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Bookmonger: Author shines light on historic sledge dogs

Dear readers: for a coincidence that may well raise goosebumps, read on

Last week, on a day when the mercury reached an all-time high for the date, I began reading “Harnessed to the Pole,” thinking that a book about 19th century explorers to the Arctic, and the dogs that accompanied them, might cool my fevered brow. The book, by Bellingham author (and former Alaska resident) Sheila Nickerson, recounts the stark true stories of men who risked all, and often lost all, to venture into the most brutal environment on the planet.

But the focus is just as squarely on the dogs that were used as beasts of burden on these expeditions as well as hunting accomplices and, when times got tough, as “meat on the paw” themselves.

Nickerson skips over any context-setting introduction for this book in favor of a quirky first chapter that caroms between and links a range of topics including Frankenstein, Jules Verne, and the doomed 1845 expedition of British explorer John Franklin.

She tells how, after a couple of years, when it became apparent that Franklin and his ships and men must have come to a bad end while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, his wife Lady Franklin bankrolled several expeditions to see if her husband might be retrieved.

None of these journeys was successful in finding her husband, and much more loss of life was incurred in the searching. But one positive outcome of this tremendous expenditure of cash and lives was the discovery and mapping of significant stretches of the Arctic.

Nickerson’s focus is on the American expeditions to the Arctic that took place between 1853 and 1909. Working from old journals and letters as well as secondary sources, she describes both the human heroics and the parallel sacrifices made by the expeditions’ canine companions. The exploits of Toodla and Whitey, Barbekark, Smarty, Toekelegeto, Ublubliaq, Nalegaksoah, and others feature prominently in these tales of the Far North.

These were harsh conditions and violent and desperate times, leavened only occasionally with hilarity and even less frequently with kindness. Nickerson’s writing is informative and graceful for the most part – there are just a few passages that could use further explication. But it is the subject matter that makes this book difficult to read, at least for the faint of heart.

“Harnessed to the Pole” (University of Alaska Press – 320 pp - $24.95) is generously illustrated with photos, maps and glorious old engravings from books that were published a century ago.

As for the coincidence I mentioned at the beginning of this review?

A few days after I read the book, on the evening that I sat down to write this review, a headline popped up on my computer. A report filed just hours earlier told of news out of the Far North: the announcement that one of the ships from Franklin’s fabled “lost expedition” – the enterprise that had done so much to fuel the imaginations of so many adventurers and spur further Arctic exploration – had been located after 160 years.

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