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

  Bad as all this was, the rest was too horrible to read. Hemorrhaging in the loose tissue under knees and eyes and also in the armpits. Overwhelming weakness and exhaustion, leading ultimately to death from malnutrition as the appetite gradually failed. But that was a long way off. He had only just become ill and he knew the cure he needed. On the bright side, after all—and he was determined to find one—he didn’t have any signs of headache and his spirits were good and he would be fine once he was able to eat some fresh meat. He just needed to get his strength back so that he could go hunting.

  The encyclopedia recommended a good diet of fresh vegetables and lime or lemon juice, which Knight would have been more than happy to administer to himself, had he access to them. Instead, he filled himself with the only antiscorbutic food they had, sour seal blubber, even though his appetite wasn’t very big and the stuff tasted rotten. He had been eating as much of it as he could stomach since he and Crawford had returned from their aborted attempt to reach Nome, but he was feeling worse, not better, since then. Now there were only two pokes of seal blubber remaining, and he didn’t know what this would mean for him and Ada if they couldn’t find game to replenish it.

  The dizzy spells began not long after Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had left for Siberia. Knight felt the earth spin every time he made a sudden movement, and he lost his breath easily. He became so winded just lifting a piece of firewood that he had to sit down afterward and catch his breath. He didn’t remember the severe shortness of breath or the swelling in his legs from the first round of scurvy he’d suffered in 1917.

  He dreamed of fresh meat. If only a bear would wander into camp. If only he felt strong enough to make it to Maurer’s traps to check for foxes. No doubt there would be at least a fox or two found there, but he had been afraid to check until he felt better because what if something should happen to him? The traps weren’t terribly far from camp, but if he should lose consciousness or have an accident, there would be no one there to help him. The thought of being helpless did frighten him, and he would not take that risk, no matter how much he needed the fresh meat.

  He should get up out of his bed and go chop some wood to replenish their stock. He needed to gather ice to make drinking water, and he needed to go hunting, to try to find something for them to eat, and to do so many other things. “But on the least movement, especially rapid, I am puffing like a freight locomotive,” he recorded. He wished Crawford and the others would come back because he could see now that it was going to be hard for Ada if he became completely bedridden.

  For now, she seemed cheerful enough, but he wondered how much of it was for show, to make him feel better, and to make herself feel better. He thought she was probably more frightened and distressed about his illness than he was, although she wasn’t showing it to him. He could hear her outside sharpening the wood saw. She had told him she would do everything that needed to be done around camp until he felt better and could get up again and take care of everything as he had before, and he had no choice but to let her.

  Ada was terrified of running into a polar bear while she was out checking the traps. She carried a snow knife with her, but that was all, because she was still frightened of rifles, and she knew she wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to defend herself if she was caught by Nanook. While she was out walking, she would pause now and then, every so often, and have a look around for bears, knowing she would faint if she so much as caught a glimpse of one.

  She went out every day now, looking for food. There was nothing at camp, and Knight was too weak to hunt, too weak to do anything but rest in bed. Ada herself was feeling listless and tired, and very much alone. She missed Crawford and Galle and Maurer, but particularly Crawford and Galle. Everything had changed drastically and suddenly when they went away. Now Knight was sick and she must figure out how to help him and what to do to keep them fed, and she wished the men would come back and help her. She wanted to give up the trapping because there were never any foxes and it made her weary to walk all those miles every single day. Also, daylight hours were still minimal and she worried about being caught in the dark miles from camp.

  But she made herself go out, following Maurer’s map until she learned the way herself, and one afternoon, she spotted some foxtracks circling around the traps, and she knelt down and dug the trap out of the snow. It was empty, and Ada figured she must have hidden it under too much snow last time. So she baited the trap again, leaving it uncovered.

  The next morning, when she checked the traps, she found a fox lying in one of them. Her first one. Ada was proud and exhilarated. No one had told her how to fix the trap or to uncover it and leave it in the open. She had figured that out on her own and now she would have food to take to Knight. The very best part of it was that she had done it all herself.

  She remembered having read a book about northern people that said foxes were good eating. She cooked it over the fire until the meat nearly fell off the bone. Although she gave most of the meat to Knight, she tasted a little and thought it wonderful. Just like chicken.

  Despite the meat Ada had proudly brought back to camp, Knight’s decline was swift. Perhaps he had lived with the disease ever since his trip to Skeleton Island the previous July—all those long months of minor aches and pains that were easily explained away. Rheumatism seemed such a hopeful, foolish notion now. Why had he not looked closer and read the signs? He could have hunted while he was able and while he’d had the help of Crawford and Maurer and Galle. He should have been eating as much fresh meat as they could catch last September, when the pain in his hip grew sharp and his leg gave him trouble.

  Two weeks ago he had been chopping wood and shooting his rifle, and now he was confined to bed without the strength or energy to sit up. The purple and black marks on the backs of his legs had grown lighter, then darker, and now they were lighter again. Ada examined them for him daily, and now she noticed that the marks had merged together to form one enormous patch. There was a spattering of spots on the back of his right leg as well, and slender, hairlike slivers appeared under his fingernails. When he applied a bit of pressure to them, he felt a shooting pain.

  Every joint ached. His gums bled easily, and the two loose snags— as he called the wobbly teeth in his upper jaw—dropped out on their own. He was alternately ravenous and uninterested in food, not that there was anything to eat other than seal blubber. Despite her daily trips, Ada had not come back with another fox. “When I say that I don’t feel like eating,” Knight wrote, “what I mean is that I don’t feel like eating the things we have here. I am continually ‘hankering’ for fresh meat.”

  He was plagued now by a mild headache that aspirin couldn’t seem to cure, and when he tried to rise from his bunk, after a week spent lying in it, the earth began to spin and he fell back into bed. He felt fine—almost normal—when he was lying in bed, but he was anxious to be up and out and feeling useful. He tried reading, but was bored with everything they had, and he wrote regularly in his journal, even though his knuckles sometimes throbbed from the exertion of holding the pencil. It was important to him, though, that he record how he was feeling and what was happening to him, so that he would have documentation to show Stefansson once the ship came.

  When there was any change in coloration of his black and purple marks, when his calf turned blue, when his gums began to swell, when his face grew colorless, his lips bloodless, and his eyes bloodshot, he wrote it down. But he was retaining his humor. “Thank fortune, I still feel like... sleeping, which I still do wonderfully well.”

  He had a gnawing, wolfish hunger for meat. He craved meat and thirsted for it, and most of his waking hours were spent imagining the taste, the smell, the texture against his tongue. He forced down the seal blubber, but it had become foul to him, and he wrote in his journal about his yearning for “fresh raw meat and lots of it.”

  Ada was trying, he knew, but she was hopeless with a rifle. Unless a bear happened to just wander into camp and lie down in front of t
hem so that he could shoot it from his bed, there would be no chance of getting one, he noted in his diary. The rifle was too heavy for Ada and she became so rattled during the lesson Knight gave her that they put it aside and decided she should, instead, concentrate on the fox traps.

  But day after day, nothing turned up. Each morning, Knight lay in his bed, reading or sleeping, trying to pass the time until Ada returned. He couldn’t even sit up now to write in his journal, so did the best he could, writing while lying down. Would there be a fox today? Would he have meat? But each time Ada came home, her hands were empty.

  On February 14, when Knight and Ada were sound asleep in their beds, a bear passed through camp. They slept peacefully, with no idea that the meat they had been praying for was just yards away. In the morning, Ada found the tracks, coming in from the east and heading out toward the west. They were the largest bear tracks Ada had ever seen in her life, and she and Knight could only imagine the succulent meat they would have enjoyed. Still, it gave them hope. If one bear had come, perhaps there would be others.

  “Oh Yes! My desire for cold water is enormous,” Knight wrote. “I am sure I drink at least 3 quarts a day.” As soon as Ada brought in snow and melted it down, he drank all he could, yet his thirst never seemed to feel quenched. His pulse beat faint and slow until he shifted in his bed and it sped up like a “trip hammer.” A wonderful turn of events. Now he was just fine—as long as he lay perfectly still and didn’t sit up, breathe, or move in any way.

  Ada examined his legs again and discovered that the left one was changing back to its natural color, while the right leg was also improving, though more slowly. His urine was scanty, but he still slept well—that was one thing—and his appetite had returned. No more loose teeth for now, and over all, he felt stronger and better than he had in some time. All things considered, things were beginning to look up.

  No matter how hard she worked, though, Ada saw that Knight was increasingly annoyed with her. His illness was affecting his moods and he was alternately melancholy and placid, irritated and calm. As his symptoms developed and worsened, so did his ill humor. He told Ada she was not doing her best, she wasn’t trying hard enough to get them the fresh meat he so desperately needed. She was lazy, thoughtless, stupid. He had a million criticisms.

  Ada knew she annoyed him, but there was little she could do. She was not feeling well herself, and although she didn’t know it, was suffering from the early symptoms of scurvy. She was tired, weak, and dispirited, and longed to give up. The work was hard, she was weary, and Knight complained all the time. It was too much for a person to bear, and so she snapped right back at him and they fell into a brooding silence, which was more unpleasant than the sharp exchange of words. On the days when she felt particularly wretched, she would stay inside the house and ignore the traps, much to Knight’s annoyance. But as soon as she felt stronger, she put on her boots and mittens and went out into the cold to gather wood and tend the traps.

  Finally, on February 20, Ada, Knight, and Vic enjoyed a good feed when Ada brought home a fat female fox. The skin was peeling off the ends of Knight’s fingers, but he didn’t give a damn. He had a “full stomach of underdone meat,” and was feeling the best he’d felt in a long time.

  Their luck seemed to be changing. Breathlessly, Ada awakened Knight on the morning of February 27 to tell him a bear was coming toward camp. She was nervous, excited, frightened. With bears, her first instinct, always, was to run and hide until they disappeared, but she knew Knight was counting on bear meat so that he could feel better. She had seen the great, lumbering bear along the beach, approaching from the east, and it seemed to be moving slowly toward them. Knight told her to holler when the bear was within 200 yards of the house. He had to conserve his energy, and simply sitting up would tax him too much, so he would wait until the creature was within shooting distance.

  It was getting closer, she told Knight; she could see it coming. Closer, still. Closer. The bear seemed a long time arriving, but Knight willed himself to be patient. He lay there, trying not to move, trying to conserve his energy for the kill. Finally, Ada climbed onto the roof of the house and raised Knight’s field glasses toward the direction of the bear. But there was nothing—only a dingy yellow cake of ice, floating in the water. Her polar bear.

  On the days when the traps were empty—which was largely the case—Ada stored the oil she had saved and served up a portion of it for meals. On those days, that was all there was to eat, with a bit of hard bread for dipping. She continued to adjust her trapping methods to try to find the right combination, the right way of setting the traps, the right location, until, in March, she at last found success. First another female fox, a thin one, scant eating, but meat just the same. Then a male fox. Then another female, a nice, fat one this time.

  Suddenly, Ada had struck gold, and not always in the traps. She had found another method for killing them which worked, too. Because the animals were so naturally curious, she found that she could often creep close to them before they ran away, and with a heavy stick, she would hit them over the head to stun them. Then she would bend their heads back until she heard their necks snap, and she would carry them home and skin them.

  In spite of the increased intake of fresh meat, Knight showed no signs of improvement. Perhaps it was the fact that he could barely swallow the meat because his throat was so raw, or perhaps it would simply take time—and a consistent diet—for his health to be restored. On March 3, he wrote, “Troubled some last night by severe pains in my back. Reading and lying on my back day-dreaming about ‘outside’ to kill time, which goes rather slowly. It is bad enough to be laid up ‘outside’ where one has newspapers, good food, a comfortable clean bed and someone to talk to, but I just lay here in my dirty, hairy sleeping bag and read books again for the fourth or fifth time.”

  The pin-sized red spots returned and a dark line stretched across the skin of his left elbow. It looked suspiciously like the band on his leg, although it had been some time since Ada had examined him, since it meant moving from his sleeping bag. If he shifted at all, he knew, he would be left winded for a good half hour or so afterward, and he just couldn’t risk it.

  The fingers on both hands lost their sense of touch and his eyes watered, especially when he read or wrote. For some reason, the left side of his body was giving him more trouble than the right. The muscles of his left arm felt strained and weak, and there was a sprinkling of red spots covering the skin. His left shoulder ached, his left eyelid was swollen and red, and the gum of his upper jaw on that side was severely inflamed. The left side of his chest felt constricted, causing him a great deal of pain when he breathed.

  To make matters worse—as if they could be—his body began rejecting the blubber he’d been living on. Because his throat was so tender, he couldn’t always swallow the fox meat, but the blubber, or oil, slid down more easily. Now, however, he couldn’t seem to stomach it. “Cannot eat the food we have here,” he wrote. “I am surely hungry but I cannot positively swallow either hard bread or blubber.”

  Constantly checking for game to improve their food supply, Ada found numerous fox tracks at the mouth of the harbor nearby. She was always on the watch for newer, better places for her traps. She set twelve in the area and the next day, March 12, caught three fat foxes.

  Because of his tender gums and missing teeth, eating was difficult for Knight, but he drank fox soup and forced himself to swallow the underdone meat. Fox meat never went down easily for him or sat right in his stomach, but it would do until they could get a bear, and he was grateful for the nourishment.

  That night, he had his best night’s sleep in weeks, and he awoke feeling refreshed and optimistic. His spirits brightened as, over the next several days, Ada brought home one fox after another. With the regular feedings, the swelling in Knight’s gums decreased, the red spots on his arm began to fade, the pain in his legs subsided, his color came back, and his spirits soared. He was, in his opinion, “as thin as a side sho
w freak,” but he was beginning to feel more like himself. One morning, he even caught himself whistling—in his head. “Not that I don’t want to whistle, God knows. However this is in spirits only for I am as weak as a cat.”

  He was getting better. Ada could see it and was relieved. She had done her best while he was bedridden to tend to the wood and the traps, but the responsibility unnerved her and she prayed to Jesus for Knight’s return to good health. Now she could see him growing stronger and soon he would be up again and she would no longer have to worry.

  While Knight slept or read, Ada stitched gloves or socks for Galle and Crawford. It was her way of keeping them present, even though they were very far away.

  Knight and Ada did not talk much when they were alone together. He thought—frankly—that, “as a conversationalist, the woman is the bunk.” But sometimes Knight felt talkative and would tell her stories and fairytales. She especially liked “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

  “Once upon a time,” Knight would begin, “there lived a poor widow who had an only son named Jack. She was very poor, for times had been hard, and Jack was too young to work. Almost all of the furniture of the little cottage had been sold to buy bread, until at last there was nothing left worth selling.”

  Ada loved the magic beans—“the most wonderful beans that ever were known”—the singing harp, and the hen that laid the golden eggs. But she especially loved the aspect of mother and son, who struggled through hard times, only to live happily ever after in the end.

  She and Knight never spoke about if Crawford, Galle, and Maurer would get back from Nome, but when they would return. They both had faith, even on the dark days, and they needed to believe that relief would come soon.

  * * *

  March 1923

  Mr. Knight—

  We have read and reread Mr. Stefansson’s books, and we know that Mr. Lorne was fully capable of guiding the boys in the right way, and if our boys followed his advice they were perfectly safe. And we also know that Mr. Lorne has gone thru more serious and probably more dangerous trips than our boys even now had to do, for the fact that they were stationary.

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