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The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of…

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk (2000)

by Jennifer Niven

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I am a huge fan of polar exploration stories and Jennifer Niven's book "The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk" fits right in among the great books I've read on the subject.

The Karluk expedition occurred after the North Pole was already discovered and appeared to have little purpose, except to get the organizer out onto the ice, as he left 20 other men to fend for themselves. More than half of the crew died after the ill-fated Karluk got trapped in the pack ice.

Niven mostly tells the story well. There were parts that dragged a bit, mainly because she appears to have had so much source material. I had trouble keeping so many crew members straight-- it didn't help that so many members of the crew had last names beginning with an M.

That said, the story is told so well it reads more like a work of fiction. I would absolutely read another book of Niven's based on this one. ( )
  amerynth | Aug 28, 2014 |
Excellent Read! ( )
  TRIPLEHHH | Aug 7, 2012 |
"I'm starving faster than you are."

That could almost be the refrain of the many failed expeditions to the arctic in the mid-nineteenth century and after. The Karluk voyage was fairly typical. Captain Bob Bartlett was hired to take a crew of scientists to the ice north of Alaska. The ship was not really up to the task. Many of the scientists abandoned the expedition and went home on their own. After they left, the Karluk was frozen in, then destroyed by the ice. The men survived to reach Wrangel Island in the Siberia arctic. Captain Bartlett sledged out to find help. The men he left behind, trapped in the cold and the dark, got sick and starved; many died before they could be rescued.

So far, frankly, so typical. But this does not answer why. The Karluk should never have been employed in this service, but there was time to bring off supplies. Several of the men on the ship, in effect, mutinied. Their time on Wrangel Island was consumed in arguing and, indeed, fighting.

They spent a long time on the island, and Niven's account makes it seem longer, because, somehow, everyone seems to be on the point of death, but survive to be on the point of death again a few days later, and repeat endlessly. Why? We can't tell. It's a significant issue, because a lot of tales of arctic disasters have this same tone.

And what of Bob Bartlett? Niven is full of praise for him. And, to be fair, the crew was all alive when he left, and he did bring rescue. But he also wrecked the ship, and let the men go out of control. It was not a pretty picture.

As a chronicle, this book is good. But as an insight into the horrid problem of "arctic madness," something is missing. Most readers, I think, will want more than a chronology. They will want an explanation. ( )
  waltzmn | Mar 1, 2012 |
This is a story like Endurance, except that the people involved were far less fortunate. It is the story of Karluk, an arctic expedition ship sent out by Canada in 1913 and organized by the explorer-promoter Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition was cursed by his carelessness and lack of organization. He provided them with substandard supplies, ship, and personnel, then abandoned the ship when it became stuck in the ice, ordering the crew and expedition scientists to carry on. After it was all over, he blamed the disaster on the captain. The ship drifted in the ice for 4-5 months until it was crushed off the coast of an island off Siberia. The ship’s captain made a heroic journey on foot to get help to rescue the survivors but many died. The story details how they fell apart physically and psychologically. The author relied heavily on first-hand accounts of the people involved, including Bjarne Mamen and William McKinlay. A fascinating book of a horrible episode. Another treatment of this is McKinlay’s The Last Voyage of the Karluk: A Survivor's Memoir of Arctic Disaster. ( )
  baobab | Nov 10, 2010 |
To be honest, I thought this would read something like a history textbook. Quite the contrary. It reads like a regular story, a piece of fiction, and in some ways, it's hard to believe that it isn't fictional.

The book itself is fairly well-written -- I find the style very engaging and suspenseful when necessary (given the author's history in film, I'm not surprised). I also liked the format, where each chapter covers the events of one month. Technicalities aside, the story itself is so amazing, it's almost unbelievable. That any of the crew survived this ordeal is in itself a miracle. That a handful made it through without resorting to dishonorable behavior is even more amazing.

To say that I enjoyed reading this doesn't seem appropriate. I did enjoy it, but not as one would enjoy reading a work of fiction. The Ice Master is a gripping, heart-wrenching, and sometimes horrifying tale of adventure and survival in one the world's most unforgiving climates. It was a little slow to start, as we meet our "characters" and learn of the origins of the expedition, but the story picks up once the ship sets sail and it doesn't stop until the end.
And even then, there's a feeling that the story isn't over, that it will never be over. The book mentions several times that William McKinlay, the only surviving member of the scientific team, would spend the rest of his life searching for an answer, a conclusion of some sort, to what happened. He even said once that a part of him, indeed all of them, would always remain on Wrangel Island, where they lived for nine months and endured the worst of their hardships.
As a reader, I came away with the satisfaction of knowing that some of them survived and went home to their families and the lives they thought they'd never live again. Not quite a "happy ending" but it feels like a conclusion. For the survivors themselves, however, they would find no such satisfaction. It would haunt them until their dying day. I can't help but wonder, who would these men have become had they never been through this ordeal?

One good thing I took with me from reading this is to complain less. No matter how bad things get, it's not as bad as it could be. I could be stranded in the Arctic, during one of the worst Arctic winters in history, with no food, cheap used winter clothing, second-hand gear, people I can't stand who keep stealing from me, suffering from maladies I can't get rid of and occasionally forced to sleep for a week because I've been made blind by glare on the snow.
No. It might be bad, but it could always be worse.

As mentioned before, I like the author's style. Some people didn't and I guess I can see why, but I thought it was well-written. Niven's voice is natural and engaging, her descriptions vivid. I appreciated the many pages of pictures, but I almost didn't need them to see the world in which the events took place. Everything, from the individual to the frozen white landscape, is infused with life and personality. At times, the ice itself almost seemed to become a villain of sorts, unpredictable, deadly, thwarting the progress of the heroes at every opportunity. I won't argue with those who don't like her writing style or her voice, but I think she succeeded where many would have failed: taking a subject that could have been very boring and dry and turning it into something so enthralling, it's impossible to put down.

While probably not the best of it's kind, The Ice Master is a book worth reading. I learned a lot about Arctic exploration and I'm excited now to learn even more. Survivors William McKinlay and Captain Robert Bartlett both wrote accounts of these events and I have already added their books to my reading list.
This is the first non-fiction I have read in a long time and I liked it as I would a favorite piece of fiction. It wasn't life-altering by any means, but it did impress upon me the importance of appreciating the good things in our lives and keeping everything in perspective -- my daily hassles, when compared to a year in the Arctic, suddenly seem less troubling.

I would recommend this book to anyone. ( )
4 vote 2below | Jul 23, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0786884460, Paperback)

Eighty-five years after a famous but ill-equipped Canadian Arctic expedition of 1913 had sacrificed 16 lives, some artifacts appeared on an Internet auction site. They had originated at a "ghost camp," discovered in 1924, where four of the expedition's 28 men, one woman, and two children had perished. Jennifer Niven has completed the unfulfilled mission of survivor William McKinlay to produce a "more honest and revealing account" of the wreck of the Karluk and its aftermath.

The explorers became split into several dispersed groups living "in the shadow of death." Their simultaneously grim and gruesome experiences are interwoven in this minutely detailed and atmospheric retelling, created by combining and comparing firsthand accounts and other sources. The characters are vividly re-created, from the expedition's self-interested leader, whom McKinlay called "a consummate liar and cheat," to the heroic ship's master, who struggled over 700 miles to organize a rescue. Supplemented by haunting and fascinating photographs, The Ice Master makes for harrowing and compulsive reading. This is a momentous story of the Arctic; of adventure, misadventure, and the heights of human endurance. But it is also a story of human failings and the waste of young lives, as poignant now as it was when it was big news in 1914. --Karen Tiley, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:23 -0400)

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It was to be the greatest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, with the largest scientific staff ever taken on such a journey. It's leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was celebrated for his studies of Eskimo life and, with this mission, hoped to find evidence that proved his staunchly held belief that there was a last unexplored continent, hidden beneath the vast polar ice cap. In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. Six weeks later, the arctic winter had begun, the ship was imprisoned in ice, and those on board had been abandoned by their leader. For five months, the Karluk remained frozen in a massive block of ice, drifting farther and farther off course. In January 1914, with a thunderous impact, the ice tore a hole in the vessel's hull, and the redoubtable captain, Robert Bartlett, gave orders to abandon ship. With nothing but half the ship's store of supplies and the polar ice beneath their feet, Captain Bartlett, twenty-one men, an Inuit woman and her two small daughters, twenty-nine dogs, and one pet cat were now hopelessly shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land. These castaways had no choice but to try to find solid ground where they could wait while they struggled against starvation, snow blindness, a gruesome and mysterious disease, exposure to the brutal winter -- and each other. Bartlett and one member of the party soon set across the ice to seek help. Nine months later, twelve survivors were rescued by a small whaling schooner and brought back to civilization. The Ice Master is an epic tale of true adventure that rivals the most dramatic fiction. Drawing on thediaries of those who were rescued and those who perished, and even an interview with one living survivor, Jennifer Niven re-creates with astonishing accuracy and immediacy the Karluk's ill-fated journey and her crew's desperate attempts to find a way home from the icy wastes of the Arctic.… (more)

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