From the Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, 31 December 2000

The scandal that grips our 'Prophet of the North'

Canada's greatest Arctic explorer will be forever tarnished for his role in a foolhardy expedition that left 11 dead. Maria Cook examines Vilhjalmur Stefansson's place in history.

Maria Cook
The Ottawa Citizen

Vilhjalmur Stefansson discovered some of the world's last major land masses -- Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed islands. For decades, however, historians have debated whether Stefansson deliberately abandoned the ice-locked Karluk during a 1913 expedition, leaving her doomed scientists and crew to fend for themselves.

"Not all the horrors of the Western Front, not the rubble of Arras, nor the hell of Ypres, nor all the mud of Flanders leading to Passchendaele, could blot out the memories of that year in the Arctic." -- William Laird McKinlay, survivor of the 1913 voyage of the Karluk
In September 1914, a small whaling schooner, sent to rescue castaways, approached Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. Her crew beheld a frightening sight: A crude wooden cross marking a grave, a flagpole and skeletal figures.

Twenty-five people had sailed from Victoria, B.C., in June 1913 on the Canadian Arctic Expedition and vanished, given up for dead by the Canadian government and their former leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Eleven died in what was the greatest Arctic disaster since the disappearance of the Franklin expedition.

The rest were rescued after the ship's captain, Robert Bartlett, a Newfoundland sealer who in 1909 had taken U.S. explorer Robert Peary close to the North Pole, undertook an epic journey with one Inuit and a dogsled to Siberia and Alaska to get help.

Stefansson is considered Canada's greatest Arctic explorer and pioneer ethnologist. He spent more than 10 years in the Arctic, travelling 50,000 kilometres by dogsled. He discovered some of the world's last major land masses -- Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed islands.

His hydrographic soundings, made while drifting dangerously on ice floes, outlined for the first time the continental shelf from Alaska to Prince Patrick Island, and revealed the submarine mountains and valleys beneath the Beaufort Sea.

But the doomed voyage of the Karluk cast a shadow over his achievements. Did the brilliant and ambitious Stefansson deliberately abandon the Karluk just before the ship was crushed in the ice, leaving her scientists and crew to fend for themselves in the frozen Arctic? Historians have debated the question for years.

In a new book, The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, Los Angeles writer Jennifer Niven places the blame for the disaster squarely on Stefansson's shoulders. "I think he was a horrible leader and I think a lot of people died because of him," she said in a telephone interview.

"He planned a lot of things very poorly," said Ms. Niven, who tells the gripping and poignant story of the "forgotten men" of the expedition. "He promised people a lot of things that did not happen, including Arctic survival training. These were everyday people, not seasoned explorers. They were innocents and they were abandoned out there."

Stefansson was born at Arnes, Man., in 1879. His parents were Icelanders who moved to Canada in 1875 in search of a better life. But in 1880, a year after his birth, his parents left for the prairie settlements of the Dakota Territory, driven out by bitter winters, crop failure, floods and epidemic. Two of their children perished.

Stefansson went on to study at the University of North Dakota, the University of Iowa and finally Harvard, which he entered on a divinity scholarship, but he eventually transferred to the graduate school of anthropology.

"He was anxious to make a name for himself," says Richard Diubaldo, a Concordia University historian and author of the 1978 book Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic, reprinted in 1998. "He saw himself as a leader, a pioneer."

The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918 started out as a project of the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History. But, after Stefansson turned to Canada for funding, the Dominion government took it over entirely, concerned that discoveries of new land might complicate the issue of territorial sovereignty in the Arctic.

In 1913, Stefansson was 34 years old and already an international celebrity. During the Anglo-American expedition of 1906-1907, he spent 18 months with the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta, learning their language and keeping a detailed record of early Inuit society.

During the expedition of 1908 to 1912, he discovered a group of Inuit with unexpectedly European features -- the so-called Blond Eskimos (Copper Inuit) of Victoria Island. The press went wild reporting the discovery of a supposed lost tribe of Europeans, while critics ridiculed his science.

"His admirers consider him a prophet and visionary; his critics consider him a charlatan, a manipulator, and in some instances, a liar," wrote Mr. Diubaldo.

In 1913, Stefansson swept into Ottawa and took the oath of allegiance to the King, becoming a British subject. He was in a hurry.

"Had I been able to stay in Ottawa, instead of New York, things no doubt would have gone somewhat smoothly with regard to the expedition, but I simply had to get my book ready for the press in order to have something to live on, for as you know, I have no salary from anybody," he would say later.

The first mistake was choosing the Karluk, a 29-year old retired wooden whaler he picked up for a bargain, and whose engine was but "an old coffee pot" according to chief engineer John Munro.

Stefansson assembled an international group of distinguished scientists, only two of whom had polar experience. The crew collected from Canada's West Coast were inexperienced boys attracted by adventure. One of them was a drug addict who carried around a pocket-sized case that held his vials of drugs and hypodermic needles.

Stefansson purchased some second-hand parkas that were diseased and thin, and sold the story rights to the London Chronicle and the New York Times.

The people of Victoria treated the expedition members like heroes and after a party at the Empress Hotel, the Karluk set out from Esquimalt naval yard on Vancouver Island in June, carrying the northern contingent of the expedition. The goal was to find a continent hidden below the ice.

By August, the Karluk was frozen in, north of the Alaskan coast. As the ice heaved terrifyingly around them, the company played bridge, told ghost stories, read, studied the Inuit language and played the Victrola.

Stefansson left, ostensibly to hunt caribou. "Stefansson was not only bored, they were getting low on food," says Mr. Diubaldo. "There is no evidence to suggest he left the ship in a cowardly way. He did come back, but the ship was gone."

But Ms. Niven maintains the men of the Karluk believed that Stefansson abandoned the ship to save his own skin and carry on his exploration with the southern section.

"Mr. Stefansson is to blame for everything," topographer Bjarn Mamen wrote in his diary. "It is a scandal to bring such a poor ship up in the Arctic and we could hold both Stefansson and the Canadian government responsible for this. It is terrible to jeopardize so many human lives."

The Karluk drifted for four months in the ice pack before being crushed and sinking.

The 25 survivors -- 13 crew, six scientists, five Inuit, (including a woman and two children,) one passenger, 16 sled dogs and a cat -- set off across the ice for Wrangel Island. Eight died on the ice floes. The rest reached the island where they endured a winter camping in snow houses and living on pemmican, biscuits, and, occasionally, polar bear meat.

They suffered from near-starvation, snow blindness, bitter cold and wet, frostbite and gangrene. Amputations were necessary for some. One crewman's big toe was removed with a pair of tin shears used for making cooking pots out of empty gasoline cans. His fellow crewmen held him down while the designated "surgeon" kneeled against the shears to cut through bone.

Two men died of malnutrition before they were rescued, while the ship's fireman mysteriously shot himself. "It's hell all right," Munro, the engineer, wrote in his diary.

Stefansson returned from the Arctic in 1918, having discovered the last unmapped islands of Canada. The cost of the expedition, estimated at $75,000, had risen to $500,000. When he was criticized by the government and the press for abandoning the ship, he suggested the deaths were justified in the name of science and progress. He blamed Bartlett for the tragedy.

A prolific writer, Stefansson published his most famous book, The Friendly Arctic, in 1921, in which he said it was easy to survive in the Arctic. The book was attacked by expedition survivors as a distorted and libellous account of the journey.

In 1922, Stefansson organized another expedition, an attempt to colonize Wrangel Island. He sent a crew of four men and one Inuit woman. All four of the men perished, including a University of Toronto student, and one of the survivors of the Karluk.

His unauthorized claiming of Wrangel Island for Canada (it was considered the property of Russia) generated an international incident, while a scheme for the domestication of reindeer ended in chaos.

By the mid-1920s, Stefansson was rejected in Canada. The Rideau Club in Ottawa refused to accept him as a member in 1921, even though his sponsor was prime minister Sir Robert Borden. (In 1960, the club reversed its decision and named him an honorary member, a privilege accorded to only three others -- the governors general Alexander, Massey and Vanier.)

Stefansson went on to become a top Arctic expert in the U.S., writing the Arctic manual for the army, lecturing, and consulting to TWA. He foresaw over-the-pole air routes and submarines under the ice. He died in 1962 at age 82, and the epitaph on his gravestone in Hanover, New Hampshire, reads "Prophet of the North."

In Canada, a plaque commemorating those who died in the Canadian Arctic Expedition is missing, having been lost when the National Archives of Canada moved buildings in the 1960s.

Stefansson's memory is kept alive in a few places: Stefansson Island off the northeast corner of Victoria Island, a monument in Manitoba, and a bust in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, created by Canadian sculptor, Emanuel Hahn.