“I first fell under the spell of Antarctica when I was a boy of ten in the north of Newfoundland where I was born and where I read by candlelight all I could lay my hands on about the mysterious southern continent.”
Commander Jack Bursey
A generation younger than Bob Bartlett, Jack Bursey was born in 1903 in St. Lunaire on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. By 1957, Bursey had spent no less than three long dark winters in the Antarctic. He was one of only two people to have done so at that time.
Bursey made the second longest Antarctic journey by dogsled; the longest was Roald Amundsen’s trip to the South Pole in 1911. (It was Amundsen, a Norwegian, who had beaten Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the pole.)
Bursey was one of 50,000 men who applied to be part of the First Byrd Antarctic Expedition of 1928, a journey that involved two ships and three airplanes. Although his initial application was rejected, Bursey applied again and got the nod to go south. Later he would become a commander in the U.S. navy.
As reported by Bursey himself, his job interview with expedition leader Admiral Richard Byrd went as follows:
Byrd: “So you come from Newfoundland.”
Bursey: “Yes sir.”
Byrd: “And you are a dog driver?”
Bursey: “Yes sir.”
Byrd: “Have you got adventure in you?”
Bursey: “Yes sir. I’m full of it.”
Byrd: “I suppose you can skin a seal.”
Bursey: “Yes, I can do that, too.”
Admiral Byrd knew Bob Bartlett well and was familiar with the seafaring and northern survival skills of young men like Jack Bursey. In fact, with the particular skill set cultivated by island life, Newfoundland regularly supplied the labour for Arctic as well as Antarctic expeditions. Through fishing and sealing, Newfoundland men were well used to the kind of hyper-masculine work required at sea and the poles. Having spent half their lives shipboard, they were also accustomed to the strict hierarchy inherent in expedition life. On the Great Northern Peninsula, where Bursey grew up, travel by dogsled was common, having been adopted from the Inuit as the best travel mode in Newfoundland winters.
Bursey did well and thoroughly enjoyed himself during that 1928 foray down south and returned to the Antarctic twice.
And he wrote about his adventures. Antarctic Night was published in 1957 by Longmans, Green and Co., the world’s oldest commercial publisher, founded in London in 1724. (By the time Bursey was one of their authors, the publishing house was international with offices in New York, London and Toronto.) His book was well-received. Some 17 years later Bursey wrote another book, St. Lunaire, Antarctic Lead Dog about his beloved husky, Luny, who was his lead dog in the Antarctic in 1929.
I’ll write more about Bursey in future blogs. It’s interesting that, despite his long-time presence on the United States lecture circuit, almost paralleling Bartlett’s, he is not nearly as famous as Bartlett. In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve learned of him.
Subscribe to the blog All Things Arctic. It’s written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of the new biography of Bob Bartlett: Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. The book has been endorsed by New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Niven who writes: “A riveting comprehensive portrait of one of the most dynamic and enigmatic sea captains the Arctic has ever seen. Robert Abram Bartlett was larger than life, his adventures the stuff of legends. Maura Hanrahan expertly recounts the long overdue, very true story of this understated polar hero in engaging, dramatic prose.”