Heritage From The Bottom Of The World

Gordon Macdonald can't remember a moment when he felt more isolated, more detached from the rest of the world than he ever did when he watched the helicopter lift into the air after dropping him and others in a remote location in Antarctica.

There are no indigenous people in the Antarctic and you definitely feel disconnected from all other people on the planet, said Macdonald, a partner in Cobble Hill's Macdonald & Lawrence Timber Framing Ltd.

There's a feeling when the helicopter leaves that you're very aware of the isolation.

Gord Macdonald, courtesy Mike D'Amour The Nimrod hut in the Antarctic, top, is being restored by a team that includes Gordon Macdonald, who pauses in his Cobble Hill shop after returning from the bottom of the world.

Macdonald recently finished his fourth tour as the lone Canadian with an international group tasked with preserving the Nimrod Hut, listed as one of the World Monuments Watch's 100 most endangered sites.

Teamed with a Brit, an Australian and three Kiwis, Macdonald's wood skills were put to good use on Shackleton's hut, one of four structures Macdonald is helping to restore.

Two of the huts were built by (Robert F.) Scott and one was built during the first British expedition to the Antarctic by a man named (Carsten Egeberg) Borchgrevink in 1898 Macdonald said.

But it was Shackleton - knighted a year later - who was the real draw for Macdonald.

I've always had an affinity for him and the stories that came from his expeditions, said the soft-spoken Macdonald

More him than the other fellows who came from the Heroic Age of exploration because the thing that distinguishes Shackleton from the others is his humanity, his openness with his own men.

In the early South Pole expeditions, crews lived in extremely cramped quarters.

But men like Scott always maintained a strict Royal Navy-type discipline in everything he did.

Shackleton was much more familiar with his guys, said Macdonald.

As an example, Macdonald said two-thirds of Scott's hut was dedicated to the officers and scientists. The remaining third was used by the other half of the expedition who weren't allowed to use the other two-thirds of the hut.

There was a physical barrier they weren't allowed to cross.

If the crew wanted to talk to Scott, they'd leave a written message in a can which he would collect once a day and then, through a subordinate, give them an appointment the following day if he wanted to hear what they had to say.

It really was based on the class structure of the day - there were officers and there were men, Macdonald said.

If you read the journals, all the officers and all the scientists have names, and the men are just 'the men.'

Conversely, Shackleton - also an Edwardian Brit - showed a special humanity for the people in his expeditions.

The most famous story, said Macdonald is when the South Pole was finally in his grasp, he turned back within a hundred miles because he knew the margin of safety had been reduced. He turned around to protect himself and his men.

Macdonald considers it an honour to work on the hut that housed the brave explorers.

The Nimrod hut was in a desperate state, he said.

The ice had accumulated underneath it and forced the joists up.

The hut is just shy of 600 square feet and housed 17 men during Shackleton's days there.

There were so many people in the building they'd have to lift the tables off the ground and close the doors to get the last cots out.

The hut is the only dark object on a blindingly bright landscape and it warms up faster than its snow-covered surroundings so as a result any snow which is against it melts into it. Then it refreezes and, over the years, ice has built up under the buildings, forcing the wood apart, splitting it.

But that's not all that damaged the hut - the landscape is made of volcanic material that's blown by 100 miles-per-hour winds that sandblast the shack.

It scours the spruce and Scott's pine wood and ruins it that way, said Macdonald.

The other big problem is the hut is in a marine environment and the salt attacks the wood and causes it to break down.

Now Macdonald and the others are taking great care to match the species and characteristics of the original wood of the hut.

The other difficulty of the restoration project lies in the weather.

On his last trip, Macdonald said the temperatures were between about -2C to -20C.

But the wind-chill factor is the killer and forced the temperatures to -50C and -60C.

In high wind, even to carry a board took two men, MacDonald recalled.

Kinsol trestle Bridge During the restoration missions, Macdonald and his team all lived in double-walled canvas, pyramid-shaped tents.

They basically haven't changed since Scott's day; in fact they're still called Scott Polar tents because he designed them.

While Macdonald enjoys his work on the historical structures, he said there's an equally important project closer to home that needs to be looked after.

We have important buildings in Canada as well and one of them is in the Cowichan Valley, he said.

The Kinsol Trestle is of importance not only to local people, but all across the country.

We have the skills and the expertise right here in the Cowichan Valley to conserve historic timber structures.

Macdonald and his partner have put a proposal in to the CVRD and the province with respect to the historic trestle, but so far have received no response.

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