The voyage of the Karluk – polar disaster

We know the stories: heroics, suffering, death of exploration in polar regions. Amazing feats, hunger and stamina and team work. As for the story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–16; not so much. It is a story of bad planning, bad preparations, egos, death and men divided and (probably) murder.

The Karluk. CC Wikimedia.
The Karluk. CC Wikimedia.

Some years ago, I read the book The Ice master – the doomed voyage of Karluk and it stuck with me. I should say, though, that I grew up in a country where the polar heroes were – and still are – celebrated heroes. Brave, bearded men that helped create a national identity at a time when that was paramount. So I am used to hearing, reading, and seeing stories about Amundsen, Nansen, Sverdrup and all the rest. And their heroic, stoic, superhuman efforts against ridiculously bad odds.

The scientific staff of the Karluk expedition. CC wikmedia.
The scientific staff of the Karluk expedition. CC wikmedia.

But back to the Karluk. The reason it stuck with me was that it was a complete and total disaster in more than one sense, and right from the beginning. The expedition leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson (a Canadian, despite the name) was an ambitious anthropologist with more ambition than planning abilities. For an arctic expedition, this is, of course catastrophic, and from this vantage point, it seems he was irresponsible and self-absorbed, with an ego touching on crazy.

Initially, it was going to be an ethnographic expedition, but with the political climate of the day, the backing from the Canadian government, it turned to primarily “geographical study”. Basically meaning looking for – and claiming – any land that might be discovered in the Beaufort sea. Two ships were bought, the Karluk and the Alaska. Karluk was to explore and find new land, Alaska was the “land party” and would survey and document the northern part of the Canadian coast.

In the planning and preparing, it seems Stefansson was primarily off gallivanting, he was not overseeing the preparations. Concerns were raised about the quality of supplies and planning, but Stefansson wrote these questions off as “impertinent and disloyal”. Good start. The scientists, though some were leaders in their fields, seems a rather ramshackle assemblage. Only two had polar experience. The youngest members of the “scientific” crew were 24 year-old science teacher from Glasgow, William Laird McKinlay; and a 20-year-old skier from Norway, Bjarne Mamen, who had no scientific experience whatsoever.

As for the ship crew, they were literally picked up on the docks. McKinlay wrote:

One was a confirmed drug addict … another suffered from venereal disease; and in spite of orders that no liquor was to be carried, at least two smuggled supplies on board.

To cut a long, long story short: the ships were in dubious condition, the supplies of clothing, food, tools, and scientific material was inadequate, the chain of command unclear, as was the ownership of potential studies, notebooks, and scientific discoveries. Stefansson, it seems, was hellbent on going, and that was that. The staff and crew had read in the press that Stefansson had said that he expected Karluk to be crushed, and that the lives of the staff were secondary to the scientific work. Confronted with this, Stefansson had no satisfactory explanation for his expedition members.

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Karluk – Wikimedia CC

You just know that this is going to go well. Of course, it all goes to rat-shit.

Some of the supplies meant for Karluk is stashed on the Alaska, and from there it all goes epically wrong. Karluk gets stuck in the ice, and it is clear that they must winter. Stefansson departs, on a hunting trip, though things indicate that he had no intention of returning. So there they were. Stuck in the ice. And moving fast. This map shows the journey; Stefansson left the ship somewhere along the first red line.

The journey and drift of the Karluk
The journey and drift of the Karluk. CC Wikimedia.

You have to imagine that you are in a very small ship, mainly made of wood, and constant creaking, banging, snapping, twisting, screeching of ice on ice, and ice on timber. A few centimeters away from your resting head. In darkness. In unknown waters. They were looking for new land, remember? There is no land in the Beaufort sea.

Pressure ridge. Photo Lars Jensen
Pressure ridge. Photo Lars Jensen

She sank. Of course she did. She got stuck in September and sank in January. Left on the ice, was 22 men, one woman, two children, 16 dogs and a cat. The enormous effort it took to get to Wrangler Island is worthy of a book itself, and not everyone made it to land. Hundreds of miles, the ice moving, and constant pressure ridges, open channels, backtracking, losing equipment. And now we near the essence of what fascinates me. There had been fights, arguments, and all sorts of scuffles before this, but on the island things got both uglier and more bizarre. The captain seemed to have kept it roughly under control, but he decided to journey for rescue in march. Prior to this, he apparently ate more than the others, to build his strength. As a captain, he could do that, and it was a good thing. But when you are constantly hungry, watching that must have been torture. He left with one of the Inuit hunters. And here it seems the entire party disintegrated, fragmented.

The idea that at the hardest of times is our finest moment is absolute horseshit. The divide between the crew and the scientific staff deepened, and instead of a real sense of being part of the same Himalayan fuck-up, the split between factions deepened. Food was scarce, there was stealing, hiding, sickness, bickering, accusations, conspiracies, counter-accusations, and accusations of hallucinations. Relatively trivial things became massive fights. He used too much cooking oil. He stole some seal meat. He lied about the catch. The party split into different camps. The worst traits of mankind quelched the best and the best had better stay quiet. And some say. Murder. McKinlay wrote:

The misery and desperation of our situation multiplied every weakness, every quirk of personality, every flaw in character, a thousandfold.

Gangrene. Toes chopped off with improvised implements. Did he use a little too much force? Did the chopper seem to enjoy it a little too much? Is it safe to go hunting with this guy? Will he push me into a crevasse? And a mysterious illness gripped and killed some of them: swelling limbs, lethargy, and death. Malloch lay in his tent dead for days, causing a “frightful smell”. His tent-mate Mamen was too weak to bury him and died later himself. Later, it seems clear that it was bad pemmican. Stefansson spent too much time selling the idea of the expedition, not enough on ensuring the quality of the stuff on which it would survive, was McKinleys view.

In June, the birds came, and eggs became important. Seals vanished altogether, but they got a walrus at some point. There was a gunshot. A man was found dead. In his possessions, a number of things stolen from others. Murder? Suicide? Accident?

August came and another winter beaconed. Captain Bartlett had been gone six months at this point; and ice conditions that year was especially freakish. His journey is worth another book. As it turns out, he had made it to civilization and had made several attempts at rescue. When winter was imminent, he begged a ship to head to the island, and he would be following a little later in another ship. On the 7th of September, they were rescued off Wrangler Island. 11 men, one woman, and two children had survived a year.

Some of the survivors of the Karluk
Some of the survivors of the Karluk

I am not sure what we really can learn from this, and I am not so interested in dragging a moral lesson out of it. Perhaps with the exception: if you are going on a polar expedition, be obsessive about food. Where and how it is made, stored, treated. Really obsessive.

The fascination of the story is what happens when people feel so pushed up against the wall, that only the awful stuff comes out. We are made of stardust, but we are horrible creatures, even to the point of self destruction. Working together would undoubtedly have been better, but that would have required some trust.. The split among the crews was so deep, that a unified, heroic tale was out of the question, and perhaps this is rare in polar literature. The ugliness of mankind distilled to a group of 25 people stuck on a freezing rock.

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