Vilhjalmur Stefansson was a famous arctic explorer, mounting expeditions into uncharted territories for years at a time. Although born in Canada, Stefansson grew up in Mountain, ND, and for a time attended UND.
In June of 1913, Stefansson led an expedition to the arctic aboard a whaling ship called the Karluk. Six weeks later, the ship got frozen into the ice. When they began to run low on food, Stefansson took a dog sled, his photographer and two Inuit hunters to find some caribou. In his absence, the ice below the ship began to drift, moving the Karluk hundreds of miles. On January 11th, the ice heaved and crushed the ship. Among the 25 initial survivors were scientists, crewmembers and several Inuits.
Ship captain Bartlett was a Newfoundland sealer. He knew they had to get to solid ground to survive, and under round-the-clock darkness, he led his rag-tag group toward Wrangel Island, hundreds of miles away. Eight men died on the journey. Those who made it lived on pemmican and biscuits while Bartlett, with one Inuit man and a dogsled, continued on to Siberia for help.
Some nine months later, a whaling schooner found a pitiful handful of Karluk survivors suffering from starvation, snow blindness, exposure and even amputations. Two had died from malnutrition, and another died from a gunshot wound – bringing the death toll to 11.
Blame for the tragedy was aimed at Stefansson, citing poor planning. Only two of the scientists had significant polar experience, and the majority of the crew were inexperienced boys looking for adventure. There was no survival training, and the parkas provided were second-hand, diseased and too thin for the brutal weather. Chief engineer John Munro said the 29-year-old ship was one of Stefansson’s biggest mistakes, saying its engine was no better than “an old coffee pot.”
Meanwhile, after one and half years with no word of Stefansson, he was presumed dead, but on this date in 1915, a schooner arrived in Nome with dispatches from Stefansson. He was wintering at Bank Island and had managed to get a new power schooner to continue his explorations. The Bismarck Tribune reported, “He seems to have been quite unaware of the anxiety his long silence aroused.”
When confronted with the Karluk controversy, Stefansoon maintained he did as he told the people aboard the Karluk he would – he went hunting and came back. But the ship had drifted away.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
Cook, Maria. The Ottawa Citizen. 31 Dec 2000.
Bismarck Tribune. 1 Sep 1915; 2 Sep 1915; 18 Sep 1915.
Oakland Tribune. 17 Sep 1915.