The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  At 5:30 A.M. on February 19, all hands were called and everyone hurried about making final preparations. There was much swearing as the men tried to locate last-minute additions to the load—mittens, socks, bags. Tempers were short and the men were anxious, particularly the ones starting out that day. One or two of the crew complained that the weather was bad, trying to postpone the inevitable. They wanted to stay in Shipwreck Camp, where they felt relatively safe and where everything was familiar. Now that the ship was gone, it was home, and they were loathe to leave it.

  The weather, however, was fine and clear, a brisk easterly breeze stirring the air. It was a fresh wind, but it would be at their backs, steering them away from their home on the ice, and propelling them, at long last, toward land.

  WHENEVER THERE WAS any movement on the ice that sounded even the faintest bit like footsteps, one of the men would shout, “There is a bear22 outside, Charlie!” And they would all break up into laughter.

  Chafe had made the mistake of telling them about the time he and Clam were camped out on the ice and heard what they thought was a bear running outside their tent. Each time Chafe would race out into the night with his gun, there was no bear to be found. It was only later that they learned that ice, grinding at a distance, sent vibrations over miles through the ice floes, which made a thumping sound that closely resembled a person walking, or a bear running at a slow trot.

  Chafe knew he should never have told them, but now he brushed it off because the laughter was good for them. It was important they keep their spirits up.

  Their faces were frozen and the drifting snow and strong winds made traveling unpleasant. Under Munro’s leadership—so different from Bartlett’s commanding and confidence-instilling influence—the two teams followed the trail marked by the various sledging parties.

  They learned quickly about life on the ice, something none of them but Hadley had experienced before. The surface of the ice was fissured and uneven, interrupted everywhere by large ridges and hummocks, which had formed by lateral pressure. Sometimes they could get around these, and sometimes they had to climb them with pickaxes, forging the way step by careful step. Then they had to wrest the sleds over, being careful not to topple the provisions, and then wrangle the dogs across. It took hours sometimes, and it was the most tedious work imaginable. Everyone was discouraged and frustrated, and there were always one or two who wanted to turn back.

  They had ten decent hours of daylight now during which to travel; this helped immensely, especially since the trail was broken up and hard to maneuver, a result of the constant shifting of the ice. There was no earth beneath their feet; the ice was the closest thing they had, and it was disconcerting—and at times, terrifying—to feel the quaking and trembling underneath them. Sometimes the ice made a break of three or four miles in the middle of the trail, and then they had to figure out a way around and across, and then once again try to locate the trail. It could take a day as the men headed east and west until someone found the trail, following it for three hundred yards or so to make sure it was passable. Other times, the trail would disappear altogether, ending abruptly because of ice movement, and they knew to look for it two or three miles to one side or the other. They usually found it to the left, “for the farther23 away from Wrangel Island the ice was,” noted Hadley, “the faster it was drifting to the west.”

  They ate two meals a day, usually pemmican and biscuits, and they did their cooking over a Primus stove, also using it to melt ice for water so they could make their tea. At the end of each day, they built snow houses that were four feet high by seven feet long, and as wide as the number of people sleeping in them. The houses were just large enough for everyone to lie down close together, which was fine because they had nothing other than body heat to warm themselves.

  The first thing that had to be done in building a snow igloo was to find a level field of ice that was heavy and strong. Snow knives were used to cut the blocks of snow. The knife had a steel blade, a foot and a half long, two inches wide, and about a sixteenth of an inch thick. The handles were usually six inches long, but Bartlett had his men lengthen the handles of their knives by lashing hatchet handles to them. Sometimes they also used handsaws to cut the snow blocks, which they carved into different sizes. The bottom of the snow house was made up of large blocks, as much as two feet thick, and the blocks in the upper part of the house were smaller, tapering at the roof.

  Inside, they built a bed platform of snow, and they lay skins on top of this. They slept in their clothes, sometimes without any other covering, just so they could be ready at a moment’s notice to leap up and run, should the ice give way. Other times they used blankets. Each man also had his foot bag, which, after he removed his skin boots, he would draw over his legs, just up to the knees.

  They were always aware of the cold; it was simply an element of their lives now, a constant force. But they never caught pneumonia or influenza or even a head cold because these things did not exist in the Arctic, beyond, as Bartlett said, “the limit of24 habitation of civilized man.”

  When it came time to leave Shipwreck Camp, no one wanted to abandon the cat, even though she was, technically, another mouth to feed. Bartlett said Munro’s party could take her along, so Maurer and Hadley stitched a deerskin bag to carry her in, and that is how she rode on the trail to Wrangel Island. Sometimes, she traveled in state on the sled, and other times Maurer wore the bag round his neck, and she snuggled safe and warm against him for the journey.

  At night, they brought her into the igloo and let her out of her bag and everyone would give her something to eat, one by one, down the line. She lived mostly on pemmican scraps, which she seemed to enjoy. Then, quite contented, she would crawl into one of their foot bags and curl up on top of their feet. Here, she would sleep through the night, until they began again in the morning, when she was once again put into her deerskin bag and tied round Maurer’s neck.

  In a typical day, they would build the houses, feed the dogs, brush every bit of snow from their clothes, and then crawl inside the igloo through a small door, which was just big enough for them to squeeze through on their hands and knees. They covered this hole with a blanket, packing snow around it to keep out the wind and the cold.

  And then they would make tea. Bartlett had written an ode to tea once: “Tea! Thou soft,25 thou sober, safe and venerable liquid.. . . I owe the happiest moments of my life, let me fall prostrate.” His literary effort was perhaps a bit overzealous, but it was nonetheless a fair summation of how vital a resource tea was to men on the Arctic ice. Its value was inestimable, and after a long day on the trail, in the frigid winter climate, there was nothing that warmed the men better or faster.

  They were always keenly conscious of the ice, and the constant danger they faced. Nights were the most harrowing, when they lay in their snow houses, listening to the ominous creaking and grating of the ice. There were no bear jokes then as they rushed out of the igloos now and again, searching for the source of each ear-splitting boom or crash they had heard. They paced up and down in darkness, searching the ice around their camp, on the lookout for dangerous leads. One night, the ice snapped right across the floor of one of the snow houses. Tumbling out into the darkness, the men found they were surrounded by open lanes of water. They walked about gingerly for the rest of the night, trying to keep warm, careful to keep a foothold on the capricious ice.

  On February 25, Munro’s two parties broke camp and not long afterward were halted by the most enormous pressure ridge they had ever seen. They estimated it was at least fifty to seventy-five feet in height, and possibly more. The great monster sprawled eastward and westward, seemingly endless in all directions.

  They absolutely did not think they would get across it. They split up into different parties, setting out in all different directions to find a way through or around the great ridge. They spent the entire day clambering about the ice, scaling the massive frozen mountain, following its eastward or westward progress for as
long as they could. But when they reunited, no one had found a way through.

  Discouraged, anxious, and utterly daunted, they returned to the previous night’s camp, crawled into their snow houses, and talked things over. They decided to travel east until they came to the end of the pressure ridge—surely, it had an end—or until they found some way across it.

  AT SHIPWRECK CAMP, they sewed until they couldn’t stand it anymore and enjoyed themselves now that the rest of the company was gone. Truth be told, it was wonderful to be on their own. Of those who remained at camp—Bartlett, McKinlay, Mamen, Kataktovik, and the Eskimo family—only Templeman wasn’t particularly easy to get along with, but at least he earned his keep by cooking for them.

  Blistering winds forced them to stay indoors. McKinlay dreaded the actual pitching and breaking of camp because the snowdrift had buried everything, including the supply tent, which now lay beneath eight feet of snow. The men didn’t go outside if they could help it, but each time they were forced to—as when they needed to feed the dogs in the other igloo—they had to dig their way out of the box house. This meant that they had to delay their departure, not only because the weather was unrelenting, but because the whole object of their staying in camp while Munro’s teams went on was to make an inventory of everything they were leaving behind.

  The temperature dipped to minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit now, and the windstorm raged. As they huddled in their snow house, McKinlay and the others were worried about Munro’s first-division parties. The blustering wind and drifting snow would certainly cause them trouble, and they wouldn’t have been surprised to see their comrades return to camp.

  At last, on February 23, the snowdrift moderated and the wind died down. The temperature warmed to minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and they hastened to finish preparations so they could leave camp the next day. They would take three sleds instead of two, Bartlett decided, with Bartlett driving one, and Kuraluk and Kataktovik driving the others. Each would be loaded with pemmican, biscuits, milk, tea, and oil.

  Kuraluk and his family led the way with Templeman, with Auntie carrying the toddler Mugpi on her back. Eight-year-old Helen would walk the entire way on foot, sometimes helping her father with the sled. An hour later, Bartlett set out with Mamen, McKinlay, and Kataktovik. They took one last survey of camp, making sure they hadn’t forgotten anything, and then Bartlett wrote out a memorandum. “Canadian Arctic Expedition26, Shipwreck Camp, Feb. 24th, 1914,” it read. “Left Camp 10 a.m. Wrangell [sic] Island bearing SSW. . . We go with 3 sledges, 12 dogs and supplies for sixty days.”

  They all signed their names to the document, and then Bartlett placed it in a copper tank and buried it in the snow. It was a way of leaving their mark, and proof that they had been there in this drifting camp, which refused to be claimed for very long. They also left the British ensign flying over the ice.

  The camp had been their home for over a month now, giving them refuge—such as it was—after the loss of the Karluk, and they would all feel a certain degree of attachment to the place, long after they’d left it. With the Karluk gone, Shipwreck Camp was the only home they had in the Arctic, and it made that vast, cold world seem less daunting. It had given them familiarity and, as minute as it was, a sense of place. But they had to leave it. As soon as the spring thaw arrived and the ice began to break apart, their temporary home would cease to exist.

  THEIR SLEDS WERE heavily loaded and the dogs were almost useless, even though Bartlett had given them all they could eat before they left camp to strengthen them for the trek to the island. Bartlett finally had McKinlay harness up and help pull his sled while he guided and drove the dogs. It was a miserable job—not even time to catch one’s breath—but McKinlay was determined to endure.

  Mamen’s dislocated knee made him too fragile to do much of anything right now, except limp alongside Kataktovik’s sledge, doing the best he could to keep up. The knee bothered him constantly and popped out of place again at least once on the trail. He was suffering silently, but everyone knew the pain he was in. He bristled at what he viewed as his own weakness, and there was nothing any of them could do to bring him out of it. Bartlett kept reminding him how indispensable he had already been to them, and what invaluable work he had already accomplished, but it did not help his spirits.

  Captain Bartlett was eager to reconnect with the rest of the party, and in a hurry to reach land. Too much had happened already, with the loss of Dr. Mackay’s party, and the uncertainty about the fate of Sandy, Barker, Brady, and Golightly. The captain wanted to get his people on any kind of land, and then move on to Siberia as quickly as possible.

  Because of his hurry, Bartlett had made the mistake of not building a snow igloo that first night on the trail, and they suffered for it in the tent, which dripped steadily, all night long. It was the coldest night of McKinlay’s life. As he lay there, huddled closely between the captain and Mamen, he remembered some advice he had gotten before leaving Scotland: “Wriggle your fingers27 and toes and wrinkle your face. Give your ears an occasional rub.” So he did.

  It wasn’t long before he heard the captain’s sleepy voice. “If you can’t28 lie still, boy, get out.”

  McKinlay immediately lay still, but it was so cold, he couldn’t sleep. Instead, he stared up into the darkness, feeling the cold penetrating skin, muscle, and bones. Unable to stand it anymore, he slipped out of the tent and tramped around in the snow, trying to get the blood back into his limbs.

  It was still dark the next day when they broke camp and continued on their way. Sometime in the afternoon, the captain let McKinlay take a turn driving the sled while he walked ahead with his pickaxe, carving the trail. McKinlay had never driven a sled before, but he had watched Bartlett do it and felt fairly sure of himself. He was doing fine until the bow of the Peary sledge struck the edge of an ice hummock and the whole outfit turned over, including the dogs, who ended up in a horrible, snarling tangle. The blood rushed to McKinlay’s face as he stood there, cursing them. He went on, each oath worse than the last, until he felt his head might explode with rage. He had never been so angry. He let those dogs have it and, of course, they paid no attention to him. They stood in a crazy, mixed-up pile howling at each other. McKinlay roared at them and the dogs roared back.

  Suddenly he looked away and noticed the captain, rolling on the ice, helpless with laughter.

  “Oh boy,”29 Bartlett said, “I thought I knew all the swear words, but you have sure taught me some new ones.”

  McKinlay had to laugh, too, in spite of himself. In his previous life as a schoolmaster, he’d never even uttered a mild “damn,” much less the barrage of foul language he’d just unleashed.

  Kuraluk had been traveling so far ahead of them that they hadn’t even caught a sign of him yet. Now they ran into his party near Camp Five. Just two hundred yards away was the second cache left by Chafe, which had originally contained fifteen gallons of coal oil. Now there were only six, and the others were nowhere to be found, no doubt buried by the snow or swept away by the ice. The loss of oil was such a serious one that Bartlett sent McKinlay and Kataktovik back to Shipwreck Camp the next morning to bring back as much oil as possible. They were also asked to fetch some skins, tea, candles, seal meat, ammunition, leaves from the Pilot Book, and chocolate.

  For supper that night, Bartlett, Mamen, Templeman, the Eskimos, and McKinlay polished off three mugs of tea each and some pemmican. The Hudson’s Bay brand was too fatty, and the Underwood pemmican too sweet, they had decided. Neither tasted good, especially to a novice like McKinlay, but he was glad to have it anyway.

  The ice crashed and growled all night long, and cracks opened everywhere, one twenty feet wide, another just behind the igloo where Bartlett, Mamen, McKinlay, and Kataktovik were resting. As the ice churned and crushed, the snow house shook violently, finally forcing the men out onto the ice. There they found, as McKinlay described it, a “world in torment30.”

  With lightning speed, they rescued their supplies and
moved them to a safer floe of ice some distance away. “The ice was31 breaking up into small cakes,” McKinlay wrote, “if one did not take care to step on just the right spot on a cake, it would sway & tilt & one had to jump for it. And the darkness made matters worse.”

  In the midst of it all, Kuraluk’s igloo cracked from corner to corner with a great roar, and there was now a lead of water where he and Auntie and the little girls had been sleeping. They nearly lost Mugpi to the water and the ice, but she was rescued and they escaped just in time. For the rest of the night, Bartlett, Kuraluk, Mamen, McKinlay, Kataktovik, and Templeman paced up and down while Auntie and the girls moved into the captain’s igloo and tried to sleep.

  The racket in the ice continued all day, until the men expected the ice to open up beneath them or to split their igloo in two. Fortunately, neither happened, and finally the ice quieted. McKinlay and Kataktovik then set out on the trip to Shipwreck Camp, making good time in spite of the breaking ice and open water, bringing back fifteen gallons of coal oil, as well as the other items Bartlett had requested.

  They started out early the next morning, heavily loaded, both men and dogs harnessed up and pulling the sleds.

  A few hours later, Bartlett and his men were surprised to see Munro’s two teams traveling toward them. “No way of32 going through,” they told the captain when they reached him, and then Munro described the monstrous pressure ridge. They were going back to Shipwreck Camp, he said. There was no way of getting to the island.

  Mamen was characteristically disgusted: “Certainly a fine33 party . . .. some fine specimens, indeed.” McKinlay and Bartlett were equally unhappy with the chief engineer’s decision to turn back.

  Bartlett asked the men what they planned to do when they got back to camp, and it was obvious they hadn’t thought it through. He was furious and made it clear in the strongest of terms that they were going forward, not back, and the pressure ridge be damned.

 
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