Crew Works To Restore Explorers' Shelters

For his latest job, Vancouver Island speciality carpenter Gordon Macdonald flew to New Zealand, took a U.S. army plane to the frozen continent of Antarctica and then hopped on a helicopter before walking the final few kilometres to his destination dragging his equipment behind him on a sled.

All this to help restore the wooden frame of a building only 33 feet long and 19 feet wide -- one that cost its original owner (ps)154, or about $300 in Canadian funds.

Mr. Macdonald, who runs Macdonald & Lawrence Timber Framing Ltd. with his partner, Steve Lawrence, is part of an international crew helping to conserve the shelters brought to the bottom of the Earth by explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton, Carsten Borchgrevink and Robert Falcon Scott.

We both enjoy doing work that's unusual and exotic, Mr. Lawrence said yesterday. Antarctica's a pretty amazing and special place and not many people get a chance to go there, it's almost like going to the moon.

His partner arrived on the outer reaches of Earth last month, leading a five-person team of carpenters on an international project spearheaded by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Along with archaeologists and historians, Mr. Macdonald and various other experts from different fields are working on the timber-framed hut purchased by Shackleton to serve as his home base during the 1907-1909 British Antarctic Expedition.

Since the famed explorer's stay there, only a few people have entered the hut. The odd U.S. soldier may drop by as have scientists relegated to the neighbourhood.

But with adventure tourism beginning to take a serious look at the possibilities of the desolate winter playground, the historical conservation community realized that something should be done to protect the outposts.

These buildings have been there for about 100 years and over that period they've remained relatively untouched, said Mr. Lawrence, who has worked on other historic buildings, including Windsor Castle, with his partner. They survived remarkably well given the environment, but they are slowly suffering.

Only in the last 20 years has the historical community realized the importance of the buildings, he said, adding them to the World Monuments Fund top 100 sites at risk.

Fundraising efforts by the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust led to the current project, which involves shoring up the huts while preserving their location and look.

Shackleton's hut is built from yellow pine and held together with simple mortise and tenon joints that the explorer specified should be easily taken down ... without injury to the structure.

And as hard as it may be to believe, the Arctic winters have also done little injury to the building.

The climate down there is actually quite dry, it's so cold that things don't get wet, said Mr. Lawrence. So it's survived a lot better down there than it would do, say, in B.C.

The Arctic team will remove ice that has built up underneath the structure, placing stress on its frame.

They will also dig away the snow surrounding the site and create a drainage system.

Windows will be replaced, as will sections of the roof covering.

But Mr. Lawrence says these, and any repairs to the wooden frame, must be done with an eye to the future, as well as the past.

The current thinking in the conservation world is to make any new repair work obviously new, he said. Thinking ahead a hundred years to conservationists or archaeologists who might be looking at these buildings, rather than trying to use old materials and second hand timber, we try not to confuse the historical record.

The repairs will blend in with the original structure, but a close look will make it obvious that they were added at date long after Shackleton's original journey.

Any wood added by Mr. Macdonald will be marked with the year and the number of the field expedition: K441.

One of the reasons that we've been selected is to help train the carpenters from New Zealand in the particular field of conservation carpentry, said Mr. Lawrence. It's very easy to look at something and say 'Well that's broken so I'll just make a new one.' The conservation approach would be to say 'Okay, that's broken, so how can we maintain the function of it while removing as little as possible of what's there.'

The two partners, who set up home base on Vancouver Island just a few years ago, also constructs new wood-framed buildings for residential and commercial clients, and recently completed construction of an eco-lodge in the jungles of Surinam in South America.

That was a nice one, said Mr. Lawrence. Unusual place, exotic location. You can begin to detect a theme.

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