RUTH MAKPII IPALOOK, 97: HOMEMAKER, COMMUNITY LEADER
She was the youngest survivor of the ill-fated Karluk expedition
The daughter of an Inuit hunter, she and her family in 1913 joined a
Canadian mission to explore the western Arctic. The expedition ended
in starvation, suffering, death and perhaps murder, after their ship
was abandoned by its leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 27, 2008
IQALUIT -- Makpii was terrified. The ship on which she, her parents
and a crew of desperate men, had drifted slowly across the western
reaches of the Arctic Ocean. Locked in the unrelenting grip of multi-
year ice, the Karluk was sinking.
It was a hair-raising ordeal for an Inuit girl not yet three. Adrift
for almost four months, the Karluk had travelled from its most
easterly point near the Alaska-Yukon border on a winding westerly
course and was, by January, 1914, well north of Siberia.
The Karluk was never meant for the Arctic ice. Although her name means
"fish" in the northern language of Aleut, she had been built for the
waters of California. She was one of three ships of the Canadian
Arctic expedition, under the overall command of Captain Vilhjalmur
Stefansson, a Canadian of Icelandic origin whose reputation would end
up seriously tarnished by his mismanagement of the expedition and by
his cavalier disregard for the safety of the men and women under his
The Karluk party had intended to winter at Banks Island well inside
the Canadian Arctic in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories,
but ice prevented the ship from ever getting there. In September,
1913, Capt. Stefansson did the unthinkable. He abruptly left the ship
with five other men - including two Alaskan Inuit - on what he said
would be a brief hunting expedition to the Alaskan mainland. In fact,
he made no attempt to return to the Karluk. Instead, he and his party
wintered comfortably with the expedition's other two ships at
Collinson Point in what is now North Slope County in Alaska. Capt.
Stefansson subsequently claimed that he had tried to return to his
ship, but critics forever after accused him of abandoning the ship and
its crew, and bearing personal responsibility for the tragedy that
While Capt. Stefansson wintered in relative ease, the Karluk was under
the command of her Newfoundland master, the resilient and versatile
Bob Bartlett, a veteran of a number of attempts on the North Pole with
American explorer, Robert Peary. But Capt. Bartlett had no control
over the direction of the vessel. The Karluk drifted westward towards
Siberia in the dead of winter, at the mercy of wind, weather and cold.
On Jan. 10, 1914, the crew was awakened by a harsh grating sound. A
crack along the starboard length of the ship had opened and the hull
was taking on water. That evening, realizing that the situation was
hopeless, Capt. Bartlett ordered the crew to abandon ship. Most of the
men had no Arctic experience, but they were assisted by two Alaskan
Inuit, Kurraluk and Kataktovik. Both men, recruited at Barrow, were
excellent hunters who had kept the expedition supplied with fresh meat
during the westward drift.
At Barrow, Kurraluk had been recommended above all other hunters. He
was willing to serve, but he had insisted on taking his wife and two
children. So his wife, Qiruk, and two little girls, eight-year-old
Qaggualuk (later known as Helen) and little Makpii (later to be known
as Ruth) went along as seamstress. Qiruk - also known as Mabel, but
whom the crew insisted on calling "Auntie" - would be busy; in
addition to looking after her two children, she sewed skin clothing
for 27 men.
Meanwhile, the ever-ebullient Makpii acted like any young child. Among
other things, she liked to play with the ship's cat, a black specimen
with the tongue-twisting name of Nigigugauraq. She especially liked to
chase the cat.
In the dark of that January night, Capt. Bartlett ordered the ship
abandoned. The crew, the scientific staff and the Inuit took refuge on
the ice where they had already constructed a house of boxes and
barrels, and an attached snow-house for the Inuit.
Capt. Bartlett knew that their only hope of survival was to reach
uninhabited Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. As it turned out, eight
men died on the ice in the attempt.
Ruth Makpii Ipaloook was born in northern Alaska on April 14, 1911 -
or at least that is what her family believed from information provided
later by an elder who was one of the few to keep a calendar in those
days. Her father, Harrison Kurraluk - the first name may have come
from a visiting scientist - was from Noatak, near Kotzebue. Her mother
was from Anaktuuvik in the Brooks Range, an inland community where
people lived primarily on caribou and fish.
Makpii's childhood would probably have been that of a normal Alaskan
Inuit child - with seasonal rounds of camping, fishing, hunting, the
warmth and joys of summer punctuated by the hardships and privations
of winter - had it not been for her father's fateful decision to
accept Capt. Stefansson's invitation to join the Karluk.
Makpii herself almost perished on the desperate trek across the ice to
Wrangel Island. Her daughter, Emily Wilson, recounted a tale that has
been passed down in the family: "One night as the tired party slept
fully clothed in case of emergency, my grandmother heard the sudden
cracking of the ice and then saw the ice split right under my mother.
There wasn't even time to grab her. Grandmother just pushed her right
to the other side of the crack, and that saved her life. Otherwise, my
mother would have fallen into the sea."
By all accounts, Makpii remained unflustered. Known all her life for
her unflappable cheerfulness, she was little different as a toddler.
On one particularly bad day on the ice, her father the hunter faced
the daunting task of feeding so many men. Momentarily discouraged, he
addressed her in Inupiat: "Makpii, are we going to live out this
"We're living now," came her jolly reply. "And we're going to keep on
For those who made it to Wrangel Island, the spring and summer that
followed were marked by privation, quarrels over food and the deaths
of three more men, one of whom is thought to have been murdered. Capt.
Bartlett and Kataktovik made an epic journey by sledge and foot to the
Siberian mainland and from there to East Cape, from where they crossed
to Alaska and arranged rescue for those stranded on the island.
Family lore claims that Makpii, who had turned three in April, was the
first to spot the rescue ship. "Umiaqpak," she cried, as the trading
vessel King and Winge came into view. The following day, the 12
survivors transferred to a second rescue vessel and sailed for Nome,
Makpii came through the whole terrible ordeal with only a scratch to
her chin. Nigigugauraq the cat survived the entire trip, though one
day it had grown weary of being chased and lashed out. Makpii was
badly scratched, and acquired a scar that was visible for the rest of
her long life.
Kurraluk and his family left the ship in Nome for their long overland
journey by sled back to Barrow, Alaska, where Makpii grew up. Qiruk
had two more children, both boys. The parents named one of them
Bartlett, in honour of the Newfoundland captain whose journey with
Kataktovik had secured their rescue.
As a young adult, Makpii, by then known as Ruth, found work in the
Barrow hospital, and learned to cook. This skill stood her in good
stead when she married teacher Fred Ipalook, with whom she had nine
children. Unfortunately, four of them died in infancy. Three boys and
two girls grew to adulthood and a young girl was adopted from another
Fred Ipalook taught in Barrow for 40 years. A man of "quiet dignity,"
he instilled a love of music in his students and his family. Ipalook
Elementary School in Barrow, the most northerly elementary school in
the United States, is named for him.
Meanwhile, his wife kept busy in her role as homemaker. As the years
went by, her children taught her to speak English as they were growing
up. She also loved to sew, recalled Emily Wilson. "I learned how to
sew parkas from her, and how to knit socks. Mother learned how to make
dresses by looking at pictures in old catalogues."
Mrs. Ipalook lived the rest of her life in Barrow. A religious woman
in a family that is strongly Presbyterian, she later got a job cooking
in the school cafeteria and became a respected community elder. She
took an interest in local affairs and appreciated the better life that
came with the discovery of the region's Prudhoe Bay oil wealth in
1969, 10 years after statehood and one year before the founding of
North Slope Borough. At a conference in 1985, commenting on the
effects of the U.S. Naval Arctic Research Laboratory on the community,
she remarked simply, "NARL came, people started working and things got
Seven years ago, when she was 90 years old, Ruth Ipalook finally made
it to Canada. She visited Iqaluit to attend the Arctic Science Summit
Week and received an award, jointly given by the Canadian Polar
Commission and the United States Arctic Research Commission, for her
family's contributions during the Karluk expedition.
Now, more than ever, with Arctic sovereignty very much in the news, it
is appropriate to remember the efforts of ordinary people in simpler
times when scientists and their Inuit helpers plied the perilous
waters of the Arctic ocean in wooden ships. The contributions of
Makpii's family were real. And it is easy to remember Makpii herself.
The photograph of the young Inuit girl taken in Nome after her rescue,
laughing at the sheer joy of being alive, is the only cheerful image
from an otherwise botched expedition.
RUTH MAKPII IPALOOK
Ruth Makpii Ipalook was born Makpii in Alaska on April 14, 1911. She
died June 2, 2008, in the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage,
Alaska, after breaking her hip in a fall. She was 97. She is survived
by her sons Lloyd and Arthur, and by her daughters Emily and Juanita.
She also leaves numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She
was predeceased by her husband,