The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  That was on the first of August. On the seventh, Munro had shot a small duck, which they eagerly devoured. On August 13, he got another one. But that was it. Otherwise, they had been living on blubber, which they had been eating since July when the game ran out. The blubber, according to Maurer, was “spoiled and rancid9, but we ate with the desperation of starving men.”

  They had rationed themselves, eating the smallest portions they could that would keep them alive. But when the blubber was depleted on August 9, all they would have left to eat were the decaying skins they had set aside weeks ago.

  The only thing they did in the way of dressing the two ducks was to pull the feathers off. They were so desperately hungry by now that the meat needed no other preparation. When they started on the skins, they removed the hair from them, pulling it out with a knife, but that was all they had the energy to do to it. “Talk about putrid10 meat poisoning anyone?” wrote Maurer dryly. “We had gotten to the point where it would have no effect on us.”

  The winds blew high and fiercely, but seemed to do little against the ice, which remained solid and steadfast in the harbor and well out into the horizon, so far they couldn’t see the end of it. They expected the ice to go at any moment, but Maurer was beginning to lose heart and so were Munro and Templeman. The mental and physical strain was beginning to show. If only they could know Bartlett had won through. “We were in11 entire ignorance of his fate,” said Maurer, “and not knowing his were uncertain of our own.”

  They struggled to keep their spirits up by watching for the ship, and they promised each other that whoever sighted their rescuers first would be awarded a Bible. Maurer had with him the Bible his mother had given him, and, so eager was he for salvation, that he was willing to part with it, should Munro or Templeman see that salvation first.

  “Things on the12 whole look very bad for us, as we can’t get any game now at all,” wrote Munro wearily. “We pray for a finish one way or another as the strain is great both mentally and physically and soon tells. But ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’ and so with us.”

  ON AUGUST 19, Williamson arrived at Rodger’s Harbour. He appeared on August 19, twenty-four hours after leaving Cape Waring, and left the next day to go back. He had caught sight of the Canadian flag, flying at half-mast, before he spotted their camp, and once he reached their tent, there was no one to be seen—just the grave of poor dead Mamen and Malloch. He shouted until Munro appeared, pushing aside the tent flap and coming out, armed with his rifle.

  Munro could not imagine what he was doing there.

  Breddy was dead, Williamson told them. He had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun sometime at the end of June. Munro thanked God he was away from them all, as bleak as it was now at Rodger’s Harbour. The only reason he could imagine for being back at Cape Waring, in the middle of all that mess, was that Williamson boasted that they had plenty of food. It was a lie, of course, but Munro couldn’t know that. They were all fine and healthy as could be, Williamson said, with plenty of game to be had, plenty to eat, everything good. Hard words for a starving man to hear.

  Williamson slept for twelve hours and then left. Munro, Maurer, and Templeman were suffering, not having had meat for some time now, and Williamson knew there was nothing he could do for them. So he bid them good bye and set out for Cape Waring, taking with him Templeman’s .45 Colt revolver and some ammunition. It was, no doubt, what he had come for. And to be the first to tell Munro about Breddy’s death, before McKinlay or the Eskimo or Hadley, in particular, could turn the engineer’s mind against him.

  As Williamson made his way up the coast and across the island, he felt his energy disappearing. He was already taxed from his recent bout with the mystery illness and the lack of food, as well as the walk to Rodger’s Harbour, and now all he wanted to do was lie down to rest and sleep. He knew the dangers of this, however, and was afraid he would never wake up again if he stopped now. He pressed on, climbing over the second range of hills, which separated Cape Waring from Rodger’s Harbour. His last landmark before camp was Berry Peak or, as they had come to call it, “Wine Glass Hill,” because of its shape. He saw the peak of it now to his left and began to search for the ravine, which would lead him down toward camp.

  The snow started to fall gently then, and then quickly gathered strength, and within minutes it had blanketed the familiar landmarks and clouded the horizon so that Williamson “wandered ankle-deep in13 snow in a narrow dusk-shrouded circle.” He was alone and afraid of what would become of him. He was not used to going out on his own on the island. He had not been one—like McKinlay or Hadley or Chafe or Kuraluk—to wander up and down the coast, to investigate the land, to climb the nearby hills and explore the area. He was not familiar with the lay of the land. He was terrified of getting lost.

  It was then he heard the voices. They were the voices of men or of women, he couldn’t make them out, but he knew he must be hearing things, that there was no one there. Yet the voices persisted. They called to him, clearly, convincingly, and then, out of the fog and the mist he saw “pale faces and14 waving arms which beckoned me on.” It made no sense; he couldn’t explain it, but he followed the faces and the voices and the waving arms until he realized he was lost in the snow and the haze. He did not know east from west, north from south, or left from right. Slowly, he felt a panic rising in his heart. If he couldn’t find his way back, he would die, wandering around like a blind man. Eventually, he would have no choice but to lie down and seek the rest he so badly needed, and then he really would be finished.

  Thinking only of sleep, he heard another noise—not a voice, but a kind of exhaling of air, a rush of wind. He listened and there was only silence. And then it came again, closer this time, now the unmistakable hooting of an owl and the flapping of wings. The creature seemed to be waiting for Williamson—it would fly onward and then seemed to double back, calling to him.

  Williamson could not see the owl, but he could hear its call and the sound of its wings, thumping slowly and distinctively as it passed overhead. “To me,”15 he wrote, “his whisper in the overcast was the whisper of death and his wings were its shadow. I was alone, lost in a world without horizons, weak and staggering from lack of food.”

  But he was not alone, because on his way back from Rodger’s Harbour, heading once again to Cape Waring, he believed an owl was there with him. He imagined a great, snowy creature, wild-eyed and beautiful, as it called out repeatedly, reassuringly, leading Williamson back home.

  “For what reason16 I cannot say—except that he was another speck of life in a lonely land—I followed after him,” said Williamson. “Ten times more he hooted, from the left and then from the right, truly as if he were guiding me, until finally the ground sloped down beneath my feet and, as I descended and the snow lifted, I found myself in a ravine, 30 to 40 feet wide.”

  It was the path to Cape Waring, and soon he was back in camp, exhausted but thankful. Without the cry of that benevolent, invisible owl, he would have died that day. He was sure of it.

  THE FIRST THING Hadley told Williamson after Williamson returned was that “he had better17 not have any more accidents with Guns in that Tent because I wouldn’t stand for any more.” After what had happened to Breddy, the very notion of Williamson with a gun made Hadley sick to his stomach.

  It was growing colder at Cape Waring, and on the morning Williamson returned, the ice, driven by a nasty eastern wind, crept back into the bay until the bay was filled. It was a devastating sight, but maybe, they hoped, it would bring them game. They envisioned seals basking on the ice, polar bears within reach, walrus camped nearby.

  They were down to scraps now, mostly rotten flippers, filling it out with blood soup—which was now mostly water—and some roots to which the Eskimos had introduced them. McKinlay said the roots tasted like licorice sticks. They dug a sack of them daily and then cooked them up with some blubber. It was hell on their digestive systems, but it was the best they could do. Hadl
ey’s tent was saving all the meat they had dried—or “sun-cooked,” as the Eskimos called it—for later, hoping they could exist on skins and blubber until a ship came. Perhaps they would not have to touch the dried meat at all.

  Auntie administered a new plan one morning. Until that time, everyone in Hadley’s tent had been eating what he or she wanted out of a common dish, helping themselves to what there was. But on the morning of August 22, Auntie doled out individual portions so that each man could have his own share to do with as he pleased. He could eat as much as he wanted or put it away for later. Times were excruciatingly hard, but Hadley and his tent mates knew they would probably get even harder before it was all over. Each of them set aside a portion of each meal, and it felt good to know they had a reserve, meager as it was.

  On August 23, the last of their fresh meat supply was finished, and they had no choice but to delve into their dried meat stores. But the tin in which McKinlay had stowed his scraps was hanging from the meat rack, and during the night had dropped to the ground where the dogs pounced on it, devouring its contents, leaving McKinlay to beg food from his tent mates.

  The men in Williamson’s tent, naturally, had made no provision whatsoever for themselves and had been eating two ounces of dried seal meat with blubber every day. They had run through their stores with their usual carelessness, and now continued to beg for meat from Hadley. It was becoming a daily habit with them and, finally, sick of having to hear it time and again, Hadley and his tent mates decided to give Williamson, Chafe, and Clam one piece of meat a day. A daily ration that, as McKinlay noted, “would not be18 increased under any circumstances.”

  This time, however, Hadley and the others weren’t letting them off without getting something back. Hadley’s tent had exhausted their tea tablets three weeks ago, and now, in exchange for the meat ration, they asked for a share of the tea. McKinlay’s own ration had been left with Mamen, and the remains of Munro’s, Maurer’s, and Breddy’s tea rations were all left with Williamson, who had brought an additional three hundred tablets back with him from Rodger’s Harbour. He gave them eighty-eight tablets grudgingly, and later that night, as they were enjoying their first mug of tea in a long time, Hadley commented cryptically that he was “as good a horse19 trader as the next fellow!”

  The weather was worsening while the ice remained the same. The pack seemed stationary now, like thick, white plaster filling up the bay, and still no game appeared. Kuraluk was convinced he would die before a ship ever came to free them, and Mugpi’s reassurances no longer calmed him. But he was determined to find game, so he headed out now and then after breakfast, rifle in hand, returning in the afternoon without having seen any signs of life. The ground, too, was covered with thick layers of snow, six feet or more, and was too frozen now to dig for roots. It snowed all day, from morning till night, without a break—a perfect blizzard. And then the rain began, freezing everything it touched until the land was covered with ice as well.

  They lived inside all day, mending their socks and boots for the winter, and only venturing out to chop and carry wood for the stove. Breakfast was a cup of soup served from the “starvation tin,” as they dubbed it. Lunch was a cup of tea (thank God they had some now) with walrus hide and raw blubber. Supper was cooked roots with oil.

  AT RODGER’S HARBOUR they were living on one meal a day. All they had left were rotten skins, which had been their only sustenance for weeks, and these were now running out. There was a blizzard blowing from the northwest, and on August 27, the tent caved in on top of Maurer, Munro, and Templeman, who fought the wind and the sleet to set it up again and nearly froze to death in the process.

  Sometimes, when they were feeling especially pessimistic, Maurer, Munro, and Templeman would discuss their deaths. They would sit together outside the tent, their eyes fixed on the crude wooden cross and the double grave of Mamen and Malloch. The sight of the grave, the cross, and the flag at half-mast cast a funereal pall over the camp that they could never shake. Doomed to live in the shadow of death, they were constantly reminded that they were but one step away from the same end. The last to die, they decided matter-of-factly, would bury the other two and then be left as food for the foxes they knew lived in the area but could never catch.

  None of them knew what it was to be dying, but they felt their bodies failing every day. For five months, they had been living almost completely on meat, and that alone was far from strengthening. Their blood was thin, which meant they were constantly cold and terribly weak, so weak they could barely stand. Each of them—even the naturally thin Templeman—had lost a great deal of weight. Their strength was gone, which they noticed with every little chore or task they attempted. “In chopping wood20 for a little fire, three strokes of the axe was enough to wind us,” said Maurer. “We staggered as we walked, and an attempt to run was almost out of the question. We slept as much as we could to save our strength.”

  WAR HAD BEEN DECLARED, first between Germany and France and then between Germany and England. Bartlett was aboard the Bear, listening to the broadcast, unable to believe what he was hearing. The news report was detached and emotionless, and it seemed a cold way to learn about such a catastrophic event in such a faraway place.

  It was August 4 and the Bear was anchored in Kotzebue Sound. Lord Percy left them immediately, since he was an officer in the British army and needed to return to England as soon as he could.

  On August 18, the New York Times announced that Robert A. Bartlett, captain of the ill-fated Karluk, had been “absolved of blame for the fate of the members of the expedition who left his party. It is too bad that Dr. Mackay, Murray, Beuchat, and Sailor Morris left the main party. But Bartlett has a paper signed by all of them, stating that they made the trip on their own initiative, and exempting him from all responsibility, and as they were not members of his crew, he had no authority to prevent them from leaving the camp.”

  The Bear, with Bartlett aboard, continued on her journey northward. She anchored at Point Hope, Alaska, where Bartlett enjoyed a moving reunion with Kataktovik. Captain Pedersen had brought him over from East Cape, Siberia, in the Herman, and Bartlett was pleased to see him looking well and recovered from their trying journey. The Eskimo looked wonderful, in fact, and announced that he was getting married. Bartlett paid him the wages he was owed as a member of the Canadian Arctic Expedition and then gave him an outfit of clothing provided by the Canadian government, something they were giving each man on the expedition to replace what they had lost when the ship went down.

  As the Bear steamed up the Alaskan coast toward Point Barrow, she ran into the first sea ice they had seen so far, just off Icy Cape. Afterward, it was a struggle for the Bear to move, and she wrestled her way through the thickening ice, which grew more forbidding and densely packed the farther north they traveled.

  A Canadian schooner called the King and Winge accompanied them to Point Barrow. Managed by the 21personable Olaf Swenson and mastered by a captain named Jochimsen, she was a walrus hunter chartered by the Hibbard-Swenson Company for trading in the Arctic and carried provisions for the mounted police at Herschel Island. As they ran up against the ice, Bartlett doubted the King and Winge would be able to reach Point Barrow with her overloaded deck, which kept her exceedingly low in the water. She was a light, speedy ship usually, but not at all an icebreaker. Powered only to do eleven knots at top speed, she’d not been fitted out for such work; no sheathing or stem plates had been added for extra strength and protection. However, he had to admit, she was “short for her beam” and “quick to answer the helm” and seemed to be quite successful at bucking the ice with her slender, upturned nose.

  As the Bear charged through the ice, slicing the pack as she steamed onward, churning through the field until it was reduced to powder, Bartlett gazed longingly at the crow’s nest and wished he could be up there to watch it all. As he said, “steering such a ship22 through the ice is not unlike driving a big automobile through a crowded thoroughfare; this time, however
, I was a passenger.” Somehow, they made it through the increasingly treacherous ice field and reached Point Barrow on August 21. The King and Winge pulled in a day behind them.

  Burt McConnell had come in from the east on a small schooner and was there to greet Bartlett. The captain remembered McConnell, of course, from the Karluk. The last time he had seen Stefansson’s ingratiating young secretary, he had been striding away from the ship with Diamond Jenness, George Wilkins, the Eskimo hunters Jimmy and Jerry, and Stefansson himself as they embarked on their fateful “hunting trip.”

  McConnell filled the captain in on all that had happened since leaving the Karluk. They had left Jenness at Cape Halkett where he was to conduct ethnological studies, while Stefansson, Wilkins, and McConnell headed for Flaxman Island. In April, Stefansson had released his supporting party and set off northward with two men, six dogs, a sled, two rifles, and supplies for forty days. Stefansson, it seemed, was planning to do what he had wanted to do all along with the Karluk, but which the ice had prevented them from doing—to discover new land along the 141st Meridian. He had not been heard from since.

  The Canadian government had not replied to Burt McConnell’s petition for a relief expedition to Wrangel Island because they were already sending the Bear. McConnell was disappointed, not so much for the sake of the people he was petitioning to find, but for himself. Now he needed to figure out a new plan to bolster his future polar career.

  He transferred his belongings to the schooner King and Winge, planning to hitch a ride to Nome. There were two motion picture photographers on board from Los Angeles, and they all watched the Point Barrow shore disappear as the ship pulled up anchor and set out for Nome on August 26. They crossed Kotzebue Sound and then Cape Prince of Wales, arriving at Nome on August 30.

  The Bear, meanwhile, delivered the mail and various provisions she was carrying, and then, on August 23, she pointed her nose northwestward, steamed out of the harbor at Point Barrow, and headed for Wrangel Island. A fresh wind blew up behind them, steering them on, and Bartlett breathed deeply and easily for the first time in months. The harder it blew, the better, and the faster they would be there. At last, after months of working toward this moment, the rescue mission was truly underway. And if they couldn’t reach his men, Bartlett knew there was a good chance that someone else would get them. The Russian government, at the request of the authorities in Canada, had sent their two icebreakers, the Taimyr and the Vaigatch, toward Wrangel Island. There was also a little schooner named the Peter J. Abler attempting the journey, in addition to numerous privately owned vessels.

 
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