Thursday, March 22, 2018

Excerpt: The Last Voyage of the Karluk by Captain Bob Bartlett, setting: March 12, 1914

In this excerpt we continue The Last Voyage of the Karluk: An Epic of Death and Survival in the Arctic, 1913-1916 as related by her captain, Robert A. Bartlett and here set down by Ralph T. Hale (published in 1916 by Small, Maynard and Company, Inc.; unabridged audiobook edition narrated by Frank Holden published by Rattling Books).

“March 12 we got away again at dawn. McKinlay, Mamen, Kataktovick, Kerdrillo, and his family and I went ahead of the others, with lightly loaded sledges, and, on account of improved ice conditions, made such good progress that at one P.M. we landed on Icy Spit, on the northeast side of Wrangell Island. It is perhaps easier to imagine than to describe our feelings of relief at being once again on terra firma, after two months of drifting and traveling on the ice. We had had a hard road to travel much of the way from Shipwreck Camp, but fortunately, since the big storm in the days following the departure of the advance party, we had had continuously fine weather, with good daylight and exhilarating temperatures in the minus forties and fifties.

As soon as we landed we began building an igloo. There was plenty of driftwood scattered all about and Keruk gathered up a lot of it and built a fire, so that by the time the first of our three igloos was built she had some tea for us and the rest of the party who, coming along easily with light loads over our trail, arrived an hour and a half after we did. We were overjoyed to find the driftwood for, although we were pretty sure of finding it, yet we were a little dubious and it was a great relief to my mind to know that fuel was assured.

We could see a good deal of the island from the spit, which made out from land some distance into the ocean. Waring Point lay far to the east of us and Evans Point to the west. The geographical names on Wrangell Island were derived from the names of the officers of the U.S.S. Rodgers who explored the island in 1881. On a clear day like this it was not unusual to be able to see for seventy miles. The northeast side of the island, on which we now were, sent several low sandy spits out from the land, thus forming lagoons which of course were covered with ice. Near the coast were low mountains and valleys, with higher peaks in the interior beyond. Here and there on the beach were dead trees that had drifted ashore, with the roots sticking up into the air; we also found planks and other lumber. Everything was snow clad and white, only a degree less cheerless than the frozen ocean itself.

The next day Munro, Chafe, Breddy and Williams went back with all the dogs and sledges to the last camp on the ice, fifteen miles from our landing-place, and brought in all the supplies we had left there. While they were gone I sent Kerdrillo nine miles across the lagoon to Berry Spit, to see if he could find any traces of the mate’s party or the Mackay party. He took his rifle with him to look for game. When he came back at nightfall, he reported that he had seen no traces of either party and only one bear track and one fox track. This was an indication that there was small chance of getting a bear on or near the island, because there were no seal holes within twenty-five miles from land; we had seen some near the big rafter, about forty miles out. Later in the season, as the ice broke up nearer the land, the seal would work in shore and of course the bears would follow. I asked Kerdrillo what he thought the chances were of there being any caribou or reindeer on the island. It is not an uncommon thing to find caribou on islands in Hudson Strait, which have drifted on the ice from the mainland, and there were, I knew, both these animals in plenty on the Siberian coast. I wondered, too, whether there might not be Arctic hare on the island. Kerdrillo said he thought there was so much snow that caribou and reindeer would be unlikely to staty where it would be so difficult for them to get food and he did not believe any were to be found.

The next day, to verify his opinion, I sent him out again, giving him tea and pemmican, so that he could have a full day’s march and make a reconnaissance into the interior. About dark he returned and reported that he had seen no traces of caribou, reindeer or hare and very few signs of foxes. Later on , however, h thought ptarmigan would visit the island. He had seen one bear track, which he thought was about three days old, probably of the bear whose tracks he had seen on the previous day.

The story is told of a student who, when asked to name five Arctic animals, replied, “Three polar bears and two seal.” If these varieties were to be all we should find on Wrangell island, we should still be able to sustain life, if only we could get enough of them. I should have liked, however, to know that caribou and reindeer, too, could be had for the shooting.

We now made a snow shelter and started in on the fourteenth to dry out our boots and stockings; we had plenty of firewood. Keruk looked after this work. Maurer’s and Malloch’s feet still troubled them and Mamen’s knee was a constant cause of suffering, so that I was glad that they could now have an opportunity to rest. From the moment of our departure from Shipwreck Camp we had been constantly on the move during every minute of the daylight. The weather, though cold, had been exceptionally fine and clear; in fact we had not lost an hour on account of bad weather and had been inconvenienced for only one night by open water. As a consequence all hands were in need of a little rest. The dogs, too, were in a reduced condition, for though they had had plenty to eat they had worked very hard and I wanted them to get what rest they could.”

To be continued.