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


  Actually, when the time came to move, Galle awoke to, “Coffee for you.” Then they began the long and tedious task of transporting everything to the new site. Once there, they chopped and piled wood, and erected two ridgepoles and six upright rails, nine feet tall, for the walls of the new house. It took thirty-odd rafters slanted upward with poles crossed on top to construct the ceiling.

  Because they were surrounded by ice on all sides, they wouldn’t be able to use the dory to move their equipment and supplies as they’d hoped, but would have to haul everything by sled. At the new campsite, they were treated to the sight of ducks—several hundred of them—and seagulls and ravens. They would make the most of the new place and of their situation. They would push aside their disappointment over the ship, and focus on the work at hand.

  Crawford and Knight began pondering the idea of making the trip across the ice to Siberia next spring. It was a journey, they estimated, which would take anywhere from one hundred to two hundred miles, depending on their route. Once ashore, they would head some five hundred miles on foot down the rugged and wild Siberian coast to the nearest wireless station, which meant either Russia’s Emma Harbor or Nome. They had five dogs in fair shape and a sled Knight planned to strengthen for the task. It was, in his opinion, just another opportunity to “demonstrate the ‘Living off the country’ which has never failed yet as far as the Stefansson expeditions are concerned.”

  Galle certainly didn’t expect or feel the need to be consulted about their plans to cross to Siberia. He had known his place from the outset of this expedition and had accepted it happily. Crawford and Knight were in charge, with Maurer as consultant. But Galle overheard them talking to each other in hushed tones, dropping words or phrases, which made him suspect a “mysterious dash” to Siberia.

  On the way back to the old camp from setting up the new one, Knight at last told Galle of the plans to cross the ice next spring. It would be Nome, not Siberia, if they could make it there, he said, but did not mention the reasons for the trip. They would need a good bit of money to take with them, he told Galle, and asked if he had any. Galle had only $2.50 and told Knight he was welcome to all of it. “K keeps conversation pretty nonsensical,” he noted later. “Of course, I can figure their motives.” And, Galle added, Knight had said that he was reluctant to make the trip, but he had to.

  The stiffness in the back; the pain in his hip; the general lethargy and weakness. Knight tried to tell himself it was all due to rheumatism, brought on by the swim through cold water. But the feelings were disturbingly, alarmingly familiar.

  In the spring of 1917 on his expedition with Stefansson, it had started with irritability, followed by a melancholy that he couldn’t seem to shake. Afterward, he was plagued by sluggishness and joint pain. Then there was shortness of breath and dizziness. Knight had heard of scurvy, of course, had known it was caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, knew that limeys had taken their nicknames from the preventative lime juice issued to ships of the British Navy in 1795, and knew that polar explorers must be watchful of it. But beyond that, he’d never given it much thought.

  Back then, he had liked to boast that a fat man was protected from the cold, but for some reason he always seemed to feel it more than the others. As they had traveled across the snow and ice, his feet were dangerously chilled, but he urged his teammates to keep moving. It was his heel, and when he stopped to nurse it, it really began to hurt. He wasn’t able to bathe out there or change into dry clothing, and was eating mostly dried vegetables and fruits, and fried, boiled, or roasted meat. Then they switched to pemmican and hard bread. There was dry meat, too, but Knight’s teeth were too tender to chew it. From April 7 to May 12, 1917, he ate no fresh meat at all, and he lived largely on rolled oats, rice, sugar, and cocoa.

  On April 25 of that year, he thought he had caught a bad case of spring fever. He was gloomy and his energy was waning. One of his young comrades, Harold Noice, felt it, too, only he also suffered from a dull ache in his right knee. From the beginning of the expedition, Knight had found the homely, bookish Noice pushy and ingratiating, while Noice thought Knight simple and crude. But suddenly their ill health gave them something in common.

  One week later, Knight felt the first shooting pain in his hips. Then his legs. He was fine during the day, but by nighttime he was in misery. He didn’t want to move, didn’t want to work, found it hard to concentrate on anything. He also discovered that he could easily pick chunks of loose flesh from his gums.

  Alarmed, he told Stefansson at once. Scurvy, was the instant diagnosis. He would need fresh meat or fruits and vegetables immediately, nothing dried, fried, boiled, or roasted, which would only destroy the natural and curative Vitamin C. Knight, Stefansson, and their comrades spent hours looking for seals, but got nothing. The pain in Knight’s hips increased until he couldn’t leave his snow house. For three days, he lay inside, despondent and irritable. The smallest thing would aggravate him or make him lose his temper. He was unable to speak, to sleep. “I would have given anything in this world,” he wrote in his journal in 1917, “for a magic button which would have landed me between the clean white sheets of my own bed in my own room back home. Mother would have been standing over me, worried pink. I could see her—. I had come North of my own free will. What a fool!”

  On the fourth morning, Knight and Noice—who was so weak he had to be pulled on the sled—were willing, if not terribly able, to travel again. Knight’s teeth were so loose he could have plucked them from his gums without a struggle, and the gums themselves were as soft as American cheese, so that chewing on a wooden toothpick was like chewing on a knife. Every bone ached, every movement pained him. His breath came quickly at the slightest motion.

  The secret to his recovery was eight fat caribou tongues, presented to Knight and Noice by Stefansson in mid-May. The tongue was the choicest part of the animal, according to Stefansson—and the two gorged themselves. They cooked up the tongues in cocoa, and after the feeding enjoyed their first comfortable night in several weeks. The next morning, there was tongue again for breakfast, boiled and underdone, in order to preserve the precious nutrients they would need to heal. They nourished themselves on leftover broth the rest of the day, as well as the marrow of the deer, and any other meals thereafter were eaten raw. After four days of this diet, they were fit to travel again. Knight’s legs still gave him trouble, but by June 17, the pains were gone and his gums had healed completely. He was good as new.

  Five years later, the pain was still vivid in his memory and in his body. Too vivid for his comfort. But he said nothing about it to anyone because if he voiced his fears he believed they might really come true and he didn’t want to believe that the scurvy had returned. Even as the nagging feeling grew, he tried to talk his mind and body out of it, and he kept his discomfort to himself. He would not be a burden and he would not have the others worry about him.

  Galle noticed that Knight grumbled a lot lately about all the hard work he had to do, which seemed funny given that he was doing the least amount of work of anyone, Ada included. Ever since he’d come back from his trip to Skeleton River, Knight had seemed increasingly lazy. Galle was wrestling with the pain of the abscess on his molar, the ulcer on his jaw, and he was hungry and tired and cranky like everyone else. But they were here to work and to study and Galle would not allow his own pain to get in the way of that. Therefore, he was disgusted when Crawford dragged his feet while chopping wood— or when Maurer continually talked of being sleepy all the time—or when Knight lay in his bed all day.

  Knight was full of facetious remarks lately, and he seemed irritable and out of sorts with his companions. They should be getting up at a regular hour, Knight complained. And on September 18, he reprimanded Crawford for calling him from his bunk and gave Crawford strict orders not to disturb him until morning. During the night, when the others were asleep, Knight would finally rise to make coffee and eat something; then he would sit back down to read until 10:00 A.M. Afterward,
they were treated to one of his typically sarcastic comments about the noise level. Crawford and Maurer were turning in around 10:00 P.M., while Galle stayed up reading. Knight went to sleep last of all, and the next day, when Crawford prepared the breakfast at 1:30 P.M., Knight awoke grumbling and swearing about his short sleep. “Now what can you do?” Galle wrote. “You can’t shoot him, you can’t hang him, so what are you going to do?”

  While Knight snapped at the others and stayed close to his bunk and struggled with the throbbing in his hip, Ada watched. He had been different ever since he returned from his exploring trip, but he wouldn’t admit it. He seemed to have lost a lot of his strength and his energy. He complained about his back. It was sore, he told them, and sometimes he lay in bed for days, trying to nurse it to good health. He felt weak, he said, and weary.

  The others didn’t seem to notice—only seemed to get mad at him and lose their tempers—but Ada worried. There would be no ship this year, so they must keep him well. If he fell sick, there were no doctors until next summer and only the four of them to care for him.

  * * *

  Dear Sister,

  I am somewhat composed now, and can talk about it, but I admit I was pretty well shot to pieces at first, because I lived all summer in the expectation of receiving letters from our dear boy. And then to hear that the ship couldn’t reach them was a great disappointment. If I only could have heard the single word “safe” I would pacify myself for another year. But I have hope, and I won’t give up, and when I do begin to doubt, I only have to look at his picture we have of him in his fur suit, and somehow it spells to me that all’s well, and I bare up. I see no failure in his face. He deserves the credit and not we, although we waste away, worrying over his welfare.

  Alma Galle

  * * *

  Chapter Eight

  A WATER SKY HAUNTED them in October, making them dream of the open ocean that lay far beyond their sight. The five citizens of Wrangel Island went about their duties with a little less enthusiasm, a little less vigor, and tried, all the while, to hide their disappointment from each other. They had counted on a ship. They had each realized there was a possibility that a ship might not make it, but they had somehow never stopped believing that relief would come that summer.

  Ada was taking it especially hard. She was very quiet, much more so than usual. She thought of Bennett and her family and of Nome, and she wondered again why she had ever agreed to come. She was making a pair of moose-hide mittens for Crawford, but her heart wasn’t in her work. She had enjoyed feeling useful, enjoyed making socks or mittens for the men. But now she worked mechanically, trying to turn her mind away from her sadness over the absence of the ship.

  They finished the move from the old camp to their new one, several miles away, on November 16, just days before the sun once again disappeared until spring. Because of the rough terrain and lack of substantial snow on the ground, they were forced to pull the sled on the sea ice that clung to the beach. The move was made tricky because recent snowfalls had blanketed the thin ice, which broke easily with too much weight. Before you knew it, you could be plunged into freezing water.

  During the day, the temperature rose to minus 4 or minus 2 degrees, while at night it dropped to minus 13 or minus 20. It was too cold for snow, and that meant there was no snow suitable for building blocks to wall up their house, so they were forced to erect their old tent. They had a good Maplewood stove and plenty of wood, so each night they built up the fire and the five of them huddled around it trying to think of conversation. After spending so much time together, every day for over a year, it was sometimes an effort.

  They left the dory at the old camp because they knew it would be useless to them now as there was nothing to hunt. Last year, the bears were everywhere, but this year, even though the men searched for them, hunted for them, kept a constant watch for them, “there hain’t none,” as Knight observed.

  There were seals in the distance, but the would-be hunters could never seem to get close enough. Crawford woke one morning before anyone and walked for forty minutes following the ice offshore. The seals were within reach here, but the tricky part was capturing them after they were shot. He surprised one of the unsuspecting creatures, as well as a gull that had landed on it, but the seal disappeared as soon as he fired and he left the gull where it fell.

  Crawford returned to camp, discouraged, shoulders slumped, and described to Knight where he had lost the seal. Knight took Galle with him and they hiked offshore to the spot. Through field glasses, Knight could see a seagull feasting on something in the distance. When they hiked out to it, they saw it was the remains of Crawford’s gull. And there, just twenty feet away in the slush and snow, was a splash of red against white. The seal lay under the slush, a small male without much meat on its bones. But at least it was something.

  Afterward, the lead—or trail of open water—closed over and they knew there would be no more sealing. Knight shot a duck but it got away. Fox tracks were scattered along the beach, but the men and Ada never actually saw the creatures now, even though they had set out new traps and checked them every day. The seagulls had vanished. Crawford made a crab net, which he set out in a hole in the ice, but he managed to catch only a quart of small and tasteless shrimp.

  They lived on walrus skin because there was nothing else except some hard bread and tea. The weather turned nasty in the heart of November, wet, slicing snow and icy gusts of wind. A pounding surf split the ice offshore from underneath, leaving fragments that pushed, clamored, dueled, and jostled for position. The water sky shone in the far horizon, promising an open sea, and for a time Ada and the men let themselves hope again for a ship.

  After they settled into the new camp, Ada began to sew skins for Knight and Crawford to take with them on their long journey across the ice to Nome. It had become clear to them, as winter rolled on, that they would need to do something to improve the food situation, and that they would not be able to wait until spring to make the trek. They would need a full outfit for the trip and there was much to do. Ada repaired their old clothes and worked on sleeping bags, mittens, socks, and blankets of skins. She scraped the seal and fox skins they had collected and then sewed new clothes out of them. They hoped to depart around January 15, 1923, depending, of course, on the weather, the ice conditions, and the dog feed. Right now, the dogs were subsisting on bear skin or dried sealskin and blubber, and if the dogs were still weak and undernourished, it would be difficult to travel very far with the sled full of supplies they would need to take with them.

  Knight had grown thin and haggard since September. Still he said nothing about his health to anyone until one day Ada overheard him mention to Crawford that he believed he had a touch of scurvy. He didn’t want to make a fuss and didn’t want the others to know. The pain in his hip and legs remained, but perhaps they were a bit duller now, or maybe he was becoming used to them. His stomach troubled him, and he thought he might have indigestion, so he rested until he felt better. Knight was convinced he would be fine and that he could make the trip. The sooner he and Crawford got started, the sooner they could reach open water and seals.

  By December 21, there was enough snow to form blocks for the sides and roof of the house. And by Christmas Eve, the snow roof was completed. On Christmas Day, Ada and the men gathered in their newly completed house while the snow fell fast and heavy outside. They feasted on salt seal meat and a piece or two of extra hard bread each, and went over the plans for the trip to Nome. After working on bolstering the dog harness, Knight started repairs on the sled. Crawford, meanwhile, was occupied making ridgepoles and uprights for the tent they would use on the trip.

  As another year on the island came to a close, Ada wondered where she would be if she lived till next Christmas. Would she be back in Nome with her sister? Would she be cleaning houses again and taking on sewing work? Would Bennett be well and healthy and living with her once more? Perhaps they would have a house where they would live after she took
him to the hospital to cure him.

  Ada and the men couldn’t understand why the game had been so thick their first season on the island, when now there was very little. Ada was unfamiliar with hunting and the conditions in the wild Arctic, but she was surprised by the abundance and then the lack of game. She and the others had counted on the fact that the bears, seals, and foxes would remain thick. They didn’t know that sometimes the animals simply chose to frequent another location from year to year, and that there was a domino effect in place—because the seals were gone, the polar bears must look elsewhere for food. As one outsider observed, “There are so many ‘ifs’ in Arctic exploration that it was folly to let the boys go up there with so few supplies.”

  There were two reasons for attempting the trek to Nome, the first and foremost their need for food because they felt certain that their existing provisions would not sustain them until summer. The second was that Crawford and Knight wanted to get news of their time on the island to Stefansson. The men figured they might be able to reach Nome in sixty or seventy days, if the ice and weather conditions allowed. Stefansson was most likely wintering on the mainland, and Crawford and Knight both had a hunch that he did not head north on the relief ship that past summer, so they were sure to run into him in Alaska. “If one can go by ‘hunches’, my ‘hunch’ tells me that V.S. did not come north this summer and that we are doing the right thing in making this trip,” Knight recorded in his diary.

 
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