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Sea Tales: Deadly Arctic Expedition

Karluk, caught in the Arctic ice, August 1913

The last voyage of the Karluk, flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913?16, ended with the loss of the ship and the subsequent deaths of nearly half her complement. On her outward voyage in August 1913, Karluk, a brigantine formerly used as a whaler, became trapped in the Arctic ice while sailing to a rendezvous point at Herschel Island. After a long drift across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the ship was crushed and sunk. In the ensuing months, the crew and expedition staff struggled to survive, first on the ice and later on the shores of Wrangel Island. In all, eleven men died before help could reach them.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, leader of the Canadian Arctic Expedition

The Canadian Arctic Expedition was organised under the leadership of Canadian-born anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and had both scientific and geographic objectives. Shortly after Karluk was trapped, Stefansson and a small party left the ship, stating that they intended to hunt for caribou. As Karluk drifted from her fixed position it became impossible for the hunting party to return to the ship. Stefansson reached land and then devoted himself to the expedition's other objectives, leaving the crew and staff on board the ship under the charge of its captain, Robert Bartlett. After the sinking, Bartlett organised a march to Wrangel Island, 80 miles (130 km) away. Conditions on the ice were difficult and dangerous; two parties of four men each were lost in the attempt to reach the island.

Captain Robert Bartlett, who commanded Karluk's last voyage

After the survivors had landed, Bartlett and an Inuk companion set out across the ice for the Siberian coast, in search of help. The pair eventually reached Alaska, but sea ice conditions prevented any immediate rescue mission. On Wrangel Island, the stranded party survived by hunting game, but were short of food and troubled by internal dissent. Before their rescue in September 1914, three more of the party had died, two of illness and one in violent circumstances.

Historians have divided views on Stefansson's decision to leave the ship. Some of the voyage's survivors were critical of his seeming indifference to their ordeal and the loss of their comrades. He escaped official censure, and was publicly honoured for his later work on the expedition despite the Canadian government's reservations about its overall management. Although Bartlett was criticised by an admiralty commission for taking Karluk into the ice, he was hailed as a hero by the public and by his former Karluk shipmates.


Posted by George Freund on February 17, 2017 at 10:12 PM 549 Views