Book Review: Empire of Ice and Stone, by Buddy Levy

Empire of Ice and Stone, The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk, by Buddy Levy.

It’s a very suspenseful, rather complicated Arctic exploration story that all started in 1913. The author’s angle on the adventure is a tale of two leaders. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the organizer of the expedition, was a showboat, a grandstander. He was interested in fame and fortune, and put together the Canadian Arctic Expedition to increase both. The captain of the Karluk, the expedition’s main vessel, was Robert Bartlett, a seasoned Arctic explorer who had among many other things captained the ship used by Robert Peary in his attempt to reach the North Pole. Bartlett had a deep sense of duty, and made every sacrifice imaginable to save the crewmen and scientists who were stranded with him on the Karluk.

Here’s what happened. In the early stages of the expedition, the Karluk got iced in off the northern coast of Alaska. While killing time on the ice, Stefansson got characteristically antsy and whimsically decided to take a small party off the ship to hunt caribou (which they didn’t really need for survival at this point).

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

But while Stefansson was away, the ice in which the Karluk was trapped broke off and began drifting west/northwest at very high speed. About five months later, the ship found itself locked in the ice about 1500 miles away, unable to move, near the remote, uninhabited Wrangel Island, one of the most desolate places on the face of the earth.

In all this time  the Karluk was missing, do you know what Stefansson did? Nothing! He made no attempts to organize rescue, and rather than publicize the situation tried to conceal it, so as not to lose the credibility which he held so dear and did not deserve.

Robert Bartlett

On the Karluk, with the crew running out of food and suffering mightily, Bartlett decided his only option was for himself and an Inuit guide who was onboard to make for the northern coast of Siberia, across the ice from Wrangel Island, and travel overland for 700+ miles to civilization, where he could cross to Alaska and alert the world to the Karluk’s plight. The rest of the crew, too physically incapacitated to travel, would have to wait it out on the island as best they could until help arrived. The odds of Bartlett even making it to civilization were slim, considering the nature of the terrain, distance, weather, and unavailability of food.

The bulk of the book is about Bartlett’s desperate journey and the crew’s struggle to survive on the highly inhospitable Wrangel Island while hoping against hope that rescue would come. Levy is a meticulous researcher, and a superb storyteller, and there’s plenty of story to tell  on the Bartlett front, the crew member front, and the Stefansson front.

Neither Stefansson nor Bartlett is particularly well remembered today, but Bartlett certainly deserves recognition for his accomplishments, and more importantly, his leadership qualities and overall character.

The best you can say about Stefansson, on the other hand, is that he was way ahead of his time when it came to the Atkins Diet.

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