National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Exploring the Ghosts of Wrangel Island

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.

KhlebnikovandWrangel

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.

WrangelIslandCliffs

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.

JNivenatCapeWaring

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.

WildflowerGrave

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

Comments

  1. Mark Seidenberg
    Escondido, CA
    August 3, 6:24 pm

    Stephanie,

    I am not confused. The spelling of Wrangell Island is with two l’s, viz, “ll”. The person that placed Wrangell Island in Alaska was Brevet Major Ezra Westcote Clark, Chief of the United States Revenue Marine under the Act of Congress of May 17, 1884.

    For those that are Civil War buffs, Major Clark was an Ohio
    U.S.V. who received the rank on 13 March 1865 and is
    buried at Arlington, VA..

  2. Gary Rieder
    Silverton, Colorado
    August 24, 2013, 9:19 am

    Mark, you are right on! And George,I did not know that Wrangel Island existed either; or Herald Island and the DeLong Islands for that matter until a friend about two years ago sent me an e-mail about our government’s “give away of Alaskan islands to the Russians”. Naturally, being a person who was born in Alaska, that got my attention. Therefore, over the next few months I sent to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton three letters asking her to do something to get these islands back under Amerian sovereignty with copies to Congress and the news media, but I never got an answer from her or now Secretary of State John Kerry, yet. Maybe with all of the renewed interest in Wrangel Island maybe our government will finally do something to get these islands back. With even a small amount of research one can find that these islands were claimed by the United States in 1881; therefore the Russians [nor the British] have never had any legitimate claim.

  3. Gary Rieder
    Silverton Colorado
    August 23, 2013, 2:06 pm

    Mark, you are right on! I became aware of Wrangel(l) and the other American Arctic islands about two years ago when someone sent me an e-mail: “Obana is giving away America’s eight Alaskan islands”. Being born in Alaska, naturally that got my interest. Therefore I wrote three letters to then Sec. of State Clinton with copies to Congress and the news media, but got not much of a response. However, anyone doing even a little research will find that it becomes very clear that all of these islands are indeed American and our government has done nothing about notifing the Russians that they have no ligitiment claim. I couldn’t find anywhere that the United States had ever ceeded or surrendered any of these islands to Great Britain (Canada), the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union nor the Russian Federation.

  4. Stephanie
    July 27, 2013, 3:37 pm

    Mark, I think you are confused, Wrangel Island belongs administratively to the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug of the Russian Federation, it’s not in Alaska. It’s not owned by civilians and indeed it is spelled Wrangel island.

  5. Mark Seidenberg
    Vacaville, CA
    July 10, 2013, 11:27 am

    There are 5 Wrangell Islands in the world. Bob Headland knows it. My guess Ms. Nevens missed that the United States Board on Geographic Names by resolution in 1901 determined the spelling of the 3 Wrangell Islands within Alaska with two letter l’s, viz., “ll”.

    I am in fact one of the owners of this Wrangell Island. My title
    comes from a deed issued by Ralph Lomen, owner of Wrangell Island. The Lomen Bros. of Nome, Alaska purchased Wrangell (aka New Columbia) Island on April
    1, 1924.

    That was the date that Della Adams was born on Wrangell
    Island. Her son currently lives in Wainwright, Alaska.

    I have visited Wrangell Island three times.

    In 1881, Captain Calvin Hooper, USRM issued a sua sponte
    order to annex New Columbia Land (not knowing that it was
    in fact a island). Wrangell Island was placed in “Alaska” by
    Major Ezra Clark. The longest river on Wrangell Island is name after Ezra Clark of the United States Department of
    the Treasury, viz. , “Clark River”.

    On May 17, 1884, Congress acted the First Organic Act for
    Alaska. Included within the District was the “territory known
    as Alaska” was the Arctic Islands of Wrangell, Herald, and
    the 3 De Long Islands that Ezra Clark placed in the area
    “known as Alaska”. Congress upgraded the District to a Territory in 1912. All of the Territory of Alaska became the
    the 49th State of these United States in 1959.

    I became aware of Wrangell Island for the first time in 1959,
    through the lawyer of the Lomen Bros., who represented the
    Lomen Bros. before the United States Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, over damages the Soviets did to
    the property of the Lomen Bros of Nome, Alaska circa August
    20 – 24, 1924 on Wrangell Island.

    It should be noted that on May 13, 1924, then United States
    Secretary of State, Charles Evens Hughes, informed Carl
    Lomen that the Soviet Unition has no claim to Wrangell Island
    under international law.

  6. Heritage Expeditions
    New Zealand
    May 18, 2013, 6:39 am

    We are looking forward to having you onboard Jennifer!

  7. Terri McJunkin
    May 17, 2013, 9:26 pm

    Fascinating — a very compelling report and story… I will definitely be picking up The Ice Master… Very anxious to take this all in in it’s entirety… Thank you for this article and the accompanying photos — beyond excellent, every one, as is always the case with National Geographic… I’d love to see a program pulling all this information and cinematography together…

  8. Joe Kraemer
    Los Angeles, CA
    May 17, 2013, 4:19 pm

    My favorite National Geographic articles have always been those about the world’s most remote and lonely places. I’m fascinated by Wrangel Island and love in particular Miss Niven’s marvelous books set on and in that far-flung and fascinating corner of the world. I hope to get to visit it myself one day! Till then, this piece just transported me so entirely and wonderfully– and with fewer helicopters and less heavy packing!

  9. Angelo Surmelis
    May 17, 2013, 4:11 pm

    The Ice Master is one of my favorite books. Jennifer not only tells these stories beautifully, her writing makes me want to know more about the subjects she’s covering. Looking forward to a follow-up!

  10. Ed Baran
    Los Angeles, CA
    May 17, 2013, 2:47 pm

    What a fascinating read… I hope we will have a follow-up article on your return trip this summer! We have your books at our store and they are our best sellers!

  11. Elsa Cade
    Texas
    May 17, 2013, 2:09 pm

    I loved the Ice Master book and read it three times and will read it again! I also loved Ada Blackjack!

    excellent read!

  12. George Furman
    Cookeville TN USA
    May 17, 2013, 1:35 pm

    I didn’t know Wrangel Island existed. I enjoyed that article and look forward to the follow up in 2014. More photos please.