Bellingham author explores history of sledge dogs in early Arctic explorations

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 9, 2014 

Sheila Nickerson

Sheila Nickerson, a former poet laureate of Alaska, shares her newest book, "Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic 1853-1909," at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 10, 2014 at Village Books.

SHEILA NICKERSON — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Sheila Nickerson, a former poet laureate of Alaska, shares her newest book, "Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic 1853-1909," at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 10, at Village Books.

Starting with Eliza Kent Kane in 1853 and ending with Robert Peary in 1909, "Harnessed to the Pole" is a study of the 19th-century sledge dogs that led American explorers to the North Pole.

Nickerson says in her book, "Sledge is the traditional term of a sled that hauls heavy loads or freight. Sled is the modern term, connoting a design built for lighter use."

In addition to writing nonfiction, Nickerson started writing poetry seriously in her early 20s, and worked hard to have her poems published.

"At one point, I said to myself that I would try 50 times," she says. "If I did not get an acceptance after 50 tries, I would give up. With the 50th response, I got an acceptance."

Nickerson was a judge for the 2014 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest in Bellingham.

Here's more about how her new book.

Question: What sparked your interest in the history of sledge dogs?

Answer: In 1845, Sir John Franklin disappeared with his crew of 128 men and two ships in the eastern Arctic. The epic search for his lost expedition focused interest on one of the world's harshest areas and challenged many seekers to enter its icy grip.

As hope for Franklin eventually waned, attention turned to the mysterious North Pole. Eight American explorers set their sights on it and eventually succeeded, but only because they made use of Inuit dogs, the "little camels of the north."

I came to the subject after extensive research for two earlier books dealing with the Arctic and the Franklin Expedition: "Disappearance: A Map" and "Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition."

As I studied the writings of the American explorers, I became aware of references to dogs. Having always felt a close affinity to dogs, I wanted to know more about these valiant animals. Digging deeper, I found a record both faint and poignant that tells their story.

This story has never been told and deserves to be heard now, especially since military working dogs are gaining national attention and dogs in general are being cited for their many remarkable abilities and forms of service.

Like the Sherpas of the Himalayas, the Inuit sledge dogs need to be named and recognized for their critical role. Without them, there would have been no American success in the race for the pole.

Q: What was your research process for the book?

A: I traveled to libraries and museums from Groton, Conn., to Provo, Utah, searched out rare 19th-century books, manuscripts, letters and documents, read many pages of old newspapers (most on microfiche), and generally immersed myself in the history of 19th-century American exploration of the Arctic.

With time, relevant material becomes increasingly available on the Internet, but there was little when I started on this book about 10 years ago. Of course, in the meantime, I was working on other manuscripts simultaneously, both poetry and prose.

Q: What was surprising to you as you conducted your research?

A: The most surprising thing I found out is that significant information can come from unexpected sources. At one point, at a small research center, an employee moved a bookcase and out fell letters lost for years that were extremely helpful to me.

I also learned how transitory the written record is. Ink fades and paper crumbles. No matter how careful you are, you do damage to what you touch.

Once, at the Smithsonian, as I went through the collection of Charles Francis Hall, a fragile pressed flower fell from a folded paper. With time, these records will have disappeared.

Q: The treatment of the sledge dogs seemed to vary from the owners feeling empathy for the dogs, and using them until they dropped (literally). Why was this?

A: As we look back today, the 19th-century sledge dogs, pulling thousands of pounds through inconceivably difficult circumstances while being starved and beaten, were treated cruelly. But we are looking with our 21st-century eyes.

Before global warming and the melting of the polar ice, the Arctic was an even fiercer place than today, and almost the only communication was by means of dog sledge. To live there was to fight constantly for survival, and nothing mattered but survival of the tribe (often just a handful of people).

Often there was no food - except the dogs. Often, if a group could not get to their hunting grounds, all would perish. The dogs had to do what had to be done.

What the Americans discovered, early on, is that the better the dogs were treated, the better they performed.

Q: What did you do as poet laureate of Alaska, and what brought you to Bellingham?

A: As Alaska Poet Laureate and as writer-in-residence to the Alaska State Library, I traveled the state promoting poetry, giving workshops in prisons, senior centers, libraries, schools, gymnasiums, and the occasional pool hall, wherever space might be found. I lived in Juneau for 27 years.

When my husband and I retired from our jobs with the State of Alaska (mine was with Fish and Game), we decided to move to Bellingham, because we liked it.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I'm always in pursuit of the perfect poem, but am working on a number of prose manuscripts as well, and walking our dog Charm.

FREE AUTHOR READING

What: Shelia Nickerson reads from her book, "Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic 1853-1909."

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 10.

Where: Village Books, 1200 11th St., Bellingham.

Details: 360-671-2626.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com.

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