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25 November, 2003

In early January 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and his men arrived at Cape Evans aboard the ship the Terra Nova. They brought with them 33 dogs, 19 ponies, 3 motor tractors, and a prefabricated wooden building to serve as base for their expedition to the South Pole. The 1000 square foot hut was completed by the middle of the month, and Scott and his men moved in. That hut still stands at Cape Evans and has been restored through the efforts of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand-based organization. While anyone can view the hut from outside, if you want to get inside you must obtain a key from the National Science Foundation office in McMurdo. Since we are only 10 minutes from Cape Evans by snowmobile, this was a great night to get the key and visit the hut.

As Scott said, when he described the hut in his journal, "The word 'hut' is misleading, our residence is really a house of considerable size, in every respect the finest that has been erected in polar regions." 25 men lived in the hut, which also had an attached stables area to shelter the 19 ponies and 33 dogs that accompanied the expedition. It was a tightly constructed building, insulated from the cold with layers of dried seaweed sewn into jute quilting covering the floor, walls, and roof. In addition, the roof was waterproofed with 'Ruberoid'-felt that had been treated with tar. The floor was covered with linoleum that is still visible today. For heat, they used two coal-burning stoves-one in the kitchen area and a smaller one in the sleeping quarters. During the summer months, the hut got its light through three double-paned windows, while in winter darkness they used two acetylene generators to keep twelve lights burning. The stables were built off one side of the hut using wood salvaged from their ship, with outside walls formed from blocks of coal and bales of pony fodder. At one end of the stables there was a stove that was fueled by seal blubber. Besides providing heat, it was used to melt snow for water and mix warm food for the livestock.

While Scott's primary objective was to be the first to reach the South Pole, his mission was also scientific. Members of his party included a meteorologist and physicist, as well as biologists. The hut had a well equipped darkroom as well as an area reserved for science with beakers, chemicals, and assorted lab equipment. There was a weather station near the hut that was used to obtain daily meteorological reports.

Two years after the survivors of Scott's expedition had returned home, this hut became home for members of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party. You can still see the anchor that remained after their ship, The Aurora, had blown out to sea. Luckily, Scott's group had left a year's worth of supplies at the hut when they left. Members of the crew used old tents and caribou skin sleeping bags to sew pants, jackets, and boots. They killed seals for food and used the blubber to heat the hut and as fuel for cooking. They collected eggs from a nearby Adelie Penguin rookery to supplement their 'mostly seal' diet. After their rescue in 1917 the hut sat abandoned until its restoration almost 50 years later.

Restoration began in the summer of 1960-61. Most of the hut was filled with ice and shelves in the kitchen area had collapsed under the weight of the past years' accumulated snows. The ice was cleared the hard way-with a pick and shovel. When artifacts were found, they were left encased in their icy jackets and placed outside to thaw. Excavation and restoration continued throughout the 1970s. In the late 1980s the building's roof was snow-proofed by the addition of a new waterproof layer of rubber covered with plywood.

The interior of the hut looks almost as if its inhabitants had just left. There are reindeer hide sleeping bags on some of the bunks, with canvas pants hanging on nearby hooks. Gloves and mitts hang on the walls and reindeer fur boots called finnesko, with their felt liners, are ready to go. The kitchen is well stocked with cans and jars. There are even a few bottles of Heinz Ketchup on the shelves that must have been meant to complement the tins of meat the expedition brought with them. The lab area has a table covered with glassware and assorted bottles of chemicals, and the darkroom still has photographic plates awaiting exposure and developing. In the stables area a pile of seal blubber lies waiting next to the stove, while a box of penguin eggs collected by Shackleton's men sits nearby. There are even bales of sennet grass, used to line and insulate the finnesko, sitting in one of the stables.

What was it really like for those men to live on the shore of the Ross Sea? It's hard to imagine the level of determination that kept them going forward with their plans. To really get a feel for both these expeditions, I recommend reading some of the first-hand accounts that are available. To learn more about Scott's expedition, you should read The Worst Journey in the World by Appsley Cherry-Garard. If you want a really gripping story, try Shackleton's Forgotten Men. This book is about the men of the Ross Sea Party who were stranded at Cape Evans while Shackleton and his men of the Endurance were stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea on the opposite coast of Antarctica.

Daily Haiku:

Standing in Scott's hut

Trying to hear the stories

Left by artifacts

The hut at Cape Evans.

This is all that remains of the ship The Aurora. It tore free from its anchor during a storm, leaving most of the crew onshore.

Food tins left in the hut's kitchen.

I think that Scott's group had more ketchup than we have!

This is a recreation of Scott's bunk, with sleeping robe, blankets, pillows, gloves,and boots.

Piles of seal blubber ready to put in the stove.

These are some of the penguin eggs collected by Shackleton's men.

A group of Emperor Penguins ready to go swimming.

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