The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  He could not think when his feet had felt warm. For as long as he could remember, they had been frigidly, fearfully cold, and they were now swollen to twice their normal size, and he was in great pain. When he began feeling unwell, he had prayed that it wasn’t the mystery illness that plagued everyone else. But soon McKinlay, too, was unable to rise from his bed. It felt like influenza, with every limb aching, and his body horribly weak. He tried raising himself on one elbow, but was forced to lie back down. It was too much for him.

  Now, with Mamen and Malloch moving to Rodger’s Harbour, McKinlay was, at the moment, the only “bloody scientist” remaining in camp. He would join them just as soon as he was well again.

  THE OPEN LEADS OF WATER were more numerous now. Bartlett and Kataktovik hopscotched across them, unharnessing the dogs and pulling animals and sled across from floe to floe. They stepped lightly, afraid of upsetting everything into the water that now surrounded them.

  They had now been out on the sea ice for nine days. That night, there was a clear and beautiful sunset, and the sky was clean and cloudless. Bartlett squinted toward the southwest, trying to make up his mind about something. His eyes were in such pain right now, from the days of travel over the blinding white of the ice, that he didn’t trust them. He picked up the field glasses and turned them toward a shadow on the horizon.

  Still unsure, he called Kataktovik and pointed. “That land21?”

  Kataktovik said that it might be. He took the glasses from Bartlett and climbed to the top of a nearby ridge to have a look. He came back down in a moment and handed Bartlett the binoculars. It might be an island like Wrangel, the Eskimo said, but it was nothing bigger and therefore useless. He was already discouraged and this seemed to darken his spirits even more.

  “We see no22 land,” he told the captain, “we no get to land; my mother, my father, tell me long time ago Eskimo get out on ice and drive away from Point Barrow never come back.”

  Bartlett assured him that they would come back, that he had been out on the ice for long distances with Eskimos and they had all returned safely in the end. But Kataktovik was not comforted.

  The captain climbed up to the top of the ridge and took another look through the glasses. Kataktovik’s eyes were better than his, but he was determined to figure out what this was. In his bones, he was certain that it was land.

  In the igloo that night as they made their tea, Kataktovik asked to see the chart they were following. When Bartlett showed him the course they had taken and the place they were headed, the young man’s spirits brightened. It still was not Siberia, in his opinion, but probably an island not written on the chart.

  Bartlett tried to encourage him. “If you ’fraid23,” he said, “you no reach land.” But Kataktovik remained unconvinced and slept fitfully that night.

  The next morning at sunrise, every object seemed more clearly defined, and when Bartlett looked through the field glasses again with rested eyes, he saw the land distinctly.

  Kataktovik had already been up on the ice ridge and said excitedly, “Me see him24, me him nuna.”

  “What you think of him?” Bartlett asked. “You think him all right?”

  “Might be, might be, perhaps,” the Eskimo replied.

  Yet Kataktovik still doubted that it was Siberia. Before they had left, both at Shipwreck Camp and on Wrangel Island, Bartlett had gone over the charts with Kataktovik, explaining how to read them and showing him where they were headed. He taught him about Siberia, as much as he himself knew, and how far away it was and how far they would have to travel to reach it, comparing the length of the journey to trips Kataktovik was familiar with, such as Point Barrow to Cape Lisburne, and so on.

  But now Kataktovik said it was not Siberia. It couldn’t be because his people had told him Siberia was a low land, and the land they were seeing was not. The captain explained that the shore, or tundra, was indeed low in places, but that the hinterland was easier to see right now because it was higher. The Eskimo was still skeptical and, it turned out, fearful. He had heard that Alaskan Eskimo were not well liked in Siberia, and that the Siberian Eskimo would kill them if they came ashore. He was terrified, convinced he was going to die if they set foot on that land. Finally, Bartlett thought, he understood the root of the problem. The captain did his best to reassure the young hunter, but nothing seemed to work.

  They set out toward the island or Siberia or whatever it was, Kataktovik wary and depressed, and Bartlett cheerful. The captain knew now that they would be on land in just a few days and estimated it was about forty miles away. With their pickaxes, they crossed the usual open leads of water, skittish young ice, and pressure ridges, and then stopped to make their tea and have some bear meat. The meat was convenient when they were traveling, because they could cut off small pieces now and then on the trail, thawing it by rolling it in their shirts and letting their body heat warm it until it was soft enough to chew.

  As they had crossed the ice ridges and raftered ice, with the deep snow valleys buried in between, Bartlett took a hard tumble and hurt his side. His eyes were still giving him a lot of pain and he was in bad shape. But as he lay in the igloo that night, battered and worn, he was in the best of spirits. They were almost to land. Just another few days and they would be there. And then it was down the coast of Siberia, to bring word of the Karluk and her men to people who could help them.

  April 1914

  It’s Hell all right.1

  —JOHN MUNRO, CHIEF ENGINEER

  The ice split them down the middle, leaving Chafe alone on his side of the open water, with five of the dogs and all of the food. He could barely see Munro and Clam on the other side of the lead. Munro was shouting, but Chafe couldn’t make out the words. The weather was awful—blinding snow and winds—and Chafe’s eyes were bad to begin with. All three of the men were nearly snowblind because their goggles had frosted so badly that they’d had to take them off, and their eyes were so weak that they could only keep them open for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Their eyes were red and swollen and tears ran down their cheeks. They took turns, fifteen minutes each, cutting the trail and leading the dogs while the other two rested their eyes. When it was his turn, Chafe took hold of the handles on the sled and shut his eyes to ease the pain, letting the dogs lead him.

  The trail had been especially difficult and easily lost. They were surrounded by vast fields of open water. It was as if the entire Arctic Ocean had opened beneath their feet.

  On the night of April 7, they had decided that they had done their best to reach Shipwreck Camp, but that it was impossible. The way was too rough, too dangerous. Their food was getting low, as was their oil, so it was clearly time to turn back to Wrangel Island.

  The next day, they were met by open water. Over one lead in particular, Munro and Chafe got into an argument about which way to go. Since Chafe was breaking the trail at that point, he got his way, and they followed his direction. Chafe went first, testing the ice with his pickaxe, and Munro followed with one sled, with Clam and the other sled bringing up the rear. They were cautious, careful, but suddenly, they heard a shout. Clam had plunged into the water with the sled and dogs on top of him, pushing him under. Down he went into the frigid black depths, again and again. Up for a gasp of air, and then under, the weight of the sled, the supplies, and the dogs pushing him beneath the water’s surface.

  Chafe and Munro thought they had lost him. Quickly, they grabbed a bamboo pole from the other sled and held it out to him, but just as he managed to get hold of it, the ice gave way under Chafe and Munro, sending them into the water as well. Struggling against the cold, knowing they would not last long in these temperatures, they somehow pulled themselves up onto the ice and once again held the bamboo pole out to Clam. He grabbed it again and they pulled him to the edge of the ice and heaved him out of the water. They were all soaked through by this time, but at least Clam was safe. Freezing, but safe.

  They rescued the dogs and the sled next, brushing the dogs off with
dry snow to help warm them and prevent them from freezing. The rifle was gone off the sledge, as well as Chafe’s binoculars and his treasured camera, both of which meant the world to him. The binoculars, especially, had sentimental value, being the first prize Chafe had won shooting at the long ranges when he was sixteen. He had saved them from the Karluk, but still the Arctic Ocean had claimed them.

  While Chafe continued to carve the trail, Munro fell to work taking care of the sled and the dogs, whose traces were tangled. Clam stood, dripping wet and miserable, trying desperately to get warm. He had spent about three minutes in the water, long enough to have done some damage, and now he was shivering and shaking, his teeth chattering so badly that he couldn’t speak. Chafe gave Clam his mittens, since Clam’s had been lost in the water, and changed to a woolen pair. They did the best they could with Clam and prayed he could hold up and somehow get warm when they started moving again.

  The open water seemed to have doubled since the accident, and now the ice was crushing and drifting swiftly. A hundred yards later, they were faced with another lead, at least four feet wide. Chafe jumped across, bringing Munro’s dog and sled with him. Then he went on ahead while Munro doubled back to help Clam with his sled. By the time he and Clam reached the lead, it was ten feet wide and growing.

  “Work round the2 water,” Chafe yelled to them. And then he told them he would meet them on the other side.

  “You can’t,” shouted Munro, straining to be heard over the howling Arctic wind. “You’re adrift from the other side as well.”

  And he was. He drifted away from them rapidly until they were separated by three hundred yards.

  Munro yelled to Chafe to cross the lead where they stood, but the words fell dead against the strong wind. Chafe couldn’t hear a word or see well enough to find a way out. Munro headed across the young, fragile ice to reach him, but Clam urged him not to, shouting to be heard. As Munro turned toward Clam, the engineer broke through the ice and landed in the water. He scrambled out and they assessed the situation.

  Clam and Munro were on one side of the steadily growing lead with the sled and six dogs while Chafe was on the other side with the food, the gear, and five dogs. They waited an hour, praying the ice would close again, but Chafe drifted farther and farther away. He could not see or hear them anymore and soon he was alone in the ice, the snow, and the howling wind.

  The weather was thick all around him. He was completely isolated except for the dogs, stranded on a floe of ice. He could do nothing but wait. He built an igloo, which looked more like a coffin, between fifteen inches and two feet high, but long enough for him to lie down in. Throwing the sled cover on top for a roof, he crawled into the snow shelter feet first, with his head to the door. With little room to move, he lit the Primus stove and boiled a cup of water. Because Munro and Clam had the tea, he put a bit of pemmican in the water to make a kind of soup. It tasted awful, but it was hot and it helped warm him.

  He was utterly frozen, and as he lay there he willed himself to stay awake. His clothes were frozen solid now, and he was terrified of falling asleep for fear he would freeze to death. Instead, he lay there, shivering, teeth chattering, thinking about Munro and Clam. Mostly Clam, who had been in the water so long. Chafe knew Clam would most certainly freeze to death if he stayed out there, and he prayed they would head back to Wrangel Island. Please don’t wait for me, he urged them silently. Please go on.

  He fell asleep after an hour or so and was awakened two hours later by the ice rising beneath him. He crawled outside and saw that the wind had changed, bringing the ice together now. The floes were joining with such pressure and force that the floe he was sleeping on had buckled. He gathered his things quickly and broke camp, setting out to look for his comrades.

  He searched for their trail, but when he didn’t find it, he looked for the old Shipwreck Camp trail instead. The dogs were weak and useless so he unhitched them from the sled and led them over the pressure ridge, where he fed them. The one named Bronco ran off, and Chafe was unable to catch him. He returned to the sled and camped for the night, exhausted and discouraged.

  Should he leave the sled and try to reach Wrangel without it? This was the next decision to be made. If he left the sled behind, he would have an easier time of it over the fifteen miles of rough ice that waited between him and the ridge, and from there he could make the island in two days. But if the ice opened up again and he was left adrift or if he was lost in a blizzard, then he would need the camping gear, which was on the sled. Without shelter or equipment, he would certainly perish.

  In the end, he took the sled because it was the safest way to travel and because they would be able to use the provisions on the island, should he make it back. With his ice pick, he set to work cutting the trail, chipping away for every two or three hundred yards, and then going back for the dogs and the sled. He pressed onward, traveling three miles for every one he advanced. It seemed endless.

  He worked for eighteen hours the next day, but only made seven miles. His oil was gone, which meant he couldn’t make tea or soup, so he lay in his igloo that night and sucked on ice and snow. One of his feet was disturbingly numb and he knew it was badly frozen. His right hand was also frozen and growing quite sore.

  When he awoke the next day, he discovered one of the dogs, Blindie, lying dead in the snow. The dogs had been working constantly for three months now, with only a pound of pemmican per day or every other day. The last several days they had had nothing.

  Now with only three dogs left, he unharnessed the rest and tried to move the sled over the ice ridges, through which they had only recently cut a trail on their original journey from Shipwreck Camp. It took him more than an hour to haul the sled over the first grade, which slanted at a sheer and precarious angle, twelve feet skyward. He unloaded the sled, tying a rope to the nose of it and pulling it up from the top of the ridge. But when the sled wouldn’t budge, down Chafe went again, pickaxe in hand, to chip away at the incline. Over and over, he did this, until he finally managed to pull the sled up the face. At each incline, he repeated this process until finally he crossed the ice mountains at 10:00 P.M., just an hour after darkness had fallen.

  He opened his eyes the next morning to a savage blizzard, which had blown up from the southwest. With a frozen hand and foot, and dogs that now refused to head into the blinding snow, Chafe decided the only thing he could do was leave the sled and head for Wrangel Island. Carrying his blanket, pickaxe, and snow knife strapped to his back, he chained Hadley’s dog Molly to his wrist and let her lead him. The other two dogs ran ahead, untethered, following the trail.

  Chafe was on the verge of collapse, feeling his knees buckling and his strength giving way. He was so weak now that he could barely walk. Molly pulled him along behind her, and he prayed she knew where she was going. The direction seemed all wrong to him, but he could only trust and be led. They traveled all day like this until it grew dark and he could no longer see. Still Molly kept on.

  All he wanted to do was lie down. The first cake of ice that was big enough to shelter him from the blizzard would do. His right foot throbbed and he could barely walk on it. He could no longer feel his heel or one of his toes. His pants were ripped at the seam and one of the legs was filled with snow. His right hand was useless. But Molly kept on, tugging him along, refusing to stop. She was the smallest of all the dogs and by far the best trail hunter, as she had proven when she disappeared from the ship in October and found her own way back. She was Hadley’s own pet and had gone along for the ride, just like Hadley, not expecting to be put to work.

  And now she worked, pushing on through the bitter cold and the blowing snow toward land. Chafe had no choice but to hold on and follow. To stop for the night in his condition would be fatal. He knew this, and yet he yearned for rest as he bumped along behind Molly, his sore eyes closed against the storm, his blanket clutched against his chest.

  THURSDAY NIGHT, APRIL 9, Munro and Clam returned to the island without Chafe. Th
e two of them appeared in the door of Williamson’s house, which was the designated hospital. They were a pitiful sight. The men at Icy Spit quickly set about warming them up, feeding them, and making them tea. They were soaked and frozen and both had swollen hands. Munro’s foot was badly nipped by the cold, and the soles of Clam’s boots were worn bare. His feet were in horrendous condition. They all sat there, drinking tea, and taking turns rubbing his feet and holding them against the warm flesh of their stomachs to restore circulation. While they warmed Clam, he and Munro told the others what had happened.

  They could neither see nor hear Chafe after they became separated, and then he just floated off without a sound. Chafe had taken over breaking the trail because Munro’s eyes were so bad from snow blindness. And that was when it had happened. It had seemed useless for Munro and Clam to try to take the sled back through the ridges of ice in their poor condition. Both were soaking wet from falling into the water, and Clam was half frozen. They’d left the sled and marked it with a pole and, letting the dogs loose, they headed to the ridges on foot.

  That night, they had walked up and down to try to warm themselves, because Chafe had their Primus stove on his sled. He also had the food, so they ate ice and snow to keep their strength up—such as it was. After that, they’d headed south, searching for the pressure ridges. They thought they were lost when suddenly the weather cleared and they found themselves inside the ice mountains. Driven by the thought of food and shelter and dry clothing, they pushed on toward Wrangel Island.

  They were hopeful that Chafe would make it back. At least he had the food, the gear, and dogs; if he could just make it across the treacherous ice, they felt his chances were good.

  After a day of rest, Munro set out alone to look for him. McKinlay, still bedridden, was too weak to go with him, and no one else seemed eager to go except Clam, who was too badly frozen to move. Munro asked Kuraluk to make him a sled out of skis, and then set out with five days’ rations. Unable to find the trail, he returned to camp the next day.

 
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