Chopin’s Funeral March marked her death.
As each record finished, the captain threw it into the fire. One by one, as the icy water slowly filled the ship’s belly.
He stepped off, bidding the ship farewell. She dove to her grave. The sober march a final tribute to the only home he had known for the last 208 days.
Now the crew were on their own. Alone.
The ship carried along by the aimlessly drifting ice, they were as good as dead.
History would deem the expedition doomed from the start.
Months prior, their questionable leader had emerged from a white wilderness, having spent the previous six years living amongst the Inuit of northern Canada. Vilhjalmur Stefansson hoped to build upon his success.
The Canadian government––granting his wish––appointed the 27-year-old anthropologist to lead an expedition to the uncharted waters surrounding the North Pole, in the hopes of discovering a long-lost continent Stefansson was sure to find.
With winter approaching, there was little time to prepare. Paths through the arctic shore-up and freeze come wintertime.
Major expeditions often took years to plan. But for the largest artic expedition in Canadian history, a few months would have to suffice.
So Stefansson set out to find a ship and a crew––not unlike his famous colleague Shakleton had done just a few years prior––when he recruited for his expedition to the opposite pole by posting perhaps the most successful job ad ever published, garnering over 5000 responses from London alone.
“MEN WANTED for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
They came for Shakleton as they came for Stefansson–– from all over the world––very few with any expedition experience, much less experience surviving the frigid conditions of the Arctic.
Their vessel was equally underprepared, but at ten thousand dollars it was a bargain, and one of the few ships available on short notice.
The Karluk was dilapidated, far past her prime. Unlike the newer steel ships of the day, her wooden hull wasn’t built for forging a trail through the floating arctic icepack.
Nor could her engine provide sufficient thrust. Using sails and auxiliary power, she could scarcely achieve 7 knots. Her captain would later note, “She had neither the strength to sustain ice-pressure nor the engine-power to break loose ice.”
But captain Abraham Bartlett accepted the position anyway, albeit in the face of his own objections: the Karluk herself posed a serious danger to the success of the expedition, and the survival of her crew.
His fears would soon materialize.
The Karluk set sail from British Colombia on June 17th, 1913.
They sailed up the Alaskan Coast, reaching the Bearing Straight, then crossing the Arctic Circle by late July.
No ice was yet in sight. Optimism was high.
Four days later, on August 2nd, the winter’s first blizzard hit. A full month early. As the storm winds abated, their foe appeared: heavy sea ice off the port bow.
The Captain implored Stefansson to turn back, back to Alaska, to winter in harbor. The request was denied. The mission must continue.
The next 20 miles to Point Barrow would take them a full four days. It was there, at the northernmost settlement in this sphere of the world, that Stefansson would recruit the final Inuit to join his team.
But for nearly half the crew, this would be the last time they laid eyes on civilization.
At first, Captain Bartlett’s trek north hugged the relative safety of the shoreline, but this strategy soon became untenable. The fully loaded vessel sat low in the water, and was grounded repeatedly in the shallows off the coast.
As an opening in the ice appeared, Bartlett made the fateful decision to follow the path, out to sea.
An unknown sea, full of danger and uncertainty, but perhaps also home to the secrets of a lost continent. That was, after all, their mission.
On August 13th, the temperature fell below zero. Their watery path turned solid. The ice closed in from all sides. With too little power to break through the frozen sheets, the Karluk and her crew were trapped.
Panic did not immediately set in. Their ship was fully provisioned, her hull intact. For the moment, they had shelter, heat, food.
And just as quickly as the sea had trapped them, it could un-trap them. A little wind in the proper direction and they would be on their way.
So they waited.
But a month in, the stagnant solitude proved too much for Stefansson. On Sept. 20th, he made a run for it.
Under the pretense of hunting caribou, he took two sledges and a small party toward land. But Stefansson knew as well as anyone that caribou were all but extinct in this part of the world; he had said as much himself. And his party included 2 scientists and his personal secretary, hardly the most obvious choices for a hunting trip.
20 miles across the ice, he found an island. A little further, the shore.
If only he had brought the entire crew with him, everyone would’ve lived. But gale force winds came in the night. By dawn, the Karluk was no longer visible on the horizon.
Stefansson had saved himself, but the fate of his crew remained unknown.
By mid-November, the darkness came. Months of darkness. And cold. At 40 degrees below zero, the ship’s crew piled snow alongside the ship’s hull, desperate for insulation.
As the ice around them grew higher and higher, Bartlett knew his ship could be thrown into peril at any moment, without warning. So he instructed them to stash their provisions outside, and build igloos, just in case.
That decision would save half their lives.
At half past 7 in the evening, the 10th of June, Bartlett was standing outside the engine room when he heard “a splitting, crashing sound.” Stepping inside, he and the chief engineer bore witness to the worst-case scenario:
“We could hear water rushing into the hold, and by lantern-light could see it pouring in at different places for a distance of ten feet……a point of ice on the port side had pierced the planking and timbers…the break was beyond repair.
Twenty-one hours later, the sober melody of Chopin’s Funeral March faded beneath frigid water; the arctic ice swallowed the ship whole.
They estimated their position to be 80 miles from uninhabited Wrangel island, a lonely rock, itself still hundreds of miles from civilization.
But Bartlett knew Wrangel was their best hope of ever returning alive. Movement of the camp was imperative. The temperature would warm over the coming weeks; the ground would swallow them, just as it had the Karluk.
But the idea of an 80-mile hike across moving sea ice, in the dark, was unthinkable.
This trip required preparation. And sunlight.
The captain’s plan was a good one: send small scouting parties, incrementally, towards the island, caching supplies along the way. When the daylight appeared, the survivors would travel as one.
His first scouting troop was young, strong, and suited for the task. First mate Sandy Anderson readied a team of 5. They would head for the island, and bring back news.
Fourteen days later, a single member of the party returned, carrying a haunting tale: the party had made it to land, but not the banks of Wrangel island; rather, the nearby sister island of Herschel, nothing more than a piece of infertile rock, but land nonetheless.
Land of any kind offered escape from the melting ice. But death was in the cards.
As they turned back to retrace their steps to the shipwreck camp, the lone survivor of their party watched helplessly from the other side. Their fragile ice bridge to land disintegrated; and with it, the lives of four men.
They were never seen again.
Bartlett sent search parties to attempt rescue of the young men, as he saw them, “just sailors, following orders.”
But to no avail.
Soon others would follow in their footsteps, this time against the captain’s wishes. A group of scientists disagreed with Bartlett’s plan to wait for the sunlight before staging a journey to land. They were determined, stubborn learned men making a choice to abandon their igloos.
Bartlett eventually agreed to their demands, sacrificing both sledges and supplies to the doomed mission. They left with Bartlett a document which survives to this day, absolving him of any responsibility for their lives after departure.
They were heard from again, but only once.
One member of Bartlett’s subsequent scouting parties followed their trail of litter and discarded supplies. Upon reaching the men, the scout reckoned their lives would empty in a day, perhaps a bit more, but exhaustion was upon them.
They ignored his calls to return to camp. They would carry on. They would make it.
Their skeletons were discovered years later by a passing ship, a silent lesson to all those who would underestimate the Arctic’s propensity for indiscriminate murder.
For the remaining crew, their goal was simple: Survive.
On February 19th, Bartlett set out with the survivors on an 80-mile trip to reach solid land.
80 miles. On foot.
After nearly a month-long march, the remaining crew of the Karluk celebrated reaching solid land, rejoicing in the dirt as though God had set them free. And for some, he had.
After a hundred miles of skipping from one piece of floating ice to the next, they had reached Wrangel island. They were stationary.
But the party was short-lived. For Bartlett, the journey had only just begun.
How would anyone ever find the waiting men of Wrangel island? Who knew they were even there?Someone would have to continue the trek, all the way to the shores of Siberia, and call in the Calvary.
Feeling full responsibility for all deaths so far, Bartlett set out to tip the scales in favor of the lives which still hung in the balance. The Captain and a capable Inuit departed, setting out on what is still, to this day, the most perilous and brazen journey across the Arctic ever attempted.
And they did the impossible.
The two lone travelers traversed the drifting sheets on foot, over 700 miles, eventually reaching a small Inuit village tucked into the Siberian coast. But help for the men of Wrangel island would not come soon. This was before airplanes. Before radios. Before simple & straightforward rescue.
Bartlett had told those he left behind to just hold out, just stay alive another 4 months. For by July, he could surely return, and save them all from starvation.
But the Arctic would have her pound of flesh. As Bartlett would later write, “We did not all come back.” A strange sickness swept the camp, marked by bloating of the arms and legs.
That event alone took two lives; the rest were left to despair and dispute an incomprehensibly small supply of remaining food. Journals would note massive arguments over the fair distribution of an eight of a biscuit.
July came and went. Then August. They would not survive another arctic winter. Not like this.
September was nearly finished when help finally arrived. The few left to rescue were barely alive. Only when they boarded the rescuing ship, and reunited with their captain, did they accepted that survival had come at last.
They would live. But for 11 of the Karluk’s crew, the Arctic became their grave.
Stefansson too was eventually left for dead.
He didn’t hang around on the Canadian coast in which he had found refuge months ago. Perhaps fleeing condemnation as a coward, perhaps pursuing a noble scientific ideal, he headed north once again. To accomplish the original objective of the expedition: to map the last of the arctic.
Without a ship, he proceeded on foot and by sledge. Eventually, he emerged once again from the white wilderness. Five years had passed. No one conceived that he could still be out there, that he could still be alive.
But he was. And in the end, despite not finding a lost continent, he was successful. Stefansson wrote his name in history, discovering the last three unmapped islands of the Arctic, and claiming them for Canada.
A bittersweet ending to the tragedy of the Karluk.
One hundred years have passed, yet we know little more about this small part of the planet now than did Stefansson or Bartlett.
Antarctica is land, surrounded by ice. The Artic of the north is ice, surrounded by land. And over 90% of its sea bed remains unmapped. It is still our last unknown frontier.
But that is changing, and fast.
As the sea ice melts more each year, vast quantities of resources, perhaps the richest ever discovered by man, are being unearthed. Both nations and men will emerge from this exploration rich, beyond measure.
Join me in our next article, “Everybody Wants to Rule the Pole, Part 2,” for the rest of the story.
-Christoph Grizzard, The Fat Cat Investor
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