Who is “Basil Doumer?” It is question that we often get asked at Damoy Hut. In fact, there is no Basil Doumer that we know of, but BAS/L/DOUMER is written on boards and boxes throughout the hut. Originally, the British Antarctic Survey’s Base ‘L’ was to be established on Doumer Island, which is a few miles south, as a logistical staging post for scientists and support staff needing transport from RRS John Biscoe further south to the bases on Adelaide Island. This was particularly important when time pressures or sea ice restricted ship travel near Adelaide Island, and flying passengers and equipment was a more expeditious and efficient means of kick-starting each science season. As it turns out Dorian Bay, where Damoy Hut is located on Wiencke Island, proved to be a better location for establishing a transfer point for operations. From the “base camp,” where weather observations were conducted and personnel waited for flights, it was just a short ride with a skidoo, up to a 400-meter long glacier ridge flanking Port Lockroy that served as a ski-way for twin otter aircraft. The hut was built in 1975, two years after the ski-way was first used, and it was inhabited each summer season for up to two months until 1993, when Rothera Station’s hard runway became operational thus allowing flights to land directly from the Falkland Islands, superseding the need for ship travel to and transfers from Damoy. Nowadays, the ski-way is a skiing way for many adventurers from sailing yachts and ships in the area. Damoy Hut is at the centre of a popular landing that often includes not only skiing, but walking, snow shoeing, camping, sledging, mountaineering, wildlife viewing, and a bit of history.
The UKAHT mobile conservation team came here recently to preserve a bit of history. Damoy Hut is an Antarctic Treaty registered historic site (HSM 84) managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust since 2009, and because of its close proximity to Port Lockroy (about a 15-minute zodiac ride around Damoy Point), it is a quick transfer of tools, materials, and staff with the help of visiting ships. We extend great appreciation to MV’s Le Boreal, Le Soleal, and National Geographic Orion, who all took turns assisting us in moving people and materials between Port Lockroy and Damoy Hut, so that we could repaint the exterior of the hut, coat the roof with bitumastic paint (waterproofing), make a few repairs, conduct other small maintenance tasks, and inventory artefacts. We had carpenter Michael D. Powell assisted first by Liesl Schernthanner, and then by Amy Kincaid, for almost two-weeks of work. The trip was hugely productive as well as being enjoyable.
The area itself is beautiful, and the hut is at the head of a small bay, surrounded by a combination of ice cliffs, mountains, and rolling hillocks topped with penguin colonies. To reach the hut, we came from Port Lockroy into the Neumayer Channel, then into Dorian Bay, passing a beacon location set by Charcot on the first French Expedition (1904) on Casabianca Island (he left a mail message there in 1906 when departing, only to find the same message, unread by others, a few years later when he returned on the second French Expedition). This area is described by Duncan Carse, while narrating a film on the British Graham Land Expedition, as “spectacular in the extreme… the Neumayer Channel is reckoned to be the finest scenery in all Antarctica.”
While staying on Wiencke Island, we delved into a bit of history older than the hut and learned that Carl August Wiencke, a Norwegian seaman on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, sadly met his demise in the Bransfield Strait in rough seas when opening up a scupper on the windward side of the Sailing Ship Belgica. According to a letter written by Gerlache, Captain of the Expedition on Saturday 22nd of January 1898, the vessel veered 2-3 degrees and he was “torn away by a sea.” He did reach a patent line and almost made it back aboard, “but just at the moment when [Lecointe] is about to grab him, the luckless Wiencke, already deathly pale, loses his grip and is soon several yards away… The sea was far too rough to lower a lifeboat…” Gerlache later wrote: “In recognition of faithful compliance of duties, and as a memorial to the deceased, I have named the largest and most beautiful of all the islands in the “Palmer Archipelago” surveyed by us, the name “Wiencke.” Roald Amundsen, the First Officer aboard, confirmed Wiencke’s brave conduct and commented on his good association with others on the vessel. Another Norwegian comrade wrote home, “it was a dark, eerie night that followed [the loss of Wiencke]”.
The sea certainly demands a lot of respect, both for its devastating power and the impressive animals that live within it. While staying at Damoy Hut seeing gentoo penguins is quite common, but we were fortunate enough to spot humpback whales in the area, and an enormous leopard seal which spied us on the shoreline, then changed direction to make a beeline straight for us--certainly a heart-stopping moment even though we were well out of harm’s way. While hiking up to the ski-way to radio Port Lockroy from a line-of-sight vantage point, we were also excited to see a pod of orcas heading northwards around Damoy Point.
Each day, we went up the hill behind the hut for our communications check-in (called “sked” back in the day, for a scheduled radio call), and were always rewarded by an exhilarating sledge ride back down from the ridge to the hut. After a week, we mastered actually staying in the sledge for the duration of the ride. Our transport was a modern plastic sledge used for hauling materials to the hut from initial drop-off on the beach, but we also restored a sturdy steel-and-ash Mordine sledge while working on site. It was used with a skidoo to move heavy objects such as 45 gallon drums of fuel, scientific equipment, and personnel up to the ski-way to fly south.
We enjoyed our work sojourn in this small and simple hut. It felt both remote, away from the busy hub of Port Lockroy, yet quite social too, as we hosted just over 300 visitors from all regions and backgrounds, including the Brazilian Navy with scientific researchers, yachts of all sizes, expedition ships, campers, mountaineers, and even the past Deputy Director of the British Antarctic Survey, John Dudeney.
When we noticed our supply of biscuits and canned curry was getting low, we knew that it was time to plan our departure from the plywood palace. After inventorying historic supplies (with included some 30-year old food products that did little to improve our appetite), we finished up our work tasks and left on a very full zodiac bound for Port Lockroy.
We will briefly revisit the site again later this season to return some repaired items, check on the first nesting penguin recorded right at the hut, and eventually winterise the site at the end of the season. It is always a privilege to be at Damoy Hut, and we look forward to the next trip to the other side of the ridge.