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Polaris, Peary Sledge Dog Descendant

Polaris was a puppy when Ernest Harold Baynes, an American naturalist and writer, visited Admiral Robert Peary at Eagle Island in Casco Bay near Portland, Maine in 1914.  When Peary offered to take Baynes by motor launch over to Flag Island to show Baynes some of the dogs that pulled Peary’s sledges on the North Pole Expedition in 1908-09, Baynes was eager to go.

Greenland Eskimo dog
Polaris

The dogs lived and were bred on the island under the care of Captain Robert Bartlett, the sea captain who navigated many Arctic journeys, including Peary’s journey to the North Pole on the S.S. Roosevelt. Baynes was well-known for his animal expertise, so Peary assured him that if one of the puppies was old enough to leave the island, that Baynes could take one with him.

The puppy, of course, became Polaris, a dog that spent several years living with Baynes and his wife near Meriden, New Hampshire, where Polaris was admired and mostly made new friends.

Polaris was a Greenland Eskimo dog, a breed known for being closely related to wolves. Though Polaris happily lived with the Baynes family and their Great Dane and Scottish terrier, Polaris was known to kill mice, chickens, pigs, and sheep upon occasion.  

Yet hardly anyone ever held any of the destruction against Polaris. The dog was handsome and of a good disposition. It was hard to stay mad at him for long. As Captain Bob Bartlett said, “Polaris was the finest Eskimo dog in the world.”

Because Polaris was a special dog, friends encouraged Ernest Baynes (1868-1925) to tell his story. The book was published in 1922.

Why Baynes Wanted Polaris

The North Greenland Eskimo dog is not that far removed from the wolf family. Most pet owners might have thought twice before bringing home a pup from a breed that is not readily domesticated, but Ernest Baynes was a naturalist who studied all types of animals. His home in New Hampshire had seen many types of injured animals cared for there. He felt more than capable of taking on the challenge of raising Polaris.

Baynes’s job at that time was as a conservator at a buffalo reserve.  Austin Corbin, Jr. created Corbin Park near the Blue Mountain Forest in New Hampshire to preserve bison. The numbers of animals in the U.S. were dropping precipitously, from 35 million buffalo in the 1870s to 500-1000 in the early 1900s.

Baynes work as a conservator dovetailed perfectly with his overall interest in animal preservation. One of his other causes was to save birds that were being killed for their plumes. Feathers in fashion were all the rage, and it was decimating birds of all types. (Also see Harriet Lawrence Hemenway: Saving Birds One Hat at a Time to read about more efforts to preserve birds.)

Polaris Arrives in New Hampshire

Ernest Baynes arrived at his home near Meriden, New Hampshire (northwest of Manchester) with the puppy. He needed to introduce the small, fluffy wriggling ball of energy that he acquired from Captain Bartlett and Admiral Peary to the family.  The first job, if course, was presenting Polaris to the dogs who lived there. Beowulf was a Great Dane, and Heatherbloom was a year-old Scottish terrier.

Polaris and Beowulf, the Great Dane

The two dogs were in the front yard when Baynes arrived with the puppy. He put Polaris down to be evaluated by the other two. Beowulf pulled himself up to his full height but seemed merely puzzled. He sniffed the woolly puppy, gave Polaris a poke with his nose, and walked off.

Heatherbloom was more interested. She remained about 50 feet from the puppy. With her head down between her paws, she crawled forward stealthily. Polaris hadn’t a clue what was happening. When Heatherbloom got closer, she jumped at him, catching the Eskimo puppy off guard. Polaris went rolling head over heels. Then he picked himself up. After a moment, it was “game on” for the two dogs.

Playmate to Protector

Though Polaris quickly grew from playmate to protector, he and Heatherbloom remained the best of friends. Polaris frequently had to discourage suitors who sometimes came sniffing around looking for the Scottie.

One day he and Heatherbloom were playing in the house, when one of them decided it was time to go outside. Heatherbloom dashed to the door and barked to notify any available human to open the door. Polaris dashed to the door and lunged through the screen. After that, the Baynes family simply left the hole in the screen. Polaris had chosen his preferred means of egress.

Polaris with his good friend, Heatherbloom
Polaris and Heatherbloom

Handsome Eskimo Dog

“He was at his best in winter, when his splendid coat of spun silver was a robe fit for this king of dogs,” writes Baynes. “The long hair on his shoulders measured nine inches, and that on his tail, which flowed over his hind quarters in a silvery cascade, was more than a foot in length. It gleamed in the sunshine as if it were burnished, and reflected light to a degree almost unbelievable to one who has not seen other dogs of this type.”  Polaris had both an undercoat and an overcoat for warmth in arctic temperatures. Dirt rarely clung to the overcoat which meant unless he came home streaked with blood, as sometimes happened, he rarely needed to be washed.

Handsome Polaris with full coat

Polaris Was No Saint

When out with the dogs one day, Baynes saw Heatherbloom in a sheep pasture hunting grasshoppers. Before he had time to call her, several sheep took issue with her being in their pasture. As they moved toward her, Heatherbloom scampered out, but Polaris was ready to take them on. Baynes called him, and he responded. Baynes and the dogs continued their walk to check on some birds that interested Baynes.

When it was time to return, Baynes saw that Heatherbloom and Beowulf were right beside him, but Polaris was nowhere to be found. Baynes called and whistled…and then realized to his horror where Polaris might have gone.

Polaris jumped through the screen door as his fastest method of leaving the house.
Polaris exits through the screen door

Baynes started running for the sheep pasture, but he was too late. Polaris bounded toward him, looking quite pleased. As Ernest Baynes looked beyond Polaris, he saw in the distance that there were 14 dead sheep.

Come-Uppance?

After stopping at a brook to wash the blood off Polaris, Baynes, Polaris, and the other two dogs stopped at the home of the sheep owner to apologize and pay for the sheep.

Polaris was a beautiful white dog
Handsome Polaris

Mrs. C____, as she is identified in the book, would have none of it. She already knew and loved Polaris. As Ernest Baynes told her the story of the sheep, Polaris looked innocently up at her.

Mrs. C___ replied, “How do you know he killed the sheep; did you see him kill them?”

“Just look at him!” she continued. Mrs. C_____ then rose and took out a cake that she promptly put on the floor for Polaris. Polaris showed no guilt as he gobbled down the homemade cake.

The Joy of Chickens

For sport, Polaris particularly enjoyed killing chickens. All the fluff of the feathers and the quick end to the squawking must have brought Polaris the same pleasure as a squeak toy does to a more domesticated pet.

But there wasn’t much that intimidated Polaris. When the dogs were with Baynes at a nearby farm, a cow charged down a pathway toward Heatherbloom. Polaris was having none of it. He lunged at the cow, biting into the neck. He brought a quick end to the bovine’s life.

Sledge Dogs

Baynes expected that Polaris would take quickly to pulling a sled. When snow fell in New Hampshire, Baynes retrieved a sled from the barn and harnessed Polaris to it. Polaris, did indeed pull nicely. Mrs. Baynes used the sled sometimes to go into town. Generally, she and the groceries would ride home on the sled.  All went well unless Polaris became distracted. There were times that both Mrs. Baynes and the groceries went flying.

Polaris in harness with Mrs. Baynes
Polaris in harness with Mrs. Baynes

Ernest Baynes also had a pack saddle made for Polaris. This was handy when he and the dogs were going to town or delivering items to neighbors.   

Summers in Cornish

The summers spent in Cornish, New Hampshire, which was about 10 miles southwest of Meriden, were a joy. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gardens was the first of many artists to move to the area. After he established residence, other sculptors, writers, painters, and designers followed.

Ernest Baynes, his wife, and dogs also stayed nearby. Beautiful mountains surrounded by lakes offered good hiking territory. Polaris was perfectly happy to have more turf to explore.

Polaris and Heatherbloom in Cornish enjoying the sun
Polaris and Heatherbloom in Cornish.

Among their friends was illustrator Maxfield Parrish who summered there with his family. Generally, Baynes and Polaris were welcome guests. One day they encountered a surprise.

Visiting in Cornish

As they approached the house, Polaris ran ahead as he sometimes did. Baynes had no concern until he heard chaos erupt from the house. The house featured floor to ceiling windows in the front rooms. The windows were open, so Polaris simply walked in.

Rather than a warm greeting from the children who were taking a dance class with a governess, Polaris was greeted by a growl from their new black dog. Polaris met the greeting in kind, and the two dogs wrestled with each other.  As Baynes arrived in the drawing room, one of the children clung to the governess and another stood on the piano bench. In the far corner near the fireplace, Baynes saw a black-and-white pinwheel of energy.

Both dogs were barking and growling.  Illustrator Parrish was leaping and shouting, while holding his work-in-progress up high: “Get out! Get out! Get out!” Ernest Baynes raced in and separated the two dogs.  The Parrish dog was not badly injured, and Baynes sustained some minor wounds for stepping in the middle of the fray. The dogs were separated, and other than the fright, no one was any worse for it.

Crowning Moment

In 1916, Captain Robert Bartlett, the man who piloted the S.S. Roosevelt when Peary traveled to the North Pole, was to be honored in Boston for his considerable part in Arctic exploration. (For more on this expedition, read Matthew Henson: Co-Discoverer of the North Pole) Baynes was invited to the dinner but was reluctant to go. It would mean several days away from his work, and he wondered what possible contribution he could make.  But when he realized he could make the perfect addition to the evening, he changed his mind. He would take Polaris so guests could see what sledge dogs were like.

Polaris looked handsome, and he was warmly received by the dinner guests. Ernest Baynes spoke in tribute to Bartlett. Afterward, Captain Bartlett pronounced Polaris the perfect specimen of an Eskimo dog.

Baynes Lecture Schedule

Ernest Baynes was becoming better known for his work as a naturalist and his outspoken activity to protect birds. As a result, his lecture schedule became busier. When he could, he took Polaris with him, as the dog was a guaranteed attraction.  But Polaris could not tell time or read a train schedule.

Polaris and President of Worcester Animal League
Polaris with Mrs. Smith

Sometimes Baynes would have to leave for the train, knowing that Polaris was off—likely with some town children—exploring the new neighborhood. When this happened, Baynes left instructions for the townspeople to hold on to Polaris until Baynes came back through town on his way home.

Family Emergency

Though the book does not specify what the crisis was, Baynes writes that quite unexpectedly the dogs needed to be placed in other homes for a time. Of Polaris, he writes: “Polaris was an easy dog to find a home for, but a hard dog to find the right home for.”

Ultimately, he decided that Polaris needed to be sent where he could do the work he was destined for. He contacted Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell. Grenfell was a physician who trained in London and then chose to go to Newfoundland to practice medicine. The coastal inhabitants of the area made their livings as fishermen, but there were no medical facilities to help them if they became injured or sick.

“The finest Eskimo dog in the world.”

Captain Robert Bartlett, speaking of polaris

Grenfell arrived and evaluated what was needed. Being able to travel to different villages was vital, so he brought a sled dog team and two doctors and two nurses to help with the mission. They also established two cottage hospitals, schools, and an orphanage.

His humanitarian work was well-known and his need for good dogs was also apparent. Baynes decided that this was the perfect place for Polaris.  Baynes thought, what could be more fitting than a great dog becoming a companion and assistant to a dedicated man doing a noble work for humanity. Grenfell’s only concern was for Polaris. Would the newcomer be beaten down by the other sledge dogs?

Baynes said not to worry.

One More Incident

Because it was winter, Polaris had to stay with Mrs. F. H. Smith. President of the Worcester Animal Rescue League. She promised to deliver the dog to Boston when the ice thawed enough that supplies could be delivered to Labrador and Newfoundland.    

Despite the family issues, Ernest Baynes continued with some of his lectures. He was to speak at the Museum of Natural History in New York City to a gathering of blind people. The people were to be given the opportunity to feel models of the different birds and animals Baynes described. He thought how wonderful it would be for the audience to be able to feel the wonders of Polaris and his thick coat, so he asked Mrs. Smith to bring Polaris to New York City.

The speech was well-received. Afterward, the audience filed through to touch the models of the birds and animals, and to have the opportunity to pet Polaris. Unfortunately, one gentleman did not understand that Polaris was alive, and he poked him in the ribs with his guide stick. Polaris turned, probably expecting a pat on the head or an apology of some sort. The man just looked at him, unseeing. Feeling threatened, Polaris lunged at the man, teeth bared.

A packsaddle for Polaris
Polaris with packsaddle

Ernest Baynes, always watchful at these times, saw what was happening. He moved quickly. The snap of Polaris’s teeth came on Baynes hand instead of the man’s throat.

But there was no calming Polaris. Baynes’s effort to change the mood were in vain. He put a muzzle on Polaris and led him to a room to reduce stimulation. But Polaris growled and fought against Baynes, which was very unusual.  Fearing that this might have permanently spooked Polaris, Baynes did not have any good options other than giving Polaris time. He locked the room, left a “Do Not Enter” sign on the door and left the museum for the night. 

When Ernest Baynes returned the next day, he was greatly relieved. When the door was unlocked, Polaris bounded forward to be greeted.

Off to Newfoundland and Labrador

Baynes was a big believer that dogs are dogs. He considered anthropomorphizing these magnificent creatures is a disservice. As a result, the author saw no need for concluding chapter as to Polaris’s life in the North.

What we do have is information from Dr. Grenfell. He was in New York on business about a year after Polaris came to him. Baynes and Grenfell had time for a quick meeting. Dr. Grenfell verified that Baynes was correct in his prediction about Polaris.

Dr. Grenfell added Polaris to his sled dog teams.
Dr. Wilfred Grenfell

When Polaris first arrived, Dr. Grenfell introduced him to just three of the other sledge dogs.  With the first three, Polaris handily asserted his dominance.

A few days later, a stronger team came in form the trail. Polaris beat those dogs except for the lead Husky. Initially, the two dogs fought to a draw, but when Grenfell came back to check on the dogs, something else had happened. The Husky watched from a corner while Polaris strutted around the area knowing that he achieved the status he deserved—lead dog.

***

For another story about sled dogs, read Sled Dog Team Travels from Nome to D.C., 1907.

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