convincing.

[Chapter Break]

Dog sledding, it turned out, is a twilight affair. The races and training or leisure runs usually take place at first light, when the temperatures are lowest. The dogs are so well adapted to Arctic climes that they are in constant danger of overheating, particularly when running hard. At minus 10 or 20ºC, these dogs can happily curl up on bare ground and let the falling snow cover them like an eiderdown, but they must avoid the sun and its warmth like werewolves.

“Unlike humans or horses, huskies cannot sweat, and heat stress can literally boil their blood,” Turner told me. “If a dog’s been cooked, its ability to thermoregulate is scrambled and you can never run it again safely.” And running and pulling is what huskies must do. Making sure they can do it safely and without overheating is the musher’s greatest responsibility.

There was no risk of overheating when, next morning, I pulled into the carpark of Snow Farm, the country’s only Nordic ski field, altitude 1515 m. The mountain horizon already glowed with the promise of a sunny day but on the ground it was still dark and the tyres crunched hard on refrozen snow, the chains barely biting. The breath of people and dogs condensed in clouds of vapour as thick as smoke from wet wood. Among the heavy 4WDs and trailers, several dozen dogs—Alaskan and Siberian huskies, wolf-like Malamutes, even a team of German short-hair pointers—were staked out on short chains and milled about the radius of their tethers like wheels looking for purchase.

With training, dogs like Tony Turner’s Alaskan huskies find their form and the team begins to function like a finely-tuned engine. As Turner says, “it’s all about happy dogs” and most of it happens in the kennels. He spends time with each dog daily (equally measured so they don’t get jealous) which is where a bond develops that pays off on the trail.
With training, dogs like Tony Turner’s Alaskan huskies find their form and the team begins to function like a finely-tuned engine. As Turner says, “it’s all about happy dogs” and most of it happens in the kennels. He spends time with each dog daily (equally measured so they don’t get jealous) which is where a bond develops that pays off on the trail.

The hubbub of feverish yapping and high-pitched barks was deafening, each dog vying for attention, yanking at its chain, terrified that it may be left behind. The trucks and trailers to which the dogs were anchored rocked on their suspensions. Suddenly the noise rose to a crescendo, so loud I had to clasp both hands over my ears. The increase in volume was prompted by the first sled being lowered to the ground, its long tug-line with snap-on clips laid out on the snow in front of it.

It was pure madness—dogs throwing themselves at the chains, flying through the air in tight arcs, the mushers catching them, wrestling their struggling bodies into har­nesses, then dragging the dogs one by one, to clip them in their allotted position on the tug-line.

But the dogs were already running, and pulling, and the only way to walk them to their places was to hang on the harness and lift the front legs off the ground so that the animal had to follow on its hind legs alone. And still they pulled forward, their front legs beating the air like the arms of a swimmer pulled from the water.

During the hook-up, each sled was held in place with a pair of steel claws anchored in the snow. Getting a team to the starting line required a carefully timed release of these claws while a handler held the two lead dogs and directed them towards the line-up. With teams of more than six dogs, another handler would often be required to hold the middle of the tug line, making sure that the swing, team and wheel dogs, as the subsequent pairs are called, did not overtake the leaders in their impatience. In all cases the musher stood on the brake or drag-mat—a crampon-like speed-control device—with his or her full weight, the metal spikes leaving deep furrows in the frozen snow. And still, they could barely control the forward impetus of the dogs, each of whom could comfortably pull 25 times their own body weight.

Somehow, they managed to line up all the teams at the start, yapping and straining against the anchors. I stood there, hands over ears, marvelling at this apparent chaos. Then an airhorn sounded, the mushers released the snow anchors and the dogs’ paws suddenly found purchase on the snow. Each team shot forward as if catapulted, the mushers hanging on to the sleds’ handlebars, frantically balancing like beginner skiers out of control.

Hooked up and eager to go, Ray Holliday’s commercial sledding team of Siberian huskies wait outside the Meadow Lee Hut at the Snow Farm during an overnight trip. Having run the day before, these dogs are generally quieter and easier to handle than “weekend warriors”.
Hooked up and eager to go, Ray Holliday’s commercial sledding team of Siberian huskies wait outside the Meadow Lee Hut at the Snow Farm during an overnight trip. Having run the day before, these dogs are generally quieter and easier to handle than “weekend warriors”.

The hellish hubbub of tormented canine pleas had ceased, replaced with the sound of eager panting and the sweet swish of sled skis on snow. Within seconds the teams reached the first turn in the trail and disappeared out of sight.

“Phew!” said the race timekeeper, clutching her clipboard and a stopwatch. “A clean start, with no tangles. Always feels like a minor miracle.”

Minutes later, having circumnavigated the race course, the teams began to return. At the rear of the pack were the six Malamutes ridden by Nigel Voice. The Clydesdales among sled dogs, the Malamutes had com­pleted the race at a leisurely trot and seemed to be taking in the scenery as well.

Then they were all back in the carpark, the dogs staked out again, happily spent, drinking and eating, the mush­ers wandering among them, attending to endless chores, crooning sweet gaga to their charges, their faces aglow with beatific grins. Kirsten Wylie, a vet who has attended three Iditarod races (an Alaskan epic over 1868 km from near Anchorage to Nome), meandered among the rest­ing teams, stethoscope around her neck. She checked the heart rate and temperature of each dog, examining its general condition and paying particular attention to the paw pads and claws. Like seasoned athletes, the dogs en­joyed the attention. For now, all was quiet, though Turner assured me this state of affairs would not last for long.

Like some internal geyser of desire building up pres­sure to bursting point, the genetic compulsion to run and to pull would soon begin to rise again in the hearts of the dogs, a pressure which the mushers would be only too de­lighted to release. Possibly something stirs in the genetic makeup of the mushers themselves, something that harks back to the day a wolf approached a camp of early humans and a symbiotic relationship was born, both sides deciding it was easier to answer the demands of the wild together.

[Chapter Break]

One might think that sledding with huskies in New Zealand, so far from their natural environment, is a little odd—an extravagant eccentricity, a misplaced Jack London nostalgia or another take at Cool Runnings. But the days when dogs were the preferred mode of transport in our Antarctic dependency are still within living memory. Moreover, as beasts of burden, our huskies were some of the most travelled dogs in the world, running the wide white expanses of both polar regions.

The huskies’ superiority in polar conditions was well-proven during the famed Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole by the confident victory of the Norwegians, who knew and understood the dogs, and by the tribula­tions and tragic fate of Scott’s team, who did not.

Until the development of modern all-terrain vehicles­ the tin dogs, as the Antarctic old hands called them—the exploration of the ice deserts around the South Pole relied exclusively on dogs of Arctic lineage. Just as dromedaries became the ships of the desert, the huskies, with their strength, endurance and adaptation to the cold (they can cover up to 50 km a day for days on end), enabled humans to venture into the Antarctic wilderness at speed and in relative safety. With that, the culture of dog sledding emerged in countries with claims over the great white continent, including New Zealand.

A dog team takes a rest from pulling a heavy load beneath the terminating ice cliff of the Barne Glacier, on the western slopes of Mt Erebus in Antarctica. Until the arrival of all terrain vehicles, dogs were second-to-none for exploring and transporting goods on Antarctic terrain.
A dog team takes a rest from pulling a heavy load beneath the terminating ice cliff of the Barne Glacier, on the western slopes of Mt Erebus in Antarctica. Until the arrival of all terrain vehicles, dogs were second-to-none for exploring and transporting goods on Antarctic terrain.

The first time that huskies came to this country was during the 1928–30 South Pole expedition led by Admiral Richard Byrd. The expedition ship had anchored in Port Chalmers, near Dunedin, and the dogs were housed on the nearby Quarantine Island. The chief dog handler, Norman Vaughan, had the unenviable task of providing enough dog tucker for the duration of the trip. Work­ing to a shoestring budget, he sought help and secured sponsorship from several Dunedin businesses, including the Hudson Brothers’ chocolate factory (now part of the Cadbury empire). In his memoir, With Byrd at the Bottom of the World, Vaughan wrote: “For eleven hours a night, twenty-five straight nights, I mixed fish meal, meat meal, beef tallow, wheat germ, molasses and cod liver oil. Next I moulded the mixture into meat cakes that looked like bricks.” Then he had to clean the work space and the mix­ing vats so that the day-shift workers could go about their business of making chocolate. There are no references as to what that chocolate tasted like during this period.

The longest chapter in New Zealand husky history came in 1957 when, fresh from success on Mt Everest, young Ed Hillary was put in charge of our end of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Huskies were the obvious choice of transport for the surveying tasks and construction of Scott Base that preceded the crossing.

But early efforts at mushing were fraught with failure and frustration, involving a motley crowd of disparate dogs and inexperienced handlers. The mountaineer Har­ry Ayers was sent to acquire 28 dogs from Mawson Sta­tion, where he was given a crash course in dog handling by the Australians—who were only just learning them­selves. Twelve random Greenland huskies were added to the team, then another 15 huskies from Auckland Zoo. the dogs went into a training camp on Tasman Glacier at Mt Cook (where Husky Flat still exists) before arriving at Scott Base in January 1957.

In the end, Hillary opted for converted Ferguson trac­tors as the main means of transport to the pole, though the dogs played a peripheral role in the expedition. Over the next two years, it became increasingly clear that the zoo dogs were unsuitable for Antarctic conditions. They not only lacked the stamina and the discipline, but also the true sled-dog spirit. Accidents, illnesses and weak or chronically disobedient dogs meant that many were lost.

Sleds vary according to terrain—in this case a car chassis (above) is drawn by huskies at Mt Cook.

It was at this point that a young British explorer, Walter (later Sir Wally) Herbert, was hired to select and train a new team of 12 dogs. Herbert had already sledded some 5000 km around the Antarctic Peninsula and he was about to further his experience with Green­land Inuits. He picked his dogs from among the best of their huskies—the oldest and the least-diluted sled-dog bloodlines, far closer to timber wolves than to domesti­cated canines. The true husky spirit was evident among Herbert’s dirty dozen right from the start. He was bitten three times before asserting himself as the pack leader and finding his way into the dogs’ hearts by feeding them copious amounts of fish, which they loved. The gambit worked. By the time Herbert had completed his second season at Scott Base, the population of New Zealand huskies had risen to 66 and their performance in the field had improved dramatically.

Herbert was to go on to become one of the most impor­tant polar explorers, his feats equalling those of Amundsen and Shackleton. In 1968–69, he led the 6000 km British Trans-Arctic Expedition, from Alaska to Spitsbergen, which was heralded as the “last great journey on Earth”. In the process, he de-throned Robert Peary to become the first man to reach the North Pole on foot. (Peary had falsi­fied his records and did not, in fact, get to the Pole.)

The early sixties were the heydays of dog sledding in Antarctica, with mapping expeditions logging up to 2500 km of dog travel in a single outing. Ray Logie, now retired and living in Clyde, was there at the time, first as an electrician, then as deputy base leader. He over-wintered at Scott Base with Herbert and they became such good mates that Herbert later named a glacier after him.

“There were still plenty of blank areas on maps and so we routinely went out into the field to survey,” he recalls. “Dogs provided the horsepower for that but even then we were asked to test some of the early Polaris motor tobog­gans that would eventually replace the dog teams.”

On one such trip with two dog teams and two snow­mobiles, it was Logie’s job to compare the performance of the two. His verdict? “Maybe I was a little biased, but when the going was good and smooth, the Polaris was superior, certainly faster,” he said. “But when we hit rough ground—sastrugi and pressure ridges—the tin dogs were no match for the furry ones. And, well, if all else failed, there wasn’t much on the Polaris that you could eat.”

Fortunately, it never came to that, though it was the eating habits of the dogs, or rather their diet, that came in for criticism. In their first year on the ice, New Zea­land huskies ate 350 Weddell seals, slaughtered for the purpose. Subsequently, in response to the outcry from conservationists, the quota was lowered to 52 seals a year, providing the huskies with no more than a weekly treat. By contrast, the Brits fed their huskies on penguins—one Adélie per dog per day.

Sir Edmund Hillary kept New Zealand’s Antarctic mission in the public eye with tours and appearances, here showing husky pups to Dunedin children in 1956 (top). Aesthetics sometimes came second to necessity when unloading dogs from HMNZS Endeavour (bottom).

The treatment and the living standards of the Scott Base huskies also came under fire from lobbyists against cruelty to animals. The dogs lived outside, summer and winter, sunshine and blizzard, and their lifespan was thought to be only around eight or nine years. “You’d go out after a storm and you’d not see any dogs, only a string of snow mounds,” Logie recalls. “You’d give the first one a prod with your foot and, like in a domino effect, the mounds would explode in sequence as the dogs sprang out from underneath.

“You wouldn’t think of bringing a polar bear or a seal inside because you thought it was getting too cold for them out there. Same with Greenland huskies—they’re essentially wild creatures used and controlled by man.

“You should have seen some of the brawls they had! We had a rule never to break up a dog fight with bare hands, or you were sure to lose them, or need them stitched. They were big brutes, 120 lbs [54 kg] a piece, and there were no niceties in the way they dealt with each other. So we, the drivers, had to be the top dogs or they would not respect us at all.

“They were certainly working dogs, not pets, and we treated them as such. But our work and survival depended on their well-being. You understand that when you’re in the middle of icy nowhere, and it’s minus 50, and they’re wagging their tails at you.”

Those tail wags, and the dog-supported expeditions, came to an end when the 1991 Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic banned all introduced species (except humans) from the continent, and specifically called for the removal of all husky dogs by April 1994. The Brits held out the longest, taking their dogs off the ice in 1993. The last of the New Zealand dogs were removed from Scott Base in February 1987. They found a new home in the kennels of polar explorer Will Steger in Minnesota and went on to take part in several of his ventures beyond the Arctic Circle, living the lives of true sled dogs until the end of their days.

The Antarctic era of huskies came to a close, but by then the seeds of passion for running sled dogs had grown roots on New Zealand’s mainland. Today there are clubs, races and social gatherings held regularly on both islands. Most of the runs take place on forest trails—in plantations like Sandy Point near Invercargill or the backroads of the Kai­manawas—and the dogs pull wheeled sleds, tricycles, even modified mountain bikes. Once or twice a year (or more often if they happen to live nearby) the mushers take their dogs on a pilgrimage to Snow Farm. There, in the pre­dawn half-light, the humans and the beasts lose themselves in the particular form of symbiosis that is dog mushing.

[Chapter Break]

The centrepiece of Tony Turner’s home in Athol, Southland, is a wooden cabinet with three rimu caskets, each containing the ashes of a dog that is no longer with him. Vignette portraits of the three Malamutes adorn the caskets, and so do the dogs’ names: Timitu, Ploddy and Badger. If you think this sentimental, know that this practice is not uncommon among mushers. Such is the bond between the human and the dog, forged through the experience of overcoming dangers together and shared solitude in hours of training. Some long-distance mushers—surely among the hardiest souls on the planet—have been known to carry the ashes of their dogs the length of the world’s most gruelling races (such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest), just to take their favourite dogs for one last run.

Fittingly, the rest of Turner’s house is a virtual mu­seum of mushing, decorated not so much with furniture but with pictures of dog races, old snow shoes, sleds and harnesses, all presided over by a larger-than-life portrait of a timber wolf. Turner’s lifetime dream was to become a dog handler at Scott Base, but alas he was born too late for that. Instead, he did the next best thing, travelling to per­fect his mushing in Alaska, where he worked for a season in the kennels of one of the Iditarod competitors. On the way back, he visited the offspring of the New Zealand and Australian Antarctic huskies which now run sleds in the winter woodlands of Minnesota. And, like Herbert from Greenland, he also returned with a dozen dogs the likes of which had not been seen here before. This was his way of introducing New Zealanders to the joys of having and running Alaskan huskies.

“Alaskan huskies are not really a breed but a type of dog defined by its purpose, not the ancestry—the way a Border Collie is a breed and a sheepdog a type,” he said. “Their genetics carry the best of sled-dog traits and they had all the nonsense bred out of them. Alaskans just love to run and pull, and rarely get distracted from that. They won’t wrap you and your sled around a tree, like the Mals [Malamutes] would if a possum or rabbit crosses in front of them. They are people-friendly too, which is important considering we don’t live in Arctic wilderness.”

In the true mushing tradition, Turner’s dogs are his life. “They cost me a marriage, and they keep me poor,” he says, “but they always give back more than you give them. By these standards, I have been a rich and fortu­nate man.

“When you see them streaking out in a line, feel the cold wind in your face and hear the sled runners planing on snow, you are at once a part of the pack, its leader and caretaker, and you know the pure unconditional happiness of doing what you were all born to do.”

[Chapter Break]

One frosty July morning, I sampled this happiness when, in snow Farm’s carpark, we hooked up Turner’s 11 Alaskan huskies to a wooden sled. Hama, the last of his Malamutes, too old to run and living out his days as the pack’s patriarch, howled a mournful protest at being left behind as we man-handled the dogs and the sled around a hairpin bend, then both leapt on and let the dogs take it away.

I did not dare try driving such a large team. Mushing requires much practice and care—the slightest slacken­ing of the tug-lines over the frequent ups and downs can result in Gordian-knot tangles and injuries to the dogs. Instead, I settled in the sled cargo hold and let Turner deal with steering and speed control.

Complete or partial heterochromia, where one eye is ice-blue and the other brown, or where one iris is both blue and brown, is not uncommon among the Siberian huskies.
Complete or partial heterochromia, where one eye is ice-blue and the other brown, or where one iris is both blue and brown, is not uncommon among the Siberian huskies.

After the initial burst of acceleration, the team settled into an easy gait, the lines taut, tongues lolling, the face of each dog trailing a comet-tail of steam. Turner leaned into corners, calling out directions—Gee for left, Haw for right—and, when necessary, slowing the sled down with a touch on the drag mat. We streaked up and down and around corners like an organism with many legs but one mind, one purpose.

On a particularly long and steep uphill, Turner stopped the team with a soft “Have a rest, kids.”

“You’ve gotta give them a spell before they get too demoralised by the climb,” he explained. The dogs panted hard and greedily bit and swallowed chunks of snow. Then, after only a couple of minutes, Turner called out to them again: “Okay kids, let’s go.”

The dogs took off like sprinters from starting blocks and the sled shot forward with such a lunge I had to clutch a hand to my chest, lest I lost the precious bundle I carried there. The bundle, furry and warm in my anorak, was equally eager to join in the commotion, but at only eight weeks old she was safest where she was. I let the black-and-tan face poke out of the pocket and saw that her brown, beady eyes were taking in the world with unbridled curiosity.

It was not a husky but a puppy Airedale. Though I didn’t want to believe it at first, Turner and other dog-people had demonstrated that the only way to get over the loss of a close companion like Mops was to mourn her with passion, and get another dog. I called the pup Maya and, knowing Airedales, I doubt she’d ever have any inclination to pull a sled. But I’m sure there are many calls of the wild and the not-so-wild that we shall answer together, of snow and mountains, rivers and forests. I look forward to that already because, as a fellow dog-lover wrote, no one seeking to live a full life should have to face it without a dog.