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The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

4.2 63
by Jennifer Niven

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The Karluk set out in 1913 in search of an undiscovered continent, with the largest scientific staff ever sent into the Arctic. Soon after, winter had begun, they were blown off course by polar storms, the ship became imprisoned in ice, and the expedition was abandoned by its leader. Hundreds of miles from civilization, the castaways had no choice but to find solid


The Karluk set out in 1913 in search of an undiscovered continent, with the largest scientific staff ever sent into the Arctic. Soon after, winter had begun, they were blown off course by polar storms, the ship became imprisoned in ice, and the expedition was abandoned by its leader. Hundreds of miles from civilization, the castaways had no choice but to find solid ground as they struggled against starvation, snow blindness, disease, exposure—and each other. After almost twelve months battling the elements, twelve survivors were rescued, thanks to the heroic efforts of their captain, Bartlett, the Ice Master, who traveled by foot across the ice and through Siberia to find help.

Drawing on the diaries of those who were rescued and those who perished, Jennifer Niven re-creates with astonishing accuracy the ill-fated journey and the crews desperate attempts to find a way home.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
For readers who found Shackleton's tale Endurance the least bit interesting, have we got a book for you! Jennifer Niven's masterful debut is the harrowing true story of yet another doomed expedition of yesteryear -- but the locale is the Arctic, and the history more tragic. Anxious to reach the polar ice cap first, noted explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson launched "the grandest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, the most comprehensive scientific attack on the Arctic of all time." But the scientists and crew of his ill-fated ship were not provided with training in Arctic survival nor with any of the polar clothing earlier promised.

In June 1913, HMCS Karluk set sail from Victoria, British Columbia; less than six weeks later, the boat was trapped by ice and clearly would not move again until the spring thaw. Stefansson (no hero he) chose a dozen of the best sled dogs and set off "to go hunting," accompanied by his personal secretary, the expedition photographer, and an anthropologist. The ship's captain understood at once that "they had been abandoned." And only days after Stefansson's departure, "a fierce gale carried the ship deep into the heart of the Arctic Ocean." Niven's riveting, hair-raising account is all the more real because she has assembled this astonishing work from the journals kept by the abandoned scientists and crew. Niven's assiduous research and her unprecedented access to the last living survivor as well as to the descendants of other survivors, lend an immediacy and credibility to The Ice Master that are, in a word, extraordinary. (Winter 2001 Selection)

Entertainment Weekly
Gripping . . . The Ice Master, both a celebration and a terrifying summation of the ferocity of nature, is a riveting read. But cozy up to this one with a quilt.
Washington Post Book World
Absorbing . . . Niven is meticulous in describing her characters' personal traits.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition was perhaps the worst-planned arctic exploration in history. The captain declared the ship unfit for the voyage upon seeing it, and the crew consisted of young sailors who had no arctic experience, and scientists who would be better off teaching in a classroom than searching for an undiscovered arctic continent. Niven's first book, unlike the voyage, is well-researched--and it's thorough. Screenwriter Niven captivates with her reconstruction of the doomed crew's efforts to survive the harshness of the polar winter, disease, hunger and their own clashing personalities. She expertly captures the feelings of the crew about their situation and about each other, and meticulously recounts the daily activities of the 25 crew members (11 survived), during their long stay as castaways on a small arctic Island. The story does read slowly at points, especially near the beginning of the book. The pace picks up as the book progresses, with the most exciting part being the heroic account of the captain's 700-mile trek from the crew's camp to Siberia in search of a ship that he could use to rescue his men. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
A gripping account of the ill-fated voyage that left the hull of a Canadian expedition ship imprisoned by ice for five months...Thanks to Niven's meticulous research, gleaned from shipmates' diaries, government archives, and an interview with the only Karluk survivor still living, we become passionately interested int eh fate of its luckless crew....both a celebration and a terrigying summation of the ferocity of nature...a riveting read.
Entertaiment Weekly

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Hachette Books
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.25(d)
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18 Years

Read an Excerpt

SEPTEMBER 29, 1924

We did not all come back.

—Captain Robert Bartlett

The island was a no-man's-land, little more than a mountainous slab of rock high above the Arctic Circle. Six miles of cliffs ran across it, four to seven hundred feet high. The only sliver of shoreline came at the northwestern point where the cliffs crumbled into piles of jagged rocks and gravel. The island was impossible to reach by ship or by plane, the winds raging about it, its shores surrounded by violent, raftering ice and fierce currents. So ferocious and unforgiving were the elements at Herald Island, in fact, that no one would ever live there, except for the polar bears, arctic foxes, and occasional birds that sought refuge on its rocky shores.

On September 29,1924, however, eleven men stood silent, on the northwestern point of the island.

Captain Louis Lane and the passengers of the MS Herman had traveled to uninhabited Herald Island intending to claim it for the United States. Even though the island was essentially uninhabitable, men strove to possess it as they do all things, the first person to do so being Captain Kellett, R.N., who claimed it in 1849 for Great Britain in the name of Queen Victoria. And as far as Captain Lane and his men had known, they were to be the first human visitors to the island since Captain Calvin Hooper of the USS Corwin, forty-three years earlier.

Captain Lane had intended to land on September 27; but the tides were impenetrable, and he and his men had been unable to follow through. On September 28, they made it to land, planted the United States flag, and read a proclamation.

Their work accomplished, Captain Lane turned the ship toward the northwest. As they rounded the northwestern point of the island, however, he spotted something from the crow's nest — a shadow against the beach. Through the field glasses, the crew could make out the outline of a sled and several dark objects. The following morning, they dropped anchor half a mile offshore and once again landed on tiny Herald Island.

Eleven men went ashore that day. The bitter Arctic wind chilled them. It seemed more biting on this side of the island. It was barely October, and although winter had not yet set in with its full force, the weather was already savagely cold.

The outline they had seen was indeed a sled. Its skeletal frame, weathered and broken, lay shattered against the narrow beach. Strewn over the snow-covered ground surrounding the sled were over two dozen of the black objects, thick, rectangular tins: pemmican, that canned mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat that was the staple of polar diets at the time. One man stooped to pick up a can. It was heavy and when he cracked it open he discovered its contents had never been touched.

The men took photographs before disturbing anything. And then they began to dig through the snow, searching for answers. Beneath all of that white, they uncovered the remains of a fire. From the pile of ashes that lay beneath, it was clear that a great many fires had been built in that very same spot, years and years ago. If this was any indication, the men who had built those fires had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.

Discarded on the gravel beach was a 30-30 Winchester automatic rifle with dozens of cartridges. It was an eerie souvenir, its stock weathered almost white, its barrel dark with rust, its magazine corroded and partially missing. And there, on the side, cut into the wood, two rusted initials were inscribed: "B.M."

Then someone stumbled across something that made these men draw back in horror — the crossed thighbones of a man. just beyond, a bleached shoulder blade was discovered. The men kept digging. Soon they uncovered a decayed tent, its aged canvas torn and soiled from time and the elements, and underneath a sleeping bag of reindeer skin. Its folds hid other human bones, including a man's hand, perfectly intact, down to the tapered nail of the thumb, lacking only flesh to make it lifelike.

And then someone held up a human jawbone. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. It was a strong jaw, with two of its wisdom teeth still imbedded. As one of the men described it: "A young man with a firm, capable jaw, cleft as to chin and with fine, regular teeth. A young man thus to die and leave his bones strewn to bleach on this wind-swept shore! With what hopes and ambitions had he sailed north — only to die, his deathplace all these years unknown and unmarked!"

It wasn't long before the men uncovered two more jawbones within feet of the first. They seemed to belong to older men. A hundred or so yards away, a fourth jawbone was discovered, the oldest yet. No skulls were found.

It was difficult to discern how long ago the men had come there, or how they had met their fates. Bear tracks encircled the camp, but close examination of the bones revealed no teeth marks or signs of violent death. These four men, whoever they were, seemed to have died with all the necessities of life at their fingertips. There was evidence of too much food for the men to have died of starvation. Even if they had run out of pemmican, there was ammunition for both the 30-30 Winchester and a .22 Winchester automatic rifle. They also had an abundance of matches, two Primus stoves, and a beach strewn with driftwood.

They were probably suffering the effects of slow starvation and might also have been afflicted with scurvy. Only two or three teeth remained in each jawbone, and the men had most likely lost the rest of them while still alive. It must have been dreadful for them. If they had died of illness or the elements, however, it seemed odd that they would all perish at the same time. No one had been buried and the remains of their skeletons lay in similar positions, peaceful and undisturbed, as if the four men had just lain down to sleep.

The remaining discoveries gave few clues. Captain Lane and his men uncovered a silver watch, a pocket compass, snow glasses, field glasses, hunting knives, a sled harness, three pocket knives (one engraved with the letter M), a thermometer tube, ice picks, axes, a shovel, a pair of snow shoes, a pair of skis, a can opener, a tin of tea, three enamel mugs, a silver spoon, two whiskey bottles, a candle, a nickel belt buckle, socks, mitts, caps, a sheepskin coat, rope, and the remains of a horsehair mattress.

The men searched the entire camp, digging beneath the snow and even into the earth, but no paper was found, no diaries and no documents. These men had not left behind any written record of their story. Captain Lane and his men could only speculate as to who they were and what had happened to them.

Back on board the ship, Captain Lane and the others set the four jawbones on a table, side by side. They tried to imagine what the men had looked like in life. Who were they before they gave up their living, breathing souls to this desolate place?

Meet the Author

Jennifer Niven's first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program. The book, which has been translated into nine languages, has been featured in such publications as Newsweek, the New York Times, Glamour, the Washington Post, Outside, and Writer's Digest, and was the subject of full-length documentaries on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel. For more information, visit www.jenniferniven.com.

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The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 63 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Truly amazing. I loved this book. I've read a few others about arctic expeditions, but this one was the most riveting. This book makes you feel as if you are there. You can really get a feel for what these characters experienced. I was reporting updates to a friend each time I read more and the joke was... I have to keep reading this because I simply MUST know what happens to the cat! I won't give it away though. If you want to know what happens to the cat, you'll have to read the book (wink) ...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Someone please tell harriet klausner to stop with the plot reveals? She ruins every book she reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I cut my teeth on tales of a distant cousin who was an Arctic explorer. I learned what I could of his heroism and bravery and of the deprivations he suffered during his time as a member of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913. However, our family history was limited and there were many unanswered questions. Until now. Jennifer Niven has done a brilliant job of filling in the details and of at last making a forgotten story known to the public. I am a historian myself and had thought for years of writing a book on this expedition. I can honestly say it would not have been this good. To doubt her credulity-- and the only place I have seen it doubted is in this particular forum by one reader-- is ridiculous. The book is painstakingly researched and I, for one, can fully vouch for the accuracy of her research, including her details of George Washington DeLong's Jeannette expedition (most of the information of which she gleaned from DeLong's own diaries). Ms. Niven has given my family-- and the memory of my cousin-- the greatest gift anyone could give: she has brought this forgotten hero back to life and she has taught us something about ourselves in the process. Bravo!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you have enjoyed reading about the Arctic/Antarctic, then this will be another book you'd love to add to your collection. In the same vein as "The Lost Men", this book basically tells the tale of a shipload of men out to reach an unknown land in the Arctic but never getting there. The story is not as well told as "The Lost Men", but the same thrilling situations occur regarding lack of food, poor shelter, squabbles and conflicts among the men, and their final rescue. One extra tidbit, this story has a true murder mystery and one that I feel the author did not do justice to. That particular part of the story is anti-climatic and put a damper on an already tired story. Overall, though, this story was good enough for me to buy the audio book as well as the paperback. The audio is abriged, yet the paperback includes details that you wouldn't have otherwise known about just listening to the audio. An entertaining story and good enough read to make you glad you aren't an Arctic explorer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am in a discussion group that just finished reading Jennifer Niven's THE ICE MASTER. Our group is large, diverse and opinionated, and debate always seems to swirl around what our next read will be! However, THE ICE MASTER had a lot to recommend it-- adventure story, historical narrative, great press and the high opinions of friends who'd read it-- and we all dove in with unanimous curiosity and excitement. And now I want to let anyone who is looking for a first-rate travel tale to know that THE ICE MASTER is a must-read! It's a splendid marriage of information and entertainment; academic (in the best sense of the word) when it must be, but far from dull; breezy and never terse; and engaging from beginning to end. We supplemented our discussion with the audio tapes, which come across with the sharp intelligence and cool assurance of a radio broadcast from the Arctic Circle. You can't help but wander, first-person, into the narrative, and feel all the terrors, hairpin twists and triumphs of good fortune and character: it's like you were living the story yourself! THE ICE MASTER is a harrowing and ultimately transporting work that was a joy to read and terrific fun to talk about. Absolutely do not miss it!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best novelist in the world could not write this story any better than Jennifer Niven! And no fiction could compare to the true-life events that are related in this book.
barbarapen More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down. One of the few books in my library I will re-read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
To quote an old TV show, 'You Are There.' You are a member of the ill-fated Karluk, you battle the ice,snow and unrelenting wind. You fight to abate the ever growing hunger of Wragel Island. You daily live with fortiude and courage as well as encounter threat, selfishness and betrayal. You benefit from the inate good in some men and suffer the human weaknesses of others. Most of all you learn the importance of true character. Jennifer Niven has demonstated man's ability to meet and conquer unbelievable obstacles in life. This book is reality at its most unbelievable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading The Ice Master was like watching a train wreck, you just can't look away or in this case put the book down. The crew was amazing in many ways. Niven worked wonders w/journal accounts of the crew and scientists.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book so much that I am about to read it for the third time
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Niven has done a truly amazing job with this book. The story she wove now ranks as my favorite! The way she described the men, the family and the conditions made me feel I was with them. This must be made into a movie!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading Jennifer Niven's Ice Master! In fact, I would venture to say it is one of the best books that have ever been written in this particular genre! One can see that Ms. Niven was very meticulous in her research and unlike so many researched books that become stale long before the end of the story, this book lives and breathes the very life of these men all the way to the final pages! It is like you are there, and you know them personally. Because of her tireless research and soulful account of these men,they come right off the pages and into your heart, and enliven your senses. I believe this book will become a classic read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am probably one of the only people who read this book and THEN bought the audio tape. It's an incredible read by a fantastic first-time writer, and I was wrapped in blankets the entire time I was reading this book. I suggest you wrap up, too, and enjoy the ride! You will want to read this book in its entirety in one sitting, or at the very least in one weekend. I was unable to put it down and by the end of the journey I felt so close to the people of this expedition that I was moved to tears by their tragedies and their triumphs. (I am a man, but I'll admit to those tears.) Jennifer Niven's naturally soft-spoken, melodic voice in the audio version is a haunting contrast to this ruggedly masculine story and I found this to be highly effective and moving. Everyone expects these books to be written or read by grizzled old sea salts, but I could not imagine the riveting story of the ill-fated Karluk and her courageous captain being told or read by anyone other than Niven.
usmcLS More than 1 year ago
I could put it down but was informative for me since I know so little about this type of expedition. I read a variety of books, usually at least one a week, on history. I especially like info on Nazi regime since I can't for the life of me see how those clowns were able to dominate for any length of time. this book was just a "jumping off place" for reading something that was new for me.
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TX-LA-MS-CG_Family More than 1 year ago
I stumbled onto this book in a small bookstore in Sitka, Alaska.  I'd previously enjoyed books about Shackleton's voyage so I picked it up.  Wow!  What a great book!  And if you like this one let me recommend "Hell on Ice" which tells a similar true story that occurred decades earlier.  
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Inspiring and captivating story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago