ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Rare and Antiquarian 125x125

Book Review:

The Ice Master:
The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

If there had only been some sense - even a hint - of camaraderie, their ordeal would seem more tolerable. But they had been strangers when the expedition began, and they were still strangers. There was no common bond. Nothing - not even the tragic predicament in which they found themselves - could bring the men together.

    The Canadian Arctic Expedition was to have been the crowning achievement of explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, already world-famous for his work among the Inuit of Canada's Arctic. Instead, it resulted in one of history's most harrowing Arctic shipwreck tales, and controversy about Stefansson's part in the disaster that continues to this day.

    The story of the Karluk has been told before. Jennifer Niven, though, has given voice to not only the survivors of the expedition, but also to some of those who died under the most horrific conditions most of us can imagine. In the Prologue she states that "the most important thing to me is that the people of the Karluk be allowed to speak on these pages in their own distinctive and passionate voices." Those varied voices, brought to life from the pages of journals kept during their ordeal, are what sets The Ice Master apart from the other versions of this story, and makes it both riveting and moving. Niven's skillful weaving of that dialogue into the story as a whole also makes for a comfortable reading experience, as opposed to the 'jarring' that often occurs when dealing with simultaneous action in several locations.

    The Karluk left Victoria, British Columbia, on June 17, 1913, under the command of experienced Arctic mariner Captain Bob Bartlett. The ship and the 25 people on board left the safety of the harbour despite Bartlett's protests that the ship was not, and would never be ready for an Arctic voyage - she was just not built for travel in ice-choked waters, and was purchased by Stefansson mainly because she was cheap. If the ship was a poor choice, so were many of the crew members and scientific staff, almost none of whom had any ice experience - they were, however, available on short notice and would work cheaply for the chance at an adventure such as the Canadian Arctic Expedition offered.

    By the first of August, the Karluk had reached the edge of the ice pack, and the inadequacy of the expedition's ship and clothing quickly became apparent. In their haste to depart, little attention had been given to putting equipment on the same ship as the person who it belonged to, and many of those on the Karluk found that their winter clothing was on one of the three other expedition ships, the Alaska, the Mary Sachs or the North Star. But still they pressed on.

    At every opening in the ice, Captain Bartlett pushed further east and north:

At times, the Karluk would pass between two mountainous ice floes that would scrape her on either side, creating such a violent shiver throughout the ship that the men expected her to be crushed. ...As the ice began to crush around the ship, the fine white cakes dissolving into powder, the men forgot their previous irritation. McKinlay, Mamen, and the others were drawn by the sight of it - the ice, alive and grinding against the ship, floes crashing against floes. The sound of it was a grisly, bone-chilling roar, continuous and deafening. The men were terrified, but fascinated.
On August 11, the voluntary motion of the Karluk came to an end - the ice closed around the ship, the rain turned to snow, and the ultimate fate of the ship and crew became anyone's guess. On September 20th, Stefansson left on what he claimed was a hunting trip, taking the ship's two best Inuit hunters, Pauyuraq and Asecaq, scientists George Wilkins and Diamond Jenness, and his secretary Burt McConnell.

    Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a hero to many people, is damned over and over in this book. From his shoddy planning of the expedition to his abandonment of the ship when things started to go wrong and his later lies to cover up the errors that led to so many deaths, he is vilified by both those on the ship, and by the author. Other accounts have said that the sloppy planning was not really Stefansson's fault, but that of the Canadian government, who insisted that the expedition start work in 1913 or lose their funding. While that government attitude does seem to be true, it was still Stefansson's responsibility to not risk his crew's lives as he did.

    The aimless drift of the Karluk and those aboard, and the many attempts to reach safety are vividly described in the pages that follow. Two main themes are balanced throughout the book - the interactions between the people, and the forces of nature that constantly threaten them. There were people on board that Niven clearly grew to like, and others whose characters she describes in the most negative of terms. Nature, though, had many beautiful moments even as it was killing them:

McKinlay thought the Arctic heavens offered a splendid spectacle. Lunar coronas, lunar halos, the magnificent aurora, and other heavenly phenomena provided a lovely counterpoint to their bleak world. Indeed, McKinlay and the rest of the men felt themselves awaken to life when the moon and stars appeared. The stars were so bright and seemed so close that McKinlay felt he could almost touch them. Refraction caused the moon to look three times its normal size, and as it shone down upon him, its light transformed the nearby ice floes and blocks into "the weirdest possible figures which boggled the imagination," he wrote. It was pure magic.

    Little imagination is required to join the expedition during their ordeal, so clear is the language. From amputations of frozen flesh to their reaction upon seeing the first pebbles on Wrangel Island and then, months later, the first flower, the visualization is wonderful, and I couldn't help but think "What a movie this would make!".

    As various parties headed off into the seemingly-endless world of ice and snow, I found it helped to not know what the ending of the story was except in general terms - some had lived, some had not. As Captain Bartlett struggled to reach civilization and then to rescue them, who would be left?

    For all of its good points, The Ice Master also has faults, to the point that I had serious doubts about the quality of the book in the beginning. First and most importantly, it has no index, which severely limits its use as a reference tool. Secondly, there are some very odd adjectives used - geologist George Malloch, for example, is described very early in the book as being "a ruggedly handsome man" with "a sensuous mouth". Overall, however, The Ice Master is one of the best books I've read this year, and I'm sure will be a very welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in the polar regions.

The Fate of
Those Aboard the 'Karluk'

The Crew

Robert Abram Bartlett Master 36 Survived
Alexander "Sandy" Anderson First Officer 22 Died
Charles Barker Second Officer 20s Died
John Munro Chief Engineer 30s Survived
Robert Williamson Second Engineer 36 Survived
John Brady seaman 20s Died
Edmund Lawrence Golightly
(a.k.a. Archie King)
seaman 20s Died
T. Stanley Morris seaman 26 Died
Hugh "Clam" Williams seaman 20s Survived
George Breddy fireman early 20s Murdered?
Fred Maurer fireman 21 Survived
Robert "Bob" Templeman cook/steward early 20s Survived
Ernest "Charlie" Chafe mess room boy 19-20 Survived


The Scientific Staff

Vilhjalmur Stefansson Commander 33 Left ship
M. Henri Beuchat anthropologist 34 Died
Diamond Jenness anthropologist 27 Left ship
Alister Forbes Mackay surgeon 35 Died
George Stewart Malloch geologist 33 Died
Bjarne Mamen assistant topographer/
22 Died
Burt McConnell secretary 24 Left ship
William Laird McKinlay magnetician/meteorologist 24 Survived
James Murray oceanographer 46 Died
George H. Wilkins photographer 24 Left ship


The Eskimos (Inuit)

Pauyuraq "Jerry" hunter early 20s Left ship
Asecaq "Jimmy" hunter early 20s Left ship
Kataktovik hunter 19 Survived
Kuraluk hunter late 20s Survived
Kiruk "Auntie" seamstress/cook late 20s Survived
Helen 8 Survived
Mugpi 3 Survived


The Passengers

John Hadley carpenter 57 Survived
Nigeraurak ship's cat Survived
30 huskies None seem to have survived

Rare and Antiquarian 468x60