The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

  Sandy, then, would be left with 6 boxes of Hudson’s Bay pemmican, 300 pounds of Underwood pemmican, 100 pounds of dog pemmican, 70 pounds of biscuits, 15 pounds of sugar, 12 boxes of milk, tea, 1 stove, 7 gallons of gasoline, 15 candles, 3½ dozen boxes of matches, and 1 sled.

  It is unclear why Mamen chose that moment to leave them. He knew the poor ice conditions; he knew the state of Herald Island. He could have ordered them all back to camp with him, to let Bartlett know of the grave mistake in the identity of the island. He could have stayed to see them through to land, such as it was. But perhaps he knew his knee would only continue to hold them back, and perhaps he felt they could do better without him.

  Whatever his reasons, he made the decision. The next day was February 1, and Mamen would be on his way back home with Kuraluk and Kataktovik and all of the dogs, leaving first officer Sandy Anderson, second mate Charles Barker, and sailors John Brady and Ned Golightly to find their own way across the open water to Herald Island.

  It would be a perilous journey under the best of circustances, but none of these young men had been trained in polar survival. And none of them had any experience with Artic ice travel, aside from that of the past ten days.

  February 1914

  Then to this1 earthen Bowl did I adjourn My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn: And Lip to Lip it murmur’d—“While you live Drink!—for once dead you never shall return.”


  Before Mamen had left them on the ice, Sandy had asked to go with him back to Shipwreck Camp. There was only open water surrounding the island, and they estimated they were about five miles from land, perhaps less. Sandy had told Hadley before he left that if it came down to leaving him and the others on the ice with no dogs, and open water stretching ahead, he would insist on turning back with Mamen. Sandy was young and inexperienced, but he also had keen instincts. He knew he might just as well sign their death certificates by agreeing to stay.

  Something in Sandy’s bones told him they would be in for it should they stay out there, just the four of them, trying to make land on their own, so he told Mamen that he thought the party should return to Shipwreck Camp together. But then one of the sailors spoke up—Brady or Golightly—and said, “Give me a rifle2 and I will walk to Point Barrow.” The others were much more confident, and they could afford to be. After all, Sandy was the one in charge now.

  He knew the sailor was teasing, but it didn’t matter. He hated to be told he was the first to back down or give up. Sandy wasn’t like that. He followed orders and he saw things through. He wouldn’t have anyone—joking or not—accuse him of being a coward.

  So he stayed. But before Mamen left, Sandy gave him a letter to deliver to Bartlett informing him of their plans and the situation. In it, he took responsibility for the choice to go on toward the island, whether or not it was actually his wish. They would proceed to Herald Island as if it were Wrangel and wait there for further instruction—providing, of course, that they could make it across the ice and open fields of water.

  The last Mamen saw of them, they were four lone figures, dwarfed by a backdrop of impenetrable ice and open water. They stood small and insignificant against the immense, gray crag of the mountain and the ice that seemed to spread out to all four corners and reach up into the sky.

  He couldn’t think about this, though, as he and Kuraluk and Kataktovik told Sandy and the others good-bye. Mamen’s knee was still troubling him, but at least he could hobble along now and not have to be pulled all the time on the sled. He and the Eskimos made pretty good time on the way back to Shipwreck Camp, passing their tenth camp, their ninth, their eighth, and traveling, in all, fifteen miles.

  Later that evening, when they had put up an igloo and were settled in for the night, Mamen picked up his diary and tried to justify his decision to leave Sandy, Barker, Brady, and Golightly. “They will now3 have to manage by themselves and try to get to the island. I could not wait and help them, as there was considerable open water between the camp and the coast, but the distance is not more than 5 miles at the most so they can manage and get there alone, and there is more use for me as well as for the dogs in the main camp.”

  There had been a three-mile lead of water between them and the land when Mamen and the Eskimos turned back. Sandy and his team had one sled, two sled-loads of supplies, and no dogs. Golightly’s feet were already badly frozen. The ice was young and shifting and it was starting to crush when Mamen left, which meant Sandy and his men would have a hard time of it.

  The dogs were starving and sore-footed, but Mamen and the Eskimos drove them on, determined to get home. Kuraluk’s spirits had picked up considerably, once they were on their way back, and his enthusiasm to be finished with this journey matched Mamen’s. He was going back to Auntie and his girls, to watch over them and make sure they were all right. Openings in the ice caused them trouble, so they made detours now and then, to ford a tricky chasm in the floe, eventually reconnecting with the trail.

  On February 3, they unloaded all the unnecessary stores at Camp Two and gave the dogs two biscuits each to help them go on. They started on their way again, a little refreshed, and it wasn’t long before they spotted smoke rising up over the horizon. They knew then that they were almost back to Shipwreck Camp.

  They soon ran into Chafe and Clam between Camps One and Two. Bartlett had sent them with one Peary sled and four dogs to go out and open the trail for Mamen, taking flags that they would place as warnings at points where leads had broken the ice. They were also to carry provisions to Mamen’s third camp and cache them there.

  After a quick but joyous exchange with Charlie and Clam, who would continue on to Camp Three with the supplies, Mamen and the Eskimos were on their way again. They soon came up against open water between Camp One and Shipwreck Camp. They dealt with it resolutely, however, going around it as best they could, fueled by the sight of the distant smoke and the knowledge that they were almost home.

  MCKINLAY WAS IN the galley, preparing to have a makeshift wash, when he heard Breddy yell, “Here they’re; here4 they’re.”

  Everyone but Dr. Mackay raced to meet them. Kataktovik had led the way, and Mamen came in with the first sled. Kuraluk appeared moments afterward, beaming with happiness at the sight of Auntie. She had been up on an ice rafter in the dark, watching for him, and at the sound of his voice, she ran to him.

  Bartlett slapped Mamen on the back and gave him a warm and hearty handshake. “Well done, Norway5,” he shouted.

  They all lined up to shake hands with Mamen, and then they rushed the three weary travelers into the box house, built a huge fire, and stripped off their frozen clothing. They had no spares, of course, so Bartlett and McKinlay peeled the shirts and trousers off their own backs for them.

  Templeman cooked eggs, bacon, biscuits, strong coffee, and cocoa, and the three ate gratefully. Mug after mug of hot drink went down them until they felt warmed again. Everyone in camp wanted to know what had happened—had they reached the island, how were the mate and the others, how was the trip, what had taken them so long, and so on. But Bartlett, with a quiet but firm hand, ordered them to wait until the travelers were taken care of and restored to their old selves again.

  After dinner, they gathered round and Mamen finally told them about the journey. It was Herald Island, he said, without a doubt, and he had left Sandy’s party about three miles from land. Sandy’s letter to Bartlett estimated one mile, but the captain feared that they were both underestimating the distance. Regardless, the fact was that no one could decide which island it was. Mamen reckoned Herald Island was approximately eighty-five miles away from Shipwreck Camp, and the captain thought it was probably between sixty and seventy.

  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 positions they had taken with the chronometer, but the land that Mame
n had seen looked to be eighteen miles long instead of the four and a half miles cited by the Pilot Book. It was too big to be Herald, but the location and contour of the mountains did not match those on Wrangel Island.

  Whatever it was, reasoned Mamen, it was land, and that was the most important thing.

  WILLIAMSON TREATED MAMEN’S leg that night, rubbing it with alcohol and massaging it so that Mamen could finally straighten it for the first time since his injury. And then bed. “Oh, how nice6 it felt to get into a bed, soft and warm. I lay awake all night just enjoying existence, sleep was out of the question although I was tired.”

  The next day was spent in comparative luxury, the travelers doing nothing but eating, resting, smoking, and enjoying the comforts of life. Their shipmates were affable and eager to wait on them, and it was exactly what they required after their journey. Mamen was hungry all day, and his leg was getting better, thanks in large part to Williamson’s care.

  After a breakfast of codfish, hardtack, and coffee, Bartlett called Mamen and McKinlay into the storage tent to discuss Mamen’s report. This island, whatever it was, was neither Wrangel nor Herald, according to Bartlett. However, as they had nothing else to go on, he was going to proceed on the assumption that it was indeed Herald Island. And he wanted Mamen to go back again, taking Kataktovik and Kuraluk, to try to reach the island and determine its position. Mamen would take a sextant and an artificial horizon with him so that he could do this. Even more than that, Bartlett wanted to find Sandy and make sure that he had landed on the island.

  McKinlay would make a copy of the necessary elements of the sun and principal stars to aid in Mamen’s latitude observations, and it was decided that Mamen and the Eskimos would leave on Saturday morning, providing his knee was good enough for travel.

  Once again, Bartlett had placed a huge responsibility on Mamen’s shoulders, but, Mamen reflected, “there is nobody7 else that he can rely on, and I will do it with pleasure even if it should cost me considerable pain.”

  DR. MACKAY, MURRAY, Beuchat, and sailor Morris left Shipwreck Camp the morning of February 5. Some of the men had given them letters to mail, in case they should reach land first, and McKinlay and Mamen turned out to see them off and wish them good luck. They would need it, hauling six hundred pounds of provisions themselves.

  Murray and Beuchat had given Bartlett the letter he had requested, absolving him of responsibility for their actions. Bartlett told them they could have whatever provisions and equipment they wanted, and that even though they were severing their connection with the rest of the company, he did not want to see them beaten. He would help them, after all, should they need it. He would not turn his back on them as he had originally vowed to do, no matter what their choice now.

  Dr. Mackay and his party passed Chafe and Clam later that afternoon. The two crewmen were on their way back to Shipwreck Camp, and Mackay and the others were about a mile from Mamen’s first campsite, pulling only half their load. They had quickly discovered that they weren’t able to haul everything themselves, which should have been no surprise given the fact that Morris was the only member of the team who had any stamina or physical strength. Beuchat was too weak, Murray too old and out of shape, and Mackay too weakened by drugs and alcohol.

  They found it easier to move in two stages, leaving half of the load three or four miles back while they sledged the other half, and then turning back again for the remainder. This slowed their progress considerably, but they were still determined. This setback may have thrown a wrench into their plans, but they were convinced that they would still make land before anyone else.

  IT WAS THE AFTERNOON of February 7 and Mamen was miserable. His leg had once again given out, and now he was lashed to the sled, being hauled back to Shipwreck Camp by Munro, of all people, a man he despised. The two had clashed since the Karluk sailed from Esquimalt, Mamen thinking the chief engineer lazy and untrustworthy, and Munro believing the young topographer arrogant and impertinent.

  Now barely out of camp, not even noon yet, and already Mamen was on his way home. It was demoralizing, especially with so many counting on him, and once again he was unable to complete his mission. Would they soon stop believing in him altogether? When would they decide not to give him another chance to prove his worth?

  Mamen had been hopeful starting out that morning. He was up by 4:00 A.M., lashing his belongings to the sled and dressing in his traveling clothes. He was sure they would reach the island this time, since he had had a good rest and his leg was healing.

  After breakfast, they harnessed the dogs, and Chafe and Clam set out first, needing a little time to get ahead since they had the oldest and slowest dogs. They were hauling a load on the Peary sled, which they would hand over to Mamen down the trail, along with supplies they had cached days ago. Mamen and the Eskimos would load these onto their three sleds and take them on to the island. Once they landed these provisions, there would be, all told, fifty days’ food on the island, leaving fifty-seven days’ provisions on the ice.

  Mamen’s party left camp fifteen minutes after Chafe’s, with McKinlay, Maurer, and Munro accompanying them. About a mile and a half out, they caught up with Chafe and a dripping wet Clam, shivering from the cold.

  Clam had gone ahead of the dogs while Chafe took the sled handles, the two reported. Someone usually had to run ahead because dogs harnessed to a load often refused to budge unless they had someone in front of them leading the way. So Clam ran ahead. Fifty yards or so, and four miles from Shipwreck Camp, he disappeared from view. When Chafe got to him, the sailor was struggling to pull himself out of the frigid water, with only his arms and head above the ice. Chafe dragged him out and then sent him back to camp, shivering and already frozen. “The temperature was8 nearly fifty below zero,” said Chafe, “so you can imagine how he felt.” Chafe then followed him with the sled, and that was when they ran into Mamen and the others.

  They advised Clam to run back to camp and made Maurer go with him to watch over him. Munro then set off with Chafe, and they all headed down the trail together, struggling across the young ice, stopped this time by the dog Snooks, which twice plunged through the ice and into the water. They got him out, rolled him in the snow, dusted him off, dried him as best they could, and then set off once more. McKinlay took his leave, thinking it best to get on his way, since he was the only one going back to camp now, and Bartlett had ordered them not to go any great distance alone.

  Mamen now traveled with both Eskimos, Chafe, and Munro. Two miles down the trail, he carelessly banged his injured knee against the sled and once again felt like a helpless cripple. There was nothing to do but go back, because his knee pained him worse than ever; he knew he would not be able to make the trip. He transferred his orders to Chafe, telling him to make the island as quickly as possible and then return right away.

  He hated giving this responsibility to Chafe, who was the youngest of them all, and completely unskilled and untested in shouldering responsibility. Chafe was competitive and always eager to prove himself, as all of his shooting trophies and awards demonstrated. He and Clam had been training themselves to travel on the ice pack and he had already learned a great deal. But he was still green, and more of a follower than a leader, and besides, it was Mamen’s job, not Chafe’s. Mamen was the one the captain had entrusted with this mission and the one who should get them there, but he had no choice. And there was no way he was sending Munro.

  When they got back to Shipwreck Camp, everyone was surprised to see them, and Munro quickly set out again with the provisions and Clam, now in dry clothing. Again, Williamson worked on Mamen’s knee, stretching it and massaging it, making every effort to get it back into the socket, but without success. The kneecap was stubborn and loose and hurt like the devil. Finally, the second engineer managed to slip it back into place and bandaged it with surgeon’s plaster to hold it there.

  Disheartened and miserable, Mamen holed up in his bed and thought about his chances. He was a burden to everyone n
ow, no matter how much they tried to help and cheer him. He could only pray that his knee would be better by the time Bartlett wanted to leave for the island. He knew Bartlett would want to go before too long, taking the entire company, and Mamen wasn’t hopeful that he would be healed enough to join them. If not, he told himself, he would just have to wait there by himself and sit things out until his leg was stronger. Then he would go alone to Wrangel Island and afterward make the journey to Siberia.

  He told no one of his plan. Better to wait and travel alone than to hold them back. He could survive easily by himself for a year, with enough fuel and provisions and warm clothing, and in that time he would heal. But then he wondered where he would be in a year—how far he would have drifted, a virtual prisoner of the ever-shifting ice. He could be forced hundreds of miles north and hundreds of miles west, and then he would truly be lost.

  But it was better than being a burden. As he wrote in his diary, “I do not9 wish to be a hindrance and trouble for the others.”

  ONCE THE DARKNESS set in and the wind howled angrily outside their makeshift igloo, Kuraluk and Kataktovik asked Chafe to pray. Whenever Eskimos found themselves in trouble or in any type of danger, they always prayed, they told him, and sometimes it helped save them. And so they prayed.

  Afterward, Chafe told them that if the ice floe were to break up beneath them in the middle of the night, the most important thing was to save themselves and the dogs. Bartlett had always told his men that they should guard the dogs with their lives. “If you lose10 any of those dogs,” he said time and again, “you had better not come back here yourself.”

  The night seemed endless, and the men awaited the day with enormous anxiety. They awoke to face a trail that was nothing but pressure ridges and open leads of water. Earlier on the second day out, Chafe and the Eskimos had run across a solid wall of ice ridges, growing to thirty feet in height. As they climbed one of them to look for a way through to the other side, a fresh wind swept in and set the ice moving. From their perch, they could see that a lead of water was opening swiftly between their two sleds.

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