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


  As usual, Crawford asked Knight for his opinion and guidance. Knight felt, and Crawford agreed, that it made more sense for three of them to make the trip now instead of two because three would have a better shot at it. When traveling that time of the year, on the unpredictable ice, it was vital to make a quick camp at night. If three of them were to go, one could build the igloo, while one tended to the dogs, and the other unloaded the sled. This way, they were inside in just twenty minutes or so, tucked safely away from the bitter cold of winter.

  Also, food was dangerously short in camp, and because of this, Knight wrote in his diary, “it is essential for the party to split.” There was simply not enough game on the island to feed more than two people. All would be fine because, before leaving them in Seattle, Stefansson himself had suggested they could make the trip if they felt they needed to. It would be stupid for Knight to attempt the journey again. He recognized that and made up his mind to accept it. He would stay on the island and keep the camp, and Ada would help him.

  It meant that Ada would be alone with Knight. The idea frightened her because he still frightened her, but she held her tongue. It was not her place to object to Crawford’s orders. Knight, for his part, was just as unhappy with the situation. He knew people in the outside world might frown on a single man and a single woman living alone. He and Crawford had discussed the matter at length, and although neither was crazy about the idea of Knight and Ada staying there together, they felt there was nothing else to be done. Exceptional circumstances sometimes required exceptional solutions, such as being left alone with a native woman—a native woman anxious for a white husband, in fact. And Crawford, Maurer, and Galle would do a lot to soften any criticisms that might arise when they reached Nome.

  On January 21, the temperature dropped to minus 51 degrees, and the sun rose above the horizon for the first time in months. As was always the case after Crawford sought Knight’s counsel, he now gathered the entire group and announced his plans. Maurer and Galle absorbed the news quietly and without any argument or fuss. But Maurer, for one, did not approve of the plan because he, more than anyone, knew the dangers of such a journey. He possessed minimal experience traveling over ice, but he certainly had more than anyone else in their party. Captain Robert Bartlett, who had taken command of Stefansson’s Karluk crew after Stefansson abandoned ship, was the bravest man he had ever met, and even Bartlett, he knew, had been wary of the trek when he attempted it in March of 1914. To Maurer’s mind, staying on the island was safer, but he was not in charge, and he believed that nothing he said would sway Knight or Crawford.

  Galle, too, was unhappy about his orders. He wanted to stay, not go, and worried that it was a foolish and dangerous move. But his job was not to argue. He was to support Crawford and also Knight, as Stefansson had said, and so he would do so.

  Ada was told to outfit the men for their journey. As she worked speedily and efficiently, Knight had to admit that the seamstress had improved dramatically from the previous year. There was no more mooning about, no more moping, no more throwing herself at Crawford’s feet. Instead, she worked seriously and solemnly and did what she was told to do.

  No doubt, none of the men would have been willing to leave Knight and Ada alone had they any real idea of the seriousness of Knight’s illness. Knight had managed to convince Crawford that he could heal himself. Maurer was taken into confidence, to a lesser extent, and Knight made a case to his two comrades that he would be in no more danger if Crawford and the others left than if they stayed. Knight believed that the key to his cure would come from seal oil or a good catch of polar bear or foxes. Even so, Crawford was anxious about his friend’s health and he did not want to leave Knight behind. But they had not been able to come up with a way around the decision.

  In the days before departure, Ada and the men worked against minus 56 degrees to load the sled with supplies—three twenty-pound cases of hard bread and two five-gallon cans of seal blubber. They strapped on tents and various tools and equipment, and some of Crawford’s prize geological specimens, and hitched up the five remaining dogs. The three men also packed up their diaries, Galle taking both his loose-leaf binder and his notebook, while leaving his notes behind. They would make it across the ice to Siberia and from there to Nome. If they didn’t truly believe their journey would be successful, they would have left the diaries with Knight for safekeeping. They promised to come back with a ship in the summer, as soon as the ice opened, for Knight and Ada, and if the ice was still too formidable, they would journey to the island by dog team next winter.

  Galle took Ada aside and assured her he would be back for her. She was not to be scared, she was to do as Knight said, and she was not, for any reason, to touch Galle’s Corona typewriter, which he would have to leave behind. He left no last letter home to his mother, father, sister, and brother. Galle was determined to come back, and he knew that he would see his family again some day.

  “Knight is troubled with scurvy,” Crawford wrote to Stefansson before their departure. “As the five dogs are scarcely enough, he was dubious of making the trip as his strength is undermined. My plans are unchanged except that I am taking Maurer and Galle with me... although I would like to leave one of them with Knight. I think it is wisdom to do this, as it would be disastrous to return a second time.”

  “The chief reason for our leaving is the shortage of food,” read Maurer’s letter to Delphine. “There is not adequate food for all, there being only ten twenty-pound cases of hard bread and three pokes of seal oil to last until next summer. The prospects of getting game between now and next summer or sealing season are very poor, so we are leaving behind enough food for the two remaining here. Leaving here I’ll be headed south in the direction whence I left you and all; whether I reach my goal or not remains to be seen. If the fates favour me, I’ll have the pleasure of telling you all about it in person, if against me, then some one else, no doubt, will tell you all.”

  Maurer had returned from this very same island nine years before. He would do so again, by duplicating Bartlett’s journey, and by bringing the help they needed, to Knight and to Ada.

  “My dear Mother,” he wrote, “I am leaving this letter behind in care of Knight...in case an accident should befall me, or all three of us. Should the worst come to pass, I want you to know Mother that I have only myself to blame for my ending and that I’ll remember to the last moment, the kind loving tenderness you have shown me as my mother all through my life. I have not once forgotten it, nor shall I ever forget. Farewell! A long farewell to you and all.”

  On January 29, they set off for Nome, via Siberia. It was a beautiful, clear day, and warmer than usual. Everything seemed to be in their favor as they headed quickly to the south and soon disappeared from view. Afterward, Knight and Ada were struck by the silence. No neat, incessant tapping of Galle’s typewriter. None of his boyish laughter or loud, challenging bets over one thing or the other. No more teasing Maurer as he swallowed his nightly Purgative Pellets. No more hearing him wax on about all the things he was going to buy Delphine when he returned home. No more of Crawford’s patient mediation or feeble jokes about Seattle or excitement over his geological findings.

  Knight worked hard at making the camp more convenient for two people, stacking wood and organizing things here and there to make it easier for the two of them to run everything themselves. There was still much to be done, but they would get to it with time. When the snow melted in the spring, they would need to dig away the walls and roof of the house and clean out the boxes they had stored outside.

  His left leg was swollen just above the knee and was causing him a great deal of pain. Still, he was able to get about on it, even if it hurt. He assumed it was from the scurvy, but felt that with some rest and some fresh meat, he would be good as new in no time.

  Ada began keeping a calendar in a little notebook, drawing boxes for each of the days of the months in pencil, and writing the month at the top. She started with January, crossing
off the days as they passed. In the inside flap, she wrote simply, “Why Galle leave?”

  “I wonder what people will say about my staying here alone with the female?” Knight wondered in his journal. It was Knight’s opinion that Ada was actually happy about the situation, “for as I stated long ago, she is most anxious to ‘get’ a white man. No chance as far as I’m concerned.” He tried to focus on the humor of the situation, on her past lustful behavior, on Oofty, on the Nymph, because it would take his mind off the fact that he was ill—more ill than he liked to admit.

  Knight and Ada each could have six pieces of hard bread a day until the seals and birds returned. They had kept two pokes of seal blubber and six gallons of bear oil as well. Knight also had hopes of trapping foxes and maybe a bear. In just a couple of months, he figured, the female bears should be emerging from their hibernation with their young ones, and then they would have plenty of good, fresh meat. “Come on bear,” he wrote in his journal.

  His life would depend on the fresh meat he could secure. Ada would be of no help. He found her fearful and temperamental and, as good as she was at taking orders now, he didn’t actually believe she could think or act for herself. She had never shown him she was particularly resourceful or clever. He worried about what might happen if he grew weaker, sicker, and if he had to rely on Ada to take care of him.

  On January 30, a screaming gale blew in from the east. The door to the house was locked tight by the drifting snow and Knight and Ada were trapped inside. They didn’t mind because they had plenty of wood piled up by the stove. While Vic the cat curled up for a nap, Knight read a book and Ada busied herself with her knitting, and they spent a cozy day in companionable silence.

  The next morning, when the wind was just as vicious, Knight tried to push aside his nagging worry. The storm promised perilous, changeable ice. By now, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle should have crossed the island and entered the pack for their journey across to Siberia. They would be maneuvering the loaded sled and the skittish dogs over stirring, shifting floes of ice on the open sea. The pack could split and crack as suddenly and violently as an earthquake. Depending on the hazards they encountered and the path they were forced to follow—or, if need be, forge—through the ice, the trek might be anywhere from 140 miles to 200. The fresh snowfall would cover the sea, making it harder to determine a safe and solid path. They might crash through into the water with one false step, and be lost in a moment. Or they might be blessed with a clear, smooth course, which would lead them home.

  Probably, Knight reasoned, they were far enough south by now to be out of the eye of the squall. The wind was most likely catching them from the side, which would slow their progress, but not deter them completely. They should be out of harm’s way by now, he told himself.

  On February 1—Crawford’s twenty-second birthday—the gale seemed to have gathered force. It was, Knight noted grimly, “blowing and drifting as hard as I have ever seen it.” He didn’t want to think of how vulnerable his comrades were, in the midst of the volatile ice pack, and he didn’t want to think of what might happen to them.

  * * *

  SUNDAY TIMES ( LONDON )

  January 1923

  Stefansson Quits; Gives Up Exploring Will Devote His Future to Telling of Possibilities in the “Friendly Arctic”

  Vilhjalmur Stefansson yesterday announced his retirement as an explorer.

  “I am through with exploring,” he said. “I do not intend ever to set foot in the polar regions again. I want to make a new start in life while there is yet time.”

  Asked what he considered to have been his most important discovery, Stefansson said:

  “The fact that the polar regions were a state of mind, that they were a friendly place to live in for the man who used common sense.”

  As for enlightening the world concerning the real nature of the Northern regions, which he already has done to a large extent in his book, “The Friendly Arctic,” Stefansson explained that he would continue to write and to lecture on the conditions as he found them.

  Among the popular fallacies is the belief that the Arctic is the coldest place in the world, whereas, according to Stefansson, it is colder in some places in Montana than it ever is at the North Pole.

  For the intrepid young men who may find the lure of the Arctic irresistible, there is ample opportunity for exploration, according to Stefansson, who has concluded that the North Pole is by no means the most difficult point on the face of the globe to reach.

  * * *

  PART III

  SURVIVAL

  I must stay alive. I will live.

  —ADA BLACKJACK

  Chapter Nine

  ADA PUSHED OPEN the tent flaps and searched for Knight. He had gone out some time ago to chop wood, and should have been back by now. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had left them just one week before and Ada was still anxious about being left alone.

  Suddenly she saw him, several feet away, lying on the ground, limp and still. Ada felt her heart rise into her throat as she took a step forward. Knight couldn’t be dead. If he were dead she would be all alone, and then who would care for her? She took another step and another until she was standing over him, looking into his pale, gaunt face.

  Thank God, he was breathing. She knelt over him and tried to wake him. It took a good five minutes—or so it seemed to Ada—but finally he stirred, the life coming back into him. He woke to see her anxious face, pinched and strained, peering down at him.

  “I’m all right now, Ada.” His speech was halting, his voice soft, but he wanted to reassure her because he could tell she was terrified. “I just felt a little faint.”

  Confused and frightened, Ada pulled him to his feet. He leaned heavily on her as she helped him into the tent and once there, utterly spent, he crumpled into a pile on his bed. He began to talk to her then, telling her for the first time how ill he was. It was scurvy, as far as he could tell, and it seemed to be getting worse. He had tried to keep it from the others, but Crawford knew, and Maurer a little, but now he could not hide it. His mood was gloomy, as he lay on his bunk, and he told Ada that for the first time he was scared. “I guess we shan’t see Nome again,” he said darkly.

  She told him to stay in bed and rest, and promised that she would finish chopping the wood. She was used to it, she said, and had done that kind of work at home. The last thing Knight wanted to do was lie helpless in the tent while Ada took care of him. But when he found himself too weak to lift his head, he consented.

  Ada went outside and took up the axe and began cutting the wood. Afterward, she collected snow for their drinking water, and then she took the map Maurer had left them of his trapline and followed it to his traps to check for foxes. As usual, there was nothing, and she turned back to camp, discouraged.

  She had no idea Knight was this ill. No one had told her. Why had they not told her? She couldn’t understand, but one thing was clear. Now she must take care of them until he was strong enough to get out of bed. She prayed he would recover enough in a few days to look after her again.

  As long as he was flat on his back or sitting up in his sleeping bag, he felt fine, and so Knight stayed in bed. They had on their bookshelf a copy of Spoffard’s New Cabinet Encyclopedia, which contained a good deal of information on scurvy. Knight told himself he wasn’t frightened. He just felt like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. And he wasn’t fully and completely convinced he had scurvy. After all, hadn’t he been chopping and hauling wood and going off hunting just days before?

  He sat up on his bunk, opened his diary so that he could make notes, and studied the encyclopedia entry. The disease had bred in prisons, armies, and poorhouses and on ships for years—anywhere men were gathered or confined and fed at public expense on cheap food that was to last a long time and feed a number of mouths. Sailors in the old days had largely eaten salted food and no vegetables, which was why so many of them became afflicted.

  According to Spoffard’s, scurvy began with fatigue
, loss of strength, and a sudden dejection of spirits. Knight thought this was all accurate in his case, except for the dejection. As far as he was concerned, he had felt no gloominess, no excessive moodiness, no agitation.

  Next came bloating of the face. There was none that he could see.

  Followed by rapid respiration from the smallest movement. Yes, unfortunately he did have that, and he could tell he also had a touch of fever right now.

  Then the teeth would start to loosen. Knight felt the two loose teeth in his upper jaw. All the others seemed fine.

  The gums turned spongy. His lower jaw felt normal, but the gums surrounding his two loose teeth were decidedly soft and rotten.

  The breath became offensive. No doubt from the bad teeth, but for now he thought his breath wasn’t any worse than usual.

  Bright and discolored spots on the body. They weren’t necessarily bright, but there were some black and blue marks that looked more like bruises on the back of his left leg, and a black streak, half an inch wide, across the back of his knee, which was painful only to the touch. The red, pin-sized spots were fading, which was a good thing, but there was a band of purple on the back of his left leg, six or seven inches in length and about the same in width. In addition, his left leg was noticeably swollen and hard to the touch. His right leg was less inflated and lacked the dark spots.

  Old wounds reopened. None that he had noticed.

  Severe pain, growing worse at night. Not anymore, but it had certainly been true a month ago, and his joints—especially his shoulders and knees—ached.

  Dry skin. No.

  Smaller quantity of urine. The frequency was less, but the quantity was not.

  Rapid but faint pulse. Yes. He checked it frequently and it usually rated seventy-two beats per minute.

 
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