Bleached Bones On An Arctic Beach

Wrangel Island, for which brave men died to hold for Canada, has witnessed many a grim drama played with everlasting ice as a stage and a curtain of blinding snow, but the Arctic has never known more of tragic mystery than the fate of the Party of which this absorbing article tells.

D. M. LE BOURDAIS July 1 1925

Bleached Bones On An Arctic Beach

Wrangel Island, for which brave men died to hold for Canada, has witnessed many a grim drama played with everlasting ice as a stage and a curtain of blinding snow, but the Arctic has never known more of tragic mystery than the fate of the Party of which this absorbing article tells.

D. M. LE BOURDAIS July 1 1925

Bleached Bones On An Arctic Beach


"I SEE a sled on the beach and something that looks like the remains of camp," called the captain from the crow's nest. We were cruising slowly northward close in to the precipitous cliffs of Herald Island, a rocky islet in the Arctic Ocean north of the eastern tip of Siberia, and thirty-eight miles east of our objective— Wrangel Island.

The power schooner Herman under the command of Captain Louis Lane, wellknown Arctic skipper, had sailed from Nome, Alaska, three weeks before but had been delayed by furious and almost continuous storms until finally blocked by ice Two days previously we had anchored in the shelter of Herald Island; and now— the waves having subsided somewhat— we were about to make another effort to get through to Wrangel.

But before leaving Herald Island Captain Lane decided to examine a little strip of gravelly beach, some four miles north of our anchorage, which formed the apex of the triangular island. Three different parties of men, aggregating eleven in all, had been lost in the past ten years within a few nulesradius of the island and there was always a chance that some clue might be found that would throw light upon the fate of some of them.

Stefansson’s ship Karluk was wrecked in 1914 just north of Herald Island. Two parties of four men each set out for Wrangel Island or the Siberian mainland and never were heard of again. In 1923 another party of three men lost their lives in an attempt to cross from Wrangel Island to Siberia.

They were Allan Crawford, of Toronto. Ont., Fred Maurer, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, and Milton Galle, of New Braunfels. Texas, mem tiers of an expedition organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson to hold Wrangel Island for Canada. They had already spent more than a year on the island before setting out on their fatal journey.

Making for the Beach

\IT"HILE Herald Island was * * out of their direct line of travel, it was still possible that they might have made a landing there, and consequently we were all greatly interested and excited at the prospect of what we might discover on the beach. What else would we find in addition to the sled? Had it been merely cast up there by the waves, or should we find the remains of a camp as well, and possibly the bones of men for years given up as dead?

Which of the long-standing Arctic mysteries were we about to unravel?

The captain came sliding down the shrouds and ordered a whaleboat lowered. He, with Sid Snow, of Oakland, Calif.,—

photographer of wild animals—on the Herman for the purpose of making an Arctic motion picture—two white, and six Eskimo members of the crew and I paddled the boat ashore. Being the last day but one of September, young ice was making in the calm water. This impeded our progress somewhat, but eventually' we reached a line of grounded ice cakes near shore and from them made our way to the beach.

It was one of our few days of sunshine and calm. The gravel spit, running back almost level for about two hundred yards, was covered with a light layer of snow, blown bare in spots, drifted over in others and cris-crossed with the tracks of Arctic foxes and huge polar bears. Driftwood was strewn about here and there. At the further edge of the spit, near the foot of the steeply sloping shale ridge which formed the spine of the islet, we could see the gaunt outlines of the sled and round about a number of black objects, which later proved to be tins of pemmican. We were not long in crossing the intervening space.

Here undoubtedly was a camp; enough could be seen through the snow to establish that. For a moment we stood in silent contemplation, five blood brothers of those whose death-spot we doubtless were about to uncover, and six children of the north who must dumbly have

Wrangel Island, for which brave men died to hold for Canada, has witnessed many a grim drama played with everlasting ice as a stage and a curtain of blinding snow, but the Arctic has never known more of tragic mystery than the fate of the Party of which this absorbing article tells.

wondered that white men should persist in leaving their bones on these bleak and desolate shores. Before anything was touched Sid Snow made photographs of the camp, exactly as we found it. In spite of the brightness of the

morning I felt depressed for a moment, and I think this feeling was shared by the others in varying degree as we dwelt on the thought of what would probably be found beneath the, as yet, undisturbed snow. I experienced a peculiar reluctance to expose the secret, as though, by our not knowing, some measure of tragedy might thus be averted. But others were already scraping away the snow and I joined then in the search. One of the first things we discovered was a 30-30 Winchester rifle lying on a bare patch of gravel. Its stock was weathered almost white, but cut in the wood the initials “B.M.” were distinct. The barrel was thickly corroded with rust and the magazine partly eaten away. A loaded cartridge lying nearby started the thought that if death had come to the men whose camp we gazed upon, at least it had not been caused by shortage of ammunition; and this was amply confirmed before long by the discovery of whole packages of cartridgess. A Gruesome Find XJOT far from the rifle lay the crossed thighbones of a man; and a little beyond, a bleached shoulder-blade. This confirmed our belief that we had not found an abandoned camp; we were to disclose a tale of tragedy

But the answers to most of our questions still lay beneath the snow—if, indeed, all the answers were there. A large drift log lay at right angles to the sled, and beyond it we found the remains of a tent and bed. The tent had collapsed upon the bed and its occupants, for as we removed the snow and carefully peeled the frozen, decayed canvas from what lay beneath, we found the bones of men long dead. The skeletons were not entire, but from the position of those parts we found, we knew the men they once had been had died in their sleep. To the bones still adhered remnants of the reindeer skin sleeping bags. We could find no skull, but suddenly someone said: “I’ve found a lower jaw.” There it was, bleached and bare, but with all the teeth intact as when its owner died.

as when its owner died. A young man, evidently, for one wisdom tooth was still below the level of the jaw and the other had not been fully grown. A young man with a firm, capable jaw, cleft as to chin; and fine, regular teeth. One tooth had had a filling—probably dropped out since death—and one had been extracted. A young man, thus to die and leave his bones to bleach on a wind-swept shore! With what hopes and ambitions had he sailed north—his deathplace all these years unknown and unmarked? A moment later another jaw was uncovered. This time apparently that of an older man. A capable jaw, too, somewhat more angular than the first, and shorter. He had lost no teeth when overtaken by death, but several were filled with silver. Then a third jaw was discovered, probably also that of a middle aged man. Several teeth had been extracted and others filled. One of the Eskimos roaming a hundred yards from the camp-site along the foot of the slope found the fourth jaw-bone. He uncovered it with his foot as he walked. It was in fairly deep snow and there was nothing to show why it was so far from the camp. It was shorter and slighter than the others. Several teeth had dropped out since death

and two had been extracted. As in the others, where teeth had been extracted the holes were healed over, while those that had dropped out after death left sharp edged gaps. Bones belonging to every part of the body were found. The skulls, being round, had doubtless been blown into the sea by the wind. Animals might have carried them off, but, strange as it may appear, not a bone that we found showed even a tooth-mark; and it seems more than probable that neither before nor after death were they molested by animals. A Mystery of the Arctic T XT'HY had these men died? That question oppressed * ' us all. It became more and more insistent as each article was uncovered. Why should men die who had plenty of fuel, food, ammunition and shelter. As I have said, the beach was strewn with driftwood; and we found several bunches of matches. We found four large and twenty-four smaller tins of pemmican; and in addition to the 30-30 Winchester, already mentioned, a .22 Winchester automatic rifle, with several dozen shells for the former and perhaps eight or nine hundred rounds for the latter, as well as about a hundred steel-jacketed Gibbs-Mannlicher cartridges for which we could find no rifle. We found also a supply of .38 Winchester revolver cartridges, but no gun for them either. It was a fully equipped camp. There were picks, shovels, snow shoes, skii, knives, a pair of field glasses, a compass, and a great variety of other articles heavy and solid enough to have resisted the ravages of ten years’ storm and sunshine. Besides the pemmican the only other articles of food discovered were a dozen or so small phials of tabloid saccharine and one tin of compressed tea. Doubtless other foods in less durable form or containers had been destroyed by exposure to the elements. We found everything that might have been expected in such a camp, but not a single scrap of paper, no memorandum books, no diaries or records—no word from those who died to tell the story of their last days. We searched carefully for some sign of a cairn or cache, but were greatly hampered by the frozen ground and the snow. The beach and slope were examined as thoroughly as possible for evidence of buried records, but we could find nothing. A depression in the side of the sloping ridge was noticed and a hole dug, but no sign of anything was found. There was no monument or mound. Continued on page 52

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nothing to indicate than an attempt had ever been made to erect a signal that might attract the attention of ships at sea. All we knew was that, surrounded by all the necessities of life, these men had died. Why they should thus have died we could only surmise. Second Party of the Karluk FROM their equipment we were able to determine which of the three lost parties we had found. The first of the Karluk parties, consisting of the first and second officers and two sailors had with them three dog sleds, whereas the second party comprising three members of the scientific staff and one sailor had only one sled,

which they had hauled themselves. It was a Nome mail sled. This was the type of sled we found; and with it was harness for men, but none for dogs. There were other items amongst the things we found which helped to identify the camp as that of the second party. The Karluk sank in January, 1914. She was in command of Captain Robert Bartlett, formerly skipper of Peary’s Roosevelt. Before she went down Bartlett had landed a considerable stock of supplies and equipment on the ice alongside and had established a comfortable camp. His plan was to transfer the ship’s company and supplies across the ice to Wrangel Island, there to await rescue. He first sent out the party previously mentioned consisting of the two officers and two sailors to prepare a camp on the island for the use of the main party when it arrived. These four men apparently never reached Wrangel and it has been generally believed that they either perished on the ice or broke through and were drowned. A Desperate Attempt CERTAIN members of the scientific staff seem to have been dissatisfied •with Bartlett’s leadership. Shortly after the ship sank, and while the main party was still camped on the floe, Dr. Allister Forbes Mackay, the ship’s surgeon, and Dr. James Murray, the oceanographer, went to Bartlett and asked to have their proportionate share of supplies and equipment set aside for them, stating

that they with two others intended to proceed independently to Wrangel Island, thence to Siberia and eventually to St. Petersburg. They were both experienced in polar travel in the Antarctic, where they had been with Shackleton. Bartlett and others tried to dissuade them, but they were determined to continue with their plans. The other members of their party were Dr. Henri Beuchat, of Paris, well-known anthropologist and writer on American archaeology, and Stanley Morris, a sailor. Finally, upon their signing a statement absolving Bartlett from blame, he gave them provisions for fifty days with one sled, but no dogs. Captain Bartlett says in his book, “The

Last Cruise of the Karluk,” that the doctor and his companions did not want dogs. But James Hadley, a member of the crew, in his narative published as an appendix in Stefansson’s “Friendly Arctic,” states that Bartlett answered the doctor’s request for dogs; “Not one dog; if you go off and leave us you play dog yourself.” At any rate, the party set out the fifth of February. One of Bartlett’s advance parties returning some days later met them and reported that they were having a bad time. They were then about twenty miles from Herald Island. Mackay, Murray and Morris were drawing the sled, while Beuchat was a mile and a half behind with hands and feet badly frozen. Morris had cut his hand with a knife and blood poison had set in. Beuchat expressed his regret that they had ever left the main party, but continued on his way. They were never seen again. And it was their bones we found. Evidently they succeeded in reaching Herald Island, probably in an exhausted condition. Yet they were able to split poles to make a foundation for their bed and to erect their tent. How long they occupied the camp before they died we could not determine, but from the amount of ashes in the fireplace we assumed that they had been there for some days at least. Adventure’s Toll WHY did they die? That question is still unanswered. Starvation was out of the question, for in addition to the food already mentioned they had had

fresh meat—we found the skulls of a seal and a polar bear in the camp. The latter had a neat bullet hole through it from side to sideIt is unlikely that they died from disease, because in that case one would probably have died in advance of the others and his body would have received some sort of burial. Everything indicates that the end came suddenly and unexpectedly. Had their deaths been at intervals, surely those who were last would have made an effort to leave some record of their experiences.

Probably one night while they slept a blizzard eame up. Their camp, open to the fury of the northwest wind, was at the foot of a steep ridge. The snow gathered about the tent in huge drifts, piling ever higher and higher. Within, all was quiet and comfortable. In their reindeer sleeping bags they were warm, and the enveloping snow made them warmer and drowsier still; they slept on peacefully. But outside

the wind kept stacking up the snow. In time it drifted level with the top and then piled deeper and deeper upon it till the slim poles bent. The tent with its load of snow sank slowly down upon the sleeping figures . . .

Thus for ten years their bones lay in their deerskin shrouds under the flattened folds of the tent. In time the canvas and deerskin rotted away in places, exposing the bones to the bleaching action of the sun and wind. And no one came to disturb them.

We set asidè some of the more important articles, including the jaw bones, to carry away for purposes of identification; the rest we piled together on the campsite and covered with slabs of slate. And so with a last look at the tragic little strip of beach, so peaceful under its blanket of snow when we came, and now so trampled and upturned, we bore off our little heap of relics, and sailed away.