Saturday, 30 October 2010

Icebreakers, ice, sledge dogs and penguins.

United States Coast Guard Ice Breaker Burton Island 283. A ship with a proud history in the annals of modern  Polar Expeditions.  Photo: Bob McKerrow

"Let's take the dogs out for a run, and see if we can link up with the Coast Guard ice breaker," said Chris Knott. "What ice breaker ? " I replied. " I heard from an American yesterday that an ice breaker is  about 20 miles from McMurdo and should be here in a few days." This was November 1969 when Chris and I were at Scott Base in Antarctica. Chris was the dog handler and I was a science technician, and I used to run the second dog team for Chris. Here are a few photos and jottings.

We hitched up two teams of dogs, 12 on each team, and soon were speeding across the ice of McMurdo Sound and on our right the long finger of the Hut Point Peninsula with Castle Rock dominating, a good place to take a bearing off. The dogs were yelping with joy, having their first run for 5 days. Chris' team was pulling away from me, as I shouted to Mike and Kulak to pull harder.. We passed the winter quarters of Scott and then could see the Erebus Glacier Tongue in the distance, a good bearing en route to Cape Evans.

Mike and Kulak, Scott Base huskies. During the summer of 1969-70, they were the two best dogs on my team. Chris Knott used Rangi as his lead dog. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Chris Knott and his dog team were in front of me and I had to urge Kulak and Mike to pull harder, to catch up. Photo: Bob McKerrow

We glided across the sea ice, conscious of all that history of Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, Crean, David, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, Hillary, Bob Miller and all.......We had been travelling about 30 minutes, when we picked up an object on the horizon. It must be the Burton Island. The dogs got the scent of something, lifted their tails and pulled like Colin Meads with someone tugging his jersey. Having something on the horizon is what Antarctic huskies loved, as it gave them something to pull towards and they could pick up some smells of food. As we drew nearer we could make out the outline of a ship, and the sea ice was transmitting and amplifying the sound of the huge roaring engines of the ice breaker.

We put the sledge brakes on, slowed the dogs down and parked about 100 yards away. The dogs were in a frenzy. I walked round and gave them a little bit of 'how's your Father,' to quell the riot. Rangi licked my boots in an act of mock submission. By this time the crew had spotted us, the first sign of human life for some weeks. A bunch of icebreakermen thronged the rails and yelled at us, " Crazy Kiwi's" and invited us aboard. Not being able to resist, I shouted out, "Can we bring the dogs, and they drink only Jack Daniels?"

We  staked the dogs to the ice very firmly, and they stopped the ice breaker, so we could climb up a ladder.Once aboard in the fuggy lounge, the ship started breaking ice, a big push forward, ram the ice, make a gain of 20 to 30 yads, then everse back and start the big push forward again. This monotonous routine went on day in and out, and turned the men into zombies, anticipating the ram, when they broke in a quickstep routine, and grabbed something firm, to stop them being flung across the room.

We had a few Jack Daniels, some food, and then back to the dogs. In those days there were no rules about drinking and driving at Scott Base, so we untied the dogs and headed back to the Base, so pleased we were young, carefree Kiwis, and not Navy Icebreakermen. I suppose that was something I appreciated in the leadership at Scott Base in those days. Bruce Willis, would test us all, give us little by little, more responsibility. Woe and betide if you broke his trust: no dog trips, no perks and punishment only a school principal can mete out. It was a great summer for me, sledging with Chris Knott and the dogs, accompanying scientists on their field work, rock climbing at Castle Rock under the midnight sun, skiing on the old rope tow, accompanying field parties of drop offs to remote parts of Antarctica so I would know the terrain in case of rescue, and our scientific work at Scott Base. Only 21 and all that responsibility .Another memorable dog sledge trips was to Cape Evans and Cape Royds, where we saw the historic huts of Scott and Shackleton, the penguin colony. But, a little about the Burton Island.

USS Burton Island (AG-88) was a United States Navy Wind-class icebreaker that was later re-commissioned as a United States Coast Guard icebreaker, USCGC Burton Island.

Burton Island was laid down on 15 March 1946 at the San Pedro shipyard of the Western Pipe and Steel Company, launched on 30 April, and commissioned 28 December with the identifier AG-88. She was named after an island near the coast of Delaware.

On 17 January 1947, Burton Island, loaded with supplies, steamed from San Diego to Ross Sea, Antarctica where it met with units of TF 68 on the first Antarctic Development project, Operation Highjump. After returning from Antarctica, Burton Island departed 25 July 1947 for the Point Barrow expedition to Alaska. From April 1948 to December 1956, Burton Island participated in 19 Arctic and Alaskan cruises, including Operation Windmill. Duties on the cruises varied including, supply activities, helicopter reconnaissance of ice flows, scientific surveys, underwater demolition surveys, and convoy exercises. In March 1949, Burton Island was designated AGB-1.

Burton Island, Atka (AGB-3), and Glacier (AGB-4) pushing an iceberg out of the channel in the "Silent Land" near McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29 December 1965.

On 15 December 1966, the Navy transferred the vessel, along with all of its icebreakers, to the United States Coast Guard and it was renumbered WAGB-283. After its transfer, Burton Island was stationed at Long Beach, California and used for icebreaking operations. Starting in 1967 through 1978, Burton Island went on eight different Deep Freeze operations to the Antarctic. In the operations, Burton Island was responsible for creating and maintaining aids to navigation, clearing channels through the ice for supply vessels, and various other activities. In addition to Deep Freeze operations, Burton Island served as a floating platform for scientific surveys and research around Alaska and other isolated polar areas. Burton Island also conducted numerous SAR missions.

From October 1967 to April 1968 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '68. From October 1968 to April 1969 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '69. From November 1969 to April 1970 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '70 and her accompanying icebreaker was disabled. From November 1970 to April 1971 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '71 and again the accompanying icebreaker was disabled. From August to September 1971 she conducted an oceanographic survey along North Slope, Alaska. From February to March 1972 she conducted a scientific survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska. From November 1972 to April 1973 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '73. From June to July 1973 she conducted oceanographic research in Alaskan waters. From November 1974 to April 1975 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '75. From 13 November 1975 to 26 February 1976 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '76. From July to September 1976 she deployed to the Arctic. From 9 November 1976 to 7 April 1977 she participated in Operation Deep Freeze '77.

She was decommissioned on 9 May 1978. I was honoured be on this ice-breaker even if only for a hour or more as she rammed, ploughed and broke Antarctic ice.

Two of the best: Rangi (left) and Oscar (right) 1969 Scott Base. Photo: Bob McKerrow

After heated newspapers debates in January 1986 when the DSIR’s Antarctic Division announced they were pulling the huskies out of Antarctica, not a lot has been written about them since.  If you want to read more anout the New Zealand huskies in Antarctica, see this article I write:
In this article I attempt to give the full history of huskies that lived at Scott Base and played such a vital role in surveying and exploring the New Zealand sector of Antarctica.

I loved the different shapes of the ice and photographed the best. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Chris Knott looking down on the US McMurdo Base from Observation Hill. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Penguins at Cape Royds. Photos: Bob McKerrow

Shackelton's Hut at Cape Royd's that we visited by dog team. What a walk down memory lane. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Out with dogs. Chris Knott and I racing each other close to Scott Base. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Chris Knott, a master dog sledder, giving his dogs a talking too. He hardly ever took the pipe out of his mouth, but they understood every word he said. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The adventure wasn't over. After the summer at Scott Base in 1969-70, I moved to Vanda Station in late January 1970, where I wintered over. That's another story. If you are interested, here's the link:


Unknown said...

Hey Bob,

Great story, it sounds like a different world down there. Hope all is well in Sri Lanka,

Take care


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for your feedback. The only ice I see in Sri Lanka is in my whiskey glass.


Anonymous said...

Another ripping good yarn Bob.

The Glacier was a common sight in the Wellington dry dock (floating dock) in the 1960's and 70's, but thanks to the militant unions of the time, we no longer have a dry dock in Wellington.

Keep the powder dry mate.
Gary Lewis

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