‘Defying the Ice: Shipwreck and Rescue of the Karluk’ at Arctic Museum

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum’s newest exhibition, Defying the Ice: Shipwreck and Rescue of the Karluk, features a dramatic story told using documents never before seen by the public. In 1914 the Karluk sank after months of being trapped in ice and drifting in the Arctic Ocean between northern Alaska and Siberia. Amazingly, many of the Karluk’s passengers were rescued nine months after the vessel became trapped in the ice. Photographs of the ordeal and a display comparing ice conditions in 1913-14 and ice conditions in the same region today are included in the exhibition.

On August 3, 1913, the Karluk, a 126 foot-long vessel carrying members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, headed east along the north coast of Alaska and was caught in thick ice near Point Barrow. In late September the Karluk remained stuck, so a group of men left the ship to go hunting on shore, hoping to provision the vessel for the winter. While they were gone the ice carried the trapped vessel and its twenty-five remaining passengers north and west, away from the American continent.

The Karluk in Ice, August 1913. Photograph in memory of Reginald Wilcox and Captain David C. Nutt.

The Karluk in Ice, August 1913. Photograph in memory of Reginald Wilcox and Captain David C. Nutt.

The shore party assumed the vessel was lost. However, the Karluk and its passengers remained locked in the ice for five months, drifting west toward Siberia. The ship’s captain, the renowned ice navigator Robert A. Bartlett, realized that the Karluk would eventually be crushed in the ice. He had the passengers prepare for this eventual disaster. They made sledges, sewed warm fur clothes, and built a house on the ice using wooden food crates.

On December 26, the Karluk began to tremble and make horrible sounds as the ice pressed against its hull. On the morning of January 10, 1914, a tremor shook the entire vessel, ice pierced the ship’s planking, and water flooded the engine room. On January 11, the Karluk sank.

For two months the passengers lived and traveled on the drifting ice, but the ice claimed eight of them. In mid-March, seventeen people and the ship’s cat (carried lovingly in a sealskin pouch) staggered onto Wrangell Island.

Once Bartlett had settled the survivors on Wrangell Island, he and Kataktovik, an Iñupiat hunter, walked across the sea ice toward Cape North, Siberia. They spent six weeks walking down that coast in search of help. On May 19, an American ship found the two men and took them across the Bering Strait to Alaska. There, approximately eight months after people assumed everyone on the Karluk had died, Bartlett was finally able to send a wireless message reporting that there were Karluk survivors.

The exhibition includes the chart on which Bartlett plotted the drift and sinking of the Karluk, his personal Karluk journal, a letter written by a group of scientists who left the party before it reached Wrangell Island and ultimately perished, and Bartlett’s Siberian notebooks. These documents have been at various institutions and in private hands, and have been reunited in the Arctic Museum display for the first time in approximately 100 years.

The exhibit was made possible by the Kane Lodge Foundation, Inc. and the Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment. It will remain on view until December 4, 2016.

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