Out of Antarctica, Or `Huskies Come Home'

50 years after their forebears arrived there, the last group of sled dogs leaves the South Pole

WITH yet another fresh snowfall in one of New England's snowiest winters ever, it seemed only fitting that Tommy, Pris, Jake, and the rest of the cold-weather canine gang passed through town on their way ``home.''

Their ancestral home, that is, among the Inuit people of northern Quebec. That's where the forebears of these 13 Canadian Eskimo Huskies lived before the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) bought them some 50 years ago and moved them to Antarctica to be work animals for BAS scientists stationed there.

Today, the descendants are being repatriated through the ``Home for the Huskies'' expedition that stopped Thursday for a press conference at Timberland Company headquarters here.

Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty Environmental Protocol, all nonindigenous animals in Antarctica must be removed by next month. The eight males and five females - the last international dog team to be removed - are considered threatening to the fragile ecology. The provision is a precautionary measure to ensure that indigenous animals, especially the seal population, are not contaminated by visitor species, says John Sweeney, an Antarctic glaciologist, polar guide, and expedition member.

But Mr. Sweeney says the concerns about the seals' welfare are misplaced: ``Our dogs are infection-free. It's a symptom of how far removed these large decisionmaking bodies - environmentalists and pressure groups from North America and Europe - are from Antarctica.''

As expedition members explain, the voyage north is a ``bittersweet'' one. It marks the end of the historic, post-Admiral-Byrd era for this ``Clydesdale of huskies'' on the little-understood continent, says expedition member Liane Benoit. Personally, it is a huge loss for the scientists, who have come to depend on and love these animals in their research and their play.

``It is a very sad day for us,'' Sweeney says. ``They were a big part of the BAS family. But our loss is the Inuit's gain. The good news is that [the Inuit] are getting back these dogs so they can get back their culture.''

The Inuit have experienced a significant erosion of their traditional way of life - through introduction in the 1950s of the snowmobile for transportation and hunting, forced relocation of families to the high Arctic by the Canadian government in 1953, and more recently, Quebec's development of hydroelectric resources, Sweeney says. The situation was compounded by the extermination, for various reasons, of most huskies in the late 1950s and '60s, and the crossbreeding of survivors with domestic breeds.

The repatriation of the dogs will give the Inuit a unique opportunity to rekindle ancient customs and increase their income through cultural tourism and dog sledding. Adamie Inukpuk, a high school teacher in the village of Inukjuak, will adopt the dogs and teach his pupils how to hunt with them, guide, and mush. The dogs will be bred in a carefully monitored program.

It will be a very different life for the huskies. In Antarctica, dog teams were put to work in the winter pulling loads as heavy as 400 pounds for scientific surveys. They were also used for sledding and pulling all-terrain vehicles for fun.

The dogs' population peaked at about 400 in the late 1950s. But with the invention of the snowmobile and more planes being used, their usefulness waned. Nevertheless, about 20 were kept. ``A snowmobile won't sniff out caribou, help keep you warm at night, or take you over thin ice,'' Ms. Benoit explains.

Sweeney adds: ``Snowmobiles and aircraft are less time-consuming. But in bad weather, dogs are better. It's a personal relationship between me and my dogs.''

Ed Moody, a member of Adm. Richard Byrd's second Antarctic expedition from 1933 to 1935, came down from Rochester, N.H., to have a look at the dogs. ``I'm so happy to see them, because they're like the dogs I used'' in Antarctica and in Greenland where he served in the Air Force's search/rescue squadron from 1945 to 1947, he says.

The idea for Home for the Huskies came from Kevin Slater, an expedition member and co-founder of a guide service in Newry, Maine. After learning that the Antarctic dogs had to be removed, he and guide partner Polly Mahoney began looking for a home among Inuit villages near where they lead canoeing and dog-sledding trips. Just over a year later, a village was found and approved by BAS chief John Hall.

``I thought it would be nice to give something back to the Inuit,'' Mr. Slater says. ``White men write the history books, so they get the credit. But no white man would have made it to either pole without Inuit dogs and animal-skin clothing; and to the North Pole without Inuit guides from Greenland.''

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