The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven



  The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KARLUK


  For Penelope Niven and Jack Fain McJunkin, Jr.,

  my mother and father.

  And to the memory of the twenty-two men, one woman, and two children

  who stayed aboard the Karluk—those who came back and those who did not.

  It is good for the world to hear suchstories sometimes. It makes thelives of Mallochs and Mamenslive on after them.




  OCTOBER 30, 1914




  Aboard the KARLUK

  September 29, 1924

  August 1913

  September 1913

  October 1913

  November 1913

  December 1913

  January 1914

  February 1914

  March 1914

  April 1914

  May 1914

  June 1914

  July 1914

  August 1914

  September 1914

  The Wake




  Photo and Map Credits


  About the Author



  I am afraid1 that the task has taken complete charge of me.


  William Laird McKinlay, a small, weak infant, was not expected to live very long. The doctors told his parents that he would be lucky to survive a year and that, if by some miracle the child should live longer, he would never make it to adulthood.

  But William McKinlay did make it to adulthood. Against all odds, he was alive and well in 1913, a slight, attractive young man of twenty-four, fair-haired, articulate, with refined manners and a quick intellect. He had stopped growing at five feet four inches, earning the nickname “Wee Mac” from friends and family. It was a name he did not mind. He was, after all, lucky to be alive.

  He didn’t fully appreciate this fact until later in life after he joined Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s ambitious Canadian Arctic Expedition in June 1913, signing on as magnetician and meteorologist. When McKinlay was an old man, he wrote, “The two years2, 1913 and 1914, saw the last two expeditions to the polar regions of the old historic type in the wooden ships and before the days of radio and aeroplanes—the Karluk to the north and Shackleton’s Endurance to the south. Both vessels met the same fate. Both stories tell of strenuous journeys of seven or eight hundreds of miles to bring rescue. The Endurance story ended happily and has been fully and faithfully recorded; the other ended tragically but has never been well and truthfully documented.”

  McKinlay spent most of the post-Karluk years of his life writing about and collecting material on the Canadian Arctic Expedition and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He was a man obsessed, determined to set the record straight, and to clear the name of Captain Robert A. Bartlett who, he believed, had saved his life. McKinlay finally published his version of the story in 1976 at the age of eighty-five. But for the next seven years, up until his death in 1983, he was actually working on a more forthright account of the 1913 Arctic expedition and Stefansson, its “leader.” He never got to share that unfinished account with the world. Instead, his rough manuscript and papers were consigned to archives and libraries, read only by the random, interested researcher.

  His notes are voluminous and amazingly detailed, many written in his neat yet shaky eighty-some-year-old hand. He had kept three diaries documenting his experiences in 1913 and 1914, one written expressly for the Canadian government, and the other two written only for himself. In these private journals, he recorded the full, tumultuous emotional experience of his journey. One of the journals was kept in pencil, written in a series of old student notebooks, and the other was an expanded version of this, painstakingly recopied by hand once he returned to civilization. He selected only statistics and the driest facts for the version he submitted to the government.

  People who knew him describe a man haunted by the expedition. He himself wrote, “Not all the horrors3 of the Western Front, not the rubble of Arras, nor the hell of Ypres, nor all the mud of Flanders leading to Passchendale, could blot out the memories of that year in the Arctic.”

  Until his death at the age of ninety-two, McKinlay was not running from the disturbing memories of the past, but trying to recall them and present them to the world. The fact that this mission was never quite accomplished was one of the primary reasons I wanted to write this book. What could drive a man to devote sixty-some years of his life to recording the events of one year? Was it the horrors he witnessed? The memory of his tragically lost comrades? The debt he felt he owed to his hero, Captain Bartlett? Or that the only other point of view available for public consumption belonged to Stefansson, the man McKinlay held responsible for the Karluk tragedy?

  Legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went so far as to call Vilhjalmur Stefansson “the greatest humbug4 alive.” There were some, in fact, who considered Stefansson a laughing stock for his alleged discovery of a race of “Blond Eskimo.” His is the name that remains in the history books, however, while the men of his 1913–1914 expedition have been overlooked, lost, and essentially forgotten. McKinlay did his best to change this, but died before he could set the record straight. By tackling the subject myself, it is not my intention to dispute the good that Stefansson did in his lifetime or the valuable discoveries he made, nor do I intend to delve into Stefansson’s pre- or post-Karluk careers, except as they relate to this particular expedition.

  McKinlay’s notes have been extremely helpful to me as I have attempted to reconstruct this fateful tale. His extreme patience with the mountains of material, as well as his great thoroughness, are impressive. But I have also made extensive use of diaries kept by seven other members of the expedition. I have included a note at the end of this book on my research, sources, and methodology.

  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. In some places, they speak directly, and all dialogue that appears in quotes in this book comes verbatim from their own diaries or letters, or from interviews with the descendants and survivors. Likewise, any insight into the feelings or thoughts of these people comes from the feelings and thoughts explicitly expressed in their journals and descriptions of the Arctic conditions are either quoted directly or adapted from specific observations from journals and diaries of the men who experienced them.

  I want you to know them by the names their comrades called them, and for that reason I have sacrificed formality in the following cases: first mate Alexander Anderson, known as “Sandy” to his shipmates, will also be known as “Sandy” here; Seaman Hugh Williams, who was only addressed by his nickname, “Clam,” remains “Clam”; and the Inuit woman Kiruk is referred to by the name that the men of the Karluk affectionately called her—“Auntie.” In addition, although “Inuit” is the proper term in this present day, during the time in which these men lived, the term “Eskimo” was used instead. To avoid confusion with the firsthand accounts from the time, I have chosen to use that word as well, even though it is now considered inaccurate.

  McKinlay spent his life searching for answers and an understanding of what happened to him in the Arctic in 1913 and 1914. “If there is5 any explanation,” he wrote at the end of his life, “I hope that someone may find it in the mass of material available and give it to the world.”

  That is what I have done my best to do.

  Aboard the KARL


  Robert Abram Bartlett—master (age 36)

  Alexander “Sandy” Anderson—first officer (age 22)

  Charles Barker—second officer (twenties)

  John Munro—chief engineer (thirties)

  Robert Williamson—second engineer (age 36)

  John Brady—seaman (twenties)

  Edmund Lawrence Golightly (alias Archie King)—seaman (twenties)

  T. Stanley Morris—seaman (age 26)

  Hugh “Clam” Williams—seaman (twenties)

  George Breddy—fireman (early twenties)

  Fred Maurer—fireman (age 21)

  Robert “Bob” Templeman—cook and steward (early twenties)

  Ernest “Charlie” Chafe—mess room boy/assistant steward (19–20)


  Vilhjalmur Stefansson—commander (age 33)

  M. Henri Beuchat—anthropologist (age 34)

  Diamond Jenness—anthropologist (age 27)

  Alister Forbes Mackay—surgeon (age 35)

  George Stewart Malloch—geologist (age 33)

  Bjarne Mamen—assistant topographer/forester (age 22)

  Burt McConnell—secretary (age 24)

  William Laird McKinlay—magnetician/meteorologist (age 24)

  James Murray—oceanographer (age 46)

  George H. Wilkins—photographer (age 24)


  Pauyuraq “Jerry”—hunter (early twenties)

  Asecaq “Jimmy”—hunter (early twenties)

  Kataktovik—hunter (19)

  Kuraluk—hunter (late twenties)

  Kiruk “Auntie”—seamstress (late twenties)

  Helen—age 8

  Mugpi—age 3


  John Hadley—carpenter (age 57)

  Nigeraurak—ship’s cat (not even a year old)

  September 29, 1924

  We did not1 all come back.


  The island was a no-man’s-land, little more than a mountainous slab of rock high above the Arctic Circle. Six miles of cliffs ran across it, four to seven hundred feet high. The only sliver of shoreline came at the northwestern point where the cliffs crumbled into piles of jagged rocks and gravel. The island was impossible to reach by ship or by plane, the winds raging about it, its shores surrounded by violent, raftering ice and fierce currents. So ferocious and unforgiving were the elements at Herald Island, in fact, that no one would ever live there, except for the polar bears, arctic foxes, and occasional birds that sought refuge on its rocky shores.

  On September 29, 1924, however, eleven men stood silent, on the northwestern point of the island.

  Captain Louis Lane and the passengers of the MS Herman had traveled to uninhabited Herald Island intending to claim it for the United States. Even though the2 island was essentially uninhabitable, men strove to possess it as they do all things, the first person to do so being Captain Kellett, R.N., who claimed it in 1849 for Great Britain in the name of Queen Victoria. And as far as Captain Lane and his men had known, they were to be the first human visitors to the island since Captain Calvin Hooper of the USS Corwin, forty-three years earlier.

  Captain Lane had intended to land on September 27; but the tides were impenetrable, and he and his men had been unable to follow through. On September 28, they made it to land, planted the United States flag, and read a proclamation.

  Their work accomplished, Captain Lane turned the ship toward the northwest. As they rounded the northwestern point of the island, however, he spotted something from the crow’s nest—a shadow against the beach. Through the field glasses, the crew could make out the outline of a sled and several dark objects. The following morning, they dropped anchor half a mile offshore and once again landed on tiny Herald Island.

  Eleven men went ashore that day. The bitter Arctic wind chilled them. It seemed more biting on this side of the island. It was barely October, and although winter had not yet set in with its full force, the weather was already savagely cold.

  The outline they had seen was indeed a sled. Its skeletal frame, weathered and broken, lay shattered against the narrow beach. Strewn over the snow-covered ground surrounding the sled were over two dozen of the black objects, thick, rectangular tins: pemmican, that canned mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat that was the staple of polar diets at the time. One man stooped to pick up a can. It was heavy and when he cracked it open he discovered its contents had never been touched.

  The men took photographs before disturbing anything. And then they began to dig through the snow, searching for answers. Beneath all of that white, they uncovered the remains of a fire. From the pile of ashes that lay beneath, it was clear that a great many fires had been built in that very same spot, years and years ago. If this was any indication, the men who had built those fires had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.

  Discarded on the gravel beach was a 30-30 Winchester automatic rifle with dozens of cartridges. It was an eerie souvenir, its stock weathered almost white, its barrel dark with rust, its magazine corroded and partially missing. And there, on3 the side, cut into the wood, two rusted initials were inscribed: “B.M.”

  Then someone stumbled across something that made these men draw back in horror—the crossed thighbones of a man. Just beyond, a bleached shoulder blade was discovered. The men kept digging. Soon they uncovered a decayed tent, its aged canvas torn and soiled from time and the elements, and underneath a sleeping bag of reindeer skin. Its folds hid other human bones, including a man’s hand, perfectly intact, down to the tapered nail of the thumb, lacking only flesh to make it lifelike.

  And then someone held up a human jawbone. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. It was a strong jaw, with two of its wisdom teeth still imbedded. As one of the men described it: “A young man4 with a firm, capable jaw, cleft as to chin and with fine, regular teeth. A young man thus to die and leave his bones strewn to bleach on this wind-swept shore! With what hopes and ambitions had he sailed north—only to die, his deathplace all these years unknown and unmarked!”

  It wasn’t long before the men uncovered two more jawbones within feet of the first. They seemed to belong to older men. A hundred or so yards away, a fourth jawbone was discovered, the oldest yet. No skulls were found.

  It was difficult to discern how long ago the men had come there, or how they had met their fates. Bear tracks encircled the camp, but close examination of the bones revealed no teeth marks or signs of violent death. These four men, whoever they were, seemed to have died with all the necessities of life at their fingertips. There was evidence of too much food for the men to have died of starvation. Even if they had run out of pemmican, there was ammunition for both the 30-30 Winchester and a .22 Winchester automatic rifle. They also had an abundance of matches, two Primus stoves, and a beach strewn with driftwood.

  They were probably suffering the effects of slow starvation and might also have been afflicted with scurvy. Only two or three teeth remained in each jawbone, and the men had most likely lost the rest of them while still alive. It must have been dreadful for them. If they had died of illness or the elements, however, it seemed odd that they would all perish at the same time. No one had been buried and the remains of their skeletons lay in similar positions, peaceful and undisturbed, as if the four men had just lain down to sleep.

  The remaining discoveries gave few clues. Captain Lane and5 his men uncovered a silver watch, a pocket compass, snow glasses, field glasses, hunting knives, a sled harness, three pocket knives (one engraved with the letter M), a thermometer tube, ice picks, axes, a shovel, a pair of snow shoes, a pair of skis, a can opener, a tin of tea, three enamel mugs, a silver spoon, two whiskey bottles, a candle, a nickel belt buckle, socks, mitts, caps, a sheepskin coat, rope, and the remains of a horsehair mattress.

  The men searched the entire camp, digging beneath the snow and even into the earth, but no paper was found, no diaries and no docu
ments. These men had not left behind any written record of their story. Captain Lane and his men could only speculate as to who they were and what had happened to them.

  Back on board the ship, Captain Lane and the others set the four jawbones on a table, side by side. They tried to imagine what the men had looked like in life. Who were they before they gave up their living, breathing souls to this desolate place?

  August 1913

  The Chief of1 the Expedition will be careful not to endanger the lives of the party, and while neglecting no opportunity of furthering the aim of the Government, he will bear in mind the necessity of always providing for the safe return of the party. The safety of the ship itself is not so important.



  (NORTHERN PARTY 1914–1918)

  Captain Bob Bartlett stood in the crow’s nest of the HMCS Karluk and damned the ship. She was stuck hard and fast and there was nothing he could do but narrow his eyes against the blinding white that surrounded them and survey the horizon, searching for any sign of passage through the thickening ice field.

  Everyone had counted on another month of clear seas, not expecting traces of winter until September. But early on the evening of August 1, 1913, the drifting rafts of white were glimpsed just off the port bow. A few hours later, the ice was seen to starboard. In the distance, sweeping across the horizon, was a blinding band of unbroken white. Here and there, a loose floe of ice caught the sunlight and gleamed like a prism, a shimmering blue.

  At first glance, Bartlett had condemned the Karluk. She was too slow and her hull was too weak. She would never have the power or strength to break through the ice they would inevitably face on their journey into the great, frozen Arctic. It was foolish to head north in such an ill-equipped, heavily loaded vessel, but expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson had been impatient to be on his way.

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