Among the penguins

When folk visit my home, especially children, they often make a comment about the penguin souvenirs or pictures we have scattered around. Even the screen saver on this computer. The answer is always simple in that I became fascinated with the Adelie penguin after visiting Antarctica. It is hard not to be and most of the penguins of the craft variety date back to when our own children were growing and we developed a family passion for the little guys I’d had the good fortunate to see, hear and smell in their natural habitat.

When I returned home from my sojourn on the ice I brought with me beach towels featuring a very large penguin motif. These were favorites with our daughters. Who else had such a towel, at the beach or at the pool? They lasted a good many years before being reduced to car cleaning cloths.

Before going south, the only penguins we had seen were the Little Blue Penguins which frequented  beaches in New Zealand. There were always some around the offshore islands at our home city and occasionally they would find their ashore at night.

It was some weeks into my Antarctic adventure before I got up close and personal with the Adelie penguin, the iconic tuxedo clad fellow we are probably most familiar with, thanks to cartoonists around the world. My initial encounter came while on a field trip across the sea ice from Scott Base on Ross Island to Cape Evans, the site of Scott’s last expedition winter-over quarters.

We were happily trundling along in a SnoTrac when we came across a quintet tobogganing their way along the ice. They weren’t greatly fussed about us and in all likelihood had never seen a human before. I was ecstatic.  You could see their little pink clawed feet going nineteen to the dozen driving them forward at great speed. They stopped, stood up and proceeded to waddle on their way completely unconcerned about clicking cameras.

Adelie penguins at the Cape Royds rookery

A  few weeks later I had the good fortune to visit the Adelie rookery at Cape Royds, further up the Ross Island coast from Evans, and the location of Shackleton’s 1907 expedition. Wow! There were thousands around this little bay. It was nesting time and by just standing there the curious fellows came right up to me. Some  just looked longingly up at me and allowed me to “stroke” their head while another would come up and batter me round the legs with his wings. They sure were wonderful to watch. I was fascinated with their  game of pinching a stone from a nearby nest  and scurrying back to deposit the stone in their own nest.

There are only 17  different penguins in the world and all of them live in the southern hemisphere. The northernmost is the Galapagos Island penguin. Cartoonists would have us believe there are penguins in the Arctic. Sorry, the last time I looked Santa does not have any living with him at the North Pole.

(a continuing story)

Perspective from a tent

When  I started on this book writing adventure  it was really at the urging of my granddaughter Veronica coupled with a lifetime of  encouragement by Lois and our daughters. Apart from referring to the five month Antarctic adventure from time to time , it was one of those life events that was put in the “been there, done that” drawer.

I often wondered what sort of a story I had to tell and with the technology now available to me I figured that perhaps I could put a simple book together  using  mainly pictures and captions. This would be a story for the kids.

Things started that way but the whole project slowly took on a life of it’s own. When I exchanged a couple of chapters to a writing conference I attended as part of a cruise to Alaska, I received impartial  encouragement and an insistence that I should complete the book for  possibly a wider audience.

The conference was neat in that I was able to combine two, let’s say three, loves:  a cruise up the inside passage from Vancouver, Canada, to Alaskan ports, time out to get back to writing, and  a great adventure with my wife Lois

Today, somewhere around half way through the book, I have the opposite problem  in that its no longer a case of  what to include, but what to exclude. Ratting around in my boxes of stuff  these past few months has uncovered a heap of material to assess from notebooks, diary notes, news clippings, letters and photographs.

“Make sure it is your story,” is the repeated advice from one of my writing mentors. Her words are always in my head as I sit at the keyboard and allow the words to flow through my fingers to the screen.

These same words came from another direction this morning as I sat in church and listened to our pastor’s message. “Tell your story…”

Five months of an Antarctic adventure was the start of something deep down inside of me. For it was there that I first encountered the presence of something far bigger than anything I could imagine. It was there that I firmly placed my life and the future of my family in the hands of a God whom I did not know.  I lay in my sleeping bag in a tent on a glacier miles from anywhere and in the gasping moments between life and death made a plea to God for the care of my wife and daughters far, far away in New Zealand.

That “almost” from  carbon monoxide poisoning started a journey I live today celebrating  42 years since then of being on life’s deranged pathways.  Life is not a mathematical process, and I am happy with that, taking on each day as it comes, the mistakes and failings, the triumphs and victories and everything in between.

Now, back to the book….

(a continuing story)

An Antarctic husky

I was thumbing through some of my 1969 news releases and came across a short piece I wrote about Toby, a six-year-old Scott Base husky who died February 6 at the US Navy’s sick bay at McMurdo. In our time  on the ice we’d all pretty well grown to love the dogs we had there even though their major use in our year was recreational. The visiting film crews also loved them and would shoot hundreds of feet of film as the dog handlers put them through their paces.


Toby was a favorite but we had to call in the McMurdo medical officer Lieutenant-Comander Roger Case about 7.30pm to see if anything could be done for Toby who was in great pain. The dog had a great ambulance ride back to the sick bay. He was dosed with pain killers and given xrays.  In spite of the attention he got, Toby died around 2 am from a ruptured bowel and severe peritonitis.

Earlier we’d received a report of a dog wandering in the pressure ridges not far from our dog lines. Dog handler Noel Wilson went and rescued Toby. “That’s the first time he has ever slipped his collar, Noel said. “He must have known…”

Toby was frozen and  sent to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch for a future life posing in the Hall of Antarctica.

I did not have a great deal to do with the dogs but it was enough to give me the opportunity to race a team in the 1972 Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous  in Whitehorse, Canada. I was editor of the Whitehorse Star at the time and owner Bob Erlam had a dog team. It kinda went with the territory. I became his dog handler and when not working on newspaper stuff I was out running the dogs. We entered the rendezvous event, a gruelling race over 15 miles each day for three days. Seemed like fun to me as we worked the team and myself to competition level during the winter. Come spring we were ready and Bob put a lot of effort into getting a smart lightweight race sled to replace our training sled. The first day was great. We ran well and finished in the middle of the pack of 28 starters. Not bad for a New Zealander. Race favorite Wilfred Charlie of Old Crow, Yukon, and a good friend of Bobs broke his sled. We gave him our racing sled so he could continue and I returned to running the training sled. Second day was freezing. We started in a -33C temperature with a  big wind which allowed the CBC to broadcast wind chill at something like -90C. Yep, it was cold. We ran hard and as fast as we could. and again finished in the middle of the pack.

A cold second day finish in the 1972 Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous

A good race but boy was I cold. My feet were blocks of ice and it took something like a couple of hours to thaw them out. It warmed for the third and final day and we had a good run though I had to bring one of the dogs home riding in the sled, a good photo op for the television boys. I think I finished about 14th on the aggregate and was thrilled. Wilfred Charlie won to great cheers all round.

(a continuing story)