The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

  They stayed one night with a man who had seven good dogs, and the man said he would let Bartlett borrow one of them, as long as the captain promised to send it back to him when he reached East Cape. At the next aranga, Bartlett traded his forty-five-caliber Colt revolver for a small but strong dog, which he named Colt.

  That night on the trail, he decided not to take any chances and brought both of the new dogs into the igloo. He left their harnesses on and then tied their traces together, Bartlett and Kataktovik both lying on top of the traces to keep the dogs from running off.

  The temperature outside was at least fifty below, and sometime in the night, Bartlett woke from a sound sleep, shivering with cold. Opening his eyes, he saw the hole in the side of the igloo where the dogs had broken through. They were both long gone. At daylight, Bartlett sent Kataktovik back to the last aranga where they had gotten Colt to see if he had fled home. Hours later, the Eskimo returned with the dog, but there was no sign of the other one.

  That night, Bartlett tied Colt’s mouth to keep him from chewing his harness and again brought him into the igloo. Once again, Bartlett and Kataktovik fell into a deep sleep, and once again, the skipper awoke in the middle of the night to a blast of cold. Colt had chewed himself free once more and escaped. This time, Bartlett gave up. The dog was too far away by now, and it was better just to go on their way and not waste any more time on the matter.

  Down to four dogs again, they made slow and halting progress. Whitey was recovered enough to limp behind the sled, but he could do little more than that, and the others were broken. That night, after Bartlett and Kataktovik had made their camp, some men arrived with Colt. His owner had sent him back with them to give to Bartlett. The captain was astounded by the integrity of this man. It was, as he said, “one of the36 many instances of fine humanity which I met with among these Chukches. All honor and gratitude to them!”

  THEY REACHED CAPE WANKAREM on April 15. The land was low and rough, and Bartlett and Kataktovik stopped the night at the nicest aranga they had seen so far. It was clean and comfortable, and the people were wonderful. They had heard of these strangers who were journeying along the coast. Men had brought word of them the day before. They seemed honored to have them as guests in their house, and the man proudly brought out copies of old magazines—National Geographic, Literary Digest, The Illustrated London News—which he handed to Bartlett.

  The captain politely declined, because his eyes were feeling the strain of the hours on the ice and snow, the glare of the sun against all that white, and the stinging snowdrift, which always seemed to follow them. His eyes needed a rest, and he could hardly make out objects or images right now.

  THEY PASSED CAPE ONMAN in a blinding snowstorm that made it hard to find their way. Even so, they could see that the place was a ghost town. Empty arangas were the only sign of life left, and they found out later that everyone had moved to Koliuchin Island. They followed the trail, which took them away from land and out onto the ice, until they came to Koliuchin Island.

  There was a vast difference in this landscape and Cape Onman. Here, there were signs of prosperity, and a dozen or so arangas littered the area. A young man approached them from one of these, saying, “Me speak37 ’em plenty English. Me know Nome. Me know trader well. Me spend long time East Cape. You come in aranga. Me speak ’em plenty. You get plenty eat here.”

  The people of Koliuchin had also already heard about Bartlett and Kataktovik and knew they were trying to reach East Cape. After a dinner of frozen deer meat, cooked seal meat, flapjacks, and tea, the young man who had greeted them said, “I bring you38 East Cape; how much?” He said he had a good sled and plenty of dogs and could get them there in five days.

  Bartlett had forty-five dollars loaned to him by Hadley before he left Wrangel Island.

  “How much you39 pay me?” the man repeated.

  “Forty dollars,”40 said Bartlett. He didn’t want to part with the money, but it would be worth it to get to East Cape so quickly.

  “All right,” the boy said. “You show me money.”


  “Maybe you have no money.”

  “I have the money.”

  This seemed to take care of things for now. Kataktovik was suffering from severe pains in his legs, so they delayed the trip a day so that he could rest. They would leave their sled and possessions at Koliuchin Island, and travel on the young man’s sled. When they reached Koliuchin Bay, they were told they would find an American trader named Olsen, about whom Bartlett had heard many tales along the coast.

  They left on April 19. Bartlett harnessed their four dogs to the young man’s sled. He wanted to take their own sled as well, but the Chukches would get more use out of it, and it would only slow them down now.

  Now Bartlett, Kataktovik, and their driver headed back the way they had come, past Cape Onman, and from there followed the shore toward Mr. Olsen’s house. Two hours before reaching him, their guide halted the sled and announced that he was not going to East Cape after all.

  Bartlett gave the boy five dollars for taking them to Koliuchin Bay, and then their guide turned his sled back toward home and was gone. The captain and Kataktovik were left without a sled and no way of reaching. Olsen, who lived several miles away. That night, however, Bartlett managed to barter with another Chukche who promised to take them to Olsen’s place in exchange for a snow knife, two steel drills, and a pickaxe.

  In the morning, they harnessed their dogs to his sled, and by noon they reached Olsen, a thirty-eight-year-old trader who knew about the Karluk’s expedition, and who offered to hire them a guide. From Olsen’s, they headed for Cape Serdze, traveling through Pitlekaj. After Pitlekaj, they arrived at an aranga near Idlidlija Island, where Olsen’s guide turned back. They paid him off first with a spade and tobacco, and Bartlett realized he had now given away almost all of his tradable items.

  They reached Cape Serdze the following afternoon, with the help of two Chukches and their sleds. It was, at last, beautiful weather. The temperature, while still well below freezing, felt more bearable, and the sun’s rays warmed them as they traveled. Once again, Bartlett’s eyes suffered from the glare of the sunlight upon the snow. It was bright as a mirror, and he was forced to pull a cap over his forehead, and a hood over this to shield his eyes from the light.

  At Cape Serdze, they met Siberia’s most famous hunter, a man called Corrigan. He was the most prosperous Eskimo Bartlett had met, and with the assistance of a Norwegian neighbor of Corrigan’s, the captain was able to convince Corrigan to take them to East Cape. It was ninety miles distance, but they covered it swiftly. They headed out over the sea ice just off the shore and traversed numerous steep inclines, sliding along at rapid speeds. It was a hair-raising and thrilling experience to travel with Corrigan. He maneuvered the sled as deftly as Bartlett steered a ship. His sixteen dogs were first-rate and one of Corrigan’s buddies came along for the ride, bringing his own sled, upon which Kataktovik rode.

  They passed great jutting cliffs that stood over a hundred feet high. They made fifty miles the first day, the traveling made easier by the nearly twenty-four hours of sunlight and the improving weather. When the temperature rose the next day to freezing point, it felt almost balmy. Traveling was rougher the second day, however, and they were forced to stay close to the cliffs. This wasn’t the safest path; the warming sun was melting the ice and now and then boulders would come crashing down from above them, thundering across their paths.

  Corrigan knew very little English, which frustrated him immensely because he wanted to tell Bartlett stories of his exploits. He was a hero, the “daredevil of northern41 Siberia,” and he was proud of his conquests.

  He had heard all about Bartlett’s adventures from the Norwegian, and he grew more and more animated as he related stories about his own narrow escapes and great hunts. Bartlett could pick up a word here and there, but the more excited Corrigan grew, the less the captain could understand him. Soon he was just nodding at every
thing the hunter said until Corrigan realized Bartlett had no idea what he was saying. Grabbing his head in despair, the great hunter moved onward in frustration, driving the sled fast and hard over the ice.

  On April 24 at 6:00 P.M., Bartlett, Kataktovik, Corrigan, and his friend reached Emma Town, a few miles southwest of East Cape. “The second stage42 of our journey from Wrangel Island was over,” wrote Bartlett. “We had been thirty-seven days on the march and . . . had actually travelled about seven hundred miles, all but the last part of the way on foot. There now remained the question of transportation to Alaska, and the sooner I was able to arrange for that the better.”

  AT EMMA TOWN, Bartlett gave his letter of introduction to Mr. Caraieff, the brother of a man he had met at Cape North. Then Caraieff and Bartlett discussed ways to get to Alaska. Because of the season, it was too late to travel by sled and too early to travel by boat. It would be at least June before any ships could reach East Cape. Bartlett could get an Eskimo to take him in a whaleboat to the Diomede Islands, Caraieff said. From there he could take another whaleboat to Cape Prince of Wales. He would have to wait until May to do this, though, and even then the ice conditions would be unpredictable.

  Bartlett was most concerned about sending a wire to the government in Ottawa to alert them of the Karluk tragedy and of the castaways on Wrangel Island. He knew time was critical, and that every day that passed would be harder on the men he’d left behind. The closest place with a wireless station was Anadyr, at the tip of the northeastern Siberian coast, just off the Bering Sea. This, he knew, was where he would go.

  Caraieff helped him make the arrangements. Some local Eskimos would take Bartlett to Indian Point, and from there he would find other Eskimos to take him to Anadyr. Kataktovik would remain at East Cape. He wanted to go to Point Hope, Alaska, he said, even though he had joined the expedition at Point Barrow. Bartlett planned to give him provisions enough to last him until he could get a ship across to Alaska.

  And so the plans were set into motion. They would start in the next few days.

  Bartlett went to bed feeling satisfied at last. He was on his way for help. He would be there soon and the wireless message would be sent to the authorities; then they would do everything possible to rescue his men as soon as they could. It had been a long, difficult journey, but soon help would be on the way.

  The next morning, Bartlett awoke to find his legs and feet rapidly swelling. He was in tremendous pain and could barely move, and he couldn’t imagine why. The only thing he could attribute it to was the harsh pounding his legs and feet had received, day in and day out, from the long and tiresome trek across ice and water and cliffs and snow. Whatever it was, though, he had become an invalid overnight.

  Three days after Bartlett had arrived at Caraieff’s, a distinguished Russian dignitary from Emma Harbor came to visit. His name was Baron Kleist, and he was the supervisor of Northeastern Siberia. The captain was thankful to run into Kleist. He had been hoping to track him down while he was there. Kleist was leaving May 10 for Emma Harbor and asked Bartlett to go with him. This might be faster, they decided, than traveling to the wireless station at Anadyr.

  But for now, all trips, and the telegram to Ottawa, would have to wait. Bartlett was utterly helpless. He was no longer in pain, but the swelling in his limbs was so severe that it drained him of every drop of energy. He had lost forty pounds and, aside from the swelling, was dangerously thin. Kataktovik was pale and gaunt as well, and suffering from sharp pains in his legs.

  They had won through. They had traveled over seven hundred miles of perilous ice and savage Arctic wilderness. But the journey had beaten them, and now they were too weak to move, too ill to continue. They were completely unable to take those final steps to bring help to the castaways back on Wrangel Island.

  May 1914

  I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.. . . The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

  —PSALM 121




  May has begun with bad weather, I wonder how it will end.

  Our biscuits are gone now—it lasted April out—but luckily it won’t be so very long now before we can change our diet. The birds will soon be here, and fowl and eggs will taste magnificently after this long and hard diet—pemmican diet.

  I feel stronger today, I hope to improve steadily now, so that I may get back my strength and buoyancy.

  TRY AS HE MIGHT, McKinlay could not keep the peace. Now Kuraluk was afraid of Hadley, and Hadley was mad at Kuraluk; Munro and some of the others were furious with Hadley; and then Munro had it out with Williamson, who, in turn, seemed to be getting on everyone’s nerves and enjoying stirring up trouble. He and Breddy were constantly quarreling and got into a violent argument one day, although McKinlay had no idea what provoked it.

  “Tempers seem to1 be wearing short,” he worried in his journal; “what will happen if things ever get really bad, I cannot imagine, for there have been some little signs that some dispositions will not stand much strain.”

  McKinlay was torn. He longed to join Mamen and Malloch down at Rodger’s Harbour. He was feeling stronger now and more able, but not strong or able enough to make the trip. And Munro now relied so heavily upon McKinlay’s counsel and opinion that McKinlay would have felt bad leaving him, especially with the tension in camp.

  Their oil was running out now, so they could only cook and make their tea over driftwood fires. They traveled two miles from camp to find wood because they had already used up everything in the immediate area. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t always cooperative for fire building, and when it was windy or snowing (as it always seemed to be), they had to forgo the fire and eat their pemmican cold and dry “and dream of2 better,” McKinlay wrote wistfully.

  By chance, they had discovered something that made the pemmican more palatable. Williamson was heating a tin of the stuff one day, trying to open it, and without meaning to, overheated one side. The result was a bit of fried pemmican, the taste enhanced 100 percent. From then on, they would fry it in seal oil. They also found they could cook blubber and make it palatable, although no one but the Eskimos could stand to eat it alone.

  They enjoyed three or more mugs full of tea for supper. “What a godsend3 is tea to us these days—the only warm dish we have,” McKinlay wrote. “The two hours I had to stand shivering while making it were well worth it.”

  McKinlay was suffering badly from the cold. Even though the temperature increased, it was still well below freezing. He was used to the biting winds and low temperatures of Scotland, but Wrangel Island was a different place altogether. His parka was riddled with holes, and he cursed Stefansson for purchasing such cheap secondhand furs. He tried patching the garment, but it was beyond repair. Whatever he did, he couldn’t seem to keep warm, but he did not complain to his colleagues. There was no one here in whom he could confide, and it wouldn’t help matters anyway. Besides, as he said, “we have sufficient4 of the loud-voiced variety in camp these days.. . .”

  The crippled men were progressing nicely, except for Chafe, who refused to eat or take proper care of his heel, which had turned a frightening shade of black. Williamson would have to perform another operation to remove the dead flesh even though the second engineer himself was ailing, showing the same signs as the rest of them—swelling accompanied by great weakness. McKinlay wondered where it would all end. He was suspicious of the pemmican and wondered if it had anything to do with how they were feeling, but there was no way to be sure. And even if it was the pemmican, there was little else to eat.

  Auntie did have a way of surprising them with food she had stored and hidden away. She was much better at rationing than the men were, and every now and then she would present a bit of meat from, as it seemed, thin air, and they would have a brief reprieve from t
he pemmican.

  Several flocks of eider ducks flew over the camp, but the men could do nothing because Hadley and Kuraluk had all the guns with them at the ridge. By May 7, McKinlay and the others were beginning to worry about the long absence of the two hunters. Auntie anxiously waited for her husband’s return. She was frightened while he was away, especially of bears, so Williamson had moved into the Eskimos’ tent to help settle her nerves.

  Kuraluk appeared in camp at midnight that same night, dragging a small seal. There were three more at the ridge with Hadley, he said, and the next day the men ate their share of the animal, frying the liver in a pemmican tin as a special treat. It was, thought McKinlay, the tastiest bit of food they had eaten for as long as he could remember.

  But then the trouble started. Williamson, who had remained in the tent with the Eskimo family, began reporting things that he claimed Kuraluk had told him. He said that Hadley had tried to persuade Kuraluk to take his family out to the Ridge to live so that they would have fewer mouths to feed. He said that Hadley didn’t want any of the rest of them to eat. He wanted to have all the meat for himself so that he alone would survive. Williamson also reported that Hadley had not been hunting at the ridge, instead lying in the igloo all day or taking walks on the ice.

  The tempers of the crewmen were already volatile from hunger, and now everyone but McKinlay and Munro cursed Hadley and boasted about what they would do to him, the next time they saw him. The matter of food was not to be treated lightly, and they would teach him a lesson once and for all for wanting to deny the rest of them their share. Trouble had already been brewing, and McKinlay felt a great sense of unease as he listened to the threats against Hadley, who wasn’t even there to defend himself.

  Munro had a long talk with Kuraluk, who claimed to be afraid of Hadley, although he said nothing regarding the rumors Williamson had been spreading about the old man. Kuraluk did say he thought Hadley was in charge and that he needed to do whatever the old man told him to do. The Eskimo had wrenched his back, which put him in a great deal of pain, but he was planning to head back to the ridge the next day in spite of it, because he was afraid not to follow Hadley’s orders.

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