You’ve probably heard of Ernest Shackleton, and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The Endurance, the ship on which he and his crew sailed, famously became trapped in ice, sunk, and set the men and their indomitable leader off on an arduous journey to safety and rescue.
But the Shackleton expedition wasn’t the only one to meet such a fate, and to become a crucible for leadership. The year before the demise of the Endurance, the Karluk, flagship vessel of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, became icebound and sunk, leaving its crew to trek 80 miles across dangerous ice floes to an island, and its captain to travel 1,000 miles more to obtain rescue for those marooned survivors.
Buddy Levy shares that compelling story in his new book Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk, and unpacks it for us today on the show. Along the way, he brings out the leadership lessons in planning, maintaining morale, and embodying endurance you can glean from the expedition’s two dominant figures: its ostensible leader, who abandoned the ship, and the Karluk‘s captain, who did all he could to save its shipwrecked survivors.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition by Buddy Levy
- Endurance by Alfred Lansing
- AoM Article: Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton
- AoM Article: What They Left and What They Kept — What an Antarctic Expedition Can Teach You About What’s Truly Valuable
- AoM Article: Alone — Lessons on Solitude From an Antarctic Explorer
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. You’ve probably heard of Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The Endurance, the ship on which he and his crew sailed, famously became trapped in ice, sunk, and set the men and their indomitable leader off on an arduous journey to safety and rescue. But the Shackleton expedition wasn’t the only one to meet such a fate and to become a crucible for leadership. The year before the demise of the Endurance, the Karluk, flagship vessel of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, became iced in and sunk, leaving its crew to trek 80 miles across dangerous ice floes to an island, and its captain to travel 1,000 miles more to obtain rescue for those marooned survivors. Buddy Levy shares that compelling story in his new book, Empire of Ice And Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk, and unpacks it for us today on the show. Along the way, he brings out the leadership lessons in planning, maintaining morale, and embodying endurance you can glean from the expedition’s two dominant figures, its ostensible leader, who abandoned the ship, and the Karluk’s captain, who did all he could to save its shipwrecked survivors. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/ice.
Buddy Levy, welcome to the show.
Buddy Levy: Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you just got a new book out called Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk. How did you learn about this story of the Karluk? It’s considered one of the last great voyages of the age of exploration, but I didn’t know about it until I read your book. So how did you learn about it?
Buddy Levy: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. I guess the short version is I went to Greenland in 2003 to cover an expedition race in which this blind adventurer named Erik Weihenmayer was doing a week-long multi-sport competition. And while I was there in Greenland, I met a Norwegian woman who… She was a really amazing adventurer in her own right, but she handed me a book called The First Crossing of Greenland by a Norwegian explorer, and he talked about this incredible voyage that had happened in the 1880s or ’90s. And I got really enthralled by Arctic exploration. And just also being there, it was so amazing and remote and brutal. And as I started reading, I began to come across these voyages in history that were really remarkable. And I ended up writing a book called Labyrinth of Ice about this Greely Expedition that was 1881. And during my research for that book, I bumped into this story of the Karluk and the Canadian Arctic Expedition. But I was so busy with the Labyrinth of Ice book that I just filed it into this folder, and so I saved it and came back to it later.
And I have to say that there was another sort of interest that I had based on my upbringing. My father was a Nordic ski racer. And he competed in the 1956 Winter Olympics in ski racing, which is really, really an amazing feat. But it was more remarkable because he was from Louisiana, and I think at the time he was the first Louisianan who had competed in the Winter Olympics ’cause he didn’t see snow until he was about 18 years old. But later on, he moved us to a ski town called Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1970. And I spent a lot of time in the mountains, and it’s at 6000 feet elevation. It’s really a cold place much of the year. And he used to take us out duck hunting in blinds that were like minus 25, 30 degrees. And so I kind of got this just interest in cold, cold places and the kinds of people who can survive there.
Brett McKay: Okay, so returning back to the Karluk. The story of the Karluk happens at the sort of tail end of this age of polar exploration that started in the late 19th century and then ran into the early 20th. The Karluk gets shipwrecked in 1914, and that’s about a year before the sinking of Shackleton’s Endurance, right?
Yeah. Yes, exactly.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And do you think that’s why it gets overlooked? ‘Cause the Shackleton story seems to get all the attention.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, that’s a great question. Actually, nearly all Arctic and Antarctic stories get overshadowed by Shackleton’s expedition. And I think it’s probably because in Shackleton’s voyage of the Endurance, miraculously, everyone lives. In the expeditions that I write about, and frankly, in most other expeditions of the period, folks aren’t so lucky. In fact, for most Arctic and Antarctic exploration, the mortality rate was about 50%. So if you went, there was a good chance you weren’t coming home. And also, the Endurance is just a really well-written book, and it’s the one that comes to most people’s mind. But that said, there are so many other great stories.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, this is a great one. I couldn’t put this book down. I was enthralled by it. So the Karluk, its expedition started in 1913. And it was kick-started by this guy. I’m gonna let you pronounce his first name ’cause it’s Norwegian, but his last name is Stefansson. Tell us about Stefansson.
Buddy Levy: Sure. A lot of people say Vilhjalmur, but he pronounced it Vilhjalmur. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was… I say he’s an unlikely explorer because of his upbringing and the series of events that led him to the north. He was originally born in Manitoba, Canada, but a series of disasters, floods and smallpox killed two of his siblings. His family moved by oxcart to North Dakota when he was just three years old. And they lived a really hard-scrabble existence of subsistence farming. And he attended a one-room school house. He was really smart though, and he had this active mind and a considerable intellect. And by his late teens, mostly reading by lamplight in this little cabin, he had enrolled at the University of North Dakota. And he was sort of a ne’er-do-well in certain ways. He was always getting in trouble. In his junior year, he got expelled for missing three consecutive weeks of school at North Dakota. And in fairness, he had been filling in for a high school teacher as a tutor.
But within days after expulsion, he was accepted at the University of Iowa. And he finished there in his undergraduate degree within a year. He was a really quick study. And he ended up being accepted to Harvard on a paid fellowship to do a PhD program in the Divinity School. And there he created his own curriculum, studying religion as a branch of anthropology. But even at Harvard, there was some controversy around him already. He’d borrowed money from undergraduates and he became involved in a scandal for selling exam questions to students. But his mind was really restless. And he didn’t like teaching, and he resolved to do anthropological field work in Equatorial Africa. And this is why I say he was kind of an unlikely Arctic explorer because he was all set to go to Africa.
But while he was preparing for that expedition, he received a telegram from an American explorer and geologist named Ernest Leffingwell. And he had been organizing a polar expedition. This is about 1906. And he had seen an article written by Stefansson that piqued his interest, and he sent a telegram to Stefansson and invited him along. And Stefansson went. And then he spent 1906-8 and then 1909-1912 almost full-time in the Arctic surveying and living among the Inuit peoples. So it was really kind of a series of just events and just doing the next thing that came up that propelled him to become an Arctic explorer.
Brett McKay: And the other way you describe him, the impression that I got, he was incredibly, incredibly ambitious. He wanted fame or glory.
Buddy Levy: Absolutely. Before the Canadian Arctic Expedition, as an example, he organized all of these publishing rights. And he was writing a book about his time living among the Inuit people even on the ship heading to his 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition. So he was always thinking ahead about how he could monetize his expeditions. And in that way, his character… I view him as kind of a chameleon or like a shape shifter. He could just change the course of his life in a moment and then go with it. And he was also really… I think he was egocentric and what we would now call a narcissist. And this, of course, would have profound implications on the members of the Karluk, eventually.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that idea of him being chameleon-like. You quote him as saying, “I am what I want to be.” And so he’s able to suss out what people wanted in a person, and he was able to become that to get what he wanted.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, and that proved to be really useful for him in terms of, let’s say, fundraising for the Canadian Arctic Expedition because these expeditions were really expensive. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1913 money, which is millions today. And so he had to be very persuasive and compelling. And he was able to get organizations like the American Museum of Natural History and the entire Canadian government. He even met with the Prime Minister of Canada. And he got him on board, pardon the pun, to finance the expedition because it was Canada’s first major foray into Arctic exploration. So Stefansson, yeah, he was really charismatic and persuasive and also thinking about how this was gonna benefit him.
Brett McKay: So before this expedition in 1913, he had been on Arctic expeditions. It’s not as if he was inexperienced. But this was… Was this the first time he planned one on his own, like he was in charge of it?
Buddy Levy: Well, the previous one that he did with this guy named Rudolph Anderson, they shared the leadership of it, and it was smaller in scope. And I think that’s the major difference is that Stefansson was really good at planning and organizing modest expeditions that were manageable in terms of numbers of people, and he was good at that. But the Canadian Arctic Expedition was a whole different animal. It was much more ambitious and had more moving parts, and that’s where things began to kind of fall apart.
Brett McKay: So what was the aim of this expedition? What was Stefansson hoping to do with it?
Buddy Levy: So the Canadian Arctic Expedition’s stated goals were to explore the seas and ice north of Alaska and Canada searching for new undiscovered lands including this place called Crocker Land that American explorer Robert Peary… Who claimed to have been to the North Pole and claimed the North Pole. On a previous expedition, Robert Peary said that he saw this land mass from the shore of Ellesmere Island in Canada, and he named it Crocker Land after this bank financier. So they were looking for this place called Crocker Land, if it existed, to expand the Canadian archipelago and to expand land holdings, essentially. And they also were going to engage in anthropology, biology, oceanography, and geography, marine and terrestrial study. So it was a pretty big and ambitious undertaking. And then there were two parties, the northern and southern party. And the southern party was gonna do land-based anthropology and geography in the Coronation Gulf region among the islands off of Canada’s northern coastline.
And it was really a big expedition. As I said, it was Canada’s first major foray into Arctic exploration. And Stefansson brought along 16 international scientists, which at the time was the largest staff of scientists ever carried on a polar expedition. And they were from all over the place. They were from Canada, France, Scotland, New Zealand, Norway. And Stefansson even brought along this photographer and cameraman from Australia named George Hubert Wilkins to document the endeavor. So he was really thinking about the media possibilities when he returned. That was the plan anyway.
Brett McKay: So this was a big expedition. And you’d think, well, a big expedition like this would take a year, maybe two years to plan. But this guy, it was in a few months. He had the idea, I think, in early 1913 and by June, July 1913, they were off to the races.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, well, Stefansson attempted to organize this expedition in a matter of months. And normally, as you say, it takes a year or more. He bought this ship called the Karluk, which is the Aleutian or the Aleut word for fish. And it was an under-powered ship that was ill-suited for dealing with the Arctic ice pack. And he picked up two more ships along the way. This is like after they had already left from Esquimalt, British Columbia, so he’s getting ships en route. And he did a bunch of his pre-organization in the late months of 1912 by going to Europe and talking it up. And it was at that point he actually met Robert Peary and Peary told him about this Captain Bartlett that he should hire. But his planning was rushed, I will say. And he ultimately had three ships that were the armada of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, the Karluk being the flagship.
But the problem was, he ended up having the wrong men and equipment on the wrong ships because the plan had been to meet at Point Barrow at the northern tip of Alaska, get all their stuff kind of organized temporarily there, and then head to the east to this little island above Canada called Herschel Island where they were going to rendezvous and re-organize everything. But the problem was that a massive winter storm in August of 1913 blew that plan to smithereens. And he had been acquiring skins and furs for winter clothing just days before leaving Point Barrow, which is quite late and unprepared since much of the clothing still had to be sown from those skins. It’s one of those expeditions where everything sort of went south immediately, you know?
Brett McKay: Yeah. No, that was the common refrain. A lot of the scientists and the crewmen were concerned about the slapdash preparations. And they’d bring it up to Stefansson, and he would just say, “Well, we’ll take care of it at Point Barrow. We’ll take care of it then.” And it just kept on getting pushed further and further back until it was too late.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, actually it becomes a joke for some of the members. “We’ll sort it out at Herschel Island,” they keep saying. And they never even get to Herschel Island. The other scientists, you’re right, they were concerned about a number of things, not only that things were a little haphazard, but Stefansson made them sign contracts that said they couldn’t publish anything within a year of returning because Stefansson himself wasn’t drawing a pay for the expedition. He was gonna get all his money on the back end on publishing rights. And the other members were hired by the Canadian government, so they were actually drawing pay. But also, at the time they were moving north from Esquimalt, British Columbia, and up to Alaska, when they would make land, Stefansson was actually doing interviews with newspaper reporters. And he was saying things that were really disconcerting to the scientists, like the mission itself and the expedition is more important than either the ships or the members of the expedition, ’cause he knew that it wasn’t uncommon for ships to get beset or nipped in the ice and then drift, maybe for 1000 miles. So the members of… These scientists are thinking, “Well, wait, what have I signed up for?”
Brett McKay: So Stefansson for the most part his planning was very poor. He picked an… The Karluk wasn’t really suited for what it was about to do. It was underpowered. But he did do a few good things, and one of them was hiring Robert Bartlett to captain the Karluk. Tell us about Robert Bartlett.
Buddy Levy: Sure, yeah. Bartlett surfaces as kind of the hero of this story to me. He’s really amazing. He was a proud Newfoundlander from a pretty famous family in Brigus, Newfoundland. They were called the Bartletts of Brigus, and they were… His father, grandfather and uncles had all been involved in the whaling and sealing industry and exploring for generations. And Bartlett had been at sea since he was 17. So he’s 37 at the start of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, a couple of decades of life on a ship almost exclusively. He’d sailed all over the world. And most important to Stefansson and to the members of the Karluk, Bartlett had been with American explorer Robert Peary on three North Pole attempts, including as captain of this specially built steel-hulled ship called the Roosevelt on the final, controversial North Pole attempt.
And Bartlett had actually made it. He was off the ship and helping lead Peary in 1909 on the final approach to the North Pole. And Bartlett made it to within 150 miles of the North Pole. But at any rate, Bartlett at the time was known as the world’s greatest living ice navigator. And so he had learned to move a ship through these weaving labyrinth of leads that you encounter in pack ice. And he was an excellent leader too. He was severe if you were lazy or made mistakes, but he was also kind and friendly and fair and generous. And he put his crew first. He was devoted to his ship, its members and to getting everyone home. And so that’s why he was a great choice to captain the Karluk.
Brett McKay: And he was like a perfect contrast to Stefansson. That’s the impression I got. Bartlett was very… He was very methodical. He was always thinking of contingencies all the time and he was always just thinking about his crew first. Stefansson, the complete opposite.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, they’re sort of opposite sides of a coin, really, Bartlett and Stefansson.
Brett McKay: All right, so the Karluk, it sets out from Nome in July, 1913 and starts making its way up the Alaskan coast. It’s gonna head east basically over Canada, but then in August it’s just north of Alaska and it becomes icebound. I think this year the Arctic had a really, really cold winter. So it is icebound earlier than usual, and I loved how you described navigating through Arctic Sea ’cause it just, you painted as this incredibly treacherous experience where the landscape is constantly shifting. So how did the Karluk do this without being equipped to plow through ice? ‘Cause I think most Arctic ships, they had the horsepower just to kind of steam through and barge through ice. The Karluk couldn’t do that. So what did Bartlett do?
Buddy Levy: Right. So yeah, I’m glad you described that because a lot of people think of polar ice as being this static frozen sheet of ice that’s flat, kind of like a gigantic rink. And it’s not anything like that, you know? It’s comprised of these flows, what are called ice flows, and they’re relatively flat masses of ice that move and drift independently across the polar seas. And if you compare those to say icebergs, which are often really high and jagged and sharp, but smaller in volume and size. So these ice flows are kind of, some of ’em are massive, they’re many miles wide and long and some are smaller, just a few hundred yards wide or long. And they drift along the current and wind sometimes binding together to form larger flows. And they’re propelled by wind and current. And the trick of navigating through them is that sometimes as they shatter and break up, they create what are called leads and leads are open water between flows, and the ship has to kind of weave and snake its way through the water that is between these giant flows of ice.
So it is rarely straight, right? And so Bartlett was very good at finding his way. It’s kind of like you get up in the crow’s nest and scan with binoculars way out and you sort of can see where openings are and then you yell down to the helmsman to go this way or that way. But like you said, that August of 1913 was a severe winter and so they began to encounter massive snow storms, big gale force winds and fog, and they were no longer able to see where they were going. And so that made it really difficult. And at this point, like I said, they were trying to move east above Alaska and Canada along the shoreline to this place called Herschel Island, but they ended up getting what’s called beset or nipped meaning stuck in the ice or icebound.
Brett McKay: And the way you described this was a common occurrence. It wasn’t like… I mean, they didn’t wanna be icebound, but it was expected that this could happen. And so they’re prepared for that.
Buddy Levy: Well, right. So sometimes you get icebound and then you wait it out and a few days later there’ll be a change in the weather and the flows will begin to shift and then leads will open up and then you go for it, you know? You fire up the steam engines and you go. But on this particular journey, they got hammered by storms and the ice was not cooperating and Bartlett made a decision with Stefansson’s permission actually to go north farther offshore to try to get away from some of these flows. And it turned out to not solve the problem. The flows were just as thick 10 or 12 miles off of shore and they ended up becoming stuck.
Brett McKay: And what happened too is that they started drifting west, the opposite direction from where they wanted it to go.
Buddy Levy: Right. So [chuckle] it’s kind of amazing, they try a number of times to get out of the situation that they’re in, that leads will open and then Bartlett will try to go for them, but ultimately they get so beset that they’re just not under their own power anymore. And so they’re at the mercy of the drift, and at that point winds shift and you’re right, they begin drifting north and west, so away from the mainland. And at this point Stefansson starts to get kind of nervous or he starts acting like he wants to be anywhere but on this ship. And I should say that there was a library on board the Karluk which had the logs of a number of other expeditions that had gone and become encased in ice in a similar spot. And they’re reading by lamplight these stories of the Jeannette and stuff where these ships got encased in ice and then drifted for months and months and ended up getting crushed, and most of the people die. So there’s a kind of palpable nervousness and edginess on board. Stefansson certainly knew about those previous voyages. And so while they’re drifting along there’s just kind of this sense of unease.
Brett McKay: And in the process, at a certain point, Bartlett, because he’s this experienced mariner and he read these logs and he understood what could possibly happen, there was a chance that they might get crushed and the ship will sink, he started making the contingency plans, he’s actually started establishing a camp outside of the ship in the event they had to abandon ship.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, Bartlett was… He understood from other expeditions too, the one that I wrote about in the 1881-1884 Greely Expedition, Greely learned a lot about what so-called cabin fever and what happens to members on a ship when they are not doing much. So Bartlett, you know, and also you’re experiencing what’s called the long night. At a certain point the sun sets up in those regions and it doesn’t return for a few months. And so Bartlett understood that he needed the men to keep busy to have regular routine. And that included sometimes going off the ship and doing exercise when they could, when the conditions on the ice were safe enough. And also to practice fire drills in case the ship caught on fire. There were a couple of mini coal stoves and so there was a danger of fire.
So he had like periodic fire drills where everyone had a job, he had a structure to the day, including when to get up, when to eat, when lights were out. And this was all complicated by the fact that Bartlett wasn’t… I mean, he was the ship’s captain, but it wasn’t a military expedition. So there was a little disgruntlement among the scientists who were still on board because they were thinking, well, I’m not… I’m really… Stefansson’s my boss, but I’m doing what Bartlett says. Some of them were really cooperative and then others were kind of reluctant. But it really made a difference because like you say, Bartlett also had them practice moving thousands of pounds of gear, coal, food off the ship and then bringing it back on board. And people were wondering why he was doing that, and he was thinking ahead about the eventuality that what if the ship gets crushed?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s the one thing whenever I read about these Arctic mariners and Arctic explorers, the really good ones had a keen understanding of human psychology and the need for, to keep busy, to keep working, to have a schedule, to exercise. I mean, sometimes I’d laugh when they’d talk about their exercise. They’d go out and run around the ship when it was negative 30 degrees outside or, oh, we’re gonna go skiing. They’d build like ski jumps and they’d have a day of skiing. And Bartlett encouraged that ’cause this is good for them. This will keep them mentally healthy.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, I mean, that’s great you point that out because two of my favorite characters, one is William McKinley, who’s a Scottish school teacher and he was really into it and he created like a course that he ran around the ship, like up the stairs from the cabins up onto the deck around the ship, down onto the ice. And he had it down to like, one lap was a mile and he would do this every day. He was training just so that he would be fit and ready when disaster struck, if disaster struck. And there was another guy, a young man named Bjarne Mamen from Norway who was like you said, he was an excellent skier. He had actually won some competitions in Norway and he brought skis along and he built poles and he got everybody out there on the ice, including Bartlett.
And he built jumps and Bartlett seemed to understand that everyone having physical activity and also mental activity was really important for their overall wellbeing. He encouraged McKinley to start this like weekly tutoring session. They had brought along an Inuit family from Point Barrow, Alaska, the man Kuraluk, the father was brought along to run the dogs and also hunt seals. And he was really, really amazingly instrumental in the survival of a lot of these people. And also he brought along his wife and two kids. His wife, Kiruk, ended up being really, really, she was an excellent seamstress and so she was sewing constantly these skin and fur clothing for the men. And McKinley ended up doing a language course with them. So he would learn their native language and they would learn English so they could communicate better and be more efficient as a group.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So you mentioned that Stefansson, he was getting nervous and he was basically giving off the impression that he wanted to be somewhere else and not on the ship. He decides to finally leave. How was he able to do that without raising the alarms of the scientists and the other crewmen?
Buddy Levy: Yeah, well, that’s one of the more controversial elements of the book. And so in the third week of September of 1913, Stefansson announces that he’s gonna go on a caribou hunt. He’s gonna cross the ice to the Alaskan mainland and go hunt caribou with a couple of the scientists and two of the Inuit hunters that he had hired, these are different than Kuraluk and his family. And he wrote a letter or he wrote instructions to Bartlett saying, “I’m gonna be gone for 10 days to two weeks. We need fresh meat. If no accident happens I’ll be back. So you should build coal fires outside the ship on the ice so we can see where the ship is.” And then he takes off. And it’s really amazing, there’s a photograph of him that he took Wilkins, that photographer with him. And there’s a photograph in the book of him striking out in front of these other folks with a dog sled team.
He brought the best 12 dogs and he’s just taking off and it’s kind of like, oh, what are you doing bro? [chuckle] Because he had said to some of the members before that there weren’t very many caribou left in the area that they were gonna go to. And I actually discovered that he had a secret Inuit wife named Fanny and he had a son with her who was three years old from his previous trip. And he ends up going to see them. So it doesn’t look too good for Stefansson because he takes off ostensibly to hunt caribou, but maybe to go see his Inuit family, which he ends up doing within a few weeks. And then this massive storm hits, and Stefansson and the others are stranded on this little island off the north coast of Alaska. And by the time the weather clears and he’s able to climb up onto this little observation tower that they build out of driftwood, the Karluk is now careening at like 30-60 miles a day out into the middle of the Arctic Ocean towards Siberia.
Brett McKay: So Stefansson, he’s on the island. Does he go get help? I mean, you think that’d be the first thing you do? I’m gonna let people know there’s this ship that’s stuck and drifting away. Does he go do that?
Buddy Levy: That’s another problem with Stefansson is that he makes it to land and he ends up… So a couple of the other ships got separated from the Karluk early on and they ended up making it to wintering bays that they’re able to just anchor in. And so Stefansson ultimately finds the leader of the Southern Party and he tells him that he’s lost his ship, which is kind of an embarrassing moment, [chuckle] you know, to have to say, “Yeah, I am on shore but my flagship Karluk is somewhere out there.” He points towards Siberia. And then he doesn’t immediately go get help. And he explains this away by saying, well, we don’t really know where the ship is. I mean, there’s no radio on it, there’s no way to just go after it. But he dawdles for a while and, you know, he left the ship in mid-September and he ends up sending a letter back to the Canadian government knowing that that letter isn’t really gonna get there for a few months because of how hard it is to get mail anywhere. It has to go by like dog sled team first. And he ends up just re-outfitting what he calls the new Northern party and commandeering some of the ships and gear from the Southern party and then setting out on the ice on his own with a couple members not to be really seen or heard from again until 1918, 5 years later after World War I is over. So it’s a pretty dubious number of decisions that he makes that make him seem a little self-seeking or villainous if you wanna lean that way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, when he did explain, he’d basically be like, well, there’s nothing we can do about it, so I’ll just keep doing my thing. [chuckle] And people are like, what?
Buddy Levy: Yeah, I mean, he says some things that are really kind of shocking. Like either the ship or its wreckage is going to surface somewhere and we won’t know the results of that until spring or summer, which in some ways is actually true. But he also doesn’t say like, we should immediately begin planning for rescue once the ice breaks up in summer and have that all set up and ready to roll. He just goes about his business and his assumption is that Bartlett will figure it out. Bartlett will get these people to safety one way or another. And then he sort of washes his hands of it.
Brett McKay: So the Karluk continues to drift towards Siberia. It’s still stuck, can’t get out of the ice. In January 1914, it sinks. And I guess what happens is it just got smashed by the ice flows pressing up against each other?
Buddy Levy: Yeah, so Bartlett, like you said, he had known about the contingency that the ship might get crushed. So he ended up like getting all this stuff out off the ship and having members get thousands of pounds of food and coal and also liquid fuel and dog sleds and everything in case. And then of course in January of 1914, the shifting ice pack has encroached to such a degree on the hall of the Karluk that these jagged fangs of ice pierced the sides of it and water just begins rushing in. And it’s really incredible. There’s a scene in which Bartlett, I mean, he kind of had a flare for the dramatic because he’s up in the galley, he’s got a photograph and he got everybody else down off the ship when it first got crushed and water started coming in. There’s maybe a day or two where it’s going to stay floating, but he knows that the end is near. And he ends up like playing record after record until at one point he puts on Chopin’s Funeral March as the last record and then he sort of dramatically and cinematically steps off of the side of the Karluk as it’s going down and they’ve raised the Canadian flag to full mast and the steam spout is sticking up and then the ship just sinks in the water and there’s this puff of steam smoke and everyone else is standing on the shore line.
Well, it’s not really a shoreline, it’s on this flat ice surface that is a stable place where they put all this stuff and they just watched the ship sink. And they have named this place Shipwreck Camp. And Bartlett was really clever because he organized the building of a big igloo, which Kuraluk and his family built. There’s like 30 dogs still, so they have kennels for the dogs and they have this box house that they used crates and gear to make the walls of this box house. And at Shipwreck Camp they end up living for six weeks on the ice while they’re drifting, waiting for the light to return so that they can potentially make a break toward land, this place called Wrangel Island.
Brett McKay: And that was the other thing that impressed me. So their ship sank, but they have this camp and you describe it, most of the crew, they were in pretty good spirits despite their ship sinking ’cause they had this nice camp and Bartlett was generous with rations, eat lots of bacon, we’re gonna make sure everything is good. And it was kind of nice for a while, which I was surprised, I thought, oh, if your ship sink you’d be just despondent and depressed.
Buddy Levy: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I mean, if you imagine yourself on a floating cake of ice that’s about a mile and a half square being buffeted by winds and sometimes fracturing at the edges. And also, if you’ve ever been on the Arctic ice or if you haven’t, it’s really, really noisy. It can be terrifyingly loud and it shears and creaks and groans and splits. But at Shipwreck Camp they had shelter, they had warmth, they had a ton of food, more than they were gonna be able to bring across the ice to Wrangel Island, this place they had spotted, which is now, when they first saw it, it was maybe 150 miles to the west, but they’re drifting generally toward it. But yeah, they were quite comfortable for that six weeks. And Bartlett was really smart because he started having them practice going toward Wrangel Island and building kind of an ice trail with dog sled teams and then building igloos like a series of igloos along the way that they would be able to use when the sun returned. And they could go in small teams toward Wrangel Island. And by the way, Wrangel Island is about a 90 mile long, or actually 90 mile west to east and maybe 50 miles top to bottom, north to south island above the northeastern coast of Siberia.
Brett McKay: So yeah, this planning of creating caches along the way before they even made the push for the island, it’s another example of Bartlett’s mastery of planning, thinking about contingencies. So at a certain point, they decide to make the push towards the island. But again, it’s not just that the ice is just flat like a skating rink. There is a changing landscape, and you talk about these pressure ridges that could just form in front of you and block your way. That happened to him, correct?
Buddy Levy: Yeah, I’m glad you bring that up. That was one of the most dramatic journeys in the book, and actually that I’ve ever read about. So when the sun comes back in March of 1914 now, Bartlett has made all these contingency plans. And they start going in teams, and there’s all sorts of drama that happens en route. I mean, it takes a few weeks to finally get toward Wrangel Island, to within striking distance of it. But all sorts of things are occurring, like they’re getting lost. Some of the members get lost and go to the wrong island. There’s this other really small island called Herald Island. It’s only four miles long. And a few of the members end up there by accident because navigation is really difficult out there. There’s no landmarks, really, and wind blows and it shifts. And also the conditions are… The ice is buckling all the time, and there are these giant drifts where wind blows formations.
But more problematic, they come to these… What you mentioned were pressure ridges. And it’s if you take these giant floes, some of them can be 15 miles long, and they crash into each other and into land masses like Wrangel Island. And it’s like tectonic plates of ice that ram together, and then they rupture where they meet and create giant ridges of ice that some of them are over 100 feet tall. And they come to this wall, like a mountain range of ice, and Bartlett realizes that… He sends people a couple of miles either way to see if they can go around it, but it just extends for many miles. And so he decides the most efficient way and the quickest is to cut their way through it. So they build like a four-foot-wide ice track using ice picks and shovels, and they hack their way through these massive pressure ridges. It takes days and days, and he calls it the hardest thing he’s ever done.
Brett McKay: And along the way, weren’t some of them getting attacked by polar bears at the same time? Or am I thinking about something else?
Buddy Levy: Absolutely. So it’s funny ’cause people always say, “Well, why didn’t they just hunt polar bears?” Well, it turns out the polar bears were hunting them because they’re getting some seals along the way, and then they’re dragging the seals in their sleds. And the polar bears, of course, eat seals, and they’ve got amazing sense of smell. So they start tracking the members of the Karluk, the survivors, and they’re following them. And sometimes they’ll be in their igloo sleeping at night. So they’ll have like a 12-15 hour slog during the day, build an igloo or use one of the igloos that they built when they were getting ready to build the trail across, and then they hear the dogs going crazy. And all of a sudden, they’d crawl out the igloo, and there’s a giant polar bear like swiping at the dogs, and they have to shoot them. And so the rest of their journey is, not only are they dealing with the ice cracking under the igloo sometimes in the middle of the night, and they have to get out and re-group. And they’re always sleeping fully clothed. But then, of course, there’s this spectre of polar bears. You’re looking over your shoulder like, “Are we being followed?” And they were.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And we have to remember they’re in the Arctic, so it’s cold. It’s negative 30, negative 40, negative 50 degrees. And that just adds to the complete discomfort of the situation, not only they have to hack through ice or be afraid that the ice is gonna break underneath them, but the cold just grinds you down.
Buddy Levy: Oh, it’s incredibly cold. And they fall in through the ice a number of times. And different members have to crawl into an igloo, and then another expedition member or scientist will strip them out of their wet clothing and put them in dry-ish clothing. But yeah, you’re right, the temperatures range from minus 20 to minus 50, and that’s without the wind chill factor, which was ever present.
Brett McKay: So they finally make it to the island. They hacked through that pressure ridge, which seems awful. They make it to the island. And then Bartlett decides, “Well, I gotta plan a rescue mission here.” ‘Cause I think at this point he’s like, “I don’t think Stefansson’s doing anything.” So he has to make this 1000-mile trek back to Alaska via Siberia. So he gets to the island, continues west ’til he gets to Russia. Then he goes south along the coast of Siberia so he could cross over to Alaska. He took an Inuit crewman with him to help him with this, but he had to leave most of the crew behind. What happened to the crew after Bartlett left? ‘Cause it seemed when Bartlett’s there, he was a leader. He was providing… There was organization, things were happening. Things might have been hard, but Bartlett was there to figure things out. What happened when Bartlett left?
Buddy Levy: Right, well, that’s a great point because they get to Wrangel Island in early March of 1914. And Bartlett realized within two days… It was so hard to get to Wrangel Island that the marooned that were there were in really bad shape when they got there. He sees that they’re hypothermic and frostbitten. They’re really, really in terrible shape. And he decides that because no one else in the world knows where they are, no one is coming there, the whaling industry is sort of in decline and it’s a remote place anyway, so he understands that the only way that anybody’s gonna get there is if he makes this go of it himself, right? So he leaves a dozen members on Wrangel Island and tells them to separate into different camps by a number of miles so that each camp can hunt on its own and try to get subsistence food. So he knows that there’s arctic foxes around. There are some polar bears. There are birds that are gonna be coming in the spring. And there’s a lot of walrus, but they won’t be there until the spring either. And so he tells them to try to subsist until he brings help, and it won’t be until maybe mid-July to late summer the following summer.
And so he leaves them there, but they’re separated across Wrangel Island in these small groups. And he has left William McKinley in charge of the stores of food. And he’s told one group to go all the way to the south because that’s where he will eventually send help if it can come. But they grow malnourished pretty quickly. And they begin to suffer from this mystery sickness that in the end is probably a kidney disorder as a result of eating only pemmican, the mixture of fat, dried meat and berries that Arctic travelers took with them. But surviving on that for great lengths of time can be problematic, and is for them. And then also, it sort of becomes a little bit like The Lord of the Flies on a frozen icy landscape because they are remote. They get anxious and depressed, many of the members. And so things begin to devolve on this island pretty quickly. But a number of the members end up kind of keeping things together. McKinley is one of them, and then Bjarne Mamen, that Norwegian fellow is one of them. But yeah, things are pretty grim.
Brett McKay: So Bartlett, all the while, he’s still on this voyage, and it’s pretty much by foot. There’s a few instances where he’s on sled, but he’s walking this. This is about a 700-mile trek. It takes him… He leaves the island at the end of March, and he’s back near Alaska is it, I think, May, late May 1914. Is that right?
Buddy Levy: Right. He and Kataktovik make this mythic quest voyage across what’s called the Long Straight, which is no easy feat. They almost get engulfed by the ice numerous times. They have a few dogs, and they’re able to… It’s an ordeal. I really, really was impressed by this journey. And then they’re aided by these different indigenous people in Siberia that they run into called the Chukchi. And so they end up making it back to Alaska after this massive ordeal. But Bartlett needs to organize rescue ships via the American and Canadian governments, when he finally gets back and is able to send a telegram to the Canadian government and say, “Look, there are 15 or so members of the Karluk marooned on Wrangel Island. We need to rescue them.” And the problem he has is that, in that part of the world, there’s a very short window of navigable waters where the ice moves off and you can make your way there in a ship that is not an ice breaker. But the ice is so thick most of the year that it’s really difficult to get there, and the weather and the ice conditions have to cooperate, and everything has to line up. And so you need the right ship, plenty of coal, and good weather, and a hell of a lot of luck.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and so he had a small window. There’s a lot of hurry up and waiting at this period, and you can sense the frustration Bartlett had. People just… They had other stuff they had to do. There wasn’t a sense of urgency. He would reach out, “Hey, I got… There’s people up there.” And they’re like, “Oh, well, I gotta go up to this place and drop some stuff off. If I have time, I’ll go do it.” And I imagine that was really frustrating for him. So he finally does get a rescue mission going. And we’ll save the details of what he finds back on Wrangel Island when he gets there, for readers of your book. But overall, what was the legacy of the Karluk, and what happened to some of the survivors of this expedition?
Buddy Levy: Like many Arctic stories, the legacy of the Karluk is one of survival, of travail under the harshest of circumstances imaginable, both weather and human. But I will say there was also a great deal of fellowship and camaraderie and selflessness too, or else none of them would have survived. Many of the members who survived, they actually… And particularly some of them like William McKinley, who I mentioned, they grew as a result of these tests, becoming more than they ever believed they could as leaders. McKinley, he started out as a school teacher, and he ended up learning to ski, to build igloos, to hunt seals and walrus and birds, and to become a leader. Some people diminished and resorted to stealing food from others and lying for self-preservation. Many of the members immediately… World War I breaks out like right as Bartlett is organizing the rescue attempt. And so to add insult to injury, most of the men who survive end up going off to fight in World War I pretty soon after their arrival. Some of them needed surgery immediately for amputation of their frostbitten hands and feet.
Ironically, or maybe it’s a lesson we should really take away from us, is that the Inuit members who survived returned home to Alaska and lived out their lives normally, almost as if nothing had happened. It was sort of like daily life for them. They were quite accustomed to it. And so yeah, I think it’s kind of a cautionary tale. But we can also learn a lot about what humans are capable of, I would say. The endurance that they go through. There are certain times where members are awake for three days consecutively and travel over 100 miles on foot in severe conditions. And you start to realize that people are capable of much more than you think.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you mentioned some of the men who survived, they went off to fight in World War I. I think one of them described… He said World War I was awful, but he said it didn’t compare to anything like it was on the Karluk. That was even worse than that. Did Stefansson suffer any repercussions for his abandonment of the crew?
Buddy Levy: Well, that’s a good question. Not necessarily in terms of being sanctioned in any formal way. Bartlett actually underwent a commission inquiry into his choice to sail farther off coast. But more Stefansson in his reputation. I mean,2 he ends up going on to become… And I make this clear. I have no qualms with Stefansson as a scientist. There’s a library with all of his holdings, and Stefansson is a… He’s a major figure in polar exploration. But I think the Karluk episode wasn’t really great for his PR.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So you mentioned some of the life lessons you took from this, the ability for humans to endure more than you think, the perseverance. What are some leadership lessons, perhaps? I was kind of reading this book as a leadership book.
Buddy Levy: Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s a great story, action story, but I think it is a book on leadership. Are there some leadership lessons that you took away from researching and writing this book?
Buddy Levy: You bet. Yeah, I think one would be to learn to work with others, and to listen, and to work together. Certainly to plan for the worst, plan for disaster. Plan for things to go wrong, and if they don’t, well, great. You over-planned. But I think small teams are generally better than large ones. And also, learn to relish problem solving. This book really is a series of problem solving, and Bartlett is masterful at that. He’s constantly being confronted with new challenges on the daily basis. And his ability to not panic and just solve the problem as it comes to you is really crucial. I think it’s a… We can all take something away from that. I’ve mentioned not to underestimate people because they’re capable of much more than you think, and much more than they think they’re capable of. One thing that I’ve learned from studying Arctic expeditions is that it helps you know how to do a lot of things, and that many of the tools we’ve lost is in our convenience-based society. So reading maps to navigate, building fires, building shelters, finding water, not relying on technology all of the time to solve our own problems are really things that are like personal takeaways.
And also, because a lot of these stories have to do with food debt, is that we sort of need a lot less food than we typically consume. And it’s not so much that we become weaker or less tough as people, but I think we’ve socialized toughness out of ourselves by disuse. And the other leadership thing I would say is, as a leader, pick your directors and managers really carefully. Bartlett was excellent. Look, Stefansson picked Bartlett, which was a stroke of genius. Bartlett ended up picking McKinley and Bjarne Mamen, and these two were really, really useful. And without them, there would have been more carnage. And then last, I think, is lead by example. Bartlett leads by example. He doesn’t shirk responsibility. He’s right out there at the front of the fray. And he thinks of others before himself.
Brett McKay: I love it. Well Buddy, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Buddy Levy: Oh yeah, great, I appreciate it, www.buddylevy.com. And my books can be found at independent bookstores and everywhere that books are sold.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Buddy Levy, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Buddy Levy: My pleasure, Brett. Really appreciated talking with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Buddy Levy. He’s the author of the book Empire of Ice and Stone. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, buddylevy.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/ice, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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