The Ice Master:
The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk
by Jennifer Niven
New York: Hyperion
Reviewed by Paul vanPeenen
The Ice Master is much more than just a tale of another arctic expedition gone wrong. It is an intriguing story of a journey that was doomed from the start, a story of determination and spirit as well as the dark side of human nature. It is a story of death and survival against overwhelming odds. This isn't a new story resurrected from some dusty archive. In fact, it has been told before by two members of the ill-fated expedition: Robert Bartlett, the captain, and William McKinlay, the magnetician and meteorologist. What makes Jennifer Niven's account of the tragic events surrounding the 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition such an outstanding tale is that she skillfully weaves together the journal entries written by the expedition's members. Niven's book comes alive because of the use of these journals. At times it is as if the men of the expedition are talking to the reader.
The expedition was to have been the greatest and most elaborate arctic expedition in history. Its leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, believed there to be a final undiscovered continent hidden under the vast Arctic ice cap and he wanted to be the one to make its discovery. The expedition was quickly assembled and set sail from Victoria, British Columbia, on June 17, 1913. The ship, the Karluk, was a 39-metre, 251 ton wooden whaler which had been retired for years. Captain Robert Bartlett found her to be "absolutely unsuitable to remain in winter ice." But Bartlett's complaints fell on deaf ears with both Stefansson and the Canadian government and the expedition sailed, a week later than planned. Bartlett was a seasoned polar sailor. He had been the captain aboard the Roosevelt with Admiral Robert Peary in 1909 blazing the trail for Peary's attempt at the North Pole. It was Peary who had recommended Bartlett to Stefansson. As it turned out, all aboard the Karluk were lucky to have him as ice master. Unlike Stefansson, Bartlett proved to be one of the heroes of the expedition and figures prominently in Niven's book.
The other man playing a starring role is William Laird McKinlay, a 25-year-old school teacher from Glasgow, Scotland, and a member of the scientific staff. Niven writes that McKinlay was one of the primary reasons she wanted to write this book. Until his death at age 92, McKinlay tried to set the record straight about the 1913 expedition. For more than 60 years he tried to make sense of what had happened. Finally, in 1976, at age 85, McKinlay published Karluk but was not entirely happy with it. For the next seven years until his death in 1983, he worked on a more forthright account of what had happened, of Stefansson and of Bartlett who McKinlay believed had saved his life. He never finished it and the rough manuscript was destined to remain in obscurity until Niven dug it up along with McKinlay's voluminous notes and journals.
The Karluk was not seaworthy. It broke down almost immediately upon leaving and would do so again and again. By August 1, the ice off the north coast of Alaska became a serious obstacle but Stefansson urged Bartlett to press on along the coast toward Herschel Island. Bartlett knew the ship would never survive the crushing power of the ice near land and to no avail tried to persuade Stefansson to take a different course. Eventually, against Stefansson's wishes, Bartlett steered the Karluk away from land and into open water but by the middle August she was trapped in the ice near Flaxman Island. Powerless to free herself, she began drifting with the current. Day by day the conditions grew worse and by late August it was clear the expedition was trapped for the winter.
On September 20 Stefansson announced he was going hunting caribou to supply the expedition with fresh meat for the winter. He took with him George Wilkins, Diamond Jenness, and Burt McConnell as well as Pauyuraq (Jerry) and Asecaq (Jimmy), two Inuit hunters they had hired. This was much to the surprise of Bartlett because Stefansson himself had earlier told him that caribou were nearly extinct in the area of the Colville River. They took a bounty of supplies and twelve of the best dogs. Stefansson left a letter for Bartlett with detailed instructions for the men and the ship but said "...that we shall be back to the ship in ten days, if no accident happens."
Stefansson never came back, leaving behind 22 men, one woman and two children helpless to do anything but wait. Two days later the first winter storm struck with winds reaching 60 miles per hour. The gale was a terrifying experience for all trapped aboard the Karluk. What was more terrifying, however, was that the floe they were stuck in had broken free and began to drift westward up to 60 miles a day. As winter set in and the days grew shorter, the Karluk and her helpless crew drifted west into the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles away from land. By the end of November they were approaching the coast of Siberia. They rang in the new year with a party as they neared Wrangel Island. The ice now began to crush the ship and supplies were moved on to the ice. On January 11, the Karluk disappeared leaving her crew stranded on the ice with only half the supplies that had been aboard.
Niven paints a vivid scene of Captain Bartlett sitting in his cabin playing Chopin's Funeral March as the water began to gush in. This story has all the makings of a blockbuster Hollywood feature which is not so far fetched since Niven, 31, earned her M.F.A. in screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her career in television was put on hold in 1998 when she began working on this book full time, interviewing relatives and descendants of the survivors. She had access to the diaries that were kept by the members of the expedition and even met Mugpi, an 89-year-old Inuit woman who was just a little girl when she spent that year with the expedition aboard the Karluk and on Wrangel Island.
What follows is a harrowing tale of the struggle against starvation, the elements, a mysterious disease and each other. Realizing they couldn't stay on the ice and wait for rescue they haphazardly set out to reach Wrangel Island. Yet rather than coming together to face their ordeal, the crew, many of whom had no experience in the Arctic, were incapable of working together and split into different contingents with disastrous results. One group of four sets out against all odds and they are never seen again.
By the middle of March, they finally reached Wrangel Island and set foot on land for the first time in many months. Bartlett decided that if anybody was to survive at all he would have to try to reach the Siberian mainland and find help. Bartlett and Kataktovic, an Inuk hunter, took seven of the remaining dogs and 60 days of supplies. Their 37-day, 700-mile journey from Wrangel Island to East Cape, Siberia, ranks as one of the most incredible journeys ever made.
Even though Bartlett had reached "civilization," help was still not at hand. He had to notify the Canadian government and ask them to authorize a rescue. Meanwhile, World War I had broken out in Europe. Bartlett was unable to get a ship until late August. The stranded crew was finally rescued in early September by the King and Winge, whose captain had promised Bartlett he would look for them. However, for 16 of the men, rescue came too late.
Because Niven allowed the people aboard the Karluk to speak in their own words, the story comes alive. Their inner thoughts from private journals give such an insight into what life was like both aboard the stricken ship and on Wrangel Island. Stefansson, a lauded arctic explorer, is condemned not only by his actions but by the men themselves in many of the journal entries. The volume of material Niven worked with is staggering. Yet, her story of this doomed expedition flows smoothly, no easy task when describing events taking place simultaneously in different locations over a long period of time. This is Niven's first book. I can't wait for the next one.