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


  Mr. Knight was concerned by the newspaper accounts he was reading. Stefansson had been quoted as saying that none of the party had been aware of the purpose of the expedition—to claim the island for Britain—which the Knights knew wasn’t true. All those men well knew what they were getting into. Stefansson had made it clear to them. So why was he telling the papers something different?

  Stefansson himself was broke, and while he assumed the men would be fine out there—it was the Friendly Arctic, after all—he thought it best to appeal to the Canadian government on a humanitarian level. Whether they approved of the expedition or not, those men might be sick or injured, needing medical attention. This was to be a relief expedition and not a rescue, but lives might very well be lost if a ship was not sent and soon. To the Minister and Deputy Minister of the Interior, Stefansson wrote, “Please urge upon Council that there are on Wrangel Island four men in Canadian service whose lives are in danger.”

  His friend Orville Wright, aviation pioneer, had donated $3,000 to the cause, but Stefansson needed more. He asked the Canadian government for $5,000, to cover the supplies and the chartering of the ship. In answer, the government—which still refused to wholly and officially support his claim to the island—offered him $3,000 for his relief trip, but no more.

  Stefansson had been negotiating for a ship with his agents in Nome, and had located a schooner named the Teddy Bear. Stefansson had known her captain, Joe Bernard, since 1910 and thought well of him. Bernard was told nothing of the political implications of the expedition, only that it was a commercial venture. He was instructed to take along three white men and a group of Eskimos to Wrangel Island, who would serve to relieve Crawford’s team of their duties.

  Stefansson made a bargain with Bernard that the skipper would receive $1,000 of the government’s donation if he failed to reach the island, and the remaining $2,000 if he was successful. That first $1,000 was exhausted quickly on supplies, crew’s wages, insurance on the vessel, and all the other costs involved. If Bernard didn’t make the island, he was going to lose money on this journey, but he felt sorry for those young men out there, and the woman they had taken along with them. There was another ship’s captain anxious to go, but Bernard wanted to be the one. He knew the other captain, and knew he wouldn’t break his back to reach that island. He knew the other skipper would just take one long, intimidated look at Bering Strait and all that ice and head back.

  John Muir had described in excruciating detail the enduring fog which enshrouded the land in 1881, the forbidding, close-packed ice that stretched endlessly along the coast. Bernard knew that the ice could crush and shatter violently, and that a ship was almost as vulnerable as a person to the churning and grinding of the floes. The odds were slim that any ship could get through this late in the season, but Bernard vowed to be successful or die trying.

  The old camp at Rodger’s Harbour was just as Maurer remembered it. Relics from his stay there were littered across the ground. Scraps of the tent remained. Rusted tins of pemmican. A knife. A bit of animal skin or dog harness. Maurer and Galle had made the forty-mile hike to Rodger’s Harbour to examine the trapping possibilities. Anything could have been better than the godforsaken place where they were camping now.

  The graves of the men from the disastrous 1913 Karluk expedition were still there, of course. Fred Maurer had helped to dig those graves, had lowered their bodies into the cold, hard earth. He had erected the crude wooden cross which had stood watch over them, stiff and proud, like a soldier. The cross had now ceased its watch, and lay broken on the ground, blown down by the winds that continuously brutalized the island.

  * * *

  August 23, 1922

  Dear Mr. Maurer:

  The schooner Teddy Bear, under command of one of the most experienced arctic navigators, Captain Joe Bernard, sailed from Nome Sunday afternoon, August 20th, for Wrangel Island. With good luck they should be back in two weeks.

  The Teddy Bear carried three white men and some Eskimos who are to spend the next winter on Wrangel Island. I am hoping that one of the men who were there this year will remain another year in command of the newcomers, but I do not know which it will be.

  Vilhjalmur Stefansson

  * * *

  Chapter Seven

  THE RIVER reached wider than the Yamhill in Oregon. Knight stood with his canine companion, loaded down with blankets, socks, an extra pair of boots, and some tea and sugar, and surveyed the long stretch of water. The Skeleton River. Such a chillingly appropriate name.

  He’d left camp on July 7, intending to live off the country for a few days alone. Taking one dog, he’d headed east first for Rodger’s Harbour, where he spent the night at the Karluk’s old camp. He left a note for Stefansson, in case he should land there with the relief ship, and he examined the grave of the Karluk men and the fallen cross that now lay impotent on the ground.

  The next day he had set out for Waring Point, on the southeastern coast of the island. It was then that he first ran smack into the Skeleton River. Skeleton Island itself was a mere spit of sand on the eastern side of the river. Half of an empty pemmican tin lay on the ground near the remains of a campfire, which had burned long ago, further evidence of the Karluk party, now long since gone. The ice was thick along the beach here, and the hills inland were still capped with snow. Crossing the river was easy once Knight traveled on the ice that hugged the shoreline for two hundred yards or so.

  At Waring Point, the sky opened and the rain began to pour. Why hadn’t he thought to bring a tent? Miserably, Knight and the dog had huddled in to wait out the storm. Other members of the Karluk expedition had lived here as well, and the debris from two long-abandoned campsites lay nearby, but no tents remained in which to seek shelter. There were raggedy scraps of canvas here and there, pinned beneath rocks or frozen fast into the snow, and from these he made a windbreak and managed to sleep for four hours.

  For three days, Knight and the dog had waited out the rain. The dog ate nothing, and Knight had only what he could kill—one duck and a couple of ratty crowbills with very little meat on them. They were a team, Knight and the dog, both hungry as could be and wishing for cover. The dog’s feet were tender and he was weak from not eating, so Knight had a hell of a time getting him to move when the rain finally ceased.

  It was snowing when Knight and the dog broke camp on July 10 and turned south toward home. Knight’s boots were wearing raw and he was exhausted from the horrible weather and lack of food. He wanted to get back to the main camp as soon as possible, and thought he’d take a short cut to the river by following the wind. But when the wind shifted, he stumbled off course and ended up twice as far away as he should have been.

  And now he faced the river, the Skeleton River, wider than ever and running swiftly. He looked left and right, and there was that river, just stretching out in either direction. The mouth was some 250 feet wide; the current swift and strong. To cross it would be suicide. There must be a way around. Knight gave up for the evening and sat through what felt like a hurricane, not sleeping, watching the dog rest, and drinking some tea. He built a fire, but it didn’t do much good because he had no shelter and the wind and snow and beads of ice beat down upon his head and face.

  The next morning, he shook off the snow and stretched his frozen limbs. Then, leaving his blankets and other baggage behind, Knight and the dog walked to the north bank of the river to find a place to cross. Eight hours later, he still hadn’t found an opening, and his legs were aching from trudging through wet snow, standing water, and ankle-deep mud. He attempted to cross at points where the river looked more shallow, but the current was swift and he lost his footing. The dog was all in, and so was Knight, so finally he said to hell with it and plunged into the icy cold depths. The shock of the freezing water knocked the breath out of him, but he lifted his camera, extra rolls of film, and matches above his head in a pair of water boots, and together he and the dog swam the river at its narrowest point—two hundred feet or
so. Knight struggled to keep his breath, and fought against being swept downriver.

  Somehow, they made it, and crawled up onto the beach on the other side. Knight’s watch had gone dead, but from what he could tell it was about five hours later when he and the dog found themselves at Rodger’s Harbour, where they celebrated with a raging fire. One of the dog’s legs had gone lame and the soles of Knight’s boots had worn away completely, but they hobbled the rest of the way to Maurer and Crawford’s old trapping camp, where Knight collapsed and slept a much-needed eight hours. When he awoke the next morning, he was stiff and hurting, but six miles later he was back at the base camp drinking black coffee and feasting on seal meat, and feeling just as “jake” as could be.

  The Teddy Bear left Nome on August 20, 1922, carrying all the correspondence for the men and a fresh team of colonists to plant on Wrangel Island. A letter of instruction from Nome businessman and Stefansson acquaintance Ralph Lomen to Allan Crawford joined the sack of U.S. mail that had been saved up since last September. Mr. Stefansson, the letter stated, wanted Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle to remain on the island for another season. He hoped that at least one of them would stay to command the new recruits. Supplies were being sent, though it was hard to know what the men were in need of, and they would also have a fresh team of dogs. “We will be glad to welcome you back in Nome,” Lomen concluded, “and sincerely hope that the past winter has been kind in all respects to the entire party.”

  A strong northerly gale soon altered the ship’s course, but those on board—Captain Bernard especially—were optimistic about their success. While they sat out an uncooperative northerly wind at Cape Prince of Wales, however, they received some disturbing news. The schooner Sea Wolf had just sailed in from Kotzebue, bringing word that all ships sailing into the Arctic that summer were locked in ice. The ice conditions, they warned, were unusually bad this year.

  Undaunted, the Teddy Bear steamed ahead. On August 24, she entered the ice pack off East Cape, Siberia. Bernard had expected ice, and had known they would run into a good deal of it, but there were some breathless moments as they struggled with a southeasterly gale. On August 28, they reached Cape Wankarem, where they were delayed a day due to the pack. The ice here was thicker, more precarious, and they would have to wait it out before moving forward.

  All the while, back in New Philadelphia, Toronto, McMinnville, and New Braunfels, the families waited anxiously. They had sent letters, telegrams, and packages to Captain Bernard, to be delivered to their boys. John Knight knew that the four men on the island would have the option of returning home or remaining at their Arctic posts, and personally he hoped that Lorne would stay. Lorne’s grandfather was gone now, after suffering a hard fall. It was assumed that Crawford and Galle, neither of whom had been away from home for this long, would be homesick and anxious to return. Maurer, who seemed to have the call of the North in his blood, might just stay. And as for Lorne—as much as Mr. Knight missed his son, he was so proud of all he was doing, and he would be prouder still if Lorne remained on Wrangel.

  “Of course, we... would love to see Lorne home again,” he wrote to Harry Galle, “but, there is a greater thing for him now, to show his metal [sic] and go on than to come home much as he may wish to come home. I feel sure that they will report all well and in good spirits and hope they will all volunteer to carry on because that expedition means something big yet.”

  And to Stefansson, he wrote: “We would greatly love to see him and have him with us again but I don’t believe that he would be justified in coming out now and leaving the work unfinished and I hope he will see it that way.”

  The snow on Wrangel Island had melted away in July, and Crawford, Knight, Maurer, Galle, and Ada turned eager and expectant eyes toward the horizon. Daily, they observed the movements of the ice— whether it traveled three quarters of a mile off shore, or began to close up, or drifted out away from land and then back in again. By July 28, the ice was completely out of sight, and their hearts rose. They were sure that it would only be a matter of days before the ship arrived.

  Who would go back with it and who would stay? It was such a tremendous adventure for everyone. As eager as the men were to see home and family, they were also anxious to remain and carry out their mission. But Ada, they felt certain, would return. She was still painfully homesick and the thought of being so far removed from her son made her eyes darken and her smile fade. Crawford, Maurer, Galle, and even Knight all noted that they would actually be sorry to see her go.

  They had read and reread all their books four or five times. Sometimes, after they finished their chores for the day, they went to bed by 2:00 P.M. Other times, while Ada worked at her sewing, the men remained in bed all day, rising in the evening. Because they were bored, they passed the time gambling and making idle wagers. The more opinionated Galle and Knight were especially fond of this pursuit. With his usual good-natured cockiness, Galle bet Knight $5.00 that the President of the United States earned a salary of $75,000 with $25,000 in travel expenses, and Knight vowed to show him up as soon as they got home and found out the real answer. Galle also amused himself by trying to catch birds so that he could attach messages to their legs.

  The four men tried their hands at photography, Knight attempting to capture the moonlight on the ice; Crawford photographing a polar bear where it had fallen on the beach; Galle filming a whale vertebrae. They wanted to remember everything they had seen. Galle and Crawford were the most prolific photographers, washing and printing the films they had shot, and drying the pictures over a lamp or in the oven, until the chemicals finally ran out.

  The stars were visible on some nights, breaking through the constant cloud barrier. The northern lights gave them regular shows, spectacular in their glowing and strobing greens, reds, blues, and golds. There was an undeniable beauty to this land.

  The summer had brought grass three inches high and the delicate blooms of the island wildflowers. Ada and Galle would go walking sometimes, collecting flowers, which they took back to camp. Galle could identify most of them, although there were some that even he didn’t know. He became excited over these and would tell Ada it was a new species, and she would help him collect his specimens so that he could study them and show the others.

  Some days, Ada fished in the streams for hours, trying to hook tomcod, like they had in Alaska. But she never saw a tomcod, and she never caught anything. Sometimes she accompanied the men on hunting trips to help them bring back the game they killed. She and Galle collected roots from their daily walks and she boiled them up with the meat, and she found some greens which tasted like watercress, only sweeter.

  She and Galle had been toying with different ways to serve seal blubber. The company had been boiling everything since they landed on the island nearly a year ago—which was in the Eskimo style, and the way Ada was accustomed to cooking things. But in August, Galle told them he was sick of boiled food, and thought it might taste better if they fried up some bear steaks in the fat they had stored. This tasted good to everyone, and for a while was the preparation of choice.

  Since they had landed on the island, Galle had taken an increasing interest in the food preparation. He liked to help Ada with the cooking and began to view it as a kind of game, determined to find ways they could keep their diet interesting. With great care, he noted their menus in his diary, including verses he created on the subject, which helped to cheer him after a particularly dismal meal. “If you are at a dinner—a big one lets say,—Find your place as soon as you’re able; If in the confusion you strike the wrong side, you shouldn’t step over the table.”

  Knight was always picky about his food. He hated the taste of fox, and he liked his meat overdone. Ada, meanwhile, had never cared for bear meat. It tasted too strong, in her opinion. But the bear meat that Galle fried up tasted delicious to her, just like beefsteak.

  They were eating fine, but there was a faint nagging of hunger now as, little by little, supplies ran out. Galle and Cr
awford dipped hard bread in grease all day long, but could never seem to feel satisfied.

  Whether it was bear, duck, goose, or seal meat, they found it all tasted better served with candy. When they exhausted the ready-made sweets they had brought with them to the island, they attempted to make their own. Night after night, Galle experimented with different recipes because he was determined to satisfy his sweet tooth despite a throbbing abscess growing on his upper molar. It hurt like hell, but he wasn’t about to stop eating or making candy.

  Crawford, meanwhile, made the maps. The work was appealing to his disciplined, curious mind, and he embraced the responsibility with characteristic enthusiasm and dedication. He left often to explore the land, and when he came back he would spread out his papers and draw lines and numbers. Once he went away for an entire week, which was, Ada thought, a long time to be without him, and when he came back he said he had climbed a high mountain and looked in every direction. From what he could see, the island—if it were in a straight line—would stretch one hundred miles long and thirty miles wide. He also said that a ship making at least four fathoms could probably make it through to Doubtful Harbour. This was important because they were all thinking about the ship that should soon be coming for them.

  They were collecting the skins of the animals they killed, and storing them in flour sacks. They had four full sacks so far, all fox, which they would take back with them for money. Ada wouldn’t get any of it, but that was okay because she would have a great deal of money— $50 a month for every month she’d been there—waiting for her when she returned. She didn’t mind it out here so very much anymore. The homesickness still crept up on her, rushing in waves, but for the most part it had subsided and she knew that if the ship came, she would be going home soon. She enjoyed the work she was doing. The men told her what to do and she did it and did it well. It was good to feel useful.

 
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