Brief Thoughts: The Karluk’s Last Voyage by Robert A. Bartlett

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★★★½

Call it love of adventure if you will; it seems to me the life that ought to appeal to any man with red blood in his veins, for as long as there is a square mile of the old earth’s surface that is unexplored, man will want to seek out that spot and find out all about ti and bring back word of what he finds. Some people call the search for the North Pole a sporting event; to me it represents the unconquerable aspiration of mankind to attain an ideal. Our Karluk drift and its possibilities interested me keenly, for we were on the way to a vast region where man had never been; we were learning things about ocean currents and the influence of the winds and almost daily were bringing up strange specimens from the bottom of the sea. And I felt sure that come what might we would get back in safety to civilization. (50)

  • One of the earliest chapter books I remember reading, perhaps in grade three, is Traped in Ice by Eric Walters. The main character is Helen, a 13 year-old who boards the Karluk with her seamstress mother and younger brother. I remember being disappointed, at that age, when I  eventually found out she wasn’t real (There was a Helen aboard the Karluk – an 8 year old Inuit girl, on board with her mother, father, and baby sister).
  • One scene that stood out for me from Trapped In Ice was Captain Bartlett playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” as the ship goes down, and jumping from the ship to the ice at the last moment. Of all the bits of the tale I expected to be fictionalized…this one wasn’t! I didn’t know what happened to the Captain after he left the island to get help (other than that they were eventually rescued), so there was still a good chunk of the story left (about 50%) for me to learn about.
  • I enjoyed reading the tale in the Captain’s own words. I have a budding interest in seafaring exploration. This is the first book I’ve read that was written by someone who lived it. The tone is naturally a bit more formal and old-fashioned so while it wasn’t a dull read for me it felt much slower going as the two books I’d read immediately prior I had completed in a day each. I did get the sense that quite a lot of sugar-coating happens in this narration, if only by omission…This is not a tell-all where Bartlett disparages those who might rightly deserve to be. I have a couple other books on my TBR about the Karluk, so I’ll have to compare. Bartlett remains very factual at times, but his personality does come through. I especially felt for him as he wrote of his angst while he waited weeks for a ship to be finally sent to pick up the remainder of the Karluk crew, knowing that they had no idea if he had succeeded. 
  • How well off they were, for so long after the Karluk was trapped and sunk, surprised me. They had good stores of food and no health troubles. Of course, how they fared after Bartlett departed isn’t really dealt with (and see my comment on sugar-coating above…). Still, I’m always amazed at how much can be packed into a ship!
  • Bartlett has a largely decent attitude towards the Inuit. Though he at times uses the term savages, he seems to respect them and their abilities. He writes, “Then he [an Inuit he’s trying to trade with] voice the age-old cry of the savage against the civilized; the pity of it is that the savage is right. ‘White man steal from other man,’ he said. ‘White man promise bring things for fox skins and bear skins. White man no bring ’em. White man go ‘way, forget come back.'” (251)
  • I liked the bits where Bartlett explains about the practicalities of travelling in the Arctic. I even liked his lists of supplies! I was reminded of Chris Hadfield’s book, which really put into perspective the astonishing amount of knowledge of an astronaut must have in order to be able to survive many scenarios. Bartlett demonstrates his knowledge of Arctic ice travel, of rationing and keeping moral and navigating dangerous ice, which saved those who followed his lead.

Pemmican has been the staple article of food for polar expeditions for many years and contains, in small compass, the essentials adequate to support life. It is put up by various packing-houses, expressly for such needs as ours. I have lived for a hundred and twenty days on pemmican, biscuit and tea and found it amply sufficient. We had two kinds of pemmican; one, for ourselves, consisting of beef, raisins, sugar and suet, all cooked together and pressed, was packed in blue tins; the other, for the dogs, without the raisins and sugar, in red tins. I remember once, after a talk which I was giving on the North Pole trip, a lady came up to me and inquired what pemmican was, which I had mentioned several times. I explained what it was made of and what it was used for. She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, what I don’t understand is how you shoot them.” (117-8)