The great Canadian arctic rescue story
Karluk was an American-built 321 ton two-decked brigantine which, after many years’ service as a whaler, was acquired for $10,000 by the Canadian government in 1913 to serve as flagship to the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–18). Her scantlings were 39 x 7.0 x 5.0 meters and her hull was sheathed for ice work. In addition to her sailing rig she was screw-driven by a 110 kW coal-fired steam engine with a capacity of producing speeds up to seven knots.
Karluk, fast in the Arctic ice with a umiak hanging in slings below her bowsprit. August 1913 about 15 miles west of Manning Point, Alaska. The last voyage of the Karluk : McLelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Toronto 1916
The Canadian Arctic Expedition was organized for scientific and geographic exploration under the leadership of Canadian-born anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition left Esquimalt Harbour on June 17, 1913 with Robert Bartlett in command of HMCS Karluk1. Bartlett, a seasoned Arctic explorer had concerns about the ship’s fitness for the task, believing she had not been built to withstand sustained ice pressure, and she lacked the engine power to force a passage through the ice. Karluk‘s chief engineer, John Munro, described her power plant as a “coffee pot of an engine… never intended to run more than two days at a time.”
In January of 1914, while sailing to a rendezvous at Herschel Island the Karluk found herself trapped in the ice. Stefansson and a small party left the ship intent on hunting for caribou. Meanwhile, the ice carried Karluk westwards across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, far from Stefansson’s hunting party, who found it impossible to return to the ship. Stefansson reached land and continued to devote himself to the expedition’s scientific objectives, leaving the crew and staff on board the ship under Bartlett’s command.
The heroic journey
The Karluk eventually sank, forcing Bartlett to lead an 80-mile (130 km) march across the ice to Wrangel Island. Conditions were difficult and dangerous and two four-man parties were lost on the trek.
Bartlett and Inuk hunter Kataktovik then embarked a 16-month 700-mile trek over the treacherous Chukchi Sea ice to the Siberian Coast then east to Emma Harbour. Bartlett was picked up by Captain Pedersen on the Herman in May 1915 and was taken back to Alaska where he arranged for the rescue of his stranded party. Bartlett finally met up with the survivors just off the coast with the US Bear in September, 1915. Before their rescue three more of the party had died, two of illness and one in violent circumstances.
Bartlett received the highest award from the Royal Geographical Society for his outstanding heroism.
- Several designations have been applied to Karluk after her acquisition by the Canadian government, including “HMCS” (His Majesty’s Canadian Ship), “DGS” (Dominion Government Ship), and “CGS” (Canadian Government Ship). It is not clear whether the “HMCS” designation was formal or informal; Although Karluk sailed under a civilian captain and with a civilian crew, she flew the Canadian Blue Ensign, the jack of the Royal Canadian Navy.