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


  On August 9, Crawford, Galle, and Maurer left on an exploratory journey along the coast. They planned to mimic Knight’s earlier trip, with Galle turning back at Skeleton River, and Crawford and Maurer continuing on to Cape Waring, or Waring Point, for a few days. It was the first time Ada had been left alone with Knight, this man she had come to fear. Ever since she’d begun working again he’d been friendlier to her and spoke more pleasantly. She would help him with whatever he needed while the others were away so that he would keep being nice.

  He killed a polar bear while Crawford and the others were gone, a great, fat one. “Can you imagine the Smith Bld. falling?” Knight boasted in a letter he composed to his parents. “Well, that is the way he hit the ground.” After breakfast, he and Ada skinned the bear but didn’t bother to collect the meat because he told her they had enough ducks and geese to keep them fed. But he was lying. They needed the meat but he knew there was no way he would be able to haul it home right now with only Ada to help him. It was his hip that was giving him trouble. It had been bothering him since he’d returned from Skeleton Island and it just seemed to be getting worse.

  Besides, he rationalized, they were doing fine with food. They had eaten well since the end of June. The hunting had been more successful, either because they were finding their rhythm with a rifle or because the game was more plentiful, and they had caught over forty seals alone. In the Eskimo way, they cut up a seal after it was killed, removing the blubber from the outside of the body. This they would slice into strips and store in the pokes, or sealskin bags. In this way, they accumulated some two thousand pounds of oil, while also saving the meat from the animal by drying it and storing it.

  Everyone’s spirits were brightened by a catch, but toward the middle of August, long after the three had returned from their exploratory trek, they grew frustrated once more. Luck seemed to have disappeared. The sky opened, offering a fall of snow which draped the earth in white. The men couldn’t reach the seals. The bears all but vanished, and not even Ada, who had eyes like a telescope, could spot any. They could hear walrus in the distance, but couldn’t see them thanks to the heavy fog and the rafters of ice, which were forming off shore. A ship was expected every day, and the ice was an unwelcome sight. To each other, the men and Ada remained optimistic and cheerful. A ship would come soon. It was, no doubt, delayed by the ice, and would be here before too long. But in private, each of them watched the horizon and worried.

  As their unease increased, the five inhabitants of Wrangel Island kept themselves as busy as possible. On exploratory walks, the men discovered mammoth and mastodon tusks and bones scattered about, emerging from their ancient snowy graveyard as the sun melted the land. They found animal teeth and ivory, an eerie reminder of the lives that had preceded them on the island.

  On August 28, Crawford gathered everyone—including Vic—for their one and only group portrait. They sat together, huddled close, as the wind whipped at them from the west. Galle held Vic in his lap, while Ada edged close to Crawford. Their faces and hands were kissed by a thin layer of dirt, the men’s chins so cloaked in whiskers that their families might not have recognized them.

  Knight was the most drastically changed, although all the men were leaner now. His stout, oversized frame was narrow and slender. His face, previously round and apple-cheeked, was slim, and he looked, for the first time, almost handsome. Maurer’s beard was bushy, his blond hair falling nearly to his shoulders. Crawford barely resembled the dapper, well-groomed boy of the previous year. His smooth, cherubic face was now sharply angled, his dark hair tangled and wild. Milton Galle had grown into his features, and his parents would hardly have known the tall, good-looking young man with the weathered brow and the tousled mane of hair. Ada, too, had changed. The cheekbones stood out in her pretty, elfin face, and womanly lines etched the corners of her eyes and mouth.

  They were physically and mentally worn down and worn out, and trying to ignore the increasing evidence of wear and tear on their bodies. Crawford had a bad hand; Maurer constantly complained of lethargy; Ada suffered a wrenched back; an agonizing ulcer was growing on Galle’s lower jaw; and a week after he returned from crossing the Skeleton River, Knight had noticed a soreness in his feet and a stiffness in his joints, especially his hip. He tried to ignore it, suspecting rheumatism, but by the following week, he was forced to stay close to camp. His right thigh hurt the worst and it made walking painful. He crawled into his bed and stayed there for several days, only getting out of it when absolutely necessary. He hated being idle, hated not doing his share, hated having free time to think about when and if the ship was actually coming, but the pain was quick and surprising and he knew he needed to heal. Much as he detested the thought, he would just have to rest up until the rheumatism passed.

  Letters and telegrams from the Galles, the Crawfords, the Knights, and Delphine Maurer streamed in to Stefansson in New York, asking for any information he could spare. “Fear mishap has befallen Teddy Bear,” read the wire from Professor Crawford. “Would it be advisable to send another boat equipped with wireless to its relief. Is relief by airship impossible?”

  It was the iciest season anyone could remember in that far northern region—the worst ice conditions in twenty-five years. At Cape Wankarem, the skipper of the Amy had warned Captain Bernard about continuing north. Bernard persisted in spite of it, following the edge of the pack toward the west. But the ship was not strong enough to withstand the pressure. Ice sliced into the plank, above the iron sheeting, and her propeller was bowed and twisted by the crushing floes. Fifty-five miles west of Cape Serdze, on the northern shore of Anadyr Bay, Siberia, Bernard and his men took a break from their halting progress to survey the situation. From the highest elevation, the report was grim—nothing but a solid wall of ice across the horizon in the direction of Wrangel Island.

  Bernard consulted with his crew. They didn’t see any hope of moving forward and worried about the danger to the ship if they should press on. What’s more, from the reports they had received from other ships, and from what they could see themselves from the ship’s lookout, all the approaches to the island were blocked by ice. There was no chance of getting near the island and it would be difficult to make their way to Crawford and the others on foot. They would have to return to Nome.

  The Teddy Bear arrived in Alaska on September 22, and Bernard sent the news of their failure to Stefansson on the 25th. “Teddy Bear unsuccessful. Encountered arctic pack, propeller damaged. All navigators here predicted failure due to unusual ice condition.”

  It was a bitter disappointment for Bernard. He knew the families would be wanting news, that they would be beside themselves when they found out the mission had failed. Although quoted in the newspapers as being “deeply concerned” for his party, Stefansson had confidence that the men were fine, that all would be well till next summer, when a ship would definitely be able to reach them. Upon sending the four young men and Ada to Wrangel Island, Stefansson had considered the fact that, due to the fickle nature of the ice, they might have to spend two winters there without relief. The worst malady to expect was homesickness, he conjectured. But Bernard wasn’t so convinced. “If a native could live there,” he was quoted as saying in the Denver Post, “I’d say those fellows could hang on. But no native has ever lived there.”

  Stefansson could have attempted a sled trip from Siberia to the island, he explained, but he didn’t consider it necessary. “We had no reason to fear that assistance was needed and no reason to think that the skill of the men already there was inadequate to meet the situation.” Therefore, he concentrated instead on his writing and his public speaking, which would, he hoped, help to sway the government to his side.

  When the families received the news of the Teddy Bear’s failure, they reached out to Stefansson in alarm. “Is there nothing we can do?” Professor Crawford telegraphed. “Is it too late and dangerous now to send another boat?”

  “There is,” Stefansson wrote back, “no mo
re need to worry about them than if they were in some European City or an ordinary place and were merely not in the habit of communicating with you. In other words, the only worries you need have for Allan are the same which he may reasonably have about you, and his chance of being safe and well next fall is the same as your own.”

  Delphine Maurer wrote him, too, asking for guidance. She trusted in the Lord, but she needed added reassurance. “As I see it,” Stefansson wrote in return, “there is no cause for special anxiety about the men on Wrangel Island. They are as likely as you or I to be safe and well a year from now.”

  It was difficult in New Braunfels to get any news of the far North, so it was a friend of a friend of the Galles who first read the news in a New York paper that the Teddy Bear had failed to reach Wrangel Island. The article was passed on to Harry and Alma, who were left digesting the bitter failure of the relief expedition through third- or fourth-hand information, as well as the fact that Mr. Stefansson had not contacted them directly.

  Trying to sound brave, Alma wrote to Stefansson. It wouldn’t do to raise a fuss or to let him know how despondent she was. She felt desperate, fearful, but Stefansson was not to be bothered with that. He had his own worries, and she assumed he was just as hard struck by the failure of the ship as they were. “How welcome any news will be that you can forward to us about our boys can hardly be expressed. Had almost given up hopes of hearing anything further this year, but are anxious to know how near Captain Bernard came to the island. That we cannot hear from our boys is to be regretted, but that mail could not reach them even more so. I feel that news from the world would have made another winter indeed more pleasant...and we are all hoping that our boys will pass as pleasant a Christmas as possible.”

  “This means merely that the men on the island are cut off from communication for a year,” Stefansson replied, as he had to the other parents. “They are just as safe on their island as Robinson Crusoe was on his—a little more so because there are no cannibals in that vicinity. They are just as likely as you or I in Texas or New York to be safe and well a year from now.” Galle and Crawford might very well be so homesick, he said, that they would consider a journey to Siberia. While it would not be a dangerous journey, thanks to the American and Russian traders who were scattered along the coast, as well as the nomadic reindeer herders, he hoped they wouldn’t attempt it because it would be expensive.

  John Knight added his own words of comfort. “They are safe,” he wrote again to Harry Galle, “and I hope well, and their failure is a word that is not yet written.”

  The men were very interested in the movement of the ice, and Ada understood that it was important if a ship was to get through. Sometimes the ocean cleared out and their faces brightened, and sometimes the ice came back in and they worried. Ada wondered how far the ice reached into the ocean. Did it spread as far as Nome? Did it reach to Russia? She decided to take a trip one day to see. She set out on her own until she came to the foot of a mountain. She thought she might climb it as far as she could and look for the end of the ice. But a thick fog rolled in and the sun began to fade, as it always did, so Ada turned back toward camp, still not knowing where the ice began.

  Their luck had been good in June and July. The sealing had been strong, and they had shot more ducks and geese than they could count. But as July merged into August and then into September, their misfortune returned. “I shoot, no luck,” Galle summed up. They launched the dory on September 2, and all four of the fellows went after the herd of walrus that had taunted them for weeks. Maurer and Galle each shot and killed one, but bringing them home wasn’t as easy. The creatures were massive, and the four men could collect only a portion of the meat. They loaded the sled with a walrus skin four feet thick, ten feet long, and eight feet wide, dragging it across the ice. They dropped it at camp and went back for the meat. They were just nearing home when they capsized on the ice and lost all but one shoulder and a portion of the liver—just fifty pounds of their catch.

  Ada cooked the walrus heart with some roots. They fried up the meat they’d managed to save, but it was extremely tough. Safe to eat, but that was it. They switched from walrus steaks to walrus stew as the meat ran thin, and then began boiling it again. They made bird stew, and Galle even experimented with frying hard breadcrumbs. They scooped them up eagerly with spoons, and the concoction tasted nice for a change. When the walrus meat turned sour it was better tasting, and as the game began to dissipate, they were grateful to have anything at all to make a meal, even walrus flippers, which were practically inedible.

  Ever since they arrived on Wrangel Island, they had eaten what they pleased without rationing. Hard bread alone was devoured several times a day, at meals and between meals. But with the thinning game, and no rescue ship yet on the horizon, they began to ration supplies. It was Galle’s idea to break out one box of bread and issue two pieces a day to each person. In this way, one box would last them twenty days. Crawford approved the plan, but when he broke into a box one day early, Galle was furious with him.

  “Coffee has taken place of tea,” Galle noted in his diary on August 24. “I don’t like it.” They had been drinking tea every day from 4:00 till 6:00 P.M., but now they must ration it. The sugar ran out, but they had plenty of saccharine, which they used liberally.

  They stored the meat of the seals in two large barrels. Once they filled these, they would begin drying the meat so they would have it for winter, should the ship fail to make the island. Skins hung about camp, drying, while other skins still waited to be cleaned. They had six seal pokes now, filled with some 1,200 pounds of blubber.

  “At a dinner if anything happens amiss,” Galle wrote in his notebook following one of Maurer’s frequent attacks of biliousness, “to appear quite unconscious is best—It’s bad form to notice the little Faux Pas, They should pass unobserved by the guests.”

  Galle had been taking aspirin for the ache in his jaw, but it didn’t seem to help and the pain nagged at him all day long. As he was eating one night, the ulcer in his mouth broke and left him in agony. None of them had medical knowledge, so they would just have to do their best to stay well. Galle must try to ignore the excruciating pain of the ruptured ulcer because there was nothing else to be done for it except to take medicine for a headache and pray for the ship to come.

  The rain returned at the end of August, and they threw tarpaulins over the tents to keep the water out. All too soon, it felt like winter again, as the fog, the snow, and the cold came creeping back. Unfortunately, so did the ice. The horizon turned white, as they watched the ice gradually float back into the harbor. The snow came thick and heavy, and the ice grew until it blanketed the sea. Every day, they awoke hopefully to a strong breeze, but were treated only to the sight of that thin, pale skin over the ocean. Soon, the ground was entirely covered in snow. But they still hoped for a ship.

  On September 7, Crawford took a walk to the hills to have a look at the ice. From where he stood, he could see that it was broken up to the east, with leads of water trickling through. It was thick ice, must have been, because it seemed to be holding back the huge floes which crowded and strained beyond. On September 10, Knight trekked a mile and a half inland and climbed a high ridge. To the west, there was ice. To the east, there was ice with a wide lead breaking up the white. To the south, again all ice.

  They prayed for a strong wind, and whenever a gale whipped up, they celebrated. “Let her blow,” Knight wrote in his journal. “The harder the better.” It may have made it unpleasant for them, but they knew the wind could help carry the ice off shore. Sometimes in the distance, they spotted what they thought looked like a water sky far out to sea, which meant there had to be open water somewhere. As the darkness increased steadily, they lit candles and hung a lantern outside the tent to attract the ship. But with each day that passed, pushing them deeper into September, the ice stubbornly showed no movement.

  There would be no ship this year. By the middle of September, Crawford, Knight
, Maurer, Galle, and Ada had to face that crushing disappointment. The window of time had ended, just like the window of time for summer had come and gone, leaving in its place sleet, drizzle, fog, snow, and gradually darkening skies. They would have to spend another fall, winter, and spring before they could hope to see relief. They had come to Wrangel Island to occupy it, claiming it for Great Britain, and they had come to study, to explore, and to assimilate knowledge of the area. They had done these things, had accomplished their mission, and now they must face another winter.

  They would need to reorganize their daily lives. Supplies must be hoarded. Rationing must be adhered to. They must find a new camp because they had exhausted their wood supply for two miles on either side of their present position, and it would be easier to move the camp to wood than to move the wood to camp. If they had only known sooner that the ship wasn’t coming, it would have been easier to reorganize, to save and to ration, and to move camp before the weather had grown so difficult and before they stood facing the swift approach of winter.

  Crawford and Knight left camp on September 20 to search for a good location. That spring, Galle had found a site on the inside spit of the harbor mouth, just two and a half miles away near Doubtful Harbour. Now, Crawford and Knight surveyed the spot with a critical eye and found piles of driftwood and the first open water they had seen in a while.

  As usual, they said nothing to Galle or Ada about it when they returned, but Galle sensed that they would be moving just as soon at the weather allowed. There was no mention of when or how or what the camp would be like when they got there. He suspected they were planning to make one big trip with the dory, hauling supplies and equipment, and that he would just get the word in the next few days. Probably, he assumed, he would simply awake one morning to “ ‘Get the hell up, we are going to move to-day.’ ” But when a frigid gale swept in, bringing wind and snow, they waited it out for several days before beginning the transfer.

 
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