\Niven, Jennifer. The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk. New York:

 

\Niven, Jennifer. The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk. New York:
Hyperion, 2000.\

This is a history of the ill-fated voyage of HMCS Karluk and the Canadian-sponsored scientific
expedition of 1913 called the Canadian Arctic Expedition. This voyage was to have been a major
scientific undertaking: geographical, oceanographical, marine biological, geological magnetical,
anthropological and terrestrial biological - in addition to being a study of the Canadian north.
When the Karluk began its journey, on board were 10 scientists to do the jobs its chief had
promised the Canadian sponsors: this was a major project and was to be an impressive scientific
investigation of the Arctic.

The project was headed by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879 - 1962) a man who, at age 33 when this
voyage began, already had a reputation as an explorer and anthropologist. He had dreamed up
this project and was, initially at least, interested in seeing it get off to a good start. But Stefansson
was, from the beginning, cutting corners and making last-minute decisions about things with
which he should have been more concerned. Consider the Karluk herself: she was purchased by
Stefansson because she was cheap and not because she could do the job. From the outset, crew
members were "alarmed by the disorganization and poor leadership of Stefansson..." (p. 19)

The ship's captain, the Ice Master of the title, Robert Abram Bartlett, 36 at sailing, had been the
captain who brought Admiral Peary to his famous "race to the Pole" in 1909. He, at least, was
qualified but the rest of the crew left a great deal to be desired: "none...had ever set foot on Arctic
ice or snow. Not one of them had ever been trained in surviving the elements, and Stefansson, in
a perpetual rush to accommodate the swift deadline of the Canadian government - disgracefully -
had offered no such training." (p. 21) The crew had "no confidence in their leader and no
enthusiasm for the prospect of working for him." (p. 33) And, "...Several of the men began to call
him (Stefansson) ‘His Lordship' behind his back." (p. 33)

To Stefansson, there was no glory in scut work, the routine chores of maintaining an expedition,
even if it were an expedition of which he was the leader. The Karluk never even got started: the
ship got stuck in ice in what can kindly be described as an early winter. The mixed crew, which
was supposed to be sorted out when the expedition was begun properly, never did get sorted out,
never did get the supplies and materials it had been promised: all they got was stuck in the ice.
And just weeks after being stuck, Stefansson abandons his ship and its crew telling the men he
was going hunting. He was simply a liar and a deserter!

The Karluk was a doomed ship. Leaderless, a lackluster bunch for a crew and several prima
donnas for scientists, and ill-prepared for a terrible winter, the predictable happened in mid-
January, 1914: the Karluk sank and its crew and its scientists, Eskimos, and passenger were on
the ice and on their own. "One thing was to clear to some of them, though: "Mr. Stefansson is to
blame for everything," ... "It is a scandal to bring such a poor ship up in the Arctic, and we could
hold Stefansson and the Canadian government (financial backers of Stefansson) responsible for
this; it is terrible to jeopardize so many human lives." (p. 123)

Stefansson, who had reached civilization while his crew sat on the ice, assured the public that his
men could weather the winter in what he later called the "Friendly Arctic"and advised against
sending a rescue effort. Meantime, his crew was struggling on the ice to find safety. Ultimately,
the hapless crew (the trek from the wreck of the Karluk to the Island is thrilling and horrifying)
reach the relative safety of Wrangel Island and the sit the winter out. Ultimately, the captain and
two heroic crewmen, trek to Siberia to seek rescue. They make it after a harrowing hike and a
rescue ship is sent to Wrangel Island for the men who survive.

Of the 28 or so aboard the ship when the Kurluk sailed: 16 did not survive. There were 13
crewmen, 10 scientists,7 Eskimos (2 were small children) 1 passenger, and a cat. In other words,
better than half the crew were lost and the expedition must be counted a disastrous failure. It
accomplished nothing.

There is no question in Jennifer Niven's mind as to who to blame: she blames Vilhjalmur
Stefansson. The story she tells here, with frequent direct quotes from crew and scientists, clearly
indicates that he was incompetent and cowardly. He was, at best, a blowhard and a glory hound
who, under pressure, abandoned his men. But, be clear on this: there are other versions of this
Arctic tragedy and one is told by Stefansson himself: The Adventure of Wrangel Island. (New
York: Macmillan, 1925). One cannot expect and does not find in that publication anything of
Niven's version. Different stories of discovery are routine in the history of science and of
exploration. (The long battle - still not completely resolved - between Dr. Frederick Cook and
Admiral Robert Peary concerning the "discovery" of the North Pole, is but one example.)

A quick search of the Internet will suggest the contemporary heroic status of Vilhjalmur
Stefansson. There's a Stefansson library at Dartmouth College and a search of its on-line
materials reveals its proud legacy of the man. My Icelandic friends tell me that Stefansson,
although born in Canada, is regarded as an Icelandic hero in the Viking tradition! And Stefansson
so regarded himself in his many books - he was a tireless self-promoter - testifying right up to his
death to his glories. Still, Niven's versions of events on the two Wrangel expeditions (1913-1914
and 1921-1923) are creditable and they make for great adventure stories. Ah, glory in science!
Which story does one believe? Whoever suggested the history of science was dull?