The history of Russia’s Wrangel Island is as dramatic and rugged as the island itself. The tragic 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition and the equally tragic 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition were just two episodes from the island’s history as a holy grail of sorts for Arctic explorers. They were also the subjects of my first two nonfiction books.
(Read more about the explorers who have sought out Wrangel Island and see photos of the wildlife that have found refuge there in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
The Ice Master recounts that 1913 expedition, which was to be the grandest and most comprehensive scientific attack on the Arctic of all time, with the largest scientific staff ever taken north. Expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson believed there was a last unexplored continent hidden beneath the polar ice cap, and he intended to be the first to find it.
On June 17, 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail to great fanfare from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. In addition to Stefansson and the scientists aboard, there was a crew made up, for the most part, of thieves and petty criminals, and at least one man traveling under an alias. There was also a teenage Eskimo boy, hired as a hunter, and an Inuit family—a husband, wife, and their two small daughters—who would hunt and sew.
And, of course, there was the captain—Robert Bartlett, world renowned ice master, hailing from a seafaring family in Brigus, thirty-six years old, deep-chested, strongly built, famous for spouting profanities. Bartlett was Stefansson’s second choice for skipper and he knew it.
Six weeks after leaving British Columbia, the Arctic winter had begun in earnest, the Karluk was held fast by the ice, and when it became clear that she would be trapped for the season, Stefansson chose the twelve best sled dogs, his personal secretary, the expedition photographer, and one of the anthropologists, and announced that he was going hunting. Bartlett and the scientists knew they were being abandoned.
On January 10, 1914, the ice tore a hole in the vessel and Captain 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 Eskimo woman and her two small daughters, nineteen dogs, and one pet cat were shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
For two months the Karluk’s company lived on the polar icepack, calling it Shipwreck Camp. During that time, eight of them disappeared trying to reach land, never to be seen again. Then, in March, Captain Bartlett led his injured and ailing crew eighty miles over the ice to desolate Wrangel Island.
Once he saw his crew safely to land, Bartlett, with a nineteen-year-old Inuit companion, walked two hundred miles over the shifting, treacherous ice and five hundred miles down the wild Siberian coast to search for help.
In September of 1914, eight months after the Karluk sank to her grave, twelve survivors, mere skeletons, were rescued by a small whaling schooner, reunited with their captain, and brought back to civilization. It was only on the rescue ship that they learned the entire world was at war, and that they—the forsaken members of Stefansson’s grand Canadian Arctic Expedition— had long ago been given up for dead.
The journey of Captain Bartlett and his crew to Wrangel Island was an accidental one. As chronicled in my second book, Ada Blackjack, Wrangel Island was the deliberate and specific destination of the one woman and four young men who journeyed there in 1921 to claim the island for Great Britain. Only the woman survived. (For more on her story, see my 2004 National Geographic article on “the female Robinson Crusoe.”)
My own journey to Wrangel Island began accidentally. It was born fifteen years ago in Los Angeles, of all places, when I first came across the story of a dramatic but little-known Arctic expedition from 1913. During the time I was researching and writing The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I tried everything and everyone I could think of to find a way to travel to Wrangel Island. After all, the island was the single most pivotal location in both books. In Ada, it was the primary setting.
Usually, when I am that determined to do something, I can figure out a way. But this was the exception. Wrangel Island seemed impossible to reach. And so I had to rely on research and photographs and first-hand accounts and film footage (some of it shot during the 1914 rescue) in order to describe the place accurately.
Seven years after my journey to Wrangel Island began, after both The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack were already in print, I was invited to accompany Quark Expeditions to Russia’s Far East and Wrangel Island as a guest lecturer. In July 2005, we flew from Anchorage to Anadyr, Russia, where we boarded a helicopter that transported us to the world-renowned Kapitan Khlebnikov, a massive icebreaker.
In the Khlebnikov, we traveled up the coast of Siberia, recreating in reverse the heroic rescue trek of Captain Bartlett, often stopping at the same remote Inuit villages Bartlett visited on his way south. With each stop, my heart beat a little faster. What if I reached Wrangel Island and realized I hadn’t done it justice? What if it was nothing like what I had described?
On July 13, 2005, I finally set foot on this island that I had written about and inhabited for so long in my imagination, touching the soil kissed all those years ago by the men of the Karluk and by Ada Blackjack and her companions, seeing what they saw, walking where they walked, having my own journey come full circle.
We explored the northeastern tip of the island, a place called Icy Spit, where the members of the Karluk expedition had first landed. We were helicoptered to the mountainous interior of the island, where the muskoxen roam freely and the wild flowers bloom in summer, and which members of the expeditions had wandered through and mapped. We landed on the eastern shores of Cape Waring, the main campsite of the Karluk party, and, in zodiacs, we explored the dramatic and ragged bird-populated cliffs that surrounded the Cape—cliffs over which Scottish scientist William McKinlay was lowered in an effort to collect bird eggs for the starving members of his expedition.
Perhaps the most moving stop of all, though, was one I made with a Russian translator and Robert Headland, noted polar historian and archivist, and then museum curator of the Scott Polar Research Institute. The three of us were given a private tour of Rodger’s Harbour, situated on the southern coast of the island, where members of the Karluk team had lived, and where Ada Blackjack and her four companions had made their camp.
It was here I experienced the most emotional moment of all— locating the grave of Norwegian topographer Bjarne Mamen and Canadian geologist George Malloch, unmarked except for a patch of wildflowers and the driftwood cross that had once stood over it. I was finally able to pay my respects to these brave young men in person.
On May 18, 1914, Mamen wrote in his journal, “I don’t know how this will end. Is it death for all of us? No, with God’s help we will get out of it. I am still weak, but as long as there is life there is hope.” He died four days later, at the age of twenty-three, never seeing home again.
Standing on that desolate spot at the top of the world, looking out over a horizon of ice, I was relieved to realize that I had painted the picture as it was, thanks mostly to the letters and journals of the men and women who had experienced it. Wrangel Island truly was, as William McKinlay later described it, one of the last wild landscapes, at once barren and brutal and beautiful, the loneliest place on earth.
In August of 2014, I will be returning to the island in honor of the 100th anniversary of the rescue of the Karluk survivors. This time with Heritage Expeditions, I will travel once again up the Bering Strait via icebreaker, and remember the men who lost their lives in a place few people will ever hear of, much less visit.
PHOTOS: SHIP AND WRANGEL ISLAND, JAMES WILSON; JENNIFER NIVEN ON WRANGEL ISLAND, JOHN HRENO; ALL OTHERS, JENNIFER NIVEN