The heart can't help sinking when a subtitle reads "the great untold story of Arctic exploration". In the last 10 years the two Poles have become the destination for any number of wannabe explorers, all of whom come pre-packaged with publishing contract and television crew. And of course they all have to be doing something new. So we get the first with no air support, the first women to reach both Poles and in due course there will no doubt be the first to do it backwards, and the first to hop the whole way. Even for those of us who rarely venture out of Britain, the Poles have lost some of their mystery. But with Karluk
, the hype for once is justified. In fact, if anything, it severely undersells the story. The Karluk
was the leading ship of the Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson's five-year expedition to the Arctic that began in 1913. Unfortunately, for those on the Karluk
, the expedition was over almost as soon as it began, as the ship was caught in an ice floe and carried away from the main fleet before being crushed and sunk a few weeks later. All 25 crew members escaped on to the ice. The captain, Robert Bartlett, and an Eskimo headed off on a 700-mile, six-month journey across the ice to Siberia to get help. By the time he got back, 11 men had died; 8 fell through the ice trying to escape across melting floes, two starved to death and one committed suicide.
The book, first published in 1976, is written by one of the survivors. William McKinlay, a 25-year-old Scot, hadn't even handled a gun and knew nothing about hunting before the expedition set off--the living embodiment of an old-school explorer. Thankfully, there is nothing old school about his prose. He doesn't lapse into hyperbole but he has none of the idealised sentimentality that characterises much of the early Polar writings. In short, he is not afraid to put the boot in where necessary. He criticises Stefansson for his lack of planning and training, and for his inability to hand-pick the right people for the job. So throughout the six months that the crew were stranded on Wrangel Island, there was lying, cheating and stealing as the survivors cracked under the pressure. McKinlay's book is a welcome antidote to much of the product placement ethos of late-20th-century exploration. He reminds us of the uneasy coexistence between frailty and courage and, as with Shackleton's account of the Endurance, returns a sense of mystery to a terra that has become all too cognita. Sometimes the old ones really are the best. --John Crace
The extraordinary account of Stefansson¿s Arctic Expedition of 1913-18 and the incredible survival of the crew members of Karluk, its leading ship.