The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  Now as they stood outside, a fresh southeast breeze building around them, they saw the long, spiraling crack in the ice along the entire length of the starboard side of the Karluk. The ice was pressing in so tightly around the sides of the ship—even breaking through the gangway—that the men were afraid she would be crushed that very moment.

  They had dreaded this, had prayed against it. With their recent proximity to land, they knew the ship was now especially vulnerable to ice pressure, and Bartlett and his men were terrified that she would end up in the middle of a pressure ridge where she would, no doubt, be crushed once the ice began to move.

  Murray and Beuchat swore, in loud and desperate words, that it would be the last of them, and most of the men were deathly frightened. All their plans, all those miles traveled, and here they were. If the ship were crushed, what would become of them? How would they ever get word to the outside world?

  Everyone prepared to abandon ship. Pemmican was already laid out on the deck, some of it in the original cumbersome black tins, other portions sewn up in canvas bags. The Primus stoves had been boxed up, and the fuel and the biscuits and the other provisions were waiting on the ice floe that held them. Now the men transferred the tablets of tea into packages that would be easy to carry. Others picked up their sewing with an urgency they had not felt before. They dressed skins for trousers and shirts and prayed that the ship would last, at least until these garments were finished.

  The dogs, on short rations now, and given cooked food only every three or four days, were turned loose in the snow so that they could move around and warm themselves. McKinlay and the Eskimos had constructed two shelters for the dogs on the ice, but the dogs showed no interest in either, preferring instead to stay on the open ice during the daytime, doubling up in a circle, nose under tail, remaining still for hours until the snow covered them.

  That night, after the skins were sewn, the pemmican laid out on deck, the Primus stoves stored in boxes, and the tea tablets placed in packages, the men tried to sleep, the joy of Christmas now forgotten. The only traces that remained of the holiday were the many aches and pains from the strenuous exercise of the day before.

  The next few weeks would be critical. On board the Karluk, everything suddenly seemed utterly cold, dark, and grim. Even the stove in the Cabin DeLuxe had gone out after supper that night, leaving the room bitterly chilled.

  THE WIND DIED DOWN somewhat on December 27, but it was still blowing strong. The Karluk drifted steadily westward, and they were now, the captain calculated, just fifty-three miles from tiny Herald Island, which itself was approximately thirty-eight miles east of larger, albeit equally inhospitable, Wrangel Island. Malloch, taking his daily observations, thought he spotted land in the distance, rising up out of the snow and ice and fog. Sandy climbed to the crow’s nest but could see nothing. On deck, the men noticed a long, low cloud, which hovered over the horizon, suggesting the presence of either Herald or Wrangel Island. The men expected to sight either soon.

  The sun was still slumbering below the horizon, but little by little the sky lightened every day. As their dark world grew a little brighter, the men were grateful for the reminder that the sun would not be gone forever. December 21 had held special significance for them, because it was the day the sun had reached its southern limit and begun its journey northward. “We should get18 our first sight of him in about 6 weeks from now,” wrote McKinlay. “People at home cannot realise the significance of this astronomical fact.”

  Prizes were awarded to the winners of the Christmas sporting events, but this did little to take their minds off the ice. It was a constant, fearsome presence. Everywhere they looked, their world was ice. Indeed, the ship was only a dark speck in all that white.

  The ice crashed, creaked, and groaned. The men had no rest from the unrelenting noise—the splintering roars and muffled rumblings. “I hope no19 catastrophe will come before we get the light back,” Mamen wrote.

  According to the chronometer, they were now fifty miles north of Herald Island, and the Karluk, with each day, was still rapidly mimicking the drift of the Jeannette. Careful watch was kept in the barrel as they scoured the expansive white vista for land. They strained their eyes and peered through the field glasses; but the horizon was hazy and there was nothing in sight.

  Midday on the twenty-ninth, Mamen was working on a pair of skin boots in the captain’s cabin, when Bartlett said, “I believe I20 saw land this morning. I saw the same indications yesterday.” There was not just the suggestion of land this time, but actual mountain peaks, which he could see in the distance from the crow’s nest.

  Meanwhile, up on deck, McKinlay was reading his instruments and studying the icescape. The same low, long cloud hovered in the distance, and the magnetician strained his eyes in that direction until he was positive he could see a rugged peak, rising above the horizon.

  “Is that land21 ahead?” he asked Sandy, who was just climbing down from the barrel.

  McKinlay pointed toward the mountain peak and Sandy nodded. He had seen it from the lookout but didn’t think it could be seen from the deck. While Sandy took the news to the captain, McKinlay hailed all hands, but by the time they appeared a haze had crept in, obscuring the view. The “bloody scientist” received a lot of ribbing for it, because his shipmates assumed he was pulling a prank, but Sandy confirmed the sighting south-southwest of the ship.

  A couple of hours later, the distinctive silhouettes of mountains rose out of the distance, with one peak soaring high above the rest. This, they speculated, was Wrangel Island’s highest point, Mount Berry, 2,500 feet above sea level, rising up out of the middle of the island. McKinlay once again summoned the nonbelievers, who gave a rousing cheer at the sight of land. If they could make it to land, they would be safe and they would not have to worry about being stranded on the ice, in the darkness, and in the cold.

  They stood there, watching it until the darkness eventually seemed to swallow the island and its glorious peaks. From its appearance, the land seemed too large for Herald Island, which was noted in the Pilot Book as being only four miles long. The chronometers suggested it was Herald, but the chronometers had been inaccurate from the beginning of the voyage. The scientists and Bartlett concluded tentatively, therefore, that it must be Wrangel Island instead, especially since the depth agreed with the listed depth northeast of the island. Bartlett placed it at approximately longitude 177 degrees west.

  The sighting of land came as a welcome surprise to the ship’s company, and it was all the inspiration Dr. Mackay, Murray, and Beuchat needed to put into motion their plans to set out on their own. Immediately, they began preparations to leave the Karluk, intent on reaching the island and waiting there for the arrival of a ship and the coming of hunters in summer or fall. Bartlett would not oppose their going, as much as he objected to any breaking up of the party. He recognized their resolve on the matter and was also quite sick of them. It would be, if anything, a relief to see them go. No one, however, looked on their departure with any great confidence or support.

  The Karluk was drifting straight toward Wrangel Island, the land growing more and more visible, although still faint in the ever-present darkness. However, the closer they drifted toward land, the greater the ice pressure. Indeed the ice was now alive, churning and splintering, leaving long, dark chasms of water, and raftering onto other floes, severing in all directions around the ship. The men anxiously awaited a strong wind that was threatening to blow in from the northeast. If this happened, the ship would be in grave danger of being crushed.

  They packed all the necessary stores and readied them for transfer to the nearby ice. Tea was soldered into thin-sheet tin cases, cooking pots were made by cutting down gasoline tins, and the sewing, as always, continued.

  “In one way22 it looks as if it had been only a few weeks,” Mamen reflected, “but when I look back and think it over more closely it seems as if I had been here for years. . .. It is really a year since I left my dear home an
d fatherland. Yes, who thought then that I would land up in the Arctic, frozen in . . . without a possibility of getting out, drifting with the wind and currents. I wonder where I will be next year at this time, likely in the ice or on the bottom of the sea as food for the living things in the depths, or perhaps back again to civilization.”

  ON THE LAST DAY of the year, the men were in dangerously low spirits, and as the Karluk drifted southeasterly, they tried to distract themselves with plans for a special New Year’s Day football match between Scotland and All Nations.

  But mostly they reflected on their fates and wondered what the year ahead would bring. “The last day23 of the year, New Year’s Eve,” wrote Mamen in his diary. “Yes, the time goes, 1913 is gone and will never return. New Year’s Eve is quiet for us . . . but I have chosen this life myself and will have to be content with it. Well, I am content although it looks dark many a time, the perils threaten one continuously and one has to be wide awake and vigilant, but I hope everything will be well and . . . that the new year of 1914 will bring us better luck than the last one did.”

  For the moment, the Karluk was safe. Locked fast in the ice, at the mercy of the Arctic drift, she had survived these four perilous months. But the end was clearly upon them.

  At 11:30 P.M. on December 31, McKinlay and four of the others turned on the noisiest of their gramophone records and sang and danced, making as much commotion as possible in order to wake the ones who were already sleeping. This, on top of the bottle of whiskey given to them by the captain, roused the early-to-bed out of their comfortable bunks, and a party was begun.

  The traditional sixteen bells were struck at midnight, welcoming in 1914. Afterward, McKinlay marched up and down the deck, “raising the devil24 with the dinner bell.” Then they joined together around the saloon table and—six months after setting sail for their great northern adventure—toasted the New Year, with whiskey for the drinkers and lime juice for the teetotalers. It was a toast of hope and ardent wishes for a safe and healthy future.

  Munro and Murray were appointed to carry the good wishes and best greetings of the men to Bartlett, along with the rest of the whiskey and a box of candied fruit. They emerged sometime later from his cabin, having shared some cake and whiskey with the captain, much to the envy of their comrades. And then as Bartlett sat locked in his room and agonized over what was to be done, the rest of them rang in the New Year with recitations of poems by Robert Burns, and a heartfelt rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

  Temporarily they could lay their fears aside, flushed with whiskey and cakes and the excitement of the New Year.

  January 1914

  We must all1 do what we can to save our lives.

  —BJARNE MAMEN, ASSISTANT TOPOGRAPHER

  Early in the morning of January 2, somewhere in the distance, there was a strumming sound, like a banjo, faint, yet very distinct. It was a thrum-thrum-thrum, at times quite musical, and then there was a loud noise followed by silence.

  It was between 3:30 and 4:00 A.M., but McKinlay and Mamen were now wide awake in the Cabin DeLuxe. McKinlay raised himself on one elbow and pressed his ear to the ship’s side, listening intently. He couldn’t imagine what the sound could be.

  Thrum-thrum-thrum. It repeated the same pattern as before, the notes crisp and musical. Then a loud noise. Then silence.

  Finally, as the Four-Leaved Clover lay in their bunks and listened, there was a thunderous boom—so strong that the door to the cabin shook.

  And then they knew. It was the ice. In the distance, the ice was churning and stirring, splitting into pieces and thrusting up out of the water in great, jagged, diamondlike arcs. The floes of ice vied for position, some of them breaking free, and others violently pushing their neighbors beneath the water. For now the activity seemed to be at a safe distance. The ice immediately surrounding the ship was stationary, but the ice outside this field was in motion, forcing the pack in the direction of Wrangel Island.

  McKinlay lay awake until 6:00 that morning, fascinated by the “extreme delicacy of2 the note which such a fearsome condition of things could produce.” Mamen, too, was unable to sleep, and lay in his bunk waiting for the ice to hit the sides of the ship. There were a few light bumps—enough to wake most everyone on board—but that was all. At one point, the mast swayed and creaked so violently that Mamen was certain it would snap in two.

  As McKinlay climbed out of bed at 8:30 A.M., the thrumming continued. Up on the deck, he stood in the noon twilight and couldn’t see a thing. The sky was too dark and the “crushing and raftering” ice was too far away. “God grant it3 comes no nearer to us,” he prayed.

  In the darkness, they weren’t able to see the peaks of Wrangel Island, but they assumed, by the depth of the water, that they were about thirty miles from land. It was a comforting thought as the thrumming continued ominously in the endless night.

  AT 6:30 A.M. ON JANUARY 3, they were awakened this time to a thump-thumping, which grew into the beating of a kettle drum, and afterward the low throbbing of a bass drum. And then it became a cannonade as the cracking of the ice grew closer and more urgent. Without interruption, the noise grew and seemed to creep ever closer to the ship.

  The Karluk was drifting southerly at a rapid pace, her speed increasing with the wind. That night, however, Murray’s dredge showed that they were again drifting off to the west. As they began to move and as the noise of the crashing ice grew stronger, the anxiety aboard ship intensified. The rumbling of the ice was relentless and often violent. Cracks opened around the ship, more of them all the time, until the horizon resembled a gigantic cobweb of threads and lines. “Cracks and again4 cracks all around us,” wrote Mamen, “they get bigger and more numerous as the time goes by. Well, perhaps one of them will be our grave.”

  Wrangel Island remained shrouded and invisible so that the men couldn’t be sure exactly where it was. Snow fell in the evening, making it frightfully cold and impossible for anyone to see anything at all. The wind was so blistering, the men couldn’t keep their eyes open.

  They worked in haste, making preparations to leave the ship if necessary. Fred Maurer’s twenty-first birthday passed unnoticed as the sailors packed milk into thin canvas covers; Williamson forged cooking tins and packed tea; and Hadley continued work on the third Peary sleigh, even though he still thought it a useless contraption. They fashioned one-gallon tins for kerosene so that it would be easier to carry should they have to leave the ship and set out by sled. They made tea boilers out of gasoline tins and trimmed down the pickaxes to weigh less than three pounds by heating them in the portable forge in the engine room and beating them down. If they were to live on the ice and travel by sled, the less weight they carried, the easier it would be on them down the trail.

  Crew and staff worked at their seal and bear skins and clothing, still trying to get their boots and clothes into shape. It was a long process and not an easy one to accomplish in haste. First, the skins had to be scraped with a metal scraper, then heated and cooked until they made a crackling sound when folded. Afterward, the skin side was scraped and washed again to make it soft. It was a thankless and tedious job; the skins were so flimsy and dry that they could barely stand up to the vigorous scraping.

  Because rationing was now essential, coffee, tea, and cocoa were watered down until they were unrecognizable, the milk was about 99 percent water, and most of the food was served only half cooked. Sugar and butter were used sparingly and, thanks to Bartlett’s orders, seal meat was now being served at every meal in an attempt at preventing scurvy. The men’s stomachs were at last adjusting to this unappetizing fare, but they often thought longingly of their Christmas and New Year’s feasts.

  The constant roaring of the ice did nothing to calm the nerves of Mackay, Beuchat, and Murray. They wandered about the ship, the fear of death on their faces, much to the amusement of their colleagues. While everyone was under great strain and stress, working as hard and fast as possible to prepare for the worst, many of them followed
Bartlett’s lead and did their best to remain cheerful, if only for the sake of appearances. But Mackay, Beuchat, and Murray no longer cared about appearances. They were scared to death and certain they were all going to die.

  First Beuchat went to the captain, asking for a sleeping bag. Murray was right on his heels with the same request. Their tails weren’t exactly between their legs, but they were as close to being cowed as anyone had ever seen them. Dr. Mackay had consistently insulted anyone who went to the captain for provisions or supplies, and, since his shipmates were outfitted with furs, he refused to ask for anything himself. Instead, he made cutting remarks to the others and took pride in staying on his own. He hadn’t spoken to the captain for weeks, but finally—driven by a chilling, morbid fear—he swallowed his pride and put aside his ill feeling; he, too, went to Bartlett to request a sleeping bag.

  Mackay worked diligently making a sled harness and other assorted items he planned to take with him when he left the ship. It was clear to all now that he, Murray, and Beuchat fully intended to make good on their word. They now had everything in order for going ashore and they were ready to leave the ship.

  Murray cornered Mamen and warned him to prepare, reminding him that they could all be turned out into the night at any moment and forced to head to Wrangel Island. Mamen regarded Murray with disdain and pity. But he was already prepared. He had organized everything in his knapsack—clothing, affidavits and other valuables, tobacco, and the rest of his cherished personal items—so that the only thing he had to do, when the time came, was to grab his bag and go. But he didn’t say this to the venerable oceanographer. Instead, he looked at Murray and said simply, “That time, that5 sorrow.”

  Murray stared back at him, his gaze penetrating and questioning, and then muttered something under his breath, which Mamen couldn’t make out. But Mamen didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, Murray and Dr. Mackay and Beuchat had made their beds, and he had nothing else to say to them. As he remarked later, “It is no6 use talking sense to crazy people. I am sure of one thing, none of these three will reach land if left to their own resources.”

 
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