Book Review:
The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

by Jennifer Niven

Hyperion, New York, 2000, 384 pages

ISBN: 0-7868-6529-6 ($24.95)

The Canadian 'Karluk' expedition:
Bartlett was a hero, Stefansson was not


Ralph M. Myerson, MD

Jennifer Niven has combined superlative narrative skills with meticulously thorough research to produce what is certainly the most complete and accurate account of the ill-fated Karluk Expedition of 191314. This book is based on the diaries, journals, unpublished and published manuscripts and papers of the members of the expedition, and on other pertinent material as well as public records in governmental archives. Prominently included in Niven's research is the diary of and a personal interview with William Laird McKinlay, the last surviving member of the expedition and an individual who devoted 60 years of his life to a frank and truthful presentation of the facts concerning the expedition.

The Karluk Expedition more properly known as the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 was the brainchild of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, celebrated for his studies on Inuit culture and his thesis of The Friendly Arctic. Stefansson was a firm believer in the existence of an unexplored continent hidden beneath the vast polar ice, and the Karluk Expedition was designed to establish or disprove its presence.

Having been refused financial support for the expedition by the U.S. government, Stefansson successfully petitioned the Canadian government for assistance. The Canadian parliament approved his petition, but altered the thrust of the expedition to conform with its own specifications. Contrary to Stefansson's interests in discovering new land, Canada was mainly interested in exploring and developing what had already been discovered, as well as studying its natives, flora, fauna and resources, particularly copper.

The exploratory party was divided into two parts. A land-based Southern Party consisted primarily of scientists whose primary function was to pursue anthropological and geographic surveys of the Canadian-Arctic Ocean coastline and of the islands north of the Arctic coastline. A Northern party would search for the undiscovered hidden continent and also undertake anthropological, geographic, oceanographic and biological studies in the area presumed to be the location of the undiscovered continent.

The two parties were scheduled to meet at Herschel Island, a small uninhabited island in the Arctic Ocean just east of the Alaska-Canadian border. The Southern party was to reach the island on another ship, the Alaska, and the Karluk would transport the Northern Party to Herschel Island. Neither ship accomplished its purpose, but the Southern Party reached its destination near the MacKenzie River delta and carried out its stated missions. The Northern party, led by Stefansson, was considered the principal component of the expedition. It was composed of 10 scientists, 13 crewmen, 7 Inuit (including one woman and two children) and one "passenger."

The expedition was fortunate in obtaining the services of Captain Robert (Bob) Bartlett as captain of the Karluk. Bartlett had already achieved an enviable reputation and was considered the best available Arctic Ice Master, not only as a ship's captain but as an explorer in his own right. He had sailed previously with Stefansson and had accompanied Robert E. Peary on the latter's 1909 "dash to the Pole." Bartlett's party had reached 88 N before being turned back by Peary in favor of Matthew Henson and his group. Bartlett held Peary in high regard, but thought less of Stefansson and made no secret of the fact that he believed the Karluk and its crew ill-suited for the planned expedition. 

The Karluk set sail from British Columbia on June 17, 1913 and made its way along the Alaskan coast and through the Bering Strait. Within a 2-day sail from Herschel Island, the ship became ice bound and after six weeks of impatient waiting, Stefansson decided to leave the ship. Taking three of the scientists and two Inuit, he headed north to explore Banks Island and several previously unexplored islands, a trip that lasted for five years. He never saw the Karluk again or showed any interest in her. Three scientists assigned to the Southern party left the ship and joined their companions who had reached their destination aboard the Alaska.

Shortly after Stefansson's departure, the Karluk broke free from the ice and with a complement of 22 individuals was carried north and west by the Arctic drift toward the Siberian coast. On January 10, 1914, the ship was crushed by the ice and sank, leaving its survivors stranded on the frozen Arctic Ocean at a point they designated a Shipwreck Camp. Prior to its sinking, the ship's supplies were stored at the camp.

Bartlett's main object was to reach the Siberian coast, several hundred miles away. Less than 100 miles away was Wrangel Island and over a period of 45 days, Bartlett maneuvered his party and their supplies to the island, arriving there on March 12, 1914. Though barren and uninhabited, Wrangel Island offered temporary refuge although still 200 miles remained to the Siberian coast. Bartlett decided to make this trip alone in the company of a young unmarried Inuit, Kataktovick. The two successfully reached Siberia and were welcomed and helped by the native Chukches.


The Karluk in the ice pack, August 1913

Bartlett and Kataktovick then successfully completed a 400-mile trek eastward to the Bering Strait where they encountered a vessel, the Herman, which transported them to the Alaskan port of St. Michael. Bartlett eventually succeeded in arranging for a ship, the Bear, to rescue the Wrangel Island survivors. Before its arrival there, however, the survivors were picked up by the schooner, King and Winge, and eventually were reunited with Bartlett. The survivors were picked up on September 7, 1914, some eight months after the sinking of the Karluk.

Bartlett was hailed as a hero and given credit for saving the lives of 16 members of the expedition. He received the award of the Royal Geographical Society for outstanding heroism. Canadian marine historian summed up Bartlett's achievements as "the finest example of leadership in the maritime history of Canada."

Stefansson suffered public criticism and attack as a result of the Karluk Expedition. When he was being considered for presidency of the Explorers Club of New York, Dr. Rudolph Anderson, the leader of the Karluk Southern Party, denounced him as a "socialist, pacifist and a coward," and accused him of deserting the expedition in face of presumed danger. Stefansson responded by labeling Anderson's group as deserters despite the fact that they had successfully charted hundred of miles of Arctic coastline and made valuable contributions to our knowledge of the Inuit.

Six of the twelve survivors of the Karluk expedition, Bartlett is second from the right.

He was an embarrassment to the Canadian government as well. His original budget for the expedition of $75,000 eventually expanded to $500,000 and his Canadian claim for Wrangel Island was made in the face of previously established Russian claims. Stefansson openly and publicly blamed Bartlett for the Karluk tragedy. Karluk survivor William Laird McKinlay referred to Stefansson as a "consummate liar and cheat" and maintained that "there was for me only one real hero, Bob Bartlett, honest, fearless, reliable, loyal, everything a hero should be."

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society