An astonishing narrative of disaster and perseverance, The Last Voyage of the Karluk will thrill readers of adventure classics like Into Thin Air and The Climb. In 1913, explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson hired William McKinlay to join the crew of the Karluk, the leading ship of his new Arctic expedition. Stefansson's mission was to chart the waters north of Alaska; yet the Karluk's crew was untrained, the ship was ill-suited to the icy conditions, and almost at once the Karluk was crushed-at which point Stefansson abandoned his crew to continue his journey on another ship. This is the only firsthand account of what followed: a nightmare struggle in which half the crew perished, one was mysteriously shot, and the rest were near death by the time of their rescue twelve months later.
Written some sixty years after the fact, and drawing extensively on his own daily log, McKinlay's narrative of this doomed expedition is rendered with remarkable clarity of recollection, and with a combination of horror and a level of self-possession that, to modern eyes, may seem incredible. Like most of his companions, McKinlay was inexperienced, without a day's training in the skills essential to survival in the Arctic. Yet he and many of his fellow crewmen, with the help of an Eskimo family accustomed to such conditions, survived a year under the harshest of conditions, enduring 80-mile-per-hour gales and temperatures well below zero with only the barest of provisions and almost no hope of contact with civilization.
Nearly a century later, this remains one of the most compelling survival stories ever written-an extraordinary testament to man's overpowering will to live.
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About the Author
William Laird McKinlay returned from the Arctic to serve as an officer on the Western Front during World War I, and spent much of his life thereafter as a school headmaster in Scotland. His account of the Karluk disaster was first published in 1976, when he was eighty-eight years old.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Voyage of the Karluk
A Survivor's Memoir of Arctic Disaster
By William Laird McKinlay
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1976 William Laird McKinlay
All rights reserved.
The telegram arrived at ten-past seven. It was Wednesday, 23 April 1913, and I had finished my evening meal and was settling down with my pipe and the evening paper when the doorbell rang. That telegram remained one of my mother's most treasured possessions until Hitler's bombers destroyed her home in Clydebank. I cannot remember its exact wording, but I still recall vividly the thrill I felt when I read it. Was I willing to join an Arctic expedition for four years? No salary, but all expenses paid. It was signed 'Stefansson'.
I was flabbergasted. Me! William Laird McKinlay, aged twenty-four, teacher of mathematics and science in Shawlands Academy, Glasgow, invited to be an explorer in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle! Me! Only five feet four, 'Wee Mac' to my friends (and to the boys at school behind my back) being asked to join the ranks of boyhood heroes like Nansen, Peary, Amundsen, Captain Scott! Reports were still coming in of the deaths of Scott's party on their way back from the South Pole after being beaten to the post by Amundsen.
The telegram might have been somebody's idea of a joke, like some present-day schoolboy sending his teacher a fake invitation to join the latest expedition to the moon, except that Arctic expeditions were almost a kind of international sport at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century; and since there seemed to be very little in the way of land left to be discovered, scientists were in great demand to bring back technical information about the nature of things above and below the vast ice caps surrounding the Poles. As a Bachelor of Science and winner of a Scholarship in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, I had got to know Dr W.S. Bruce, the Scottish explorer, and for two years I had been helping him to collate observations made in the Scottish Antarctic Expedition of 1902–4. Dr Bruce knew my qualifications to do magnetic and meteorological work, and he knew I would jump at the chance of joining an exploration team.
I rushed to a telephone and contacted Dr Bruce at home in Edinburgh, only to be told that he was in London, helping a Mr Stefansson select oceanographical equipment and scientific staff for an Arctic expedition. 'Stefansson' was the signature on my telegram, and as I waited to be put through to Dr Bruce's London hotel, I vaguely recalled newspaper stories about a Canadian anthropologist called Stefansson who claimed to have found a race of 'Blond Eskimos' during exploration of the Arctic coast of north-west Canada. Dr Bruce confirmed that on his recommendation, this was the man who was inviting me to join his latest expedition.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson was planning to explore far into the frozen north, between the northernmost shores of Canada and the North Pole. It was to be a vast scientific project, financed by the Canadian Government, involving anthropological study of the Eskimos, geological surveys (with a particular view to finding copper), sounding of uncharted Arctic waters, as well as a look-out for new islands to be discovered for Britain. I would be magnetician and meteorologist in the team if I wanted to go.
'Yes!' I shouted down the line.
Could I leave at once to make final arrangements in London?
An hour later I was on the night train to London. It is only now that I fully realize the shock all this must have been to my mother: to have me snatched from home at a moment's notice, her William, who was so small and weakly at birth that the doctor gave him a year to live; Wee Mac, suddenly whisked away to be an explorer in the frozen Arctic! Dr Bruce had said I should be prepared to be away from three to four years. Nobody mentioned the very real possibility that I would never come back at all. And I have no recollection of any protest from my parents, any raising of doubts, or any sign of dismay. My mother just packed my overnight bag and promised to explain my absence to the headmaster of the school. I would be back on Friday morning to straighten things out with the School Board and collect the rest of my luggage before sailing from Glasgow on Saturday.
I slept very little on the journey to London. Sitting upright in a third-class compartment as the Royal Scot rushed southwards, I went over and over in my mind everything I remembered having heard or read about Arctic exploration, trying to visualize the adventures that lay ahead, shoving to the back of my mind, with youthful abandon, the reports of death and disaster that were so much a part of Arctic history. Exploration of the vast north and south polar regions was on the threshold of being revolutionized by the use of the wireless and the aeroplane. Soon, any expedition snowed-in or trapped in the Arctic ice, and short of supplies, would be able to radio its position and have supplies dropped from the air, or have rescue speeded-up by air search and airlift. But in 1913 Arctic exploration was an extremely hazardous business, little advanced in technique since Leif Eriksson had sailed his Viking ship westwards from Greenland to the shores of North America a thousand years before. Only the steam turbine had been added to help ships through the Arctic pack-ice, and when the ice really closed in, a ship with an engine was every bit as helpless as any of the sailing vessels that had been trapped, crushed and sunk without trace in attempts to circumnavigate the globe at its northernmost tip.
Boys like me had been bred on stories of the search for the North-West and North-East Passages, those elusive sea routes by which men sought to shorten the distance from Europe to China by going round the narrow top of the world, either eastwards or westwards, instead of zig-zagging southwards across the globe and going round it at a much larger point of circumference: westwards via Cape Horn, or eastwards via the Cape of Good Hope. We boys knew that Nordensjold had been first to follow the north-east route successfully, from 1878–9, sailing from the Atlantic eastwards round the north coast of Siberia, through the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait into the Pacific. On the big shiny map that hung over the blackboard at Clydebank School, we had followed Amundsen's slow progress in the first complete sailing of the North-West Passage, from 1903–5, taking the left-hand turn, as we thought of it, round the north coast of Canada, through the Beaufort Sea, then via Bering Strait to the Pacific Ocean.
How well we knew the names of all those others who had braved that forbidding wilderness of ice-packed ocean encircling the North Pole: George Washington De Long, the American explorer, who had tried to reach the Pole via the Bering Strait in 1879, but had to abandon his ship, the Jeannette, in the pack-ice, and died with twenty of his crew, trying to reach the Siberian coast; Fridjof Nansen, the Norwegian, who in 1893 deliberately let his ship, the Fram, get frozen in the ice north of Siberia and drift north to a latitude of 84° N. from which point he and a companion left the ship and travelled across the ice by sledge to the highest latitude then attained, 86° 14'N.; the specially built Fram escaped from the ice unscathed. As students in Glasgow we had thrilled to the news in 1909 that America's Admiral Peary had reached the North Pole, the first man to do so, at his eighth attempt. He got there just ahead of Amundsen, who then turned his attention to the Antarctic and made a dash for the South Pole, beating Scott there by a month, in 1911.
But it was the North Polar region and the vast unexplored area north of the Beaufort Sea that I would be sailing for in less than three days' time. This great white wilderness, which Peary had crossed to its ultimate point of latitude, 90° N. – the North Pole – was generally accepted to be composed of ice-covered Polar sea, but so few explorers had ever penetrated the 'Zone of Comparative Inaccessibility' (Peary just made a quick dash across the shortest line of approach, from the tip of Ellesmere Island, near Greenland) that there was no real proof as to whether it was in fact all sea or whether the ice might be concealing a mass of land. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was one of those who believed that there might well be undiscovered land north of the Beaufort Sea, and he had persuaded the Canadian Government to finance this expedition to explore the uncharted regions between the north of Canada and the North Pole.
I learned all this, and much more about Stefansson's plans, from the newspapers when I arrived in London. Stefansson had already left for Canada, but he had been interviewed before he left, and I read that I was going to be part of a team whose leader had hopes of discovering a new continent! As he wrote later in a dispatch to the Canadian Victoria Times (June, 1913):
The sensational aspect of the Canadian Arctic Expedition is that if it should prove as successful as it conceivably may be, then it will close forever the chapter of geographical discovery, for the only place on the whole earth where there can possibly be land of conceivable extent whose very existence is unknown to us, is the unexplored area of a million or so square miles that is represented by white patches on our map, lying between Alaska and the North Pole.
Whether or not we found land, Stefansson had assured the Canadian Government that we would bring back information that would transform the maps of the world.
There would be a scientific staff of fifteen, headed by Stefansson as anthropologist, with Dr Rudolph Anderson, a Canadian zoologist, as second-in-command; another anthropologist, Diamond Jenness; two topographers, Kenneth Chipman and John Cox; a botanist and marine biologist, Fritz Johanssen; geologist John O'Neill (a copper expert); photographer George Wilkins (later Sir Hubert Wilkins, who made a pioneer flight in 1928 from Alaska to Spitzbergen, and in 1931 failed in an attempt to reach the North Pole by submarine – a prophetic dream of Stefansson's not realized until 1958 by the American atomic submarine Nautilus (which entered beneath the Arctic ice-cap, off Point Barrow, Alaska, and emerged in the Greenland Sea). There was another geologist, George Malloch; an assistant topographer, Bjarne Mamen; another anthropologist, Henri Beuchat; a secretary, Burt McConnell; and three Scots: Alistair Forbes Mackay, surgeon; James Murray, oceanographer; and myself, magnetician and meteorologist.
According to Stefansson this team, 'a larger staff of scientific specialists than have ever been carried on a Polar expedition', would investigate tides, currents, the depth and character of the Arctic sea bed, the temperature, chemical composition, and vegetable and animal life of the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans.
I was given more information when I met the Canadian High Commissioner at eleven o'clock that Thursday morning in London. I was formally signed on as a member of the expedition, and at noon the High Commissioner lifted the telephone and booked a passage for me on the Allen liner, Grampian, due to sail from Glasgow at noon on Saturday. I learned that the Canadian Government was sparing no expense. The very latest in scientific equipment had been bought on the advice of Dr Bruce, and when I got to Canada I was to have a three-weeks' course to acquaint me with the instruments I would be using. Dr Bruce and the Canadian officials I met answered as many of my questions as they could, and from what they told me, and from more newspaper cuttings, I was beginning to form a picture, as I steamed back to Glasgow on the night train, of the man to whom I was entrusting my life for the next three or four years.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson was thirty-four, the son of Icelandic parents who had emigrated to Canada. He was an anthropologist by profession, and the main reason for his explorations in the Arctic up till now had been to learn everything he could about the Eskimos. He had already made two expeditions (1906–7 and 1908–12) from which he had returned with a report of a 'new race of men', the so-called 'Blond Eskimos', and with more than fifty-thousand specimens, including species of caribou (reindeer) hitherto unknown, and more skulls of Barren Ground grizzlies than were in the possession of the scientific museums of the world. He also came back with a firm conviction that the unexplored regions around the North Pole, into which even the Eskimos refused to travel, were not the white wilderness that men imagined, but probably rich in minerals, such as copper, and that it was possible for men to live off the wild life of the Arctic by using the hunting skills of the Eskimo. This was the basis of Stefansson's great theory of the 'friendly Arctic', and perhaps it was just as well for my peace of mind that I was unaware of the great Amundsen's opinion that if men tried to take advantage of this 'friendliness' and adventured into the Arctic regions equipped only with a gun and some ammunition, 'certain death awaits them'.
I was well on my way to the Arctic before our leader started sending dispatches which declared that:
... the attainment of the purposes of the expedition is more important than the bringing-back safe of the ship in which it sails. This means that while every reasonable precaution will be taken to safeguard the lives of the party, it is realised both by the backers of the expedition and the members of it, that even the lives of the party are secondary to the accomplishment of the work! ... that the expedition is thoroughly equipped is all that we can say of it at present. The character of its management will develop from day to day, and it will only be some years from now, if no disaster overtakes us, that it will be possible to decide the relative value of the factors that make for its success for failure.
Looking back I can see in statements like these foreboding of the disasters to come, but that night as I was setting out on my great adventure, there was nothing to shake my confidence in the ability of this great man, Stefansson, to take our expedition to the Arctic and bring us all safely home again. All I read were eulogies of him, such as the one from his great friend, the conqueror of the North Pole, Admiral Peary: 'In personality and from training and experience, Stefansson is especially fitted for this work; his courage and control of untoward circumstances have been proved in the six years he has already put in on Arctic investigations, and he has shown executive ability and judgement in his plans for organisation of the new expedition.'
I learned that our leader was 'a man of middle height, strong of frame, with no superfluous flesh ... he tells you frankly he makes no pretensions as an athlete. He never walks where it is possible to ride, takes little or no exercise of any description. Yet his powers of endurance seem phenomenal, and far in excess of those of the trained athlete in hard condition.' With all this added to his training as an anthropologist and his 'qualities of a dreamer', Admiral Peary felt that he must congratulate the scientific world and the Canadian Government that Stefansson 'has stepped forth to do a man's work in Arctic exploration'.
With such stirring sentiments ringing in my head, I stepped off the train in Glasgow on Friday morning, with thirty-six hours left to sailing time.CHAPTER 2
Doubts and Worries
First I had to straighten things out with my School Board, with whom I had a contract requiring a month's notice. Fortunately the members of the Board were meeting that morning in the Rector's room, and before the meeting began I was called in. Everyone had read about my appointment in the morning papers and I was showered with congratulations and good wishes before being granted formal and immediate leave of absence. I dashed to Queen Street station to catch the train to Edinburgh where I met Dr Bruce, back by now at the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory. He fitted me out with a supply of polar clothing of the kind which had been worn by his own Antarctic expedition. When I arrived home, exactly forty-eight hours after receiving the telegram, I had seventeen hours left to sailing time.
Excerpted from The Last Voyage of the Karluk by William Laird McKinlay. Copyright © 1976 William Laird McKinlay. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Magnus Magnusson,
1. The Telegram,
2. Doubts and Worries,
3. A Stormy Meeting,
4. Caught in the Ice,
5. Goodbye Stefansson,
6. The Man Who Lost His Ship,
7. The Drift,
8. Life in an Ice Prison,
9. The Lessons of Jeannette and Fram,
10. An Icy Christmas,
11. Abandon Ship!,
12. Marooned on an Ice Floe,
13. The Tragedy of the Mate's Party,
14. The Fury of the Ice,
15. The Captain Goes for Help,
16. The Search for the Mate,
17. Wrangles on Wrangel Island,
18. Death at Rodger's Harbour,
19. The Mystery Disease Spreads,
20. The Search for Food,
21. The Shooting of Breddy,
22. 'Thy Will Be Done',
24. Captain Bartlett's Journey,
25. A Pitiful Tragic Failure,
List of Maps,