Taissumani, Aug. 23
The Sinking of the Karluk
In 1913 the Canadian government sponsored an expedition to the western Canadian Arctic to carry out scientific work and geographical exploration. It was led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian of Icelandic origin, who would end up with a reputation seriously tarnished by the results of the expedition.
Stefansson himself commanded the expedition’s Northern Division, the one which would have exploration as its main objective. His ship, the Karluk, commanded by the veteran Newfoundland captain, Bob Bartlett, sailed from Victoria in July of 1913.
The party had planned to winter at Banks Island, but ice prevented the ship from reaching the island. Instead, the ship spent the winter locked in the icy grip of the Beaufort Sea. This was, in fact, Stefansson’s own fault, for the departure of the ship from Victoria had been delayed while he continued to raise money.
Stefansson was one the few men on board who knew how to hunt. In September, he left the ship, taking five men with him — including two Alaskan Inuit — on what he said would be a hunting expedition to the Alaskan mainland.
In fact, he made no attempt to return to the Karluk; he and his party wintered with the expedition’s other two ships at Collinson Point. Stefansson subsequently claimed that he had tried to return to his ship, but critics forever after accused him of abandoning the ship and its crew, and bearing personal responsibility for the tragedy that ensued.
While Stefansson wintered in relative comfort, the Karluk drifted westward towards Siberia for three months in the dead of winter, at the mercy of the wind, weather and cold. On Jan. 10, the crew was awakened by a harsh grating sound. A crack along the starboard length of the ship had opened and she was taking on water.
That evening, realizing that the situation was hopeless, Capt. Bartlett ordered the crew to abandon ship. Most of the men had no Arctic experience, but they were assisted by two Inuit, Kuraluk (whose wife, Kiruk, and two children, Helen and Mukpii, were with the expedition), and Kataktovik. Both men were excellent hunters, who kept the expedition supplied with fresh seal meat during the westward drift.
Capt. Bartlett remained aboard ship that night, clearly distraught at the impending loss of a vessel under his command. William Laird McKinlay, a diminutive Scottish mathematics teacher who had signed on as meteorologist and magnetician, described that night:
“He had a huge fire roaring in the galley stove, and he had moved the gramophone in with the full stock of records. He played them one by one, throwing each record as it ended into the galley fire. He found Chopin’s Funeral March, played it over and laid it aside. He was really very comfortable, eating when he felt like it and drinking plenty of coffee and tea. There was just enough ice pressure to keep the ship from sinking… All day the Captain remained on board. For hours nothing changed. The ship was full of water and only prevented from sinking by the grip of the ice… Then at 3:15 a shout, ‘She’s going!’ brought everyone on to the ice. The Karluk was settling down at the bow. As the minutes went by, the deck sank almost entirely under water. Captain Bartlett put the Funeral March on the Victrola. With the water running along the starboard side of the deck and pouring down the hatches, he waited at the rail until it came down level with the ice. Then he stepped off. The Karluk slowly settled by the bow and sank gradually… Captain Bartlett, deeply moved, stood right alongside her until she was gone.”
The worst was yet to come. When Stefansson had abandoned the party, he had taken 12 of the best dogs with him. Now, with poor dogs, the remains of the Northern Division set out over the ice for Wrangel Island, north of Siberia.
The Karluk’s first officer, Sandy Anderson, only 20 years old, was the first to die. An indication of the severity of the conditions is evident from the fact that two of the others who died early in the attempt to reach the island were two men who had been with Shackleton in the Antarctic in 1909, and who had crossed the land ice near the South Pole.
In all, 11 men died on the ice of the Arctic Ocean or on Wrangel Island itself. Bob Bartlett and Kataktovik made an astounding journey to seek help, by sledge and foot, to the Siberian mainland, then 700 miles along the coast of Siberia to East Cape, from where they crossed Bering Strait to St. Michael’s, south of Nome. From there, Bartlett sent an urgent appeal for assistance.
The survivors of the Wrangel Island party were rescued by a trading vessel, the King and Winge on September 7. The U. S. Revenue steamer, the Bear, met that vessel a day later, with Bartlett aboard. The survivors owed their lives to Bartlett, and to the Inuit hunter Kuraluk and his wife. They owed nothing to Stefansson.