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Natalie’s Pick of the Week: Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of The Karluk

Are you a fan of survival stories? Do you enjoy reading about maritime disasters? Arctic expeditions? If you answered yes to any of those questions, have I got a book for you! EMPIRE OF ICE AND STONE : THE DISASTROUS AND HEROIC VOYAGE OF THE KARLUK by Buddy Levy will have you on the edge of your seat with the true story of the disastrous Canadian Arctic Expedition aboard HMCS Karluk.

Empire of Ice and Stone reads like fiction and feels like an impossible tale dreamed up by a movie studio. Buddy Levy keeps you on the edge of your seat as he brings the harrowing account of the Karluk and her passengers to life. As a reader, I was transported to a different world, one where excessive risks were taken in the name of discovery. Practically every chapter I would have the thought, “How could anyone survive this?” Using diaries and other writings from the passengers, Levy reconstructs the Karluk’s fateful journey with masterful storytelling, creating a gripping account of courage and survival in the face of insurmountable odds.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, leader of the Canadian Arctic Expedition

The Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1916) was a scientific expedition in the Arctic Circle organized and led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, with ship Captain Robert Bartlett at the helm of the Karluk. Stefansson, believing there was a final undiscovered continent hidden under the vast Arctic ice cap, was determined to be the one to make the discovery. Frequently quoted as saying, “An adventure is a sign of incompetence,” Stefansson, a better self-promoter than a planner, appeared to wholly embody his favorite turn of phrase.

Captain Robert Bartlett, who commanded Karluk’s last voyage

Bartlett and Stefansson proved to be completely different leaders. Where Stefansson was self-serving, often claiming that the objectives of the expedition outweighed even the lives of the crew, Captain Bartlett was more concerned with the safety of the ship and its crew. It doesn’t take long before the men are at odds.

Stefansson seemed to approach exploring as a “figure it out as you go” endeavor. The entire expedition came together quite hastily and often without Steffanson’s leadership as he was largely absent in the weeks before they set sail, scrambling to secure adequate provisions of food, clothing, and equipment. Some supplies arrived at the last possible moment and many provisions were carelessly divided among the two ships that comprised the expedition. In the unforgiving Artic climate, hubris paired with a failure to properly plan is a recipe for disaster.

The Karluk in her whaling days

The Canadian Arctic Expedition was organized into two parties. The Northern Party, on the Karluk, would explore the Arctic waters for new land. Mainly land-based, the Southern Party, would carry out surveys and anthropological studies in the islands off the northern Canadian coast. When Stefansson’s first choice to captain the Karluk, American whaling skipper Christian Theodore Pedersen, withdrew, Stefansson invited Newfoundland-born American Arctic explorer Captain Robert Abram Bartlett (August 15, 1875 – April 28, 1946) as the Karluk’s new captain. Previously, Bartlett had accompanied United States Navy Commander Robert Peary in 1909 on an expedition that claimed to be the first to have reached the geographic North Pole. However, just shy of reaching the North Pole, Peary sent Bartlett back to the ship to prepare for their return voyage. Peary continued on and claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole in April 1909. For Captain Bartlett, the experience of having the Pole so nearly in his grasp, to be turned away at the last moment, was heartbreaking. Blinded by a desire to finish what he started, Bartlett took risks he might not have otherwise taken.

Set against the backdrop of the Titanic disaster and World War I, filled with heroism, tragedy, and scientific discovery, Buddy Levy tells the story of two men with two distinct leadership styles and the maritime disaster that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Buddy Levy brings the Arctic alive on the page. While you’re reading, I highly recommend a nice warm drink and wearing your coziest socks.

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