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Cats' Adventures & Travels 13
In 17 June 1913 a ship called the Karluk (left) sailed from British Columbia on a Canadian mission to explore the western Arctic, with the intention of over-wintering at Banks Island in Canada's North Western Territories. They never got there; their ship was crushed by ice and sank, and the party was forced to try to survive on the ice through an Arctic winter. The expedition had been assembled by a man called Vilhalmjar Stefansson, Canadian but of Icelandic origin, and the Karluk was one of three ships. The whole enterprise was a disaster practically from start to finish. It was put together in a hurry; most of the crew had little or no Arctic experience; they were supplied with inadequate clothing and especially footwear; and worst of all the Karluk was not built to deal with ice, was barely seaworthy, and gave constant trouble.
A cat joins the crew
On board originally were 13 crew, 10 scientific staff, a carpenter who joined as a passenger, and four Alaskan Inuit (at the time called Eskimos). One of the latter insisted on bringing his wife and two young daughters with him; the wife would cook, and sew skins for winter clothing. There were sled dogs; and for days before sailing the crew had sought a cat to bring aboard, as maritime superstition said a feline presence would bring them luck. Stefansson vetoed the idea, saying the dogs would eat it, but just before sailing one of the crew managed to smuggle aboard a thin, black kitten he had found at the docks. They called it Nigeraurak (or Nigigugauraq, main photo above), meaning 'little black one' in the Inuit tongue. She became the beloved mascot of the crew and was well looked after, particularly by fireman Fred Maurer. At first she was kept in the foc's'le, but soon made her way aft, where one of the men would teach her tricks.
It became evident before long that they were not going to reach Banks Island; instead, locked in the ice, the Karluk drifted across the western Arctic Ocean, at the mercy of winds, weather and the prevailing ocean currents. In September Stefansson did an extraordinary thing: he announced that he was going to leave the ship, with five men including two of the Inuit, for what he claimed was going to be a hunting trip. In fact he made no effort to return, and almost certainly never intended to. He over-wintered relatively comfortably with the two other expedition ships further south, having effectively abandoned the complement of Karluk to their fate.
The ship continued to drift westwards and by January was well north of Siberia. On 10 January 1914, in the dead of winter, the inevitable happened: the ship started to be crushed by the ice and captain Bob Bartlett (right), a resilient, versatile and reliable Newfoundlander, gave the order to abandon ship. The men moved their most valuable belongings and as many essential supplies as possible onto the ice but in all the commotion of so doing the kitten had hidden herself away and could not be found. However, by the following morning the ship was still afloat, although filling with water, and Nigeraurak emerged, to be lifted lovingly onto a bed of skins in a basket. She was put into one of two 'houses', built of snow and boxes, that the men had fashioned on the ice, and made herself at home.
By 4 pm on 11 January, Karluk had disappeared under the ice.
Life on the ice
The weeks and months that followed were an increasingly desperate struggle for survival. Bartlett knew that their only hope was to try to reach the uninhabited Wrangel Island, north of Siberia, where at least they would be on land instead of shifting ice, and there might be game for them to catch and eat. Some of the men eventually did reach it, although there were deaths in the meantime; and a small group reached the even more inhospitable Herald Island but rescue did not come in time for them and they died. Meanwhile, Bartlett and one of the remaining Inuit made an epic journey by dogsled and on foot to reach Siberia; ultimately they made it and after many delays and privations Bartlett was able to regain Alaska and set about arranging rescue for those left behind.
When the time came to leave 'Shipwreck Camp' and begin the trek to Wrangel, no one wanted to abandon the cat. Maurer and the carpenter Hadley made her a little deerskin bag to travel in; sometimes she rode in state on a sled, while at other times Maurer slung the bag around his neck, so she could snuggle safe and warm inside next to his body. At night they let her out into their igloo, where she would curl up to sleep inside one of their foot bags. She lived mostly on pemmican scraps, which she seemed to enjoy and of which everyone donated a little.
The two young Inuit girls, Qagguluk (known as Helen), who was 8, and Makpii, or Mugpi (later known as Ruth, right), who was 3, especially enjoyed the kitten's presence. Like many young children, Mugpi liked to chase her and pull her tail, although her mother was constantly warning her not to tease the cat; Mugpi just couldn't resist it. One day Nigeraurak got her own back, though; Mugpi received a deep scratch on her chin, just below her lip, requiring medical attention for several days until it healed but left a scar.
As time dragged by and things became ever more and more difficult, the men always made sure that neither the two little girls nor the kitten went hungry; they were fussed over and well fed, even when it meant the men giving up part of their own rations. It might seem strange to have made so much fuss over the cat, particularly, but she helped to sustain them in the long, dark days, gave them something to think about other than themselves and was their good-luck charm, giving them grounds for hope. They felt that as long as Nigeraurak was alive, they would survive.
The story of the desperate struggle for survival of the occupants of the Karluk has been extensively researched and documented in a book entitled The Ice Master (the name refers to Bartlett) by Jennifer Niven (Macmillan, 2000, ISBN 0 330 39123 2).
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It was September of 1914 before relief finally arrived for those who had survived, just as they were facing the grim prospect of having to try to survive another Arctic winter. A Canadian schooner, the curiously named King and Winge (left), was the first vessel to reach Wrangel Island. She was able to rescue 13 survivors from two different camps and Nigeraurak the cat. When they reached the second, larger camp photographers from the ship wanted pictures to be taken of the men holding aloft the cat and some puppies that had been born to one of the dogs; Nigeraurak was apparently not pleased to be woken from her morning nap! She was, in fact, fatter and fitter than when she had been 'recruited' from the Esquimault Naval Yard over a year before.
Eventually Nigeraurak joined her friend Fred Maurer, her early 'champion', when he returned to his home in New Philadelphia, where he married. She is reported to have lived to a grand old age and to have had numerous litters of kittens all black with white feet and a white bib. Several of them were given by Maurer to other surviving expedition members.
Perhaps fittingly, the last survivor of the ill-fated Karluk expedition was the youngest at the time, Mugpi/Makpii. She found work in Barrow, Alaska, married and raised several children. She died at the great age of 97 on 2 June 2008 in Anchorage, Alaska still bearing the scar on her chin that Nigeraurak had inflicted on her as a young child all those years before.
A later expedition instigated by Stefansson, in 1921, sent four men and an Inuit woman to Wrangel Island again, in a bid to claim the island for Canada. This expedition also had a cat, named Vic, and one of the men was Fred Maurer, who had survived the Karluk voyage and had been one of Nigeraurak's chief carers. Unfortunately three of the men disappeared in an abortive attempt to cross the ice and reach Siberia to find food, and the fourth man died of illness. Only the woman, Ada Blackjack, survived, together with Vic. They were not rescued until almost two years later.
You may also be interested to read about Halifax, another ship's cat who over-wintered in the high Arctic in the 1990s,
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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