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on 25 October 2001
A totally gripping true-life adventure, written in 1976 by an 88-year old Glasgow schoolmaster who, prior to serving as an officer in WW1, was one of the survivors of a horrifically mismanaged Arctic expedition. The "Karluk" was one of three vessels involved in an exploration of the Canadian Arctic in 1913, master-minded by one Vilhajalmur Stefansson, a monomaniac fixated on the idea of the Arctic as a friendly environment in which abundant food could be soured. In the event however none of the expedition members received any relevant training in survival skills before setting out. The ships' crews did not expect to winter in the Arctic while the scientific staff, of whom McKinlay was one, were almost all young men straight from University, with no previous Arctic experience. Steffanson's callousness in deserting the Karluk once it was ice-bound, and starting an independent five-year exploration journey without making any attempt to arrange rescue of its crew, almost beggars comprehension. McKinlay's story of misery, squalor, sickness, death, cowardice and heroism over the following year is at times depressing reading, but is always gripping. Of the Karluk's complement of twenty five, eleven died following the break-up of the ship in the ice north of Siberia, during attempts to reach land and during the subsequent struggle to stay alive under conditions of extreme privation. That any survived is due to the heroism of the Karluk's captain, Robert Bartlett, who with one Eskimo companion managed to reach the Siberian mainland to seek help while the other survivors attempted to eke out an existence on the bleak Wrangel Island. The author's account is understated as regard his own role but it was obviously critical in maintaining morale and cohesion in an ill-assorted group with no real basis for camaraderie and discipline. It is the lack of these two factors that McKinlay found the great difference with his later, albeit terrible, experiences in Flanders, making the Wrangel Island episode incomparably worse. The writing is simple, spare and elegant and sweeps the reader along. It is the narrative of a decent, courageous man and it deserves to live on as a classic or adventure and exploration.
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