Braving Antarctica, 64 Years Later

Norman Vaughan to lead last dog team on continent

TEN minutes after Admiral Richard Byrd arrived by ship at the Ross Ice Barrier in Antarctica in late 1928, he turned to a young Norman Vaughan and said, "Vaughan, hitch up a team. You're going with me." The goal was to find a place for Little America, the legendary base camp for Byrd's exploration.

Mr. Vaughan, eager beyond words as a young adventurer, hitched up a dog sled team. He became the first American ever to drive a dog sled team in the Antarctic.

Today, 64 years later, the extraordinary Vaughan, now a mere 87 with no change in his sense of adventure, will dog sled again into the Antarctic as the leader of the Mount Vaughan Antarctic Expedition.

"This will be the last dog team allowed in," says Vaughan of the $1.1 million expedition scheduled to begin in November of 1993, "and I'm so eager to do it I can hardly wait." A new treaty signed by the countries engaged in antarctic exploration calls for the removal of all dogs by April 1994 to prevent the possibility of canine disease being introduced to indigenous wildlife.

During the expedition, Vaughan and his 50-year-old wife, Carolyn, will attempt to climb "his" antarctic mountain, the 10,302-foot Mt. Vaughan, named in his honor for the contributions he made to the Byrd expedition in 1929.

In a unique telecommunications network coordinated by the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., millions of schools will receive direct reports from the expedition.

"The kids will share the scientific studies we will be doing," says Vaughan, who sees the expedition as primarily educational. "In the future some of them may be the ones who will have to review the antarctic treaty. Our trip could be the beginning of their appreciation for the antarctic environment."

Vaughan, a robust role model for anyone, over or under 80, has completed the 1,500-mile Iditarod race in Alaska six times. His wife has competed in the race three times. "I say of armchairs, throw them away," he says, his voice booming during a Monitor interview the day before the expedition was announced at the Museum of Science here. "Be active all your life," he says, in what may be an iceberg-sized understatement.

His list of accomplishments and adventures are jaw-dropping: During World War II, Vaughan eventually became the head of United States Search and Rescue for the North Atlantic. He commanded dozens of drivers and 425 dogs on various rescue missions. In 1942 he found six American P-38 planes and two B-17 bombers that had crashed during a blizzard in the Greenland Ice Sheet. During the Battle of the Bulge he led a rescue effort that involved about 200 dogs.

In the 1932 Olympics, the only year in which dog sledding was a demonstration sport, Vaughan finished 10th. He has brought dog sled teams to three presidential inaugural parades, and when Pope John II visited Alaska in 1981, Vaughan taught him how to drive a dog sled team. In 1968 Vaughan drove a snowmobile from his Alaska log cabin to Boston, a distance of 5,700 miles.

Vaughan's book about his expedition with Admiral Byrd in 1928-1929, "With Byrd at the Bottom of the World," was published in 1990.

"It sold pretty well in Alaska," he says, recalling details of the expedition, "but not so well anywhere else. It's probably because I waited 63 years to write it," he says with a laugh.

"All this started when I knocked on Admiral Byrd's door in Boston," says Vaughan, who was an unenthusiastic Harvard student at the time. Previously he had worked with dogs in Newfoundland. "But the maid wouldn't let me in," he says. "I had seen a banner headline in a Boston newspaper, `BYRD TO THE SOUTH POLE,' and I knew I had to go."

Eventually Byrd agreed that Vaughan could work with the trainer of the sled dogs in New Hampshire for a year without pay. If Byrd liked what Vaughan had done, he could go on the expedition. Vaughan washed dishes, waited on tables at night, and slept in a rent-free gazebo in the middle of winter while he and two of his Harvard roommates worked with the dogs. A year later, Byrd invited the three of them on the expedition.

"Byrd was a military man," Vaughan says, "friendly but not common. He never asked anybody to do things he wouldn't do himself. I thought he was a great leader, but I looked at him with immature eyes, so perhaps today if I went with him I wouldn't have the same feelings. He was very much a hero, the kind of man that doesn't exist today."

Because Vaughan has worked with sled dogs for over 65 years, he has great love and affinity for their spirit and stamina. Comparing dogs with men, he says,"Good dogs are the ones that want to please their masters, and a good man is one who wants to please life by becoming better."

Vaughan says that 22 Eskimo huskies will pull two dog sleds on the expedition.

"I get butterflies thinking about all the things we have to do," he says as the detailed organization of the expedition begins. "We'll cover about 500 miles on skies, and the dogs will pull the supplies. It should take about 40 days."

The main sponsor of the expedition is Grand Circle Travel, a company specializing in travel for Americans over 60. After the expedition, Vaughan will board the cruise ship "Marco Polo," whose passengers will include some of the grandchildren of Admiral Byrd, Roald Amundsen, and Sir Robert Falcon Scott - all men who explored Antarctica around the turn of the century.

"The older I get," says Vaughan with characteristic humor, "I grow more familiar with the fact that I will have a long time to rest some day. I'm curious about everything, and it's hard for me to put anything aside. I like to know about other people's expertise, but I love nature the most.

"I can look out the window of my log cabin and see God in all his glory. And the dog team is just at the bottom of the hill, waiting to be fed so we can have another glorious ride through nature."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.