Stranded in the Arctic without God, I renewed my faith in dog
When it comes to scary travel moments, losing your huskies in the Arctic takes some beating. Step forward man's best friend
It’s often said that, faced with the prospect of our imminent demise, we all become believers. We get down on our knees – if there’s space in the basket of the hot-air balloon, say, as it zips rapidly earthward – and call out to our creator to forgive our various trespasses (probably too many to list at that precise moment) and intervene.
We ask him to send a speedy rescuing angel and – as it were – pump that balloon back up.
But it’s not true. We don’t always turn to God. At least not in my experience – and I’m someone who has almost died quite a lot. For one thing, these occasions tend to be rather hectic. You’re busy doing other things. For example, I remember one morning being pursued by gunmen belonging to Pablo Escobar – don’t ask – and frankly I was simply too occupied paddling to safety up my jungle creek (the bullets streaming by) to turn my thoughts to heaven.
Of course, in a sense it’s my job as an unapologetically “old school” type of explorer – no satellite phone for me, thanks! – to get myself out of trouble as well as get into it. And in these unhappy circumstances your training kicks in. Besides, being British, one tries not to panic.
So, what about the slower, more lingering fate? You are up a tree, and there’s a crocodile hanging around expectantly at the bottom. Or you’re riding across the majestic steppe-lands of Asia and sadly go down with bubonic plague – harboured by the otherwise delightful burrowing creatures called marmots that frequent the place. Or, say, you’re in a white-out, separated from your dog team while crossing the Bering Strait.
The latter was my icy predicament somewhere between Russia and Alaska 17 years ago, and out there in the Arctic it takes time to die. Unless, it goes without saying, you meet a polar bear – always a short contest – or fall through the ice, in which case you get between 30 seconds and two minutes, if your heart holds out. But say you haven’t yet fallen through that ice or met the bear and instead you’re pacing back and forward – your stove has also failed, it’s getting dark and you must fend off frostbite.
Yet somewhere out there in that lonely night there is hope – and here I’m not talking about God. Because also on this maze of floating ice, perhaps only 200m away, are your 10 dogs. They are tethered to your 300kg sledge, the supplies that you need to survive. More to the point, these dogs are no longer regarded by you as mere working animals, a bunch of huskies with the task of lugging your provisions. They are more like friends – at the very least they’re professional colleagues. They are dependent on you. You must not give up on them.
I remember the pain of the cold all too clearly – but more so the pain of letting down my dog team. This was the first and last chance of recording a traditional-style crossing of a frozen Bering Strait (cf global warming) but now I was alone out there on the ice with my hopes and my steadily accumulating fears. I didn’t have much of a religious faith, and nor did I think that this was a suitable time to start exploring it, let alone trusting myself to the possibility of the Almighty sending a rescue party. Yet that long night, tramping up and down, trying to resist the temptation to curl up, it seemed to me that I formed a silent pact with my dog companions – and this was in many ways not so different from a prayer.
If I were somehow allowed to find them, this pact went, then I’d abandon my ambition to cross to America. I would turn around and take us all to safety. My prayer was answered. At first light I renewed my search, and finally did locate my dogs. All 10 of them were dutifully waiting. They looked up, they smiled with their eyes, the way dogs smile. I hugged them in turn, they nuzzled me and then we had a feast – raw walrus for them, and, worst luck, also raw walrus for me. It smelled of rotted fish.
But no matter: We were reunited. I kept my side of the bargain, together we turned for home and a few days later were safe; and, of course, I was thankful. But to whom?
I’ll never quite forget the faces of my dogs when I first found them: That unshakeable faith. They had never stopped believing in their erratic god – yours truly.
– © The Daily Telegraph