Through The Howling Winds To Restore History

VANCOUVER - On his first day on the job, Gordon Macdonald, a Canadian carpenter who specializes in restoring old buildings, found himself pulling a 225-kilogram sledge through a blizzard in Antarctica. Somewhere ahead in the howling white wind was the small, historical structure the skilled woodworker had come halfway around the world to repair the hut Robert Falcon Scott built during an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910-1913. Going through the door was just like taking safe haven, said Mr. Macdonald, sounding something like an explorer himself as he spoke over a satellite phone from Scott Base, Antarctica.

Inside, out of the storm, he found a calm, sheltered place little changed from the days nearly 100 years earlier when Captain Scott sat around the wooden tables with his men, planning what would become one of history's most memorable and tragic expeditions.

Mr. Macdonald, from Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, was reached at a New Zealand science base on Cape Scott, where he is nearing the end of an unusual five-week assignment.

He's leading a small team restoring four huts for a non-profit organization, Antarctic Heritage Trust, dedicated to preserving historic sites.

Mr. Macdonald, a partner in B.C.-based Macdonald & Lawrence Timber Framing Ltd., was hired to help with the five-year, multimillion-dollar project because of his international reputation for restoring old timber buildings.

In addition to working on Scott's Terra Nova hut, built as the launching point for the British explorer's last journey, he is also restoring Scott's Discovery hut, built during an expedition in 1901.

Also included in the project are Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod hut, built at Cape Royds in 1907, and the Cape Adare hut built by Carsten Borchgrevnik for the British Southern Cross Expedition of 1898-1900.

The huts are monuments to a remarkable group of men who, using what by today's standards would be woefully inadequate equipment, made a series of bold attempts to reach the South Pole in the early 1900s.

Scott and several of his men died trying to return to the safety of his huts after an epic slog in which he reached the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912, only to find Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat him there.

Great God, this is an awful place, Scott wrote in his diary at the time.

Later, near the end, he made this entry: I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have . . . We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.

That period of exploration is named the Heroic Age because of the courage of explorers who sheltered for years in small, cold huts before heading out on treks where they faced temperatures of -60.

One of Scott's men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, may have best captured the harshness of the conditions in his book, The Worst Journey in the World, when he wrote: Such extremity of suffering cannot be measured. Madness or death may give relief. But this I know: we on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend.

In the inhospitable Antarctic setting, the small huts were safe refuges and beacons of hope for the explorers.

In one diary entry, in 1911, Scott wrote: The hut is becoming the most comfortable dwelling-place imaginable . . . within the walls of which peace, quiet and comfort remain supreme.

After the dead were buried and explorers left, the huts stood abandoned for decades.

Buffeted by a century of storms, sometimes filling with snow that drifted endlessly through tiny cracks, the buildings have remained as enduring as the legends. But the structures have suffered from gradual decay and were threatening to eventually collapse.

Mr. Macdonald, who flew to Antarctica on a U.S. Air Force jet earlier this year, landing on a sea-ice runway, was given the task of repairing the buildings without significantly changing them or damaging the fragile environment.

It's a pretty crazy place for a carpenter down here, but I love it. It's the best job on the planet, he said. It's just a breathtaking place to be. But carpentry here is a very strange thing because we are working with buildings that are 100 years old plus . . . and because it's such a highly protected area where these huts are.

We're next to a very sensitive penguin colony. We have to be extremely careful so we are doing everything we can to contain even the finest of sawdust.

One of Scott's huts is located on a windy, very hellish, cold promontory of land looking out across McMurdo Sound. A nearby U.S. base that looks like a mining camp makes an incongruous backdrop.

But Scott's Terra Nova hut has an amazing view across the open sea past Inaccessible Island and out to the Trans-Antarctic Ranges. In the background is Mount Erebus, an active volcano that trails a sulphurous plume of smoke from its icy peak.

Mr. Macdonald said that while working on Shackleton's hut, at Cape Royds, he watched Adelie penguins and other marine life.

The sea ice there breaks out in the summer . . . I sat on the rocks there at midnight and counted five different pods of whales all fishing together, minke whales and orcas.

The buildings themselves, some of which still smell of the leather harnesses used on ponies and dogs, have been fascinating.

With our work we're tinkering with the fabric of the hut and exposing parts that haven't been exposed for 100 years. We come across quite a lot of new artifacts doing that . . . when we were clearing ice from underneath one of the huts we came across a piece of what we think is a part of the first motor car in Antarctica, the Arral-Johnston, at Cape Royds. Expedition mitts, and socks and the kind of gear which would have been discarded at the time and not really thought of but which now is so evocative.

Under one hut he found a backpack that might have been worn by Scott himself, sealed medicine bottles filled with dry pills, and a few wine bottles.

They were empties, Mr. Macdonald said.

Sometimes he comes across notes or initials written a century earlier.

We discover things that are quite subtle . . . little bits of graffiti that have been left by the men. There's an absolutely haunting bit of graffiti in the Terra Nova hut.

Inside one of the bunks in the laboratories, one of the scientists has scribbled in pencil, in a place where only he would really be able to read it, this little note which says: 'Losses to date.' And then what follows is a list of his mates who have perished so far on the expedition. Little things like that are a reminder of how hard they worked down here and what incredibly adverse conditions they worked under.

Mr. Macdonald said that although the project is fascinating, it is also exhausting.

It's an enormously complex logistical sort of thing to pull off. By the time we are positioned in the field it's just go, go, go.

A lot of our days we've been working from 7 in the morning to after midnight while the weather's been good. Right now I'm done in, he said. I'm looking forward to going home.

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