This Week in History


An Impossible Rescue

For the week of Monday January 6, 2014

On January 11, 1914, Karluk, the flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, was crushed by ice north of Siberia. The crew escaped to the adjacent ice floe, but adrift in the Arctic, their chances of survival were slim.

Karluk trapped in the ice north of Alaska
© From Fitzhugh Green, Bob Bartlett Master Mariner (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1929), 152. [Image courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage]
Karluk had left Victoria, British Columbia, in June of 1913. The expedition, led by Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, was to conduct scientific research and to search for uncharted land north of the Northwest Territories. On August 12, severe ice trapped Karluk. Stefánsson and five others crossed the ice to hunt for food on the mainland in mid-September. Two days later, the ice floe broke away, leaving the ship’s captain, Robert Bartlett, responsible for the remaining 25 people, 22 dogs and one cat on board.

As the dark days of winter set in, the ship’s direction was controlled by the pack ice. The men and women prepared for the worst by sewing warmer clothing and building shelters on the ice. Then, on January 10, ice pierced the hull allowing water to rush in. Before the ship sank, those onboard evacuated their essential gear to the emergency shelters.

Captain Bartlett then led the survivors on a two-week trek to Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, where he left them to establish a camp. Accompanied by Kataktovik, one of the Inupiat hunters, and sled dogs, he set out for Siberia. The gruelling trip covered 1,100 km before Bartlett boarded a ship for the U.S. Army base in Saint Michael, Alaska. There, he called for help. It was May 29 by then.

Karluk Survivors on Wrangel Island raising the red ensign, Canada’s old flag
© Image courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

Eleven of the men died as a result of the shipwreck and the difficult winter. The survivors, marooned on Wrangel Island, had given up hope until the impossible: a rescue mission! On September 7, 1914, the arrival of Canadian schooner King and Winge ended this harrowing chapter in their lives.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, the leader of the expedition, and Captain Robert Abram Bartlett are both National Historic Persons for their role in the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-18, a National Historic Event.

For more about the Canadian Arctic Exploration, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, please see Explorer Maps Unknown Lands, or read about earlier Arctic adventures, such as It's Not the Pacific, It's the Arctic!, Lost in the Arctic and In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery. Also follow Parks Canada’s search for Franklin's lost Erebus and Terror!
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