The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

  Bartlett’s party was up by 3:00 A.M., and on their way before 6:00. The other teams followed later. At 1:05 P.M., Bartlett, Kataktovik, McKinlay, and Mamen were still in the lead. Kuraluk and his family were not far behind.

  Kataktovik was up ahead, breaking the trail, when they heard a shout. He was kicking the snow with his foot. “Nuna!” he was yelling.13 “Nuna!”


  McKinlay and Mamen gave a cheer for the solid earth—the first they had set foot on since leaving Port Clarence, Alaska, in July 1913.

  Wrangel Island was a rocky, barren wilderness, covered in ice and snow. Fifty miles wide and a couple hundred miles long, it lay four hundred fifty miles northwest of Alaska and two hundred miles from the Siberian coast. It was rough country, harsh and unfriendly, almost entirely mountainous, its peaks rising some twenty-five hundred feet. There was little vegetation or wildlife, aside from polar bears and offshore seals. It was, as Chafe said, “the most desolate14 looking place I have ever seen, or ever wish to see again.”

  But it was land.

  Bartlett and his men stood on the northeast side of the island, where three sandy spits jutted out from land into the water, or, more accurately, ice. They had reached Icy Spit, which was the middle one. The shore was littered with dead trees, their gnarled roots piercing the air. There were mountains and valleys near the coast, and higher peaks rising from the middle of the island. Everything was buried in snow and, except for the mountains, it was impossible to tell the difference between land and ice. There was driftwood everywhere, which was a wonderful sight, because they would need it for fuel before their stay there was over. There was no trace of game yet, but they were hopeful. And what’s more, they were safe.

  While they waited for their comrades, they began building an igloo for the night, their spirits soaring. The only dark cloud was that there was no sign yet of either Sandy’s party or Dr. Mackay’s. They had not really expected to see Mackay and Murray, Beuchat and Morris, but they had hoped—and prayed—to see Sandy and his team waiting for them.

  They now began to fear the worst. If Sandy was not on Wrangel Island, where was he? Had they even made it to Herald Island? Were they waiting there now? Or were they lost in the ice?

  It was too horrible a thought.

  They quickly built fires out of wet driftwood so there would be smoke, which would be visible from far away. If Sandy were to see it, or Mackay, it would guide them.

  Two miles offshore with the rest of the men, Maurer could see Bartlett’s team across the ice, elevated in the distance, and he knew the captain must have reached land. They saw the mountains beyond—not ice mountains this time, but real mountains of rock. And then they could see glorious smoke rising from an unseen fire.

  Maurer and the others quickened their pace. Some of the men had thought they would never set foot on firm ground again. They couldn’t believe it when they actually did. Dropping on hands and knees, they dug through the snow. Tears welled up when they saw the earth. They picked up the pebbles and rocks and held them, rocks pressed to faces, lips. They had never appreciated the ground beneath their feet until they had lost it and found it again.

  They knew it was a temporary shelter. They knew one or all of them would have to make the two-hundred-mile journey over the dangerous sea ice to the Siberian mainland. They knew that even after reaching Siberia there were still hundreds of miles to traverse before reaching civilization where they could send word for rescue. But at that moment, they only wanted to celebrate.

  “What a sense15 of security we enjoyed for the first time in months,” wrote Maurer. “We were almost wild with delight. We were on land! No more open leads—no more midnight alarms.”

  They left their provisions in the open that night, out on the sandspit, and then turned in to their snow houses and slept, for the first time since the Karluk was crushed, peacefully and with easy minds.

  “No braver man16, nor one more loyal to duty than Captain Bartlett, can be found in the world,” wrote Maurer afterward. “He shared all the dangers and hardships, and worked as no man ever before worked, for the safety of the men. He kept them in good spirits, and would face any danger for them. I can truly say that if it had not been for Captain Bartlett, not one of us would ever have reached Wrangell [sic] Island.”

  In the week that followed, Bartlett pondered over what to do. The rest of the men busied themselves searching for game, gathering driftwood, returning for provisions cached along the trail, and setting up camp.

  There was a story Bartlett knew about a student who was asked to name five Arctic animals. To which the student replied, “Three polar bears17 and two seal.” Even if bears and seals were all they should find on Wrangel Island, they would survive. Bartlett prayed there would be enough of them.

  Kuraluk suspected they would not find much game in the vicinity of Icy Spit because there did not seem to be much open water there, and there were no seal holes within twenty-five miles of land. After some exploration, he reported seeing bear tracks, but he determined that there were no reindeer or caribou on the island, probably because the animals would not be able to survive in an area where it would be so difficult for them to get food. He also took a long walk along the western part of the shore, to Berry Spit, looking for Sandy and Dr. Mackay. He returned to camp, having seen no sign of either.

  For a long while, the captain had made it clear to his men that there were only two choices—either he would go ahead to Siberia alone or they would all make the trip. At first, Bartlett had been of the mind that they should all go, but some of the men were now too weak or injured, in particular Malloch, Maurer, and Mamen, who would only slow the journey down. The last thing they needed was to pull Mamen with his bum knee, or Malloch with his frostbitten feet, or to wait while some of the slower members of the party hemmed and hawed and asked to turn back to land.

  They were on land and comparatively safe, but to wait for a ship would be foolhardy. The whaling industry had declined so drastically in the area that the captain did not expect any ships to come out this far. And although they were off the treacherous ice, there were still hazards to be aware of. They no longer had to worry about being crushed by ice, but now they might freeze or die of starvation if help didn’t come before too long.

  Bartlett decided that he would have to go for help. He would make his way across Long Strait from Wrangel, and then to the coast of Siberia. And he would take Kataktovik as his sole traveling companion. The Eskimo was young, but he had some experience of ice travel—certainly as much as anyone else Bartlett had to choose from—and he was used to surviving in the cold and ice. He understood life in the Arctic and he had proven himself to be dependable.

  Bartlett knew they would need to travel light and they would need to travel fast. The later in the season, the worse the ice conditions would grow as the ice began breaking up and the leads of open water multiplied.

  They had been out of touch with the world for months now. Bartlett needed to get word to the Canadian government as soon as possible.

  They had food enough on the island to last the group eighty days, which would get them through most of June. And hopefully by then the birds would be back on the island, and seals would be easier to find offshore.

  On March 14, he told the rest of the company his plan. Mamen, as expected, took it the hardest. He had counted on going with Bartlett and made no attempt to hide his disappointment. Bartlett had made up his mind. He knew what was best for the party, which meant Mamen and his injured knee remained on Wrangel Island.

  He would take seven dogs and leave the rest. He wanted Mamen, Chafe, and Clam to go back to Shipwreck Camp for the remaining supplies and was leaving Mamen in charge of that short expedition. Small consolation, but a big responsibility nonetheless. Mamen’s orders were to bring as many sled loads as possible across the pressure ridges, caching them on the shore side of the mountain range, where the stores should be safe from shifting ice, and easier to bring to land.

sp; Bartlett addressed his men with confidence, which soothed their worried minds and imbued them with hope. But the truth was that the skipper knew as much about Siberia as he knew about Mars. He had the reports of the American Coast Pilot Book, but those were several years old, and other than these, he had nothing to go on. He would just hope for the best and figure it out when—and if—he got there.

  BY THE MORNING OF THE FIFTEENTH, a blizzard raged outside their igloo. They were forced to lie inside all day, except when Kataktovik had to cut his way out to fix the roof, which was falling in, and to fetch more supplies. The house was buried under several feet of snow, so it took the men hours to make a path out.

  And then Mamen put his knee out again, just moving around in the confined space of the snow house. He would not be going with the captain to Siberia. And now, he would not be going to Shipwreck Camp. Chafe had fallen sick with something mysterious, as had Williamson and Templeman, and now Munro and Breddy would go with Clam instead.

  The next day, the Shipwreck Camp team was supposed to start out, but the weather stopped them. Mamen once again twisted his knee, knocking the troublesome cap out of its socket, and his comrades spent hours pulling and massaging it back into place.

  Because Bartlett was leaving, Munro would be left in charge. Until Sandy returned—if Sandy returned—John Munro, as chief engineer, was next in line and must be left in command of the party, even though Bartlett was worried about this, and rightfully so. Munro’s character was questionable. A fundamentally decent man, he was no leader. He had a tendency toward shiftlessness and underhandedness and wasn’t always forthright in his dealings with the other men, and there was tremendous bad feeling between Munro and two of the scientists, Mamen and Malloch. They had been at daggers drawn with the engineer for some time, and the captain knew this could cause problems. Munro and Williamson were also at odds, which was worrisome. Williamson was coarse, headstrong, and unpredictable, and he and Munro had never been able to get along. Still, Bartlett had no choice.

  The men would be free to settle where they wanted to on the island, but always remaining under Munro’s charge. Bartlett divided the group into four parties and instructed each party to make a different camp, so that they would be able to hunt in separate areas and, he hoped, secure more game. He also felt smaller parties would be more manageable and that the men would be more apt to get along. With this in mind, he put some thought into the assignment of party divisions.

  The remaining scientists—Mamen, McKinlay, and Malloch—would be separated from the crewmen, except for Templeman, who was to be the fourth member of their group. The Eskimo family would be on their own with Hadley, who, for all his bigoted remarks, felt more comfortable with them than with anyone else. And the crewmen were divided into two separate teams: Munro, Breddy, and Clam; and Williamson, Maurer, and Chafe. This way, the discordant Munro and Williamson could be kept apart. So, too, could Fred Maurer and the usually rash, unruly Breddy, whose caustic tongue had helped make them adversaries months before, when they had worked together in the Karluk’s engine room.

  McKinlay, as provision master, was given the task of allotting supplies to the men while Bartlett was away. Bartlett asked each man to write a short letter home, which he promised to deliver. They brought out pencil and paper and everyone wrote a letter, so that by the time Bartlett left, his pockets were bulging.

  On New Year’s Day, he had asked his men to avoid anything that would lead them to quarrel with one another. Now he made the men promise again that they wouldn’t argue amongst themselves while he was gone. He knew that the Arctic conditions could bring out the worst in men—even in the best of individuals—and he also knew the dangers of this. It was his greatest fear in leaving them. They were a motley crew, with several volatile and unstable personalities in the mix, and he feared that the peace he had managed to maintain would be shattered. So keep up your courage, he told them, live peacefully, and do the best you can.

  They promised him they would, and there was little else he could do.

  THE THOUGHT OF BEING without their leader was difficult to digest. McKinlay had long ago stopped thinking of Stefansson in that role. He was no leader, as far as McKinlay was concerned. Stefansson was no one with whom he even wanted to be associated. But Bartlett was their leader, without a doubt. They would have died without him.

  The captain would take one sled, seven dogs, and rations for sixty days. On Wednesday, March 18, the sled was loaded. Bartlett, Kataktovik, and McKinlay hitched up the dogs while Mamen, from his bed, made a cup of tea for the travelers.

  Then Bartlett bid good-bye to everyone and asked McKinlay to accompany him for a while. He had left instructions for Munro, and now he had some for McKinlay. Keep the peace, he asked him, and help Munro. Bartlett had wanted to leave McKinlay in charge instead, but because McKinlay had no official position on the ship, he couldn’t. It was all right with McKinlay, who didn’t want the responsibility. He wouldn’t have it, he told the captain, for all the tea in China.

  “Canny Scot,”18 Bartlett said smiling.

  Again he asked McKinlay to assist Munro in any way he could, and to do whatever he could to keep peace among the men. This last was the most important, as otherwise it spelled disaster.

  Then they said good-bye and McKinlay watched Captain Bartlett and Kataktovik embark at last on their long and lonely journey. So much rested on their shoulders—the lives of twelve men, one woman, and two little girls. If McKinlay and the rest of them were ever to leave Wrangel Island, Bartlett and Kataktovik were their only hope.

  WITH BARTLETT’S DEPARTURE, a sense of great loneliness swept over the camp. They missed the captain and his encouraging words. For his sake and theirs, they tried not to think of what would happen, should something horrible befall him and keep him from reaching land.

  The weather didn’t help their sinking spirits. The joy of being on land had worn thin, quickly replaced by weariness and illness, and irritation at the relentless raging wind and sweeping drifts. They went outside only for supplies and ice, otherwise remaining in their snow houses for the duration of the day, although, as McKinlay remarked, “it is neither19 comfortable nor cheerful.”

  To make matters worse, everyone was complaining of sickness, and the large igloo had been turned into a kind of hospital. Chafe and Williamson were sick but improving while Maurer had fallen seriously ill. Malloch and Templeman were weak and scarcely able to move, and Hadley was suffering from rheumatism. The sick men were afflicted with a mysterious malady, marked by a peculiar swelling in their limbs. No one could figure out what it was.

  Munro, Breddy, and Clam had left for Shipwreck Camp to fetch the remaining supplies the day before Bartlett set off. At last they returned, unable to reach camp thanks to the blizzard, the strong drift, and the rough conditions at the ice ridges. Besides, now Breddy was complaining of cold, and Clam was as sick and swollen as his colleagues on Wrangel. As the new invalids moved into the hospital igloo with the rest of them, McKinlay worried about this recent turn of events. The sickness was strange and no one could put a name to it. Each of the victims suffered from great swelling to the face and body, and overwhelming feelings of weakness, which made even the smallest movement difficult.

  It was all so discouraging. They had counted on the extra stores from Shipwreck Camp, but with Munro unable to make it there, and with the addition of two more sick men to the company, McKinlay didn’t know how they would survive.

  There were only 104 pounds left of the dog pemmican, which would only last another week. The animals were placed on short rations, and soon, because they were starving, they began tearing about the camp, eating everything from mukluks to sled lashings, and anything else the men forgot to put away. They also ran off now and then with tins of pemmican, which they tore open and devoured.

  On March 20, one of the dogs was racing across the top of the snow hospital when the roof caved in on top of the sick men. Unable to move, they were in danger of being smothered by the
great wall of snow now covering them. McKinlay and the others frantically dug through the snow to reach the men, whom they pulled out from the ruins one by one, transferring them to Kuraluk’s igloo while the healthy few worked at repairing the roof of the hospital. It was then they discovered that Chafe had frozen all of the toes on one foot four days ago, but hadn’t said a word about it to anyone.

  They were in even worse shape than McKinlay had suspected.

  THE FIRST NIGHT ON THE TRAIL, Kataktovik and Bartlett finished building their igloo and crawled inside, weary and cold, looking forward to a cup of tea. Then they noticed the hole in the boiler. The thought of a hot drink had kept them going during their long first day, but now it seemed they would have to go without.

  Then Bartlett remembered something. One Saturday morning when he was a boy, he had been berry picking with his folks. They had taken along a large iron boiler in which to cook their dinner, but when they tried to use it, it leaked. Sure enough, there was a crack in it, and there went dinner. But Grandmother Bartlett pulled out a couple of pounds of hard Newfoundland biscuit, the kind that you could chip a tooth on, and soaked it. Then she took a handful of the soaked biscuit and plastered it inside the boiler, right over the crack. And it worked perfectly.

  Now he chewed up a small piece of hardtack. He took the piece of biscuit from his mouth and fixed it over the bottom of the boiler. Perfect. It didn’t surprise him a bit. Aside from the berry-picking time, he had once built a dam out of sixty-five pounds of biscuits and used the makeshift plaster to plug up a leak in the bow of his ship. The stuff was handy.

  It was a hundred and nine miles from the southernmost point of Wrangel Island to the northern coast of Siberia. But Bartlett and Kataktovik were traveling an extra hundred miles around the shore of the island, heading east and south so that they could pass by Herald Island to look for Sandy and Dr. Mackay’s missing parties. He refused to give them up for dead.

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