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


  The darkness and the cold made January a dangerous month to travel. The sky was dim, the weather and ice conditions unpredictable. Crushing, vaulting floes, open water, and sudden blizzards were to be expected. Now, Crawford and Knight would need to find their way in the faint glow of the barely awakened sun. But as far as they could determine, they had no choice. There wasn’t food enough for all of them and they must find help soon. They intended to set out just after Christmas, but the weather turned and the snow blew in until it was impossible to see more than a foot in front of their faces. For days, the wind howled and gusted and the snow drifted with surprising ferocity. The north wall of their house blew away and the men and Ada were so frozen they could barely build it back.

  The sky cleared by January 4, and Knight and Crawford began gathering their belongings in earnest and loading the sled. Crawford packed his diary, but left his accounts of minerals and fossils in his trunk back at camp. They loaded the sled with 700 pounds of supplies, including thirty days’ rations of seal blubber and Pilot bread, which was all the food they had for the journey, and a few pounds of dried meat for the dogs. When that gave out, they would feed the animals the four sealskins they were bringing as well. Seven hundred pounds was a heavy burden for five weakened and undernourished dogs and two weary men, particularly for traveling over uneven and unstable ice.

  Just in case their hunch was wrong and Stefansson was not on the Alaskan mainland, Crawford and Knight left letters for him with Maurer and Galle so that he would understand why they had gone and what their plans were. They would head the one to two hundred miles due south to the Siberian coastline, and from there down the coast to Cape Serdze, Whalen, Diomedes, and finally across the water to Nome.

  Knight knew firsthand the dangers of ice travel, and Crawford understood them intellectually. They knew that even though it was winter, the ice wasn’t solid all the way across the sea, and they knew it could shift and break beneath them as they traveled, particularly with as heavy a load as they were pulling. They were all too aware that there was a chance they might not make it to Nome, and so they wrote last messages, just in case. Maurer would be left in charge on the island, and so they left the letters in his care.

  “Game is scarce,” Crawford wrote to Stefansson. “When I saw how sparse seal and bear were I decided it would be unwise to stay here with the dogs all winter. It is hard to say what we shall do if we arrive at Nome and find you are in the north. We will of course follow any advice you may have left. Otherwise we will use our own judgment.”

  Knight’s letter was more typically to the point. “Of course I am not afraid of starving to death or freezing (thanks to the things I have been taught by you) but I am well aware that accidents are liable to happen to one in this country as well as on the ‘outside.’ So if I pass my ‘checks’ kindly send whatever remuneration I am entitled to, to my mother or father at McMinnville, and rest assured that I am ever grateful for the favors you have shown me, and the opportunities that you have made for me.”

  To their mothers and families, Knight and Crawford left a last goodbye, in case they should not return. “Crawford and I are about to leave for Nome,” Knight wrote, “and as accidents are as likely to happen to one in this country as anywhere else, I am leaving this letter for you. I am also leaving a letter for the manager of the Stef. Ex. & Dev. Co. asking him to send whatever money is due me, to you. However, if something does happen to me I will be thinking of you until the very end with all the love any one ever had for their Mother. This also applies to Dad & Joseph.”

  And Crawford wrote, “From my accrued pay, my shares in The Goblin and anything else of value I should like a fund to yield $25.00 annually set aside as a cash scholarship in U.T.S. for the student getting highest marks in Chemistry and Physics at the test exam. The rest to be held in trust for my brother John till the age of twenty-one. My regret on leaving is that I had not given you more information in my last letter to you about the fact that you might not hear from me in 1922. You may be sure my last thoughts were of my father and mother and of Marjorie and Johnnie. I hope I have been a dutiful son as sons go and that I have ended honourably.”

  At 1:00 A.M. on January 7, 1923, Crawford and Knight and the five dogs started out, heading due south. The going seemed smooth and they made good time. Maurer, Galle, and Ada watched until their dark figures quickly disappeared into the night. Now the three remaining at camp had only to wait for their return.

  Their good start quickly turned bad. The sled was overloaded for the dogs, who were soft and weak from inactivity. The darkness was constant and perilous and caused them to misstep frequently and tip over the sled. Each time, they would pile the tumbled supplies back on and plod ahead. After the next tip-over, and the next, they did the same. They managed to lose two ice picks and a pot lid before it was all over with, and to make matters worse, a strong breeze was blowing in from the east. The first day’s travel took them six miles east of camp and about a mile off the coast.

  The following day was better, the wind letting up and the snow holding off for now. The sled glided easily over the ice, which was hard and tightly packed as concrete, and they traveled from 8:20 in the morning—as far as they could tell by their inaccurate watches— until 2:30 in the afternoon, when it became too dark to see. They made camp under the shadow of the graves at Rodger’s Harbour.

  The next day was clear and calm, but Crawford and Knight discovered they were both too weary to travel. Their hands, feet, and legs were chafed from the exertion, and their muscles ached. They slept all day and broke camp early the following morning, once again heading due south. It wasn’t long before they hit a patch of soft snow that left the dogs straining to get through. Knight slipped into the harness and helped pull, although it took all of his strength. Two miles later, they arrived at a field of rough, uneven ice. They knew they would never be able to make it across with the dogs and the sled.

  They turned toward the east and traveled four miles along the shore until they reached a towering pressure ridge near Cape Hawaii. There was no use continuing because they would never be able to climb it with the supplies and the dogs, and so they made camp and talked about their options. A fierce wind built from the west and the snow was beginning to drift. Crawford and Knight tried to shake their growing discouragement.

  The next day, they were again unable to travel because of the gale and snow. “The going ahead looks very bad,” Knight noted in his journal, “and as we only have five dogs in poor condition and the weather is very cold, it is needless to say that going is very difficult. Unless we get started south soon, I am afraid that we will have to go back to the main camp and then go West looking for a way through the rough ice.”

  It was disturbingly peaceful with Crawford and Knight gone. Galle, Maurer, and Ada tried to keep busy so that they wouldn’t think about the danger their comrades might be facing, the fact that they might never see them again, or the shortage of food around camp. Maurer and Galle attended to their traps, and Maurer managed to catch one fox, which was, after their dry spell, cause for great celebration.

  When they weren’t working, Ada told them stories, which Galle especially seemed to love. His favorite was Ada’s favorite—“The Lady in the Moon.”

  “One time,” Ada began, “there was Eskimo girl who did not want to marry. One day when she was out getting Salmon berries, she find skull of man. This skull she take home to her camp and hide in the reindeer skins of her bed.

  “Well, one day when she is gone out berrying her father looks into reindeer skins on her bed and finds the skull of man. He takes the skull...and he throws it away as far as he can, over the cut bank into the water.

  “When the girl comes home at night...she cannot find skull. She goes to father to ask him, ‘Where is that thing I have in my skins?’ And he is angry and says, ‘Go to the cut bank and in the water you will find skull if you want him so much.’

  “On cut bank she... rolls way down in water. Pretty soon she op
ens her eyes and looks round. Then she knows she is in the ocean only it seems just like on land.

  “There she sees the man of the skull. She begs to stay with him for she loves him very much; but he say no, and drive her out of his camp. Then the man calls out to her and tells her if she wants to go home to her father she must do what he says, ‘After a while you will come to a fork in the trail and one will go to the right and one to the left. You must keep to the left trail if you want to get home to your father and your mother.’

  “After a while she comes to the forks of the trail and there is the road just as smooth on the right, and the rocky narrow road is on the left. Sure enough, the road is narrow, and full of stones. She look across and the road to the right is so nice and smooth, and so she just runs across to the right-hand road and begins walking fast along the smooth road.

  “She heard the man calling—‘Keep to the left, if you want to get home and see your father and mother.’ But she kept running, and as she looked back the trail behind her fades away and she was way up in the air, with no man behind her and only the smooth trail leading the way to the sky.

  “The girl kept on walking until she came to a land and it was the moon, and it had mounts and a ravine and a river. A spirit or medicine man... told the girl... that there was an old woman who lived up there. If she would go to her camp the old woman would look after her and not let the man in the moon get her.

  “When she got there, a bear was stretched out in front of the cabin. She was afraid the bear would eat her, but if she turned back the man in the moon would get her, and she was afraid of him. So she stepped right on the belly of the bear. He growled but he didn’t eat her.

  “Then she stays with the old woman and helps her. But all the time she wonders about her father and mother and if they are dead. One night the old woman takes up one plank out of her floor and tells the girl to look down. She looked out through the hole in the floor to the earth. She could see it all spread out like it was in her hand but a long way off. She could see water and earth. Then she could see people.

  “The girl kept thinking about her father and her mother and crying. So the old woman said, ‘Well, if you want to go home, I will tell you how you can go! Get to work and make sinew thread, and mittens— some seal mittens; some reindeer skin.’ So the girl made the sinew rope and braided it like she braids her hair, and a bag full of mittens. Then she starts out and throws out the rope from the moon to the earth.

  “She puts on some mittens and she climbs down the braided sinew rope, and when mittens wear out she throws them away.

  “She climbs down and down until at last there is only one pair of mittens left and only a little sinew rope. Now the old woman had told her to keep her legs straight when she got on the earth. For if she had straight legs she would be young just like she was when she went to the moon, but if she curved her legs, she would be bent like an old woman.

  “So when she had on her last pair of mittens and only a little rope, there was nothing for her to do but drop, and she did, trying to keep her legs straight so she would be young as she was when she left the earth. But it was too far and her legs bent. There she was, bent almost double like an old woman, and she couldn’t straighten up. She was an old woman.

  “She hurried fast as she could to where her mother and father lived. All she found was a sunken place, where the house had fallen in a long time ago. And that is the story of the Lady in the Moon.”

  The girl in the story had returned home from her great adventure only to find that it no longer existed—her parents were gone, her house had vanished. And she was, once more, alone.

  Crawford and Knight huddled behind a snow wall, which blocked them from the wind. They had thrown a tarpaulin over it and now sat shivering and cursing the stoves, both of which had inconveniently and infuriatingly decided to stop working. After several hours, Crawford, at last, was able to get one operating halfheartedly, but the damage was already done and they were freezing.

  It had been a miserable trip so far, and they were making no progress. No matter which way they turned, no matter which direction they started off in, they always came to some sort of insurmountable obstacle—rough ice, broken ice, pressure ridges. The sled was weak and threatened to snap and the dogs were nearly broken themselves. The provisions were in danger of running out any day, and the ice hugging the island was so treacherous that there was no chance of reaching the level pack ice that lay beyond.

  Knight and Crawford discussed every option, but could come up with nothing. The cold was eating into their brains, just as it pierced their skin and crept into their blood through toes, fingers, and noses. Crawford’s fingertips were badly frozen, which kept him in constant, excruciating pain. He had, Knight observed, the “poorest hands for this country of anyone whom I have ever seen.”

  None of it would have been so bad if Crawford could have stood the cold better or if Knight had only felt well. But at last he had to admit to himself and to Crawford that what he had been most afraid of for all these months was true. He had scurvy. Not just a touch of scurvy, but an unshakable, growing case of it.

  He was easily winded after hiking or helping to pull the sled, and he felt “weak as a kitten.” The pain in his legs was worse at night, and he discovered on his legs and arms numerous hard, red spots, some as large as a pinhead, some smaller. They were thicker below his knees and elbows, and when he ran his fingers over them, there was no pain, but he could feel the bumps on his skin. He experimented by picking some of them off, and found they were fairly deep set.

  “I am nearly all in (I hate to admit this but I am sure I can’t help it), for my scurvy has been coming back for the last month or two although I have said nothing to anyone about it, Crawford excepted,” he wrote with great discomfort in his journal. “When we started I was in hopes of fairly good going and a chance to get fresh meat but I find that my legs go back on me in this rough ice where I am forced to get in harness to help the dogs.”

  He and Crawford decided they must return to the main camp, where they would lighten the sled’s load, and then Crawford with Galle would start out again to the south. Galle was the strongest of them all and the healthiest, and he and Crawford, with their youth and good sense, would have a better time than the rest, even if neither had experience traveling the ice. “It will be impossible for all of us to stay at the main camp,” wrote Knight, “for there is just enough grub there for three people...to last until the seals and birds come. I would like to make this trip but I really do not feel able.”

  On the morning of January 15, they started back home. Along the way, a gale blew up from nowhere, blasting them in the face with snow. They shifted directions, but so did the wind, and three hours later they gave up and camped once more near the gravesite at Rodger’s Harbour. The wind had frozen both of their faces badly, and Knight felt the cold more than usual because of his weakened condition. “We hoped to make home tomorrow,” he recorded, “. . . but—This is the first blow we have had all year from the West, and naturally it had to come as we were going home in a hurry. Oh! Well-l-l-l-l!”

  They were stranded the next day, nursing their frozen cheeks and chins, desperate to get back to camp but forced to wait because of the weather. The gale seemed vengeful, and they were exhausted. On January 17, the howler blew on and the snow formed over the small tent they had pitched over a makeshift structure, carved out of snow. The stove, still barely working, was dripping kerosene, and there was nothing to eat but cold blubber and hard bread.

  On January 18, they were able to crawl out of their icy dungeon long enough to build a wall of snow around their shelter and cover it with the tent and a tarpaulin. They fed the dogs some sealskin and then crept back inside to shield Crawford’s frozen fingers and cheeks and Knight’s numbed face from the wind. With the gale shut out and the stove going stronger, they were able to make some tea, so that they soon were, according to Knight, “nice and warm and swilling tea like a couple of Englishmen.”
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  The next day they made it nearly as far as the old trapping camp from the previous year. Between the fresh breeze, Crawford’s newly frozen big toe (thanks to a pair of wet socks), and Knight’s scurvy, they were unable to make the final push for home. Knight could barely walk, and the flashes of fire in his legs and hip were becoming sharper and more pronounced. Wearily, the two invalids erected a snow house with a canvas roof and climbed inside to rest.

  Knight didn’t think his chances very good to make it back to camp the next day without some help. He thought Crawford should go on ahead and bring Galle back to get him. They had seen not one single animal on their short and frustrating journey—only a few old tracks scattered here and there. Knight couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something fresh or anything, for that matter, which would have helped him fight the scurvy. Sour seal oil was their only antiscorbutic food—the kind that would cure or prevent scurvy. He had been forcing himself to eat it for days, but there was no relief. The pains increased, as did his fatigue. To make it worse, there were several deep, raw cracks in his heels, which made walking next to impossible. That night, with great discouragement, he wrote, “Of all the trips I have ever participated in, long or short, this one is the worst for hard luck (or is it incompetence?).”

  Knight and Crawford stumbled into camp the morning of January 20, both of them worn out and frozen. Crawford was in obvious discomfort from his frostbitten foot and fingers, and his face was black and blistered from the cold. Knight’s cheeks bore the same marks, and he limped as he came into camp. He didn’t complain, but his face and his eyes revealed the pain he was in, and Ada watched him and worried. Their arrival had been a shock to her and to Maurer and Galle, who had expected them to be nearing the Siberian shore by now.

  While the two travelers rested, Maurer and Galle tended their traps and Ada continued to sew. Ada noticed that Knight was a good deal weaker now, although he was trying to pretend he wasn’t. Knight did not confide in the others as to why he remained so pale and why he was still exhausted long after Crawford’s energy had returned.

 
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