ARCHIVED - USQUE AD MARE
A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Bob Bartlett

In the long catalogue of mans adventure on the sea, nothing has exceeded the hardihood of the Newfoundland seal hunters. Whatever be the merits of the current controversy surrounding sealing, time was when the existence of many families in Newfoundland depended on the exertions and courage of their men in pursuit of seals. In three months of ever present danger between March and June, thousands put to sea in sailing ships or low powered steamers, crowded together in wretched conditions, eager to hunt the rough ice fields north of Newfoundland as the seals came south to bear their young.

Photo: The wooden walls of Newfoundland.

The wooden walls of Newfoundland.
The sealing fleet at the ice edge. (Pacific Archives)

Sometimes men would walk a hundred miles or so from out ports and inland settlements, to be advanced a few dollars for an outfit from the owners of some vessel which, little bigger than a coaster, would fill 150 berths before leaving Conception Bay or the harbour of St. Johns for the ice edge called the front. These men had much at stake; leaving wife and family to keep house and hearth together in the bitter winds of winter and early spring, the gamble was to earn enough to tide them over, in the simplest necessities of life, until the inshore fishing or the prospects of a few brief months of summer work.

The rewards, if lucky, might run to the modest wages of country life. All nursed a hope for better, though often the voyage would bring little more than would cover the advance. Some there were, every year, who never did come back. The masters of the sealing ships, shrewdest gamblers of them all, pitted their skill and courage and scanty savings in a business where none could lead who had not followed; in the art of handling wooden ships in northern seas and ice, they were supreme.

Many Newfoundlanders played a part in the development of the eastern Arctic, not only as owners, masters and crew of the whalers and sealers which pushed the boundaries of the sea industry far beyond the borders of civilization, but also as we have seen, in ships such as the Neptune, chartered from Job Bros. of St. Johns, which introduced the administration of Canadian sovereignty in the North.

In the western Arctic which, by reason of the vast distances and the tremendous pressure of polar ice in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean, was a tougher proposition, Canadian involvement began a decade later. It was left to Stefansson, greatest Canadian name in exploration, to fill this gap. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born at Armes, Manitoba, in 1879 and became a Harvard anthropologist. By 1913, when he left on a Canadian government expedition which entailed the longest sojourn of white men living in the Arctic entirely from natural resources, Stefansson was the leading authority on the ethnology and anthropology of the North and had discovered Eskimo groups who had not seen a white man for half a century. A firm believer that men could live in relative sufficiency from seals as food and fuel, he engaged a Newfoundland sealing captain with a brilliant record in Arctic exploration, Captain Bob Bartlett, to command the ship from which he based his journey.

Born at Brigus in Conception Bay, Robert Abram Bartlett came of a line of Arctic shipmasters and was brought up in the hard school of fishing and sealing before taking to the British merchant service as a career. In 1898, with a brand new masters ticket burning a hole in his pocket, he forsook the immediate chances of command to sign on as mate with his Uncle Sam, Captain S. W. Bartlett, then master of Peary's exploration ship Windward. Peary, who had previously attempted to reach the Pole by journeying across the Greenland ice-cap, was then commencing a period of arduous probing by ship as far as possible up the east coast of Ellesmere Island, from whence he proposed to commence sledging. Like Stefansson, Peary based his operations on Eskimo methods and had learned to support himself and his dogs on long foot journeys in very low temperatures. In this phase Bartlett remained a ships officer but, working with the indomitable Peary for four long years of hard endeavour, and soaking up an intensive knowledge of Eskimo habits, he became firmly committed to the lure of Arctic exploration and to service with the great American leader.

Photo: Captain Robert A. Bartlett

Captain Robert A. Bartlett.
1875-1946

This photograph was taken on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bear after Captain Bartlett had completed his march of 700 miles in 37 days from the camp on Wrangel Island.

(Public Archives)

In 1905, Captain Bartlett was appointed to command the Roosevelt, a vessel then specially fitting out for Peary, which continued the Polar survey without success until 1908 when the ship again sailed from New York on the voyage which would bring triumph. By this time Bartlett was not only master of the Roosevelt but a hardy and accomplished Arctic traveller who would play a great part, by sledging supplies to 87º 47 North, in Peary's victory in reaching the North Pole with Henson and his Eskimo hunters in 1909. For this achievement Captain Bartlett was awarded the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society and became recognised internationally as an explorer. The Hubbard Medal, which has been awarded 23 times in 62 years, was established in honour of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, first president of the society. Originally presented to Peary in 1906, other winners were Amundsen, Byrd and the Lindbergh's and, in more recent times, astronaut John H. Glenn and the conquerors of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

Photo: CGS Karluk

CGS Karluk

Lost in the ice 80 miles from Wrangel Island in the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913.

(Public Archives)

In the Stefansson expedition of 1913, the object was to find out whether a new continent existed north of Alaska and the Beaufort Sea. The plan envisaged sailing north along the 141st meridian until land was discovered or progress was interrupted by ice. A base was then to be established with a view to surveying eastwards towards the southwest corner of Prince Patrick Island or, failing that, the west coast of Banks Island. As a secondary objective, the expedition would test certain theories on Arctic drift and current. Both these objectives were attained, although hardly along the lines projected, as Stefansson ultimately discovered new land and much was learned about ocean drift.

The expedition had been financed originally by the National Geographic Society, but as the territory to be explored was wholly within the bounds of Canada, the Society relinquished its direction of the enterprise at the request of the Canadian government who placed it, for administrative purposes, under the Department of the Naval Service. The Naval Minister, the Hon. J. D. Hazen, was also the Minister of Marine and Fisheries. By the time that Captain Bob had accepted the command of Stefansson's ship, the vessel had been chosen and was fitting out in the Naval Dockyard at Esquimalt. Built at San Francisco as a carrier for the Alaska salmon fisheries in 1884, the Karluk was a wooden brigantine with a steam compound engine. Although she had been strengthened for service in ice, she was in no way equivalent to the wooden walls of Newfoundland to which Bartlett was accustomed and, with some inward reservations about his ship, the new captain took train for Ottawa and Victoria.

Sailing from Esquimalt on June 17, 1913, the Karluk had on board a large and well equipped scientific staff, among them leading men of the day in their various specialties, some of whom were well experienced in the Arctic or Antarctic. Once through the Bering Straits the ship ran into ice sooner than had been expected and, by the middle of August, it was doubtful whether she would reach Herschell Island and certain that there would be no prospect of steaming northwards that year. On September 20 with the Karluk fast in the ice off the mouth of the Colville River, Stefansson left the ship on foot with a shore party, the intention being to stock up with a supply of fresh caribou meat Stefansson's men never suffered from scurvy and to contact Eskimos who might wish to join the expedition as hunters. The leader expected to be away for ten days or so and left written orders for Bartlett in his absence. In fact it would be five years before Stefansson returned to civilization.

Within a couple of days of this departure, strong easterly winds carried the Karluk, still fast in extensive ice fields, towards the west and, by the beginning of October, the vessel was off Point Barrow and drifting offshore into deep water. Although Stefansson and Bartlett had made plans for this eventuality, the rate of drift was much faster than had been expected and it became certain that, for better or for worse, Stefansson was now started on his northern journey on foot much sooner than had been intended, and from a starting point much further South.

As for the ship, Captain Bartlett well knew that few vessels of the day, let alone the little Karluk, were likely to last long in the intensive pressures of ocean ice which, subject to no restraint from land, was now forced into tortuous ridges which gave way with shattering fractures under enormous shear forces. With this grim prospect in the minds of all, but in good spirits under their stout-hearted captain, Christmas and New York were celebrated with good cheer and all hands resolved to make the best of things. As a precaution against accidental fire in the ship, as well as a safeguard against her crushing, supplies were placed on the ice and equipment assembled.

At 7:30 p.m. on January 10, there came a sound of splitting and crashing from the engine room and, squeezed in a vice-like grip, pipes and pumps began to break asunder as the bottom and side timbers splintered upwards. It was time to abandon ship. Supported by the closing ice the wreck remained above the surface as preparations continued throughout the night and in the following day. At 4:00 p.m. on January 11, 1914, Captain Bartlett set his phonograph to play the music of Chopin's Funeral March and, hoisting the Canadian Blue Ensign to the main masthead, he stepped over the level rail for the last time. In the continuous darkness of a winters day, the men of the Karluk watched in awe as their ship was slowly engulfed, the floe closing in to snap off the topsail yards before the ensign disappeared forever. Bartlett could only bare his head.

There was no despair. Twice before had their captain been shipwrecked, and in his deep under-standing of survival in the Arctic he knew that they were camped on an indestructible ice-floe with igloo, tents, food, fuel and dogs. After thirty-six hours of strain and fatigue, Bob Bartlett turned in, thinking thus, and slept for twelve hours. The temperature, in the Captains words, "was not severe". It was forty below zero and the nearest land, Wrangel Island, lay some eighty miles away.

Not all his men were strong enough for continuous sledging and, to reduce the risk, four men were sent off on an advance party to establish caches of food for a larger and later effort. On the 25th, a first glimpse of the sun, absent for three months, peeked above the horizon to encourage hope. Not all the survivors shared their Captains views as to be best means of escape, and some who had served with Shackleton in the Antarctic elected to try for the coast of Alaska direct. Bartlett gave them a proportionate share of dogs and food and, on February 5, Dr. Forbes Mackay of Edinburgh, oceanographer James Murray of Glasgow, anthropologist Dr. Henri Beuchat of Paris, and Able Seaman Stanley Morris, left camp with supplies for fifty days. They were never seen again.

On February 10, the shore movement was started in earnest by two parties, each with a sledge and four dogs. It was a nightmare journey in ice of awful roughness, high ridging, impassable debris and temperatures of forty-five and fifty below. After a terrible time all made Wrangel Island on March 12, a barren and mountainous island some eighty miles long; at least, for men who had been months on sea ice, it was solid.

The problem now was how to proceed. Some of the party were in bad shape and the group was too big to travel as one. Apart from Bartlett, there were no leaders sufficiently experienced to take the smaller groups. There was nothing for it but to dig in as best they could while their captain, travelling light, made for the Siberian Coast. On March 18, with his faithful Eskimo, Katiktovick, for sole companion, Captain Bartlett set out to cross the 110 miles between Wrangel Island and Siberia. They had food for forty-eight days, a somewhat lesser quantity for their seven dogs, and one sledge. This journey, from its commencement in a howling blizzard of drifting snow, across moving sea ice which cracked and opened constantly, sometimes right through their tent, was difficult beyond belief. Once the two men ate raw polar bear meat, freshly killed; always they suffered agonies of acute pain from snow blindness and cold. In addition, the brave Eskimo was distressed from a deep seated conviction, false as it turned out, that the Siberian Eskimos were hostile to his tribe and would kill him. At last, on April 4, they stepped on land again to be received kindly by a party of Siberian Eskimos. No-one could speak the language of any other, except that of universal friendship, and the little party progressed from one igloo to another, in many stages, until they reached civilization after covering 700 miles in 37 days marching.

Crossing to Nome in Alaska, Captain Bartlett eventually returned to Wrangel Island, thanks to the United States Coast Guard who placed their famous ship the Bear, herself a former Dundee built Newfoundland whaler, at his disposal. On September 8, 1914 the survivors were picked up. George Malloch a stratiographer from Yale, Bjarne Mamen the Norwegian forester, and Fireman G. Beddy had been unable to survive the cold and hardships of the eight months which had elapsed since the loss of their ship.

Stefansson went on, with various companions, till 1918. In more than five years continuous travelling beyond the Arctic circle, the longest expedition on record, he sledged for months over moving ice living exclusively from nature. On his return he reported that no undue hardships had been met, and that his party could have lived for years on an ice floe. In this period he discovered Borden, Brock, Meighen and Lougheed Islands among others.

The survivors of the Karluk went their various ways from Esquimalt at the end of October. Captain Bartlett resumed his seafaring career and commanded United States transport ships in the first world war. Thereafter, he piloted an expedition to the Aleutians in 1928, returning later to cruise extensively in Labrador and Arctic waters in his own fishing schooner Effie M. Morrissey. He died at New York in 1946 after a long and adventurous career. In his short period in command of the Karluk, Bob Bartlett turned disaster into triumph in the finest feat of leadership in Canadian marine history.