Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Disaster for scientists exploring Canada’s Arctic

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Most of the expedition members had no experience of traveling to the inaccessible unconquerable Arctic

In the summer of 1913, 10 Canadian scientists made an expedition to the Western Arctic (north of the Yokun Province) in the wooden ship Karluk. In addition to 10 scientists, the ship had 13 crew members (including Polar Province veterans Bob Bartlett and Viljalmur Stefansson), four indigenous Inuit hunters, a tailor and his two children, and an ordinary passenger. Of these, 11 were lost in the ice, never to return. During the explorers’ 13-month exile, expedition members survived seven months defying critical ice flows amid unpredictable Arctic ice floes before setting up camp on an uninhabited island several hundred miles north of Siberia.

Most of the expedition members had no experience of traveling to the inaccessible, unconquerable Arctic. Perhaps the knowledge and leadership skills of Bob Bartlett, skipper of the Karluk ships and polar explorer, saved many lives, so they owe a debt to Bartlett. Under his guidance, the survivors built a camp on the ice, able to weather the long arctic nights. They traveled 150 miles by dog sled to find land. Bartlett and another member of the team then completed a perilous 700-mile journey to the Bering Strait, where they searched for a ship to rescue their stranded crewmates.

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Canadian Arctic Expedition:
Bob Bartlett (awarded) is a 40-time Canadian Arctic explorer who is experienced in avoiding heavy snow and ice on many expeditions, from seal hunting. In the spring of 1913 he received a telegram from Viljalmur Stefansson asking him to captain the ship Karluk, flagship of the government-sponsored Canadian Arctic Expedition. He agreed and conducted the expedition. The ship’s mission was to take a group of geologists, anthropologists, meteorologists, and other scientists to Herschel Island, north of the Yukon (Canada’s closest province to the Arctic). Establish a base there to survey the flora, fauna, mineral resources and other features of the area. The group was also interested in exploring any new land north of Alaska. It was the largest scientific expedition to the Arctic to date and was also regarded as an attempt to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic Islands.

Bartlett took command of the Carluke, but he was concerned about the ship’s ability to navigate through the dangerous Arctic waters. Instead of a new steel-hulled icebreaker, the government bought a ship with older and less powerful wooden icebreakers for the expedition. Workers reinforced the ship with crossbeams and Bartlett undertook the mission under the assumption that they would not spend the winter in Arctic waters.

The Carluke left British Columbia on June 17, 1913, but less than two months later encountered severe sea ice storms and ice drifts. By August 13, unsteady winds and ice currents had caused the ice to freeze around Carluke, which became trapped in hard, unbroken ice about 225 miles northwest of Alaska. The ship was unable to free itself and was unable to reach Herschel Island.

Snow outbreaks also made passenger movement impossible for a few days until mid-September. Stefansson decided to leave the ship with five other men, 14 dogs and two sleds to hunt caribou. The group prepared for a 10-day expedition, hoping that the ship’s steady position would allow them to return safely. Just two days after their departure on September 20, a strong storm drove Karluk rapidly to the west, making it impossible for Stefansson and his team to find the ship. Instead, they continued south by dog sled, eventually reaching Alaska.

Two scientists on board the Carluke, 1913:
Anthropologist Diamond Janes and magnetist/meteorologist William Laird McKinley were both members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which left British Columbia on 17 June 1913 aboard the Carluke. After the ship became trapped in sea ice in August, scientist Janes and five other men went on a hunting trip, but became separated from the ship and lost. They traveled south by dog sled and eventually reached Alaska.

On the other hand, on January 10, 1914, due to heavy ice, a large crack broke through one side of Karluk ship. Still, the unwelcome Arctic floated for months on the ice. Bartlett ordered his crew to remove most of the ship’s food, fuel, and other supplies from the ship because he knew the ship would sink slowly. Then everyone builds an ice igloo and takes away all the supplies. All members of the expedition abandoned ship and Karluk slowly sank. Bartlett stayed aboard until the last possible moment, watching Karluk disappear underwater.

Camp near Shipwreck:
Karluk’s ship sank in the middle of the Arctic night (the long night from November to the end of January). Bartlett, however, realized that his best chance of surviving the expedition would be to find land. But he did not want to take many members of the expedition to search—many of whom had no experience in Arctic travel, especially walking on ice in the dark of the Arctic night. Fortunately the expedition had enough food and fuel to survive for several months. Several igloos were also built near the shipwrecks to serve as shelters. Bartlett planned to stay at the igloo camp until the lights came back on in February. During this time he and a few other expedition members would travel and explore various islands by dog sled.

The four members of the group, however, disagreed with Bartlett’s plan and decided to travel south on their own. At their request, Bartlett furnished them with a sled, dogs, and enough supplies for 50 days. In return, they also wrote Bartlett a letter absolving him of any responsibility for their decision. There has been no trace of the four, who have been separated since late January.

Meanwhile, Bartlett decided to send small parties over the ice to set up a supply chain towards Wrangell Island in the south. The first party, consisting of four crewmen from Karluk, set sail on 20 January. In addition to taking supplies, they managed to find Herald Island, which Bartlett believed to be about 50 miles south of the shipwrecked camp. Although the four eventually made it to the island, they never returned—probably trapped by the icy flow of water and ice. Members of another expedition came looking for them about a week later and assumed they had died after being trapped in the ice. This fact was revealed in 1929 when a ship passing by the island found their skeletons.

With supplies well established after the arctic night and the sun returning, Bartlett and all remaining expedition members left the shipwreck camp on 19 February and set off on dog sleds for Wrangel Island. The party then numbered 17 with their 12 dogs, three sledges and enough supplies to last 60 days. Its members reached Wrangel Island on March 12 after traveling nearly 100 miles through ice and extreme cold.

Seven Hundred Mile Sledge Journey:
Six days after arriving on Wrangel Island, Bartlett and another expedition member, indigenous Inuit hunter Kataktovik, set off on a perilous 700-mile sled journey across Siberia and the Bering Strait. Although Bartlett had initially planned to take all members of the expedition to Siberia, many were severely weakened and unable to undertake such an arduous and dangerous journey.

Describing this perilous voyage, Bartlett wrote in Carluke’s Last Expedition “From now on, our journey became an unending series of side-to-side struggles along the open-water roads, which may be called the most tedious and unreliable voyages in all the Arctic.”

Bartlett and Kataktovic also leave Wrangel Island, seeking help after Karluk is forced to leave, making the long journey by dog sled.

In early April, the two reached a small indigenous Inuit village in Siberia where the residents gave them food, bedding and clothing and helped mend their dog’s shoes. Although Bartlett and Kataktovic had already covered 200 miles in less than three weeks, they stayed in the village for only two nights before beginning the long journey to the Bering Strait. During this time they traveled overland rather uncomfortably, stopping at villages along the way for food, rest, and sometimes to acquire a new sled dog.

Reaching the eastern tip of the Bering Strait (also known as Cape Dezneve) in late April, Bartlett searched for a ship that could take him to the nearest radio station in Alaska. But most ships sailed from the East End in late spring, Bartlett embarked on Hermann on 21 May. He arrived at St. Michael, Alaska on 28 May and communicated by radio with government officials in Ottawa upon arrival. Bartlett also began searching for a ship that would take him back to the Arctic to rescue the remaining explorers. But first he had to recover from severe swelling of his legs and feet that made it almost impossible for him to walk.

Rescue operation:
Although Bartlett set sail again for Wrangell Island on 13 July aboard the American ship Bear, the Canadian schooner King and Wings rescued the survivors from Wrangel Island on 7 September 1914—about eight months after Karluk’s sinking. The schooner King and Wings ship also come across Bear, Bartlett is reunited with his surviving colleagues. However, three of the explorers died on the island and the remaining 12 members survived by hunting ducks, seals, walruses and other animals.

Youngest surviving members of Carluke:
Three-year-old Mugpi was the youngest member of the Karluk, a ship that sank in the Arctic on 11 January 1914. 20 members of Abhijan survived the disaster, a total of 11 lost their lives. The Canadian schooners King and Wings had a rare success by rescuing the explorers from Wrangel Island on 7 September 1914.

Mugpi – Point Barrow Eskimo Girl (daughter of that noble lady tailor) was the youngest survivor aboard the Canadian Arctic Expedition.”

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