Jennifer Niven,
The Ice Master:
The Doomed 1913
Voyage of the Karluk

(Hyperion, 2000)

The subtitle of Jennifer Niven's account of the Arctic expedition that ran afoul of an ice floe indicates that a completely happy ending is not in the offing. At the same time, The Ice Master is also a portrait and human resilience and determination in the face of disaster.

The Karluk set sail in mid-June 1913 after hasty preparations by expedition leader Vilhjamur Stefansson. Already an established explorer, Stefansson had received full backing from the Canadian government for his proposal to search for a hidden continent which he believed to be concealed by the polar ice cap.

The terms of the backing and the simple reality of winter in the Arctic dictated that they must be underway by June at the latest. This did not leave a lot of time to acquire a ship, equipment and supplies or to appoint a staff, captain and crew. Stefansson's greatest mistake was to even think about purchasing the Karluk. The ship was a retired whaler and completely unsuitable for an expedition into the Arctic. It had no ice-breaking capacity and was in poor shape overall. On top of that, Stefansson skimped on purchasing quality supplies, including the polar gear for the party and the tinned pemmican, a mixture of meat, fat and fruit which was the primary staple of any polar expedition. It is now believed that improperly prepared pemmican contributed to the deaths of two of the party and the illness of some of the others.

The Ice Master is not Stefansson's story. It is, rather, the story of the 22 men, one woman and two children Stefansson abandoned to their fate when the Karluk became trapped in the ice. (The party on board included an Inuit couple hired to hunt and to sew additional winter gear for the crew and staff. As was common among married Inuit couples, they brought along their daughters: Helen, 8, and Mugpi, 3.)

Robert Bartlett, captain of the Karluk, is the true ice master of the tale, as he struggles to hold the group together in the face of fear and mutiny for the five months that the ship drifts, a prisoner of the ice. The ice finally crushes and sinks the Karluk, stranding everyone onboard on the unstable polar ice with half their provisions, 29 sled dogs and one small black cat. After finally reaching the desolate shores of Wrangel Island, the group hunkered in to wait and survive while Bartlett and one other man set off on foot to find help, a journey of hundreds of miles. Of those left behind, only 12 survive the cold, hunger, illness and predations of human nature. Incredibly, Stefansson suffered no repercussions for abandoning them, and even more incredibly, laid the blame for the expedition's failure at the feet of Captain Bartlett.

By dint of thorough and painstaking research, Niven has created an account as vivid and immediate as today's headlines. She takes scrupulous care not to fictionalize dialogue or attribute imagined emotions to the people from the Karluk. Rather, she draws on the men's personal accounts in order to bring verisimilitude to the tale.

Research aside, The Ice Master is a taut and compelling narrative, all the more gripping for being true. Niven brings the characters alive until the reader is fully involved in their plight.

Recently, a number of books have appeared about another polar expedition with a ship trapped in ice and a heroic journey to bring rescue: Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition on the Endurance. That adventure had a happier ending, as the entire expedition survived, and that might account for its popularity. But the story of the Karluk is just as significant, and Jennifer Niven has done a masterful job relating that story in The Ice Master.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 15 September 2001

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