The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  Linderberg was so moved by this that he announced to Bartlett that he would send the ship Corwin to Wrangel Island to fetch the men. A former revenue cutter, the Corwin had traveled to Wrangel in the 1880s, and now Linderberg was willing to put down twenty thousand dollars of his own money to outfit and crew her and send her up there. Bartlett was greatly touched by the offer. So many people from so many parts of the world had shown a fervent interest in his band of castaways, and he was grateful to be reminded that he wasn’t alone in the fight to save them.

  He chanced upon Olaf Swenson, owner of the King and Winge, later that same day in a popular Nome meeting spot. Bartlett liked Swenson. He was a tall, personable man with a kind face. The King and Winge was about to embark on a walrus hunting and trading trip up the Siberian coast, and Bartlett asked Swenson—should he pass by the vicinity of Wrangel Island—to stop there if possible and search for the men of the Karluk. Swenson promised the captain he would.

  Still, Bartlett’s mind did not rest easier. Before returning to the Bear, he sent a wire to Ottawa to keep the Canadian government officials apprised of the situation, and to let them know that both the Corwin and the King and Winge would be looking for his men.

  On Friday, September 4, the Bear at last left Nome. Bartlett stood at her bow, transfixed, his eyes focused on the sprawling ocean before them. On September 7, the water was smooth and calm, almost unnervingly placid. Bartlett knew that meant ice up ahead. They should run across it before too long. Indeed, by 7:45 P.M., they saw the first signs of ice, and soon they could see it stretching before them, vast and tightly packed, the whiteness of it overpowering.

  They had no choice. They would have to cut the engine and stop there, on the edge of the ice pack, until daylight came. They were just 131 miles from Rodger’s Harbour, but to Bartlett, they might as well have been on the other side of the world.

  ON THE THIRD DAY AT SEA, the men of the King and Winge saw the mountains. The peaks rose up in the distance, out of the ice, sharp and malevolent. There was nothing beautiful or graceful about them. They were stark, jagged, colorless, and forbidding. It was the most isolated, barren land they had ever seen. Draped in mist, the mountains seemed encased by the mighty wind, which blew in white, translucent waves.

  The most disturbing factor, though, was the ice. Immense, sprawling ice fields filled the horizon, shimmering with myriad hues of blue, green, and white. Some of the ice grew into massive pressure ridges, looming over the island, higher than the ship’s mast. One hundred, two hundred feet high—they were magnificent, and daunting. These ice mountains were intimidating, making each man suddenly aware of how small and insignificant he was.

  In the middle of it all, protected and remote, sat Wrangel Island. It was a lonely, unreachable fortress. And somewhere, on her shores, were one woman, two children, and twenty men. Or sixteen men. Or twelve men. Or fewer. No one could be sure. They didn’t know what they would find if they ever made it through. They were almost afraid to know. Had any survived? What if no one was there to greet them when they reached the island? What if the ship broke through the ice, only to discover they had perished weeks ago waiting for help to come?

  The ice pack was dense and forbidding, hugging the shoreline protectively for miles and miles. The ice was loose, the ice was thick, the ice shifted and grew around them. While that tough little schooner fought her way through the pack, there was time to reflect on what the men of the Karluk must have lived through these past several months.

  The King and Winge crept along the coastline, Swenson, and the rest of the men straining their eyes for any sign of life. Swenson was a man of his word. He had promised Bartlett in Nome that he would look for his men, and that was exactly what he was doing. He had delayed his hunting and trading work and had purchased an umiak and hired fifteen Eskimos for the journey to Wrangel Island. He ordered his engineer to get as much speed out of the little schooner as he could, and then pointed her nose northward. Burt McConnell had been hitching a ride from Point Barrow to Nome on the schooner and, at the last minute, asked to join Swenson on his mission. Now they stood on deck, staring in the direction of Wrangel Island.

  Between gaps in the ice cliffs, they could see the land beyond. It was barren and still. There seemed to be nothing living on its banks, neither man nor animal. All the while, the ship pulled closer to shore, and yet they still saw nothing. They tried not to be disheartened. Bartlett had said his men would be at Rodger’s Harbour, where he had instructed them to wait, but they could have been further inland, or at their original Shore Camp, on the other side of the island.

  The ship pressed on. Swenson and McConnell took turns looking through the glasses. Stealthily, slowly, they drew closer to the island. Suddenly, the lookout in the crow’s nest shouted out. It was a tent. Barely standing, but it was a tent. They strained for a view of it, but they had trouble seeing past the great pressure ridges of ice.

  Then a break, and there it was, dilapidated and torn, a flimsy summer tent that couldn’t have been sufficient shelter for anyone in this bitter cold and wind. They had hoped to find twenty-three people on this island, yet the only sign of life they saw was one four-man tent. There were no sleds, no dogs.

  And then they caught sight of something jutting out of the island landscape, just beyond the tent, that made their hearts stop. A crude, wooden cross, plain and strong, was planted in the ground, and just behind it stood a flagpole. This was shocking proof of life—and death.

  They were half a mile away from shore when Captain Jochimsen fired off rockets and started blowing the ship’s whistle. He blew it repeatedly, at intervals, pausing while the ship’s entire company watched; still, no one appeared. Their hearts sank.

  Again, the captain blew the whistle, and again all waited. Finally, they saw the tent flap open and a man emerge, on his hands and knees.

  They were just offshore now and Swenson dropped anchor. Aboard the King and Winge, they were elated. But on the island, the man showed no signs of joy or excitement. He didn’t wave his arms and shout, even though they could tell by the direction of his gaze that he saw them. He didn’t run up and down the beach to attract their attention. Instead, he crouched like an animal and watched. And then slowly he rose to his feet, straightening himself to his full height, and stood beside the tent, gazing in their direction. More than once, he brushed his hands across his eyes as if to clear away something that might be there, deceiving him, altering his vision.

  They continued to sound the horn and all on deck began to wave to him. He did not respond and, suddenly, he turned and crawled back into the tent. His behavior was mystifying. The poor fellow was probably out of his mind.

  But as quickly as he disappeared, the man returned, holding something in his hands. As they watched, he walked over to the flagpole, his gait slow and lumbering, and raised the British flag to half-mast.

  The flag seemed to confirm what the cross had already suggested. Was it possible that this man was the only survivor, that there, at the foot of that cross, lay the rest of the Karluk’s company?

  This question was quickly answered as two more men appeared from the tent. The three of them stood together and watched the ship. Still, no one waved, no one shouted, no one jumped for joy. They were clearly stunned and disbelieving. Swenson and the rest of his party expected more men to come then, but none did.

  When the ship was two hundred yards from shore, the first mate and his crew launched the umiak. Swenson and McConnell climbed aboard.

  When they were one hundred yards from shore, one of the men from the tent started toward them, carrying something. Finally, they thought, he knows he is saved. But their smiles disappeared as they saw the object the man was carrying. It was a rifle, and as he walked toward them, he loaded the magazine with cartridges.

  The Eskimos in the umiak were terrified. One of them pointed to his forehead, shaking, and said in broken English, “That man long 5time not much eat. Him crazy.. . .”

  In Inuit, Swenson
spoke to their fears. His words and voice were soothing and the Eskimos quieted, continuing to paddle. But they were all puzzled and alarmed by the man’s behavior. What if this man was mad? What if he didn’t understand that they were there to help him?

  They landed the umiak and stayed close together as they started toward the castaways. They passed over the most desolate of landscapes, the earth gray and dreary, with patches of ice and snow here and there covering the otherwise empty ground. It seemed impossible that anything could live in this cold, barren place.

  Time, hardship, exposure, and famine had made each of the men unrecognizable. McConnell tried to glimpse a familiar mannerism or feature in each, anything that would help him identify them. They could have been any of the men he last saw aboard the Karluk, nearly one year ago. They could have been strangers.

  The man with the rifle met them halfway to the tent. The others stood several feet behind, waiting. The man’s hair was wild and matted, and it streamed down over his eyes. His grimy face was streaked and furrowed with lines and wrinkles. He seemed to be about forty years old. His clothes, which he had lived in and slept in for the past six months, were in rags, begrimed and stinking with seal oil, blood, and dirt. His full, tangled beard hid the dark hollows of his cheeks, but his eyes shone through above, speaking of great suffering. He was ten feet from McConnell, and he was unrecognizable.

  The man stepped forward to Swenson with outstretched hand. “I don’t know 6who you are,” he said, “but I’m mighty glad to see you all.”

  It was only after hearing his voice that McConnell knew who he was. He never would have known him otherwise—chief engineer John Munro. He wasn’t yet forty, but he looked forty, and he had lost at least thirty pounds since McConnell had seen him last.

  He lay down the rifle and hugged McConnell. “How did you 7get here and where is Mr. Stefansson? Did Captain Bartlett reach shore all right? How is he, and where?”

  McConnell told him briefly that Bartlett had reached Siberia in May and that Stefansson was adrift on the ice somewhere north of the Canadian boundary.

  Bartlett had won through. Munro smiled. His lips were cracked and white.

  The other two men from the tent were approaching, slowly, cautiously. Munro leaned in toward Swenson. “Have you a 8doctor aboard?”

  “You don’t need a doctor,” Swenson replied. “What you need is a cook, and we have a first-class one. Hurry and get your things together, and we will go aboard and have breakfast.”

  “Breakfast,” Munro echoed. It had been such a long time.

  Swenson and McConnell summoned up their courage then to ask Munro the question they were most afraid of asking, but the one they most needed to ask. How many of the expedition were left?

  Twelve.

  Swenson and McConnell sighed with relief that others were alive, and with grief that eleven were dead.

  The remaining nine were camped at Cape Waring, about forty miles east of Rodger’s Harbour. Last Munro knew, they were all well.

  He pointed then to the cross that marked the nearby grave. Mamen and Malloch had died in the spring.

  One of the other two men approached the rescuers now while the third man hung back. The second man was weak and emaciated. He looked as if he might lose the ability to stand or walk at any moment. McConnell didn’t recognize him and it was only when Munro spoke his name that he knew who he was. Fred Maurer. Even after McConnell knew his identity, he couldn’t believe it. The strong, intense young man he had known a year ago, and the frail creature standing before him now could not be the same man. Maurer smiled, but it was obvious that to talk would have been a great exertion, so they didn’t press him.

  The last man stepped forward then, gaunt and extremely pale. He was a little fellow, high-strung and jittery. He began babbling and it didn’t take long for them to realize that the man was speaking gibberish. He was clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so the men kept their conversation light and general, avoiding any discussion of the pain these men had suffered or the tragedies they had endured. McConnell recognized Templeman without Munro’s guidance.

  The crew from the King and Winge helped Munro, Maurer, and Templeman gather their few belongings. They left the tent standing as a beacon and McConnell sat inside and wrote a message for any vessel that might come after them. It was cold in the tent and dirty, and through the holes that riddled its sides, he could glimpse the pale Arctic sky. The remains of the food supply lay just outside, within reach, so that the men could crawl to it if they had to. It was a pitiful sight—empty pemmican cans; three or four arctic fox carcasses picked clean; and a few drops of seal oil.

  They had only twelve cartridges of ammunition left, Munro had told him. After that, they did not know what they would do to sustain themselves. They had given up hope of ever being rescued.

  McConnell left the tent hurriedly, tying the note to the tent pole and fastening the flap so snow would not drift in.

  HE HAD BEEN AWAKENED by the steam whistle. At first, Maurer lay in his bed, listening for the sound, afraid to trust his ears. And then, clearly, the drone of a ship’s horn, and he was out of his bunk, crawling out of the tent on his hands and knees.

  He had stood shakily and rubbed his eyes to clear them, not trusting them any more than he did his ears. Was it an illusion? Or was he really seeing a ship? It sat a quarter of a mile offshore, the American flag flying proudly from its deck.

  It took a while to find his voice and then to find the words, but eventually he was able to call out to Munro and Templeman. “The ship is9 here.”

  The ship is here.

  Maurer had weighed 165 pounds when he joined the Canadian Arctic Expedition and sailed from Esquimalt in June of 1913. Now, in this September of 1914, he weighed only 125 pounds. The skin was taut over his cheekbones, his piercing eyes made more intense by the shadowed lines of his face. He was all angles and bones, his flesh thin and pale underneath the layers of dirt.

  There came an umiak over the side of the ship, and the men with her, and there were the men rowing toward them now. The American flag was waving, her colors brilliant against the great whiteness of that northern world. It was the first time he had seen the flag in fourteen months, and he thought it could only be described as “transcendentally resplendent.”10

  Maurer, Chafe, and Templeman had invited their rescuers to have tea with them, but Swenson and the others wouldn’t hear of it. “No, we want 11you to come aboard,” they said, “we have better stuff than that aboard.”

  They ran the Canadian flag down the flagpole and took it with them. The wooden cross was left standing over the grave of Mamen and Malloch, the only mark to signify forever the “resting place of12 our brave comrades,” said Maurer.

  Leaving their camp and the island was bittersweet. Maurer had been prepared for the elation, but not for the sadness and the great hollowness he felt as well. This was a joyous occasion—the most wonderful thing that could ever have happened—the thing they had been wishing for and praying for, for so many months.

  Maurer carried the Bible his mother had given him and gave thanks to God as he turned his back forever on Rodger’s Harbour. But he couldn’t help feeling, as he was escorted to the umiak, and then as he set foot on the deck of the King and Winge, that a part of him was buried out there, too.

  THEY HAD GIVEN UP HOPE of being rescued long ago, Munro told them again over a meal of soft-boiled eggs, toast, cereal, and coffee. They were now aboard ship, consuming quarts of coffee, with heaping spoonfuls of sugar and condensed milk in each cup. The King and Winge was on her way to Cape Waring to retrieve the rest of the Karluk’s men.

  Swenson and McConnell sat with them while they ate their first meal, and afterward Munro, Maurer, and Templeman had their first baths in eight months. They were given a change of clothes, pulled from the shipboard “slop chest,” and when they were clean they barely recognized themselves or each other. They ate a second meal, barely an hour later. Ham, eggs, fried potatoes, crea
m of wheat, toast. “There was nothing 13we wanted but we got,” said Munro. Swenson and the rest of his men saw to it.

  “Mr. Swenson, I 14want to ask a great favor of you,” Munro finally got up the courage to say. He looked sheepish. The words came, falteringly, softly. “For several months I have been dreaming of eating a whole can of condensed milk with a spoon.”

  Maurer and Templeman then confessed to having the same craving. After all this time and all their suffering, the only thing they could think to ask for was a can of condensed milk.

  Immediately, three cans and three spoons were brought out, one for each of the men. They ate eagerly and with great delight, relishing each mouthful, and devouring the condensed milk as if it were ice cream. Munro was barely able to finish his, it was so rich and he was so overcome.

  AT FIRST LIGHT on September 7, McKinlay, Hadley, and the Eskimos started packing up camp in preparation for their move to the winter site. It was truly amazing how little it took to survive in their world.

  Around 10:00 in the morning, Kuraluk slipped outside to find a piece of driftwood so that he could make for Hadley the spear he’d been promising him for weeks. Hadley was inside the tent, busy making fox traps, and McKinlay was trying to repair their stove, which had stopped working properly. It was only minutes later that McKinlay heard an excited cry. He knew it was the Eskimo, but couldn’t make out what he was saying.

  Hadley had heard it, too. They stopped what they were doing and listened.

  “Umiakpik kunno!” It was faint, but unmistakable. And again, “Umiakpik kunno!”15

  Maybe a ship.

  Hadley and McKinlay stumbled over each other out of the tent. “How we got 16out of our tent we do not yet know,” said McKinlay. Kuraluk was standing there, pointing to the east. McKinlay strained, but he didn’t see anything. He ducked back into the tent and came back with the field glasses. He trained them out to sea.

 
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