The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven


  Mamen couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing. They would probably get into another argument, but he didn’t care.

  McKinlay was next, wandering into the room, flustered and upset. McKinlay also avoided the late-night gatherings regarding the Jeannette, preferring, like Mamen, to study De Long in the privacy of his own bunk. McKinlay seldom vocalized his fears, but now he stood in the doorway of the Cabin DeLuxe, staring furiously at Mamen and Beuchat. “Stefansson,” he said firmly, “read De Long’s5 book about the voyage of the ‘Jeannette’ a couple of days before he left the ‘Karluk’; he saw there that most ships, 99 percent of 100, in the ice north of Bering Strait are facing certain death, and for fear of losing his life he left the ship.”

  There it was, spoken aloud. The words no one dared speak. Everyone had wondered about Stefansson’s departure. All of the scientists hosted their own theories on the matter. But no one had named it until now.

  There were rumors that the plans of the expedition were not what the men had been “led to believe6,” according to McKinlay, and “that someone had been acting under false pretenses.” Each day of their journey was a revelation for the men of the Karluk as they realized more clearly—and with increasing alarm—just how unprepared the expedition had been when they departed Esquimalt. Aside from the lack of proper fur clothing, there were no suitable tents or stoves, and much of the equipment was secondhand or in disrepair. Stefansson, they felt, would most certainly have to undergo an official enquiry when the expedition returned to civilization.

  Stefansson surely knew the odds against the ship escaping from the ice this late in the season. He knew, as well as Bartlett, that there was no hope of breaking free until spring. If he stayed with the ship, he gave up all prospect of continuing on his great quest. But the very idea was incomprehensible. What kind of leader abandoned his men?

  It was nothing Mamen hadn’t lambasted Stefansson for in his own journal. But blaming Stefansson wouldn’t help matters, nor would giving voice to suspicions that could never actually be proven. Mamen was disgusted with his comrades and their lack of restraint. Nothing good would ever come from talk like this, and it made him feel uneasy and unsettled.

  “The Canadian Arctic7 Expedition will be a great fiasco, I see it now,” he wrote in his diary. “It is not only the leader of the expedition who is to blame, but most of the members. I have never seen a bigger crowd of cowards in my life, they fear both for their lives and their limbs. Why should such people go to the Arctic, they should know what they risk, and when they see danger or dangers confronting them, they blame the leader and curse him up and down.”

  DR. MACKAY, for one, was planning to take charge of the situation. He and Murray, and to some extent Beuchat, did nothing to hide the fact that they were planning to abandon the ship and take themselves ashore. They charted the Jeannette’s route and compared it with the route of the Karluk. There had been no happy ending to De Long’s expedition, and the doctor and Murray did not plan to entrust their own fates to a captain in whom they had no confidence—and they had no confidence in Bartlett. While the captain’s long and celebrated reputation with Peary spoke for itself, Mackay and Murray thought much more of their own experience with Shackleton. They believed Bartlett to be simple, unimaginative, and impassive. They also felt he was showing a grave lack of concern for their situation, and it was maddening that he didn’t seem to be doing anything to get them out of the ice. They felt far superior to him intellectually and in terms of their own polar experience. If anything, that one expedition with Shackleton had given them a sense of too much power and confidence—false confidence, but confidence nonetheless. Bartlett was no leader, as far as they could see. Shackleton was a leader, and having served under him, they considered themselves leaders by association.

  Mackay, Murray, and Beuchat never mentioned their plans to McKinlay, but they invited Mamen to come with them. He was enraged at the suggestion of mutiny and he let them know it. His place was with the ship and with his captain. Afterward, he sought out Bartlett and told him that “as long as8 there are provisions . . . and a deck on Karluk, I stay on board, unless I get orders to go.”

  Mackay confronted Bartlett with their plans to leave the ship. Bartlett, in his typically gruff way, dismissed the doctor. He did not want to waste his time with this kind of talk. Mackay demanded that Bartlett bring the ship’s company together and lay his agenda before them. The doctor and the other scientists were unaware of Stefansson’s instructions about what they were to do while wintering in the ice and were unaware of Bartlett’s plans for getting them out of there and to safety. As far as they could see, he was doing nothing. They believed he had gotten them into the whole mess to begin with by following the open leads in the ice and steering the ship away from land. In their eyes, Bartlett was the reason they were now stuck in the ice pack, and it was his responsibility to get them out. Dr. Mackay and Murray also demanded that the captain inform them of his plan for the winter.

  Bartlett, as usual, said nothing. He knew what the doctor was planning. He’d heard every word through the adjoining wall of their cabins. Mackay wanted Bartlett to hear everything, to know how disliked he was, and night after night, Bartlett had to listen to it. Generally not the most placid and even-tempered of men, the captain refrained from battle. He would not engage in a showdown with these men, would not give them the satisfaction or disrupt his ship. He had his crew to think of. He was in a precarious situation, left in charge of twenty-one men, one woman, and two children. Shouldered with a responsibility he never asked for or expected, he did not feel he could let himself respond to threats.

  As far as Bartlett was concerned, there was nothing to discuss with these men, so there was no good reason to call a formal meeting. He was still hopeful that the ship would break free and, if not, that she would be prepared to last the winter held fast in the ice floe.

  He did inform Mackay that anyone who required anything had only to ask for it, and if it was on the ship, the request would be taken care of. Afterwards, most of the staff felt satisfied with this, and for the time being at least, things seemed to smooth over.

  Still, the worries remained, and everyone seemed suddenly aware of danger, discord, and trouble ahead, even if, for the moment, they stopped talking about it. To his journal, Mamen confided, “One stares death9 in the eyes every minute of the day. It is not only starvation but there are dangers lurking around you all the time, so you must keep the eyes wide open if you love your life.”

  WHENEVER BARTLETT SAID IT WAS SAFE, Mamen strapped on his skis and led the ski patrol out onto the ice surrounding the ship. When he could, Bartlett took a skiing lesson; Malloch and the doctor were also regular students. The captain and Malloch were both enthusiastic, if still a bit clumsy. Dr. Mackay, who always insisted on doing things his own way—even on skis—excelled in running and jumping.

  They were usually the only living creatures out on the ice. It was an eerie world—vast, barren, and utterly still. White sky blended into the icescape, until you couldn’t tell where one ended and one began. There was no sign of life but the ship and her men, the dogs, and the little black cat. Otherwise, the world was deafeningly silent and lifeless.

  “I remember now10 how quiet the world appeared to be,” wrote Fred Maurer. “The only noises were those made by the voices of men and the howling of the dogs; our engines were silent; the ice around us gave no sign of opening up, and there day after day and night after night we lay in helpless imprisonment.”

  On October 9 there was a near catastrophe when Bartlett and Mamen were out on their skis with Hadley’s dog Molly. The ice broke about fifty yards ahead of the ship, forming a large lead, which grew rapidly into a dark chasm of water. The skiers barely had a chance to leap across the water before it widened, but poor Molly wasn’t able to make the jump; and before either Bartlett or Mamen could go back for her, she was stranded on the other side.

  Bartlett hurried back to the ship, hoping to seize this chanc
e to put the Karluk back under her own power and pilot her through the passageway of water. It was the opportunity he had been searching for, ever since they had been carried away from land and leader in September. He would blast a way out of there if he had to.

  There was only one problem—it was too dark. He would have to wait or risk driving her into the surrounding ice floes.

  Bartlett’s hopes were high the next morning as he climbed to the barrel to get a view of the extent of the open water. But the ship was shrouded in fog and it was impossible to see anything. The water closed up and the Karluk remained frozen in.

  It wasn’t the last time during the month that Bartlett was hopeful of breaking free of the ice. Time and again, a pathway opened and escape seemed promising. “We are still11 lying in the same ice floe as almost two months ago, but it has now begun to get frail; it won’t take long, I think, before it breaks,” wrote Mamen. But time and again, the hopes of the men were dashed. Karluk, it seemed, was undeniably trapped.

  The ice was misleading. It was easy to feel safe when the ice was still and settled and the men were tucked safely inside the ship. Their frozen home gave them a false sense of security. The scenery, too, was unspeakably beautiful, and it was hard to believe that something so lovely could at the same time be so deadly. The sky was bright as a mirror at times, and there was only ice and snow “and a few12 openings and small water channels that shine and glitter” as far as the eye could see, observed Mamen.

  The nighttime icescape was especially enchanting. Nearly every night, the sky came alive with a brilliant display of the aurora borealis. Even the jaded and cynical Mackay and Murray said the aurora—especially the vibrant colors—outshone anything they had ever witnessed in the Antarctic.

  THE ICE WAS BREAKING UP. Floes shattered against floes in a terrifying inferno, causing cannonlike explosions as the ice threatened to crush the Karluk. For the first time, the men were afraid. “Opposing floes which13 had come together were being shattered one against another, piling higher & higher,” wrote McKinlay. “Huge ice-blocks larger than houses were being tossed about like pebbles! What stupendous forces must have been at work with millions of tons of ice on either side trying to make way in opposite directions! As we watched this terrifying work of Nature, we noticed that the area of contention was creeping slowly but surely towards us, & we fell to wondering, with a shudder, what would be our lot.. . . To the East, West & South, are seething masses of ice battling for supremacy, grinding, crushing, groaning, roaring ice . . ..”

  A special watch was kept because of ice conditions, and the men made preparations for a hasty departure from the ship by laying out provisions and equipment on the deck. Bartlett gave strict orders not to leave the ship. He made it clear that anyone who left was taking his life in his own hands and Bartlett would not be held accountable.

  For the first time, the men began to have an inkling of what they were up against. The ship, their haven for the past two months, now suddenly seemed vulnerable. “So we are14 rapidly approaching the great, open, bottomless ocean,” wrote Mamen in his journal. “It is indeed difficult to tell how long we will have a roof over our heads. If it continues this way it may be water rather than a roof, and that perhaps forever. . ..”

  SOMETIME IN MID-OCTOBER, Beuchat went in search of Mamen. Fearful of their situation, his conscience troubling him, stabbed by doubts thanks to all the talk from Mackay and Murray about Bartlett’s ineptitude, Beuchat poured out his thoughts to the young topographer.

  Murray and Mackay proposed to leave the ship and set out for land. They thought they could do better than the captain; they didn’t have any faith in him and believed they could reach land on their own. If they stayed with the ship much longer, they might be lost. The Antarctic experience of both men spoke for them, especially Dr. Mackay, who had been a hero there. It was easy to be swayed by such talk from such confident and highly respected men. True, Bartlett had led Peary to the Pole, but that was a different time of year, a different ship, a different region. Mackay didn’t want to wait any longer. He and Murray both felt now was the time to leave the ship and make their way to land. As far as either one could see, they were waiting for nothing. The ship was imprisoned, with no chance of being freed until spring, if she wasn’t crushed long before that. There was no hope of continuing their work and fulfilling their duties, no hope of the Karluk sailing again under her own power.

  Mamen told Beuchat it was lunacy to leave the Karluk. It was the wrong time of year, for one thing, with the days growing shorter and the weather growing colder and worsening day by day. The middle of January would be more reasonable—with the sun returning—but even then Mamen didn’t believe in leaving the ship prematurely. “You must consider15,” Mamen told Beuchat, “that there are not only a few on board but 25 men all told, and if the crew sees that somebody leaves the ship, they will immediately assume that danger is threatening, and all will sneak away in the same manner! And with 29 dogs for 25 men this is no joke, and the distance is both long and full of danger.”

  THE WATER GREW DEEPER as the Karluk drifted slowly but steadily northward. By October 26, they reached 1,115 fathoms. At the beginning of the month, they had stood in a depth of nine.

  Mamen needed to be working for his own peace of mind, so he and Malloch and McKinlay kept an eye on the temperature, studied the drift, charted the wind and weather conditions, and made latitudinal and longitudinal observations. They also worked in teams helping the crew and the Eskimos break ice to pack all around the ship. It was Bartlett’s idea to form a cushion against the lateral pressure of the ice that trapped her. His hope was that this would keep the men warmer and well insulated while also helping the ship rise above the water so as to avoid being crushed. They cut the ice one meter round the Karluk, to help her rise, and banked her with snow blocks eighteen inches thick, reaching to the level of the poop deck.

  Every day, Murray’s dredge was lowered, and every day it was raised to examine the catch of Arctic sea life. When the dredge produced no results, Murray was crushed, but when he was successful his spirits improved dramatically. After a good catch, Murray would disappear into his cramped, makeshift laboratory, where he huddled in the cold, smoking furiously, gray hair falling in his eyes as he studied the specimens under his microscope. When he couldn’t identify them, he still cataloged his findings, keeping meticulous notes in painstaking detail. Even his less educated comrades seemed to understand the significance of his work. If some of these creatures had indeed been seen by the human eye before, they were still unfamiliar. And Murray realized that he could have very well been the first to view—or, at the very least, to identify—some of these animals.

  Malloch set up a theodolite on the ice so that every night when the weather was clear enough he could take sightings and keep track of the ship’s position. He was also teaching himself how to make igloos. His colleagues discovered him out on the ice one day, making a shabby and badly constructed snow house. He was cheerful and determined as ever, having decided that he should know how to make an igloo, just in case the worst happened and they were forced to leave the ship.

  Kataktovik, meanwhile, was teaching Beuchat, McKinlay, and Dr. Mackay to speak the Eskimo language. Every evening for half an hour, they would gather in his quarters in the lab for their lessons.

  Beuchat was a brilliant linguist, and in his opinion it was the most difficult language of all to learn. Speaking Eskimo, for instance, was so much different from actually thinking Eskimo. And even with a wide grasp of the Eskimo dialect, it was hard to communicate with native speakers because so many Eskimo words, once translated into English and then back to Eskimo, became nonsense. “Dried apples16” in English became “situk” in Eskimo, which meant “resembling an ear.” “Salvation” in English became “pulling from a hole in the ice” in Eskimo. And the Twenty-third Psalm translated rather delightfully and alarmingly into: “The Lord is my great keeper; he does not want me. He shoots me down on the beach, & pushes me
into the water.”

  In the evening, some of the men gathered in the saloon to play bridge and chess. Murray taught Mamen to play the latter. The young Norwegian had never played before but picked up the game quickly and began playing every night. In this temporary sanctum from the cold, the scientists and officers sat around the stove and lit their pipes and cigarettes from their treasured rations of tobacco and listened to the tunes of the phonograph. It was a cozy little retreat—a necessary one—and one all of the men came to count on in those long, bleak, darkening days.

  In addition to their designated duties, the men—both staff and crew—were still hard at work sewing winter clothes. Stefansson had left them sorely ill-equipped for braving the cold, and Kiruk alone would not be able to outfit them; one woman would never be able to create an entire winter wardrobe for twenty-five people, and besides, her time was better spent making the winter boots. Under Kiruk’s keen supervision, each man was given skins, cloth, and some blanketing to make an extra pair of socks and skin shirts. The crewmen were more experienced than their scientific counterparts in the field of embroidery. “Theirs may not17 be so very beautiful but I will guarantee that they will be solid; sailors know how to sew so it will last,” observed Mamen.

  At every sign of open water, Bartlett sent men out to hunt. The shortage of fresh meat aboard ship was a concern, and he knew all too well—and had seen firsthand—the devastating and sometimes fatal effects of a meat-free diet. So he sent Kuraluk and Kataktovik out looking for seal and for polar bear. The grizzled Hadley accompanied them, bound and determined to beat the “dirty Indians,” as he called them, and bring back more game. Despite the fact that he had loved and married an Eskimo woman, the old man professed that he couldn’t stand most Eskimos, made no pretense about his supposed deep-seated hatred of them, and was certainly not about to be out-hunted by a couple of them.

 
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