The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KARLUK

The doomed voyage was the Stefansson Canadian expedition aboard Karluk in 1913-14.. When Stefansson was ashore hunting for fresh meat in Alaska, the ship was caught in the ice with several men aboard and drifted into the Chukchi Sea with Bartlett now in command. Some have charged that Stef deliberately abandoned the ship and men and the evidence seems ambiguous. Niven is anti-Stefansson to an extreme, and gives a fine portrait of Bartlett’s rescue efforts; while she may have some good points it would be difficult to verify them given the inadequacy of the documentation provided. There is no index.

p. 10: For all his rough appearance, Bartlett had a soft spot for beauty. He loved women, although he was a confirmed bachelor, and his heart truly belonged to his mother, whom he wrote every day, no matter where he was. He also loved music, and on ships he kept Shakespeare close at hand, as well as George Palmer’s translation of the Odyssey, which he would quote from frequently. His constant companion, though, was Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Its pages were now frayed, and it was held together by surgeon’s plaster to keep it from falling to pieces. That little book had gone with him on voyages to foreign ports while he was serving his years of apprenticeship to get his British master’s certificate in 1905. The book had also been with him on both his trips with Peary aboard the Roosevelt, and to Europe after Peary’s attempt at the North Pole. It had accompanied him on a hunting trip to the Arctic, and on numerous sealing trips.

p. 18, a young Scottish helper aboard was William McKinlay who was given a Bible by his local minister just before he boarded. Inscription read “Best wishes Psalm 121.”

p. 34: The staff and officers gathered nightly for Victrola concerts. Each mess room—that of the scientists and of the crewmen—had a gramophone and there were over two hundred records aboard. They were mostly classical with some ragtime thrown in for variety. The Prologue from Pagliacci and Bach’s ‘Air for G String’ were special favorites with everyone, but they soon discovered that Bartlett had no patience for ragtime.

p. 35-36: [Bartlett] spent a notable amount of time cutting pictures from the illustrated papers and magazines they had on board, an activity that quite naturally piqued the interests of his shipmates. The editors of the ship’s newsletter, the Karluk Chronicle, voiced the intense shipwide curiosity as to just where it was Bartlett was putting these clippings.

p. 57-58, Topographer Bjarne Mamen, who did not survive, read books by Amundsen and Nansen and some of the other explorers: The Karluk had an extensive polar library, everything from Robert Peary to Frederick Cook to Adolphus Greely—books on the Antarctic and the Arctic; reports of the steamer Corwin and the United States cutter Bear; narratives of journeys to the Northwest Passage, the Bering Sea, the heart of the polar ice pack.

The Norwegian Amundsen, of course, was Mamen’s favorite, the man he wanted to become. For months now, he’d been scouring Amundsen’s books, making mental notes on the expedition he wanted to lead himself one day…. Tonight he was reading something much more pressing—the ship and ice journals of George Washington De Long, who headed for the North Pole in July 1879 [aboard the Jeannette] and never returned. De Long’s diaries dated from 1879-1881 and were written in two volumes and eight hundred pages. Importance was the similarity of De Long’s trip with that of the Karluk which was drifting on the same path.

p. 67, on the difficulty of communication with Eskimos because of difficult translations: “Dried apples” in English became “situk” in Eskimo, which meant “resembling an ear.” “Salvation” became “pulling from a hole in the ice” in Eskimo. And the Twenty-third Psalm translated rather delightfully and alarmingly into: “The Lord is my great keeper; he does not want me. He shoots me down on the beach, & pushes me into the water.”

p. 81 refers briefly to the ship’s library available to the seamen.

p. 96: The captain recommended books to McKinlay so that he could read them and they could discuss them afterward. Bartlett loved to pick up his worn and dog-eared volumes of Shakespeare and Browning and Shelley and Keats—not to mention his favorite of all, the Rubáiyát—and read aloud from them. He thumbed the pages with his clumsy, thick-fingered hands, soiled and rough, and looked up at his companion, crinkling his blue eyes with delight.

p. 112-13: The latest book the captain had given McKinlay to read was The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill [the American novelist]. Bartlett’s library was endless and wildly eclectic. One never knew what one was going to find in there, buried beneath the favored classics and stories of sea adventures. One night, among the expected nautical and maritime volumes, McKinlay noticed a slender text called A Book About Roses by Reynolds Hole.” It was an odd sight, for no one would ever have connected Bartlett with the flower. [A saccharine passage on roses in the Arctic follows: “He who would have beautiful Roses in his garden must have beautiful Roses in his heart.”]

p. 124, when Karluk sank Bartlett saved his Rubáiyát but couldn’t find his boots.

p.157, after a reconnaissance trip, probably to Herald Island: The thing that puzzled them the most, though, was that the descriptions Mamen and the Eskimos gave of the island did not agree with the one given by the Pilot Book. It was true that Herald Island was in keeping with the positionsthey had taken with the chronometer, but the land that Mamen had seen looked to be eighteen miles long instead of the four and a halfmiles cited by the Pilot Book.

p. 224-25: Bartlett had looked at Nordenskjöld’s book Voyage of the Vega, aboard the Karluk, even though it was written in German and he didn’t speak the language. But he studied the pictures, which gave him an idea of what they would be facing once then reached land [Wrangel Island].

p. 244: On Peary’s 1909 North Pole expedition, while the admiral and J. WGoodsell and Professor Donald B. MacMillan had opened a case of books and afterwards had come down with violent colds. The books were brand new and had never been read or owned by anyone But they had, apparently, been packed by a man infected with a cold.

Other references: p. 231 on magazines Bartlett was given on his overland rescue trip; p. 269 on using arctic willow and magazine papers for their first smokes in months; p. 343 on Maurer’s carrying his mother’s Bible when rescued.