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

  We are more and more anxious every day to see how Milton stood it all, and cannot wait the time for his return. We compare him often with his boy friends here at home, who are more or less all at school, and still care-free, while Milton has desired to endure and sacrifice.

  For us, time hangs heavy on our hands only because time requires such patience, but we think, “From day to day in every way the time comes nearer and nearer.”

  Alma Galle

  * * *

  Chapter Ten

  ADA OFTEN LOOKED out over the ice, praying for the sight of a dog team. And even though it was far too early in the season, she watched the sea for a ship. She told Knight that she knew Crawford and the others would return to them; Galle had promised her they would.

  She still kept up with her sewing, the cooking, and the dishes, but now she added to this the work of three men who were no longer there and one man who was too sick to help. February had slipped into March and still Knight was confined to his bed. While Vic kept him company, Ada added new soles to her felt slippers, stitched herself a belt, tended the traps, hauled the wood she chopped, mended the stovepipe, scraped and cleaned the skins they had collected, and figured out a way to wash her hair. To protect her eyes, she learned to use snow goggles, which shielded them from the blinding white of the ice and the harmful glare of the sun, but which felt awkward on her face. She also constructed additional fox traps out of oil cans, hoping these would help to double her take.

  And she began to keep a journal. Ever since they had sailed from Nome, Knight, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had written their thoughts and the happenings of the day in notebooks. Ada had watched them sometimes, after they settled on Wrangel Island, and noted how diligently they added to them and how much they seemed to value them. Knight was growing so weak that it was becoming more and more difficult for him to write and record what happened, and so Ada decided that she would begin her own journal, making note of whatever Knight wasn’t able to put down.

  He wasn’t much company anymore, not that they had ever truly enjoyed each other or had anything to talk about. But now the scurvy left him too weak to speak sometimes, and it was hard for him to tell her “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Ada missed the others, especially Crawford and Galle, and she missed her son and her people. Perhaps if she kept a diary, she would be a little less lonely and sad, and it would give her the feeling, at least, of having someone to talk to.

  She hadn’t ever set her thoughts down on paper before, and so she wasn’t exactly sure how to begin. At first she tried to write the kinds of things the men thought were important—all about the foxes she caught, or how she checked the traps every day, or what the weather was like, and if she had a headache or an upset stomach.

  Knight was not getting better. She knew this now. And everything depended on her. If he was to get well, she must be the one to make that happen, so she must trap every day and she must find enough for two. She would give Knight the larger portion because he needed it more, but she would also keep some for herself so that she could stay strong enough to hunt and work.

  It worried her that the foxes had stopped coming to her traps. On March 23, she found that three of the traps were missing. The next day, there was nothing, and the following day the wind was blowing so hard that she was forced to stay inside.

  On March 26, she discovered that a fox had been in the oil cans, springing the trap, which was now empty. She spotted three foxes in the distance, one dragging a trap, which clung to its foot, and later that morning she glimpsed a polar bear. At the sight of it, Ada’s heart seemed to freeze in her chest. Knight had been praying for a bear, and she knew they needed the meat, but she could only remember the words of the storytellers in her village, painting pictures of the malevolent Nanook who consumed humans or took human form to punish them. It was the first bear she had seen in many weeks, and Ada was only able to breathe deeply again when it gradually melted into the whiteness of the horizon without so much as a glance in her direction.

  She managed to catch the fox with the trap on its foot on March 28. “It has caught trap by trap that funny,” she wrote with amusement, proud once more of being able to bring game home to Knight. Later that day, she noticed a pain in the side of her face, and her eye seemed to swell a bit. The next morning, she was barely able to write in her diary because her eye was nearly swollen closed. Still, Knight was relying on her. So she pulled on her army pants, donned her snow goggles, and went out to chop wood. Afterward, she visited her trap-line and found one fat male fox.

  But the next day, her eye was so swollen that she couldn’t see at all. It was even worse the next day, which meant she and Knight were both forced to lie in their sleeping bags, with no one to feed them or stoke the fire. Ada did what she could to heal herself, dipping into their first aid box for some ointment and a cotton bandage.

  She was laid up for the next two days, and on April 2 began to notice a little improvement in her eye. The swelling seemed to have decreased a bit, but the eye still throbbed and gave her a headache, and now one side of her neck was aching and tender. Knight was desperate for food and help, and urged her to go to the traps. “But my eye is very ach,” she wrote, “so I cannot go out when my eye is that way because in evening I could bearly stand the ach of my eye and one side of my head.”

  She might die here. She did not know what was wrong with her, but perhaps she also had scurvy and she might never be able to get up from her bed again. Who would take care of them? And what would Bennett do without his mother?

  She took the pencil she used to write and opened her journal. “If anything happen to me and my death is known, there is black stirp for Bennett school book bag, for my only son. I wish if you please take everything to Bennett that is belong to me. I don’t know how much I would be glad to get home to folks.”

  Ada lay there and prepared to die, but the next morning she noticed that the swelling had gone down. The day after that, it went down a little more, although her stomach began bothering her and her eyes seemed foggy. It had been three days now since she had ventured out of the tent.

  On April 5, she was able to walk outside and carry in snow to melt down for drinking water, and the day after she was able to chop wood. She and Knight opened a can of biscuits and feasted. Her strength was returning, her stomach felt better, her eye was all but good again. And then the wind began to blow so hard that she couldn’t leave the tent for another day. With her eyes healed, she worked at a pair of yarn gloves for Galle, and when the gale at last blew itself out, she set out once more to the traps and found one fox.

  While Knight slept or simply lay there, gazing up at the ceiling, unable to move to read or write, Ada cleaned fox skins and cut some skin for boot soles and soaked them. She worked on them when she came home from trapping, chewing the sole to soften the skin and make it more pliable for sewing. As her dark head was bent over her work one night, Knight told her he was feeling rotten.

  It was rare for him to admit how he felt, and so Ada knew the pain must be getting worse. Day after day, as April progressed, the traps yielded nothing until finally there seemed to be no use trapping anymore. Ada still checked daily, but she always came home empty-handed. March had seen plenty of foxes, and although they hadn’t provided a good deal of meat, they had helped Knight improve to the point where his hopes began to rise again.

  Now, as Ada examined his legs, she tried not to react in a way that might upset him. But in her diary she wrote, “We look at Knights legs my! They are skinny and they has no more blue spots like they use to be.” The spots had disappeared, but he seemed to be growing weaker. Ada held up his head now to help him drink, but on April 17, he refused tea because he said he had a headache.

  Four days later, with Ada still unable to catch anything, Knight was despondent and restless. His temper rose as he lay there, a helpless invalid with nothing to do but stare into space and think about the days when he could run and ride his motorcycle or just sit up in bed without feeli
ng like the world was spinning off its axis. He was angry and he was fed up and he was sick of himself and Ada and this island.

  It was so miserably, horribly unfair that he should be sick. That anyone should be sick at all. Was it any wonder he gave his grandfather’s Bible to Ada? She had been so thrilled—like a child at Christmas—when he told her she could borrow it indefinitely. Perhaps he shouldn’t have because it was an heirloom, and his mother treasured the fact that he kept it. But what use did he have for it now? Ada pored over the book, lingering over the vibrant illustrations of Jerusalem and other Biblical places, absorbing every word, an eager student.

  The changes to his body were intriguing, in a horrific way, and at times he stood outside himself to observe the deterioration. How quickly this or that function failed him, how this part of him would rally for a while and then give in, as if defeated by a much stronger foe. He hardly knew what to expect next, and it was with a morbid fascination that he awaited and observed each new discoloration of the skin, each new swelling, each new bodily failure.

  He had taken this big, sturdy body—a little soft in places, perhaps a bit too stout—for granted. Except for the earlier bout of scurvy, he’d enjoyed good health, but this round far surpassed the previous one and so far had been an entirely new experience. He had always been larger and stronger than his friends and peers. He liked being an imposing figure, in terms of height and width, but now he was just skin and bones, barely held together by tissue. His limbs were so fragile, his bones so brittle and angular, that Ada had to place makeshift pillows of cotton beneath his joints to cushion him in his bed. They eased the pain only a little. It was as if his very bones ached and throbbed, and they threatened to snap with every movement.

  He couldn’t remember when he had left his sleeping bag, even for the necessary trips outside to urinate. Now he did everything in his bed, and it was up to Ada to clean up after him. It was humiliating, and laughable in a better situation.

  Ada was building the fire when Knight started “to cruel” with her. He told her Jack Blackjack must have been a good man, not a bad one like she’d said, and that he was right to treat Ada mean. Ada deserved it, Knight said, because she was callous to him and treated him badly. “He never stop and think how much its hard for women to take four mans place, to wood work and to hund for something to eat for him and do waiting to his bed and take the shiad out for him,” she wrote in her diary.

  If his words about her former husband were an unfair attack, his words about her dead children were unforgivable. He said it was no wonder they had died because she probably didn’t take any better care of them than she did of him. The words cut Ada more than any words she had ever heard in her life. No one had ever said such hurtful things to her, and after all she tried to do for him, making herself sick so that she could barely see, and still going out to look for meat for him when she felt weak. But she wasn’t trying to save him, he accused. She didn’t want him to live. He would write to the people of Nome and tell them just how she had treated him and then she would be sorry.

  She was starving, yet she had given him the bulk of the meat she had been able to catch. She needed meat, too, but Knight needed it more, and she always gave him the choicest parts of the animal, saving only the head and kidney for herself. She didn’t understand why he said such nasty things to her after all she tried to do for him.

  “This is the wosest life I ever live in this world,” she wrote. “Though it is hard enough for me to wood work and trying my best in everything and when I come home to rest here a man talk against me saying all kinds of words against me then what could I do.”

  If Knight died, she didn’t know what would become of her. And she suddenly was more afraid than she had ever been. If he died, she would be alone on that island. He had lain in his bed since the beginning of February, and now it was April 21 and she had no hope that he would be able to rise soon. He was so painfully brittle and thin, and she did not know when it would be that a ship would come, although she watched the water every day to look for it.

  “If I be known dead,” she wrote in her diary, “I want my sister Rita to take Bennett my son, for her own son and look after every things for Bennett she is the only one that I wish she take my son don’t let his father Black Jack take him, if Rita my sister live. Then I be clear. Ada B. Jack.”

  The following day, Ada stayed in the tent because she could do nothing but cry. Her heart was sick and she was frightened and she couldn’t forget the hateful words Knight had said to her.

  On April 24, she washed her hair and read Knight’s Bible all day to comfort herself. As she drank a cup of tea, she thought of the people who might be in church that morning or that night and what they might be doing or wearing or praying for. Still stinging from Knight’s words, she was feeling weak, and two days later, with an armful of wood she was bringing home, she nearly fainted. She slipped into her bed early that night, and awoke the next day from a deep, drowsy sleep to a dark house. A glance at her watch told her it was 4:00 P.M. She knew she should get up to bring in more wood, to look after Knight’s food, and to eat a bit herself. But she was so tired that she shut her eyes, telling herself she would get up later that evening to make some tea and look after a few things. When she awoke next, it was morning.

  The wind howled outside the house and threatened to blow the walls in. Ada didn’t feel at all well and stayed snug in her bag, Vic curled at her feet, doing nothing but reading the Bible and writing in her journal. She hoped to find strength in Jesus and in God, she wrote, because only God knew what would happen to her. Knight complained that he was sick and Ada didn’t answer him because there was nothing to say. She was sick, too, and there was nothing she could do. He somehow got up the strength to throw a book at her—it wasn’t the first time—and still she said nothing. But before she went to sleep, she filled his cup with water and fresh ice and a pick, so that it would stay filled through the night and so that he could chop at it if he wanted to, and then she turned her back on him and went to bed.

  On the last day of April, the wind continued to rage at them from outside the tent. Inside, Ada was grateful that Knight was still living and that she was still living. Each day that they were alive was a day to be thankful for. “If I happen to get back home I don’t know how much I would be glad God is the only one would brought me home again,” she wrote. “There is no one pity me in this world but God even there is no hand would help me but God, with his lovingkindness and mighty hand.”

  The first of May brought the sun, peeping through a hole in the roof, and again they were still alive. Two days later, Ada saw a snowbird and the sight rejuvenated her and filled her with hope. The birds would come soon and perhaps the bears and seals and foxes, too, and then they would be fine and Knight would be well again. Encouraged, she took a walk to her traps but found nothing. Still, she was hopeful.

  That night, she had a dream that she was in a foreign land and Knight was there, too, but they were the only ones. Then Knight left her to go to Siberia, taking one dog with him, and Ada was completely and utterly alone.

  When she awoke, she knew she would not be defeated by aches and pains or the raging weather or her own fear and discouragement. She would ignore Knight’s harsh and cutting words and not let them pierce her where she was most vulnerable. She made up her mind to live instead. “I will not let Bennett have stepmother,” she said to herself, and that was that. From that point forward, she would concentrate on keeping herself alive and taking care of Lorne Knight. He needed her—even if he did say such cruel words to her when he felt poorly—and she would not let him down.

  Gradually, the birds came back. Ada noticed ducks appearing in the sky and she borrowed Knight’s gun and tried to shoot one as they flew overhead. She stood there first for several minutes, trying to get up her nerve to pull the trigger. It was the noise that frightened her as much as anything. She had always covered her ears when the men fired their rifles because the sound was so violent and
terrible. Now, as the birds soared past, she knew she must make a decision. Summoning all her courage, she pulled the trigger.

  As the gun turned and twisted spasmodically in her hands, the power and noise terrified Ada. Knight was right. She was lousy with a gun. She would never be able to shoot anything unless she studied and practiced. “I thought to myself, I must not waste ammunition—I must learn to shoot.”

  She set up a target of empty tea tins near camp. The rifle was almost too heavy for her to lift, much less to hold, and the recoil bruised her shoulder. If she could only prop the gun against something or on top of something so that she could aim it properly and pull the trigger without having to worry about the weight of it. She examined the gun, holding it differently, trying to figure out the best way to handle it. But when nothing worked, she gathered some of the tools they had in camp and, out of driftwood, built a kind of gun rest which she could prop on her shoulder so that she was shielded from the kick of the rifle.

  She practiced daily until she was frustrated and her shoulder was sore, but gradually she began to see an improvement. She only hit her target twice on the first day of practice, but she thought that wasn’t bad for her very first time handling a rifle. She didn’t want to waste ammunition, but she knew it was important to practice, and so she was back at it the next day. At first, she shot sitting down, missing the target three times in a row. For the last shot, she lay on her stomach and hit the target with a smack. Then she stood up and took aim, and hit the target again.

  She suited up in a new pair of army pants, and set about breaking them in. They quickly became caked in dust and dirt as she worked at building a knife case and a gun case for the rifle, in order to protect it from the cold and the weather.

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