Ruth Makpii Ipalook: 1911-2008

Taissumani: 2008-07-18

By Kenn Harper

Seven years ago, an Alaskan Inuk woman, then 90 years old, visited Iqaluit to receive an award, presented jointly by the Canadian Polar Commission and the United States Arctic Research Commission for her family's contribution to Arctic science. The occasion was the Arctic Science summit, held in April of 2001.

The woman was Ruth Makpii Ipalook. In 1913, with her mother and father and her older sister, she accompanied explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the Karluk, one of the ships of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. She was only two years old.

The Karluk left Victoria in June, delayed by Stefansson's continuing attempts to raise money. When the ship reached Barrow, Stefansson recruited Inuit as hunters to keep the expedition supplied with food throughout the winter, which they expected to spend on uninhabited Banks Island.

One hunter, Kurraluk, was recommended above all others. He was willing to go, but he insisted on taking his wife and two children. So Qiruk, his wife, and two little girls, eight-year-old Qaualuk (later known as Helen) and little Makpii (later to be known as Ruth) went along.

Qiruk – whom all the crew came to know as "Auntie" – would be busy; in addition to looking after her two children, she was seamstress, sewing skin clothing for 27 men.

Things started badly, and ended even worse. Ice prevented the ship from reaching Banks Island and it spent the early part of the winter locked in the ice of the Beaufort Sea. Stefansson, with five men, left the ship in September on a hunting expedition to the Alaskan coast and never returned; he spent the winter safely with the expedition's two other ships.

Meanwhile the Karluk drifted westward with the ice, slowly, towards Siberia. Kurraluk and another hunter, Kataktovik, kept the expedition supplied with fresh seal and walrus meat throughout the ordeal.

But on January 10, tragedy struck. The Karluk, built as a fishing ship for California, was never meant for the Arctic ice, and on that day she succumbed to its relentless pressure. 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 snowhouse for the Inuit.

Robert Bartlett, the captain of the Karluk, knew that their only hope of survival was to reach uninhabited Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. Eight men died on the ice of the Arctic Ocean in the attempt.

Makpii herself almost perished. Her daughter, Emily ­Wilson, recounted the tale that has been passed down in the family. "One night as the tired party slept fully clothed in case of emergency," she said, "my grandmother heard the sudden cracking of the ice and then saw the ice crack right under my mother. There wasn't even time to grab her. She 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 right there."

Makpii was remembered throughout her life for her unflappable cheerfulness. On one particularly bad day on the ice, her father, faced with the daunting task of feeding so many men, addressed her in Inupiat, "Makpii, are we going to live out this year?" Her cheerful reply was, "We're living now, and we're going to keep on living!"

For those that made it to Wrangel Island, the spring and summer that followed were marked by privation and the deaths of three more men. Bartlett and Kataktovik made an epic journey by sledge and foot to the Siberian mainland and from there to East Cape, where they crossed to Alaska and arranged rescue for those stranded on Wrangel Island.

Despite the written record of history, family lore says that Makpii, who had turned three in April, was the first to spot the ship. "Umiaqpak," she cried, as the trading vessel King and Winge came into view. Rescue had arrived. The following day, the twelve survivors transferred to the Bear, and sailed for Nome.

Makpii came through the whole terrible ordeal with only a scratch to her chin. Fred Maurer's black cat, with the tongue-twisting name of Niigugauraq, survived the entire trip. Makpii was always chasing the cat and one day it scratched her badly, leaving 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 to Barrow. Makpii grew up there. Qiruk had two more children, both boys. The parents named one of them Bartlett, in honour of the fearless Newfoundland captain.

Makpii, or Ruth as she was also known, married Fred Ipalook. They had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Three boys and two girls grew to adulthood. A young girl was adopted in from another family.

Makpii was a housewife, and later a cook in a cafeteria. She loved to sew. Emily Wilson recalled, "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." Her children taught her how to speak English as they were growing up. She was a religious woman, in a family that is still strongly Presbyterian.

A photograph of a laughing young Makpii, taken in Nome after her rescue, is the only cheerful image from an otherwise disastrous expedition.

Ruth Makpii Ipalook suffered a fall and broke her hip in May. She passed away June 2 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97. She was buried in Barrow. She is survived by her sons, Lloyd and Arthur, and her daughters, Emily and Juanita, and by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

Share This Story

(0) Comments