Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven


  They let Ada into the house, where it was at least warmer than in the igloo. When she assumed her usual sulky, silent posture and shook her head at her duties, Knight told her she would have to sleep outside while she refused to work. The wind howled like an animal, and the air was a nasty blast of white. It was a cold to beat anything in Nome, and it was so much nicer inside by the stove.

  Ada looked at Knight and made a decision. “What should I make?” she asked.

  “Mittens and socks,” he told her, and watched skeptically as she brought out her sinew and began to sew. She labored until supper, her dark head bent over her needle, when Knight told her she could stop to eat. From that point on, she cooked and sewed and made herself useful.

  She had not even sighed over Crawford—that Knight and Galle could hear—for weeks, and she hadn’t mentioned the subject of marriage for some time. In her heart, she pined for him, but she knew now it was hopeless. With time and acclimation to her surroundings, Ada’s case of Arctic Hysteria had lifted and with it gone, her tumultuous mood and ardent desperation for Crawford seemed to subside. When she was told that Crawford and Maurer would be coming home for Christmas, her spirits lifted noticeably, but there was no mention of Crawford’s green eyes.

  Christmas day brought Maurer and Crawford, and a fox from Galle’s traps. The Wrangel Island community spent the entire day eating, even when they weren’t hungry. There was a feast of bread and butter, potatoes, cake, and hot coffee, and after dinner they played poker for smokes. The weather cleared, and life was good.

  Ada sat as still as a statue, slowly freezing to death. Knight had headed out early that morning for the other camp, Galle had gone to check his traps, and they had left Ada alone. She had been good lately, had tried not to cause a fuss or to be of any trouble to them. She had begun to work again because she knew they needed her to and she knew they would make her sleep outside if she didn’t.

  But now she sat in the house, surrounded by the cold darkness, and listened to the heavy footfall outside. There was a sniffing and a snorting, thunderous footsteps and labored breathing. Nanook.

  There had been no warning because Knight had taken the dogs with him to the trapping camp. Ada had been doing her chores, as she had on all the rest of the days since December 17. But now there was nothing to do but sit very still and try not to make a noise. Otherwise, Nanook might find her there and kill her. The fire had died out long ago and the temperature inside the tent now matched the one outside. She needed to put more wood on the fire and get it going again, but she couldn’t move. All she could do was sit and pray.

  She held her breath for a long time until she heard Galle come home. He saw the bear, sniffing about the tent and storeroom, but there was no sign of Ada. With one clean shot, the bear fell dead to the ground, and Galle dove into the tent, looking for her. He found her in the dark, sitting rigid and fixed, a look of terror on her face.

  On the first day of 1922, Maurer and Crawford sat inside their tent at the trapping camp eating breakfast. They were packing up to move back in with the others because the trapping camp had been a bust— just one fox to show for the entire time—and taking the trouble to walk back and forth between camps seemed pointless. Also, two camps burned twice as much wood as one and it taxed the dogs too much to drive them constantly back and forth between the two sites. They could conserve more dog feed if they let the dogs rest, so they decided it was best to live together at the main camp until the trapping improved and the foxes appeared—if they appeared at all.

  Their tent was cozy enough, tucked inside a snowhouse, with a snow shed built off the front. As they ate, Maurer was sitting nearer the door and raised the tent flap to search for something in the shed when he found himself face-to-face with an enormous snout, two beady eyes, and a powerful, crushing jaw. The nose was twitching from the smells of their breakfast, and the great teeth were gnashing, the gastric juices dripping down the coarse white fur, in anticipation of a meal. The bear scarcely acknowledged Maurer, just kept sniffing at the supplies in the storeroom and at the tantalizing scent of the food, which wafted out from the main tent. There was blood in his eye, a look Maurer had come to recognize. He knew when an animal was hungry, and this bear was ravenous.

  Maurer dropped the tent flap, grabbed Crawford and scrambled to the farthest corner of the tent. How could they have left their rifles outside? Captain Bob Bartlett, on the Karluk expedition, had always stressed the importance of carrying a weapon and of never going unarmed up there, where polar bears considered them prey. Now, here was Maurer, cowering in a corner with a hungry bear just feet away, because he had forgotten that simple rule.

  The door to the shed was too tight a squeeze for the bear, and the walls of the snowhouse were strong, but the bear—a massive, brawny giant—was stronger. A shudder of the house informed them that the bear had decided to shoulder his way in. Maurer let out a blood-curdling war whoop, which didn’t frighten the bear as intended, but only seemed to entice him closer and faster. Crawford and Maurer grabbed whatever they could find on the floor of the tent and started throwing it at the animal—firewood, pots, pans, and finally the dishes. Their aim was good, but the bear was determined. His great black nose twitched from side to side and the slobber seeped from his mouth. They plucked up bits of wood and thrust them into the fire and then took aim. As the sharp, licking flames pierced its skin, the bear gradually withdrew.

  Crawford was better dressed for the cold and plunged out of the tent after the bear, grabbing his gun and taking chase. The bear was a hundred yards away by now and Crawford dropped to his knees and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He shook the gun and smacked his hand against it, but the cartridge was frozen. It would be the last time they would leave the guns outside, the last time they would be caught unprotected. Taking advantage of Crawford’s handicap, the bear raced off. Maurer had dressed in a hurry and now took up the chase, but the bear was too fast.

  Within days, Crawford and Maurer returned home to the main camp for good. Although Ada still directed longing glances at Crawford now and again, she was on her best behavior. There would be no more embarrassing displays or declarations of undying love. He did not want her and her attentions only seemed to upset him and the others, and so she would stop.

  Concerned about the deepening winter cold, the men convinced her to wear army pants, which would be warmer and more practical than her skirts and dresses. But the smallest size they had was 35, which bagged off her waist and legs until they belted the pants about her. Crawford took Ada’s picture, posed against the tent, looking almost jaunty in her new getup.

  She was one of them now, and even though they still called her Oofty, she had earned her place by showing them she could work hard. Crawford and Knight repeatedly cracked jokes about the other’s hometown, and they kidded their resident Christian Scientist about his Purgative Pellet habit. Ada received some teasing of her own for the grief she had put them through, while other fodder came from her pride about her mission school upbringing. She was fond of reminding the men of her education, and she liked to show it off by asking them for books. This amused her companions, and when she asked for a book about God, they couldn’t resist giving her Gargantua and Pantagruel—the story of a giant and his son—published in 1534 by Rabelais, the Benedictine monk who resorted to a pseudonym when he wrote his racy, satirical novels.

  “Now I will admit that God is mentioned in it,” Knight confided to his diary, “but not in the way that it is mentioned in the church.”

  They watched as Ada turned the pages, nodding her head solemnly over several passages. After a page or two, she would close the book and lie back on the ground, eyes shut, to meditate and sing hymns. The men tried to contain their laughter. “I wonder what the missionaries would think,” wrote Knight, “not that I give a darn.”

  On January 25, the sun first peeked over the horizon at just 5 degrees. Every day, little by little, it crept higher into the sky until, by the end of the month, there
was light enough for reading by 10:00 A.M. It would grow dark again by 2:00 P.M., unless it was cloudy, in which case they could barely read or shoot, and polar bears became invisible to the eye. There was a constant red glow from the south, where the great burning orb rested. But this hint of light failed to bring the warmth they craved. January had brought blizzard after blizzard, and the men and Ada were restless and itchy, confined to their makeshift house.

  In February, the weather continued to rage at them, shaking a violent, threatening fist over the island. Crawford celebrated his twenty-first birthday on February 1, and he talked with Knight of establishing a camp on the northern coast of the island for drying meat. They also discussed the possibility of building a camp on the ice for sealing.

  They talked over everything. Crawford was in charge, but everyone knew that Knight had the actual say. Crawford conferred with him on every decision, much more so than he did with Maurer. Galle and Ada were the only ones never consulted, but it didn’t bother either of them. Ada was content to do her work and carry on with her duties, and Galle, who had never liked being tied down to a job or family or any obligation, enjoyed the freedom to tend his traps and wander off into the mountains whenever he felt like it.

  Galle also helped Ada prepare what game they caught. They had a good time together and Ada enjoyed his company. He was so jolly and thoughtful, always telling her funny stories about his sister and brother and his home in Texas. She thought he was brilliant because he knew all sorts of languages, and was always writing down his words on his shiny black typewriter, and reading book after book the others had recommended. He asked her to teach him her language and to tell him Eskimo tales, which she would do because she liked to hear him laugh and to see him watch her.

  The temperature fell to minus 40 degrees in February, leaving the men and Ada huddled close to the stove through the night. On February 25, it dropped to minus 47.5 degrees. Storms sprang up for days at a time, swirling hurricanes of snow that left their skin raw and bones numb. For too many days, they were confined to the tent, keeping up with their general duties and trying not to think about the lack of game or the debilitating gales that blew through camp, leaving snow waist-deep and a fresh layer of ice over the sea.

  On March 6, Milton Galle turned twenty. The weather was gentler, but there was still snow and a prolonged fog had crept in. Mid-month, the temperature climbed as high as twenty degrees during the day, and the men celebrated the relative warmth. They practiced making igloos and shooting their rifles.

  Vic, the cat, had by now earned the nickname Snoops because of her investigative nature. She loved to prowl about the camp and stir up the dogs and eat anything she could find, edible or not. At night, the men or Ada would put out the fire, and she would crawl into one of their sleeping bags where she would remain, snug and warm, through the night.

  The fiercest wind yet blew in April, and there seemed nothing to do but haul wood and ice and remain at camp. There was no game to be had, no tracks to be seen, but a raven taunted them daily, soaring over their heads, just out of reach. Day after day, the raven appeared, circling ominously over camp. The men went out hunting, even though they saw no other sign of life, and sank to their waists in the snow. On March 27, the snow, at last, had begun to melt, and the temperature rose to a balmy 40 degrees, the warmest day they had seen.

  With the relief ship due in a few months, Crawford and Knight turned their thoughts to Melville Island, which lay off the coast of Nova Scotia. As far as they knew, no one had conducted any important geological work on the island, and they felt the Canadian government might be convinced to send them there without salary in the winter of 1922, once they returned home and thawed out. Crawford was a geologist, after all, and hoped to use his standing and connections in the Canadian Geological Survey to get them there. The only variable that might stop them was money.

  In spite of the age disparity and their differences in temperament, the two men thought highly of each other, and Knight admired Crawford’s brains and his savvy. He was one of the smartest and most modest men Knight had ever met. “I’ll put C. up against anyone I know except Stef,” Knight wrote in his journal.

  Crawford and Knight longed to make a trip around the island, but knew they wouldn’t be able to do so without dog feed. They had been cooking all the dogs’ meals for months, mostly rolled oats and rice, and once the oats ran out, then rice mixed with flour. The men and Ada weren’t in any danger of starving yet—after all, they hadn’t completely depleted their stores—but they began to feel a nagging worry about the lack of game on the island. The supplies wouldn’t last forever, and then what would they do? Since January, they had only managed to get nine foxes, two bears, and one seal. Maurer was the most skilled hunter, but Crawford was the luckiest, bringing home the bears and the seal; most of the foxes turned up in Galle’s traps. Another one of the dogs had died of violent convulsions, and they laid his body out on the ice next to his dead companion. When they noticed one day that the bodies had been gnawed at, they laid the traps out around the dog carcasses. Suddenly, they had foxes.

  But that wasn’t enough, considering they were out hunting, rifles slung over their shoulders, as much as the foul weather would allow. Day after day, they set out, searching for fresh animal tracks with increasing frustration. Now and then, they found an old pair of tracks but rarely fresh ones. It made no sense. All the game seemed to have vanished.

  By May, the snow began melting rapidly, dissolving into the cold, black tundra. It still snowed that month, but the weather was improving. They were grateful for it as they moved to a new camp for the summer. The walls of their house had begun to melt and now they were living in a puddle of water, so they moved the supplies to drier ground, one hundred feet away, and pitched tents.

  The men and Ada began to look toward June and July with excitement and anticipation because the ship would be arriving then. Their time on the island hadn’t been wretched or even terribly difficult, but they were weary and they were ready to see new faces and restock their dwindling larder with fresh supplies. The potatoes, onions, rolled oats, and beans had given out, and the only bacon that remained was three or four rancid slabs. They had plenty of hard bread, tea, and coffee, a handful of rice, and a bit of sugar. At the end of May, they watched helplessly as flocks of geese and ducks flew overhead, but none fell to their rifles. Crawford, Maurer, Knight, and Galle watched, too, as the seals began to creep out onto the ice, knowing they couldn’t be reached because the ice around shore was too thin and the seals too far out.

  Ada was homesick, just as they all were, and she told them so. She had turned 24 on May 10, and longed to return to home and mother, just as Maurer missed his wife and family and talked of the nice things he would do for them when he went back to New Philadelphia. Crawford spoke the names of his mother and sister with wistfulness, and Lorne Knight liked to talk of everyone—his brother, his parents, and, of course, his Miss Jones. It helped to know the men were homesick, too, and Ada seldom broke down into crying fits and rarely let her feelings interrupt her work now. They would all be brave together and the men were grateful for that. It would have been too much, on top of the shortage of fresh meat and the bleak weather conditions, to have Ada carrying on like she had before. Now they were growing fond of her, and Knight noted in his diary that they would miss her when she returned with the ship that summer.

  The second day of June was their worst so far on the island. A blinding gale and snow whipped up without warning, and large drifts were building rapidly on the ice. The seas had opened up a bit in May, which raised their hopes for the ship. But now there was no open water to be seen anywhere, and the weather was nasty—cloudy, dark, drizzling, blowing.

  They managed to kill a few birds for specimens, but they were too thin and small to eat. The seals continued to elude them, even with the Eskimo retriever, a device for hooking seals out of the water and reeling them in. The seals were just too slippery. Even if the men were somehow able to hi
t one, the animal would slide off the ice into the water before they could reach it. They tried the crawling method of hunting—also inherited from the Eskimo—sliding along the ground on their bellies toward a sleeping seal. Pausing whenever the seal glanced up to check for bears, as it did frequently, and then inching forward again as soon as the seal’s head had dropped back to rest. The method took dark clothing and endless patience, and sometimes a bit of wriggling to convince the seals that you were one of them. But there still wasn’t much to show for it.

  “Our names should be ‘hard luck’ or ‘incompetent,’ ” Knight wrote in his diary, and it was difficult for them not to be critical of themselves. If only the umiak hadn’t been lost overboard. If only they were better with guns. If only they knew what they were doing.

  It would be good to see Stefansson, to hear news of the outside world, and to read the letters he would bring them from their families and to give him the ones they had written. It would be good to feel connected again, to feel a part of the world below, and to find out what progress Stefansson had made with the British government.

  Back in New York, there was no money to be had. It was the middle of June and Stefansson had no relief ship and no funding. No one wanted to help him; he had no borrowing power; and the Canadian government had sent no further word regarding the status of its support. The U.S. State Department sentence had been severe and had hurt his chances tremendously. This meant it was up to Stefansson to find the money and the boat.

  The families of the men on Wrangel Island were writing to him constantly. Delphine Maurer was anxious to go north to join her husband, and hoped to win a spot on the relief ship. The Galles wrote letters and gathered the ones they had saved from Sohnie’s friends and girlfriends, and were afraid they might forget to include something in the box they were sending to him. The Crawfords and the Knights, too, wanted to send packages to the boys. Mr. Knight asked for information about the expedition—could they expect Lorne home that summer? Lorne’s grandfather was ninety-four years old and gradually failing, but he did not intend to die until he saw his grandson again.

 
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