“Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk”
By Buddy Levy; St. Martin’s Press, 2022; 400 pages; $29.99.
“He did not show any signs of joy,” Burt McConnell wrote of his first sighting of a human on the shore of Wrangel Island, north of Siberia, far above the Arctic Circle. McConnell stood aboard the King and Winge, a ship that had steamed northeastward from Nome to save survivors of the sunken Karluk in September of 1914. “The poor creature simply rose and stood rigidly beside the tent, gazing at us as if dazed.”
The man, Fred Mauer, could be excused for barely being able to respond to his rescuers. He, like the others still alive on the island, was near death from malnutrition and an unknown disease possibly tied to pemican they had eaten. Having been locked in the Arctic for over a year, they were resigned to enduring a second winter when the ship suddenly appeared offshore near the very end of the open water season. They weren’t sure if it was real.
McConnell is quoted late in Buddy Levy’s “Empire of Ice and Stone,” a gripping new account of the last famous great disaster during the age of Arctic exploration. Levy relies heavily on the writings of survivors to frame a story that includes all the elements of a classic polar expedition gone wrong: starvation, frostbite, amputations, conflicts, miserable deaths, a heroic trek for help, narrow escapes, a possible murder (it’s never been proven), and a lot more. Nearly everything that had ever gone wrong on arctic journeys struck the crew and passengers of the Karluk, and Levy brings readers right into the thick of it.
The disaster began with the already renowned polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who in 1913 organized (assuming “organized” is the proper word for it) the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Composed of three ships carrying an international team of scientists, they traveled north to spend that summer and perhaps the following winter exploring Canada’s Arctic, an area still largely unmapped at the time. One vessel, the Karluk, was ill-suited for arctic duty.
Robert Bartlett, a legendary figure in northern travel who had accompanied Robert Peary to within reach of the North Pole, was hired as captain of the Karluk, a move that proved vital to saving lives. With Stefansson onboard, the ship steamed north from Nome lacking adequate arctic gear, with many other critical supplies on the other two vessels. All were scheduled to rendezvous at Canada’s Herschel Island, but that never happened.
The Karluk became locked in the sea ice north of Alaska and began drifting westward with the pack. Stefansson jumped off with several crew members to go caribou hunting, abandoning the vessel to its fate. It drifted towards Siberia, and by the time winter hit, the men, one woman, two children, numerous dogs, and one cat onboard were in dire straits.
Unequipped for the ice, the Karluk’s hull was ultimately breached and the boat sank. The survivors had to make for land over treacherous sea ice. Four of the crewmen were ordered to nearby Herald Island and were never seen again. Two of the scientists, Brits with polar experience who had served with Shackleton in the Antarctic, decided to go it alone, accompanied by a French colleague and a young seaman convinced they could get him out. All four died on the ice. The remaining 17 headed for Wrangel Island. From there, Bartlett and an Inupiaq hunter from Point Hope, Kataktovik, traveled onward over another hundred miles of ice and then down the eastern coast of Siberia in winter, and across the Bering Sea to Nome to summon help.
Levy evokes all of these events with clarity and immediacy that will keep readers turning pages. Quoting extensively from journals, and filling in the gaps with lively writing, he captures the destitution, uncertainty, and fear that overtook the castaways during their island ordeal. Food was in near constant shortage, divisions arose, thefts occurred, two men died from the cumulative conditions of malnutrition and disease, and a third either shot himself or was shot depending on who later told the story. There was a lot going on.
Their situation bore uncomfortable similarities to two prior expeditions, the Jeannette and the Greely, that had ended calamitously. Both expeditions were still within living memory at the time and haunted the thoughts of the temporary residents of Wrangel. In the journals that Levy extensively quotes, the men periodically mention the disasters as reference points for their own circumstances. They must have known their story would soon join the grim history of polar disasters.
Among those whose writings Levy relies on are William McKinlay, a Scottish meteorologist on his first Arctic voyage. He was almost preternaturally fit for what was demanded, emerging as leader on Wrangel not because he wanted to be, but because he proved best suited. Through his writings, he becomes a constant companion to readers of this book, detailing the daily difficulties the survivors faced as he mastered dogsled driving, igloo building, hunting, and more. From a scientist with few practical skills, Levy writes, “He was transformed.”
McKinlay was as essential as Bartlett and Kataktovik to saving lives, but even more so were Kuraluk and Kiruk, an Inupiaq couple taken onboard in Alaska with their two young daughters. Kuraluk, a hunter and boat builder, kept the others from starvation as best he could, while Kiruk knew how to make limited food stocks stretch, and also sewed needed clothing for all. Without both, the others would almost certainly have died (annoyingly, Levy refers to them as “Eskimos,” an outdated term he should have excised from the otherwise exceptional text).
Those who survived owed their lives to the heroic efforts of Bartlett, McKinlay, Kataktovik, Kuraluk and Kiruk. Inquests would assign some of the blame for the disaster to Bartlett, while Stefansson managed to preserve his reputation. Levy, however, lays the failures of the Canadian Arctic Expedition squarely on Stefansson. In “Empire of Ice and Stone,” he makes a solid argument for why while spinning an unforgettable tale in the process.
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