The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  The Karluk drifted strongly to the northwest, and they were now only 140 miles from Wrangel Island’s longitude. They had been carried hundreds of miles off course, far to the west of Alaska and Herschel Island, and they were still faithfully following the route of De Long’s Jeannette.

  The ship was leaking alarmingly and it took them at least an hour and a half each day to pump her dry. The men pumped with their own physical power because the steam was still shut off while engine repairs continued.

  The Karluk vibrated and shuddered continuously from the force of the winds and the movement of the ice. Outside, it was dark as pitch, and the only solace they found was sitting before the dim glow of the saloon stove. They piled as much fuel into the stove as they could.

  Enormous snowdrifts mounted around the Karluk, covering most of the ship’s perimeter. On the lee side, snowdrifts grew higher than deck level, soon towering above the ship, threatening to cave in on top of her at any moment. As the storm roared on, the wind sometimes reached a velocity of eighty miles an hour.

  On December 23, the storm was still raging in its sixth day with no sign of relief. Bartlett was extremely anxious, and for once, he wasn’t able to disguise it. The men watched him stride the deck agitatedly, pensive and especially withdrawn and were struck with fear to see him this way.

  Dr. Mackay, Murray, and Beuchat now began to dwell on the more morbid details of the demise of De Long and his men. The drift of the Jeannette was no longer as interesting as the tragic fate of her company. The fate of De Long was, they were certain, to be their own. The doctor and his comrades talked of nothing else, so McKinlay and Mamen began to avoid them altogether.

  Maurer, Clam, and the rest of the crewmen were not aware of De Long or the Jeannette, but they did know as well as anyone how grave their situation was. They worked every day in the thick of things, and they understood the sea far better than their scientific counterparts. They had no Arctic experience among them, but they could see the dangers.

  Maurer wrote, “You would naturally10 think that a sense of loneliness would come over the crew; but, on the contrary, we were always in good spirits. Each one seemed to realize the situation we were in, but avoided talking about it—except occasionally we would revert to it and wonder how long and far we would drift before we were crushed, and what would be the result.”

  Meanwhile, the Karluk drifted rapidly west. The men could see signs of open water in the distance, and the watchman reported a lead opening up ahead, over a mile away. Low clouds hovered above the horizon indicating land. They could only guess it was Wrangel Island, that barren, wretched place that De Long had written of in his journals.

  McKinlay, Mamen, and Malloch found solace in Bartlett’s cabin. Each had been keeping busy as best he could and visits to the captain were a welcome reward during those long days.

  McKinlay had been teaching English to Kataktovik, who was an eager student, borrowing paper from the magnetician so that he could practice his English and write letters. Mamen, to everyone’s surprise, had won the chess tournament, beating the illustrious Dr. Mackay in a brutal tie-breaker, and accepting the promised box of fifty cigars for first place while Sandy took the box of twenty-five for second. Malloch had finally returned to the Cabin DeLuxe after suffering the cold of the chart house for as long as he could. He endured some good-natured ribbing from his friends, but he was too sleepy to care. He could do without pride if it meant being warm again.

  The three endured cutting remarks from Dr. Mackay each time they returned from their visits to Bartlett. The drugs, no doubt, had something to do with his bitterness, and the fact that he and the captain were still not on speaking terms.

  Bartlett was alone on that ship and he felt it. Despite all of the personality clashes among the scientists and crewmen, they at least had each other. Thus it was that the more perceptive members of the group—McKinlay, Mamen, and, sometimes, Malloch—found themselves in the captain’s cabin, passing long hours on those winter days.

  Bartlett sat there as they conversed, after the work was done for the day, and told them about his life on land as the toast of high society, a realm he was proud to be invited into, but one where he didn’t feel he truly belonged. Indeed, he felt awkward anywhere on land. 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.

  “Gosh now, that’s11 a mighty fine thing. How do you suppose he knew how to say it that way?” Then Bartlett would shake his head, marveling, and continue to read. For a few moments, it seemed, he was able to forget about the cold and the ice, the helpless ship, the leader who had, it seemed, abandoned them, and the precious lives for which he alone, as captain, was responsible.

  THE APPROACH OF CHRISTMAS raised their spirits considerably. Christmas Eve was spent in a flurry of activity and preparation for the celebration. Even the uncaring Templeman bustled around the galley, baking cakes and other delicacies.

  There was a beautiful aurora that night. It began in the northwest and stretched across the sky in a broad S-shaped curtain, patterned like a kaleidoscope with patches of brightly changing lights that grew and moved with the blink of an eye. The sky was brilliant, color-swept, and alive.

  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 possible12 figures which boggled the imagination,” he wrote. It seemed pure magic. When describing the wonders of the Arctic sky in his diary, McKinlay recalled the definition of a phenomenon given by George W. Melville, chief engineer of the Jeannette, and recorded in De Long’s diary. “’Gin ye see13 a coo, Jamie, that’s no’ a phenomenon, & gin ye see a tree, that’s no’ a phenomenon; but gin ye see a coo climbing up a tree backwards, that’s a phenomenon, Jamie, that’s a phenomenon.’”

  The Arctic sky was, for the men of the Karluk, a phenomenon. And the brilliant aurora on Christmas Eve seemed a gift of the highest nature.

  That night the staff and crew of the Canadian Arctic Expedition were overcome with the greatest sense of longing they had felt since sailing from Victoria on that now-distant June evening. Mamen crept into his narrow bunk and lost himself in thoughts of Christmases past and the people who meant the most to him on earth. Where were his brothers, he wondered? Were they at home or were they traveling in foreign countries? And what of his parents?

  His thoughts kept returning to his fiancée, Ellen. He could imagine tears spilling down her face, as she cried for him. “Yes, poor little14 one, it is hard to be young and beautiful and to love, without being able to see or to hear from the one one loves. When I think of them, all my beloved ones and the festival, I would rather cry, but I am hardened, the tears will not come. It is on such festive days that longing grips one, one surely does not know how well one is off as long as one is at home, it is only when one gets away that one misses it.. . .”

  THEY CELEBRATED a memorable and moving holiday, one of the happiest times they had spent since leaving Esquimalt. McKinlay, Sandy, and Williamson dragged themselves from their bunks at 5:30 A.M. to decorate the saloon. They were bleary-eyed, but excited. December had been a stormy month, but Christmas morning was, miraculously, perfect. The wind had died down to a breeze, the temperature hovered somewhere between minus 13 degrees and minus 22.8 degrees Fahrenheit,
cold but bearable now without the wind, and the stars were shining brightly.

  McKinlay met the mate and the second engineer in the galley, where they knocked the sleep out of their eyes over a strong cup of tea. Then they went to the saloon where they rolled up their sleeves and did the best they could with the decorations. The brightly colored international code flags were unearthed and draped across the walls, hung from the deck above in festive fashion. For all these months, Hadley had been carrying a good supply of ribbon with him for trading, and now that he wouldn’t need it anymore, McKinlay and the others used it to tie up the room with red, white, and blue. They found a large piece of canvas, and on this they splashed Christmas greetings in red and blue paint, hanging it opposite Bartlett’s chair at the head of the table so that he would have the best view. So the other fellows would have something to look at as well, they grandly draped the Canadian ensign behind the captain’s chair.

  When the “lie-a-beds,” as McKinlay dubbed them, had finally risen, they were amazed by what he and Sandy and Williamson had done with the saloon. It was a remarkable improvement. The worn and grimy ship, their home for just over six months, had always been dark, dirty, and depressing. The floor creaked and the air was dank and stuffy. But suddenly, all was brightness, cheer, and color, and the change was wonderful. The men felt their spirits lifting, and it actually felt like a holiday.

  They had marmalade every other day with breakfast—something each man looked forward to—but for Christmas morning breakfast, they were treated to jam as well as marmalade. Afterward, the three weary decorators each napped for an hour before joining the rest of the ship’s company outside on the ice, dressed in their warmest clothes.

  McKinlay had spent all of Christmas Eve planning the sports program with Sandy and Williamson. With deliberate care, they laid out the course for the obstacle race and the other races and marked areas for the shot-putting and jumping contests. It was going to be a big event, and for the first time staff and crew were participating together. Until then, everything—chess tournament, nightly gramophone concerts, meals, mess—had been separate, the sailors sticking to their quarters at the front of the ship, the Eskimos to the laboratory, and the staff and officers together at the back.

  Fireman Breddy took the first event, the 100-yard sprint. Ten of the men competed, and three or four were injured on the treacherous snow, their mukluks tripping them up and making running difficult. The next two events were the long jump and the standing jump, both won easily by Mamen. As the best athlete on board, he was a fierce and feared competitor. But Bartlett took him aside in the days before Christmas and asked him to participate in only two events so that there would be prizes left for the other men.

  When it came time for the sack race, they discovered that all of the sacks they had set aside were frozen, so they had to tie their legs and arms together to simulate what it was like being in one. Sandy came in an easy first, and afterward won the hop, step, and leap event as well.

  They retired to the ship for coffee and a smoke because the cold weather froze the tobacco juice in their pipes, making it impossible to smoke outdoors. And then they were back at it in the afternoon, Breddy again winning the first event, this time the 50-yard sprint. Shot-putting was next, and Munro emerged triumphant, in spite of the fact that he had suffered a deep gash in his foot just that morning when he stepped on the jagged edge of a tin buried in the snow. It cut straight through his mukluks and pierced the skin. Dr. Mackay treated the wound, and Munro, now limping, returned to the games, determined not to let his injury interfere with his fun. Mamen also was injured, having twisted his bad knee, but not so badly that he couldn’t walk.

  There was a comical hurdle race in which all the participants were disqualified. And then Sandy beat both Chafe and chief engineer Munro at the high jump, with a measurement of four feet four inches, not a bad height considering the uncooperative condition of the ice. The highlight for everyone was the obstacle race. McKinlay, Sandy, and Williamson had put great thought and effort into creating a challenging course. One of the obstacles was a snowdrift, which the men had to climb. Half of them slid down the sides repeatedly, unable to get up and over. The bowlines, too, proved treacherous, especially as McKinlay and his teammates had organized them in the most undignified and awkward positions they could contrive. Munro was the unlucky one, getting tangled up, and was left hanging suspended until they helped him down.

  At the dredge house, each runner searched for the life belt with his name on it. The results were hilarious. Williamson and Kataktovik ran off with the wrong belts while Breddy found his, but raced off without getting it fastened. Sandy, meanwhile, discovered his belt lacked fastenings altogether, which was made even funnier by the fact that he was the one who had laid the belts out the night before. Chafe, who had fallen to last place throughout the race, was the only one who managed to secure his belt properly, so he ended up taking the prize.

  They ended with the tug-of-war, since no sports program would be complete without one. The two teams from aft faced each other first. Bartlett, Hadley, McKinlay, Williamson, and Sandy pulled against Mackay, Beuchat, Malloch, Chafe, and Kataktovik. Bartlett’s team won the first and third pulls, which meant they went on to face the team from forward: Maurer, Breddy, Clam, Morris, and Kuraluk. After a ten-minute break for Bartlett’s group, they were sufficiently rested to win the first pull. The sailors won the second, though, and then Hadley had to retire because of a frostbitten foot, which meant Munro took his place on the captain’s team. With his injury, Munro couldn’t match Hadley’s wiry strength, and the sailors won again.

  It was too dark and too cold then for anything else, so the men retired to the ship to rest and warm their frozen noses, fingers, and toes and to prepare for dinner. McKinlay had typed menu cards for everyone, and these he set at each place at the table. The table itself looked festive, with a small artificial Christmas tree as the centerpiece, and in place of their regular mismatched enameled ware, Templeman had brought out a new set of china. This in itself was a treat because usually there weren’t enough dishes for everyone; there were only nine bowls and seven cups, which meant one or two of them ate their soup from sugar basins. Likewise, there were only eight stools and two chairs, so that for all twelve officers and staff to sit down together, someone had to perch on a box or a canister of dynamite.

  On Christmas night, however, they didn’t seem to notice. As they all took their places, Bartlett produced a bottle of whiskey and filled the glasses, giving only a drop to the teetotalers—himself and Malloch and McKinlay. Before either Malloch or McKinlay could protest even this small amount, Bartlett whispered that they must follow his example.

  When asked once why he abstained from drinking, Bartlett had answered, “Because God gave15 me my body and I propose to take care of it.”

  “But you drag your body all around and put it out in the cold and get it wet and do a lot of other things that damage it more than liquor would,” the inquisitive party pointed out.

  “But every time I have a good reason to do so,” Bartlett replied.

  Now, with just one drop of whiskey in his glass, Bartlett addressed the Karluk’s company. “Fellows16,” said the captain, “I want you to drink one toast. Stand, please.”

  Everyone rose and held their glasses high, watching Bartlett expectantly. They had not had whiskey since crossing the Arctic Circle on July 27, except for the times Dr. Mackay prescribed it for seasickness, and they knew the significance of this event.

  In a solemn voice, the captain continued, “To the loved ones at home.”

  It was a heartfelt sentiment, and his words were met with silence. The glasses were raised, the whiskey drunk, and the men, too moved to speak, sat down again.

  “What thoughts passed17 through our minds,” wrote McKinlay afterward. “For a spell no one moved or spoke; in spirit, we were, each of us, thousands of miles away. How were these loved ones faring? Were they all in good health? Were they prospering? We
did not ask ourselves if they were thinking of us, for we knew that their thoughts would linger long on us that day. God grant that any news they may have received of our plight did not cause them any undue anxiety.”

  After a silent blessing, the men dug into the meal before them. It was as grand and elaborate a feast as they could make from the provisions at hand: mixed pickles, sweet pickles, oyster soup, frozen lobster, bear steaks, ox tongue, potatoes (which had been saved from the start of the voyage for this very occasion), green peas, asparagus with cream sauce, mince pies, plum pudding, mixed nuts, tea, cake, and strawberries.

  The men ate until they were stuffed, and afterward, as a special treat, they opened Christmas boxes which had been given to them by the ladies of Victoria, British Columbia, to save for the holiday. One of these contained an assortment of cakes, shortbread, sweets, cigars, cigarettes, and a harmonica for the “baby” of the expedition. It was handed to Mamen, who promptly tried his best to make it hum.

  After their feast, the men retired for an hour of rest, rising again at 7:30 P.M. to continue the celebration. But all were exhausted, worn out from the unaccustomed physical exertion. They had no strength left for anything but smoking and listening to the gramophone, which they did until, one by one, they all gave in to sleep.

  Mamen felt the pain from his knee injury later that night and discovered his kneecap had been dislocated. Dr. Mackay looked it over and treated it with iodine, but the young athlete suffered for most of the night. Still, nothing—not even this—could dull the excitement and joy of the day’s festivities. It had been, as Mamen noted, a happy day in all respects.

  THE CRACKING OF THE ICE was like a gunshot, blasting through the silent blackness of their frozen world. They heard the report at 10:00 A.M. on December 26. It was the unmistakable rupturing of the ice. The sound was ominous and everyone rushed above deck to investigate. They had just finished breakfast, most of them lazy and sluggish after the celebration of the day before.

 
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