Jennifer Niven

"The Ice Master: the Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 25, 2000)

In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from Victoria, British Columbia to begin one of the most elaborate Arctic expeditions in history. The expedition leader, Vilhajalmur Stefansson, hoped to find a last unexplored continent hidden beneath the vast polar ice cap. Backed by the Canadian government, Stefansson put together the largest scientific staff ever taken on such a journey.

However, Stefansson proved to be a careless and disorganized leader, more interested in fame than the welfare of his crew and staff. The Karluk, a 29-year-old retired whaler was purchased for a mere $10,000 and had a hasty and incomplete retrofit. Robert Bartlett, who had once served under Peary and had been desiring another polar adventure, signed on as captain of the slow and weak hulled ship. "She would never have the power or strength to break through the ice they would inevitably face on their journey," but Stefansson had been impatient to be on his way and Bartlett resigned to do the best he could.

Stefansson had purchased other ships for his fleet, but again in his haste, decided to sort out the expedition and supplies after the ships met at Hershel Island. Because the Karluk had more passenger space, many of the scientists that should have been on the Alaska ended up on the Karluk. Moreover the supplies and equipment were in a disarray, provisions were packed badly, the ammunition for the guns could not be found, and clothing was in short supply or poorly provided. For example, Stefansson purchased secondhand parkas in Nome that were "horrible to look at, diseased and thin."

In mid August, six weeks after the start of the journey, the Arctic winter had begun early. While trying to make its way to meet the rest of the expedition at Hershel Island, the Karluk became imprisoned in a massive block of ice and begin to drift. By late August it was clear that the ship was not going to break loose and that they would be imprisoned by the ice for the winter. And then on September 20, Stefansson feigned a hunting expedition and set off with three other expedition members plus two of the Eskimos, "a bounty of food supplies and ammunition, guns, two sledges, and a dozen of the very best dogs." He also issued winter boots, socks, deerskin shirts, all of which were in short supply, to each of the men that would travel with him. And that was the last the Karluk saw of their leader.

Now Captain Bartlett had responsibility for the lives of the twenty-two men, one woman, and two children aboard the Karluk. Almost everyone left aboard are strangers and from the start there is a division between the crew, the Inuits, and the scientists. Even amongst the scientists there is dissension. In typical manner, Stefansson did not take special care in selecting most of the crew or even the scientists. So almost all are ill-prepared for any type of arctic survival or group encounter.

Niven uses the content of diaries, letters and interviews as the basis for this book. One source more than any other influences The Ice Master; that of McKinley's unpublished books that he spent the rest of his life writing trying to understand the events of that one year. McKinley was one of the scientists, who along with Mamen, had the confidence of the Captain. McKinley's own writings are meant to give due credit to Bartlett for saving his life and that of the rest of the survivors; as well as to exonerate Bartlett for the lives that were lost by shifting blame to Stefansson. Niven's account does the same.

In the process we are provided with an incredible glimpse into the Arctic world; the loud and nerve jarring ice as it breaks up and moves with the current, the colorless world, and more than anything the frigid temperatures. During the winter months it is so dark that they treasure the light from a single lantern. During the summer months, they can not travel very far without excruciating pain from snow blindness. At no time do the temperatures become less than life threatening. Niven captures the vulnerability of living on the ice floes when without warning they can split and separate travelers. In these conditions, it takes a day to travel six or seven miles.

The Arctic's natural forces are only a part of this story. The other is that of the people on this voyage. Despite the lot he is stuck with, Captain Bartlett is determined to save the lives of these men. The crew and scientist each include their share of lazy and selfish men. The scientist may have been distinguished, but all but two had polar experience. The crew consisted of some real hard lucks, two were traveling under aliases, liquor was smuggled aboard, one hired hand had only a pair of canvas trousers, and the cook was a confirmed drug addict. Legally, Bartlett is responsible for their lives and he must motivate them to prepare for his eventual command to abandon ship, to build and then abandon Shipwreck City, to lead them over mountains of ice to solid ground before the summer. Bartlett then walks hundreds of miles to Siberia to find a ship to take him back to Alaska to arrange rescue for his men. Back on the desolate and forsaken Wrangel Island, we empathize with McKinley, Mamen, Hadley, the Inuit family and few others who are key to helping the less able to survive, in some cases even at the expense of their own lives. But the dark side of humanity is here just as vividly. As food dwindles, the men steal, lie and do worse. With the harsh conditions comes the most extreme of the human behavior whether weak, selfish or competitive.

The Ice Master is told in monthly installments beginning in August 1913 and ending in September 1914 when the remaining survivors are rescued. Niven says that she wrote this book by constructing "day-by day calendars, juxtaposing all the firsthand accounts recorded by the participants themselves." By this process she weaves together and accounts for all events. Her book stays true to this form often recounting the same incident from different perspective. This technique, however, does not make the book dry. Instead it is a compelling true adventure steeped in mystery, suspense, mutiny, horror and has its fair share of both real life villains and heroes. "It is good for the world to hear such stories sometimes."

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About the Author:

Jennifer NivenJennifer Niven, an award winning screenwriter, had been an associate producer at ABC Television in Los Angeles before she left to research and write The Ice Master. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014