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


  When Ada felt sick with a headache now, she took aspirin all day, hoping it would go away so that she could concentrate on her work. When she had stomach trouble now, she still went out to the fox traps.

  On the morning of May 10—her twenty-fifth birthday—Ada awoke to the sound of a steady dripping. Her first thought was rain or perhaps droplets of water trickling off the tent. But when she shook the clouds of sleep from her eyes, she saw the red flowing from Knight’s nose. He was holding a one-pound tea tin beneath it to catch the stream, and it was already half full. His face was a frightening shade of blue, and when Ada tried to help him he turned his face away from her and from the tin.

  “Knight,” she called over and over again. But he refused to answer. Finally, he managed to tell her he was better. The nosebleed had been going on for some time, but now he seemed to be over it.

  He needed her, but he hated relying on her, and because of this he often resisted her efforts on his behalf. Now she asked if he might eat some hard bread, fried in oil, if she were to make it for him. It was the only food they had and they were both sick and tired of it, but he needed strength.

  After she fed him, she fetched his shotgun and headed out to hunt. Lately, she had begun carrying the rifle with her on her walks, and this time she went out toward the islands that rose out of the harbor. She was still uncertain of her skill with the gun, still wary of the weapon. But at least she could shoot now without feeling faint, and she could shoulder it thanks to the portable platform she had built.

  She watched as a seagull flew over her head, and without pausing to be afraid, she raised the gun skyward and shot. The bird dropped from the sky and landed with a smack against the earth. It was the first bird she had ever shot with a rifle. For months, Knight had mocked her inability to shoot. He thought she would never learn, that she was hopeless, and that her intense fear of guns would mean she would never be of any use with one. But she had proved him wrong again.

  Because of his tender gums and missing teeth, eating was ever more painful for Knight, but Ada made some seagull broth and fed it to him. Afterward, he said he felt much better. Not too long after, she was able to shoot an eider duck through the head, but was disappointed because she had actually been aiming for its breast. Her earlier triumph at being able to hit something at all had disappeared, and as she grew more sure of herself, she expected better results.

  Polar bears still haunted her, even though she hadn’t seen any in weeks. But one morning, Ada awoke to find a mother and cub hovering outside the door of her tent. While Knight lay helpless in his bed, Ada crouched behind her own bed in fear. She was terrified the bears would find her and eat her and she would end up trapped inside one of their bellies. Knight couldn’t protect her now and he wouldn’t be able to shoot the gun, no matter how close the bears stood to him, because he simply didn’t have the strength. They needed the meat desperately, but Ada didn’t trust herself to kill them. When she shot at ducks, her gun stayed steady, but “when I shoot at polar bear, my gun shakes in big circles.”

  “I said to myself, what shall I do—what shall I do? If I shoot the mother bear and only wound her, she will get me—If I shoot her cub, she will be angry and eat me up—What shall I do?”

  Knight told her she must save their precious few soft-nosed bullets for shooting polar bears because they were more powerful and more deadly than regular bullets. Instead of lodging in the animal’s flesh or passing through it, the soft-nosed bullets would explode upon impact, shattering vital organs, so that death was more assured. Now Ada grabbed Knight’s rifle and dragged it toward the tent opening. Then, she tore open the door and fired her gun in the air to frighten the bears away. She watched as they sprinted across the snow, leaving camp, leaving her.

  Afterward, she built a platform above the house so that she could climb up and watch for bears along the horizon. She dragged the solid, weighty planks of wood from the beach and, using all her strength, hefted them onto the four ridgepoles. It was cold, numbing work without mittens, but her own were torn and unusable and she had not had time to make new ones. But she managed to nail the planks together so that her platform was sturdy. Next time, she would be prepared, she promised herself. Next time, she would see the polar bear coming. And next time, she would have the nerve to shoot it.

  * * *

  THE NATION

  Wrangel Island

  In connection with reports in British newspapers to the effect that an expedition led by Mr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson had raised the British flag on Russian territory, to wit, on the Isle of Wrangel in the Arctic Ocean, the Government of the Russian Federal Soviet Republic addressed itself to the British Government in a note of May 24, 1923, asking to be informed as to whether this act had taken place with the knowledge and sanction of the British Government.

  To this inquiry no reply has been forthcoming.

  The Government of the Union of the Socialist Soviet Republics, being wholly unable to understand the absence of the requested explanations, and having in the meantime learned that new expeditions are being planned by British subjects to the Isle of Wrangel, finds it necessary again to state that it regards the Isle of Wrangel as an integral part of the Union of the Socialist Soviet Republics.

  Russian sovereign rights to the island have never been questioned by any other government, and it has been generally looked upon as Russian territory. Therefore the Federal Government is compelled to notify the British Government that it regards the raising of the British flag on the Isle of Wrangel as a violation of Russian sovereign rights.

  * * *

  Chapter Eleven

  ADA DREAMED she was surrounded by people. There were people everywhere, swarming around her, and Bennett was there, too. She was looking at pictures of the people swimming and Bennett pointed to them and said, “Swimming pool.”

  “Who told you these are swimming pool pictures?” she asked him, and then she awoke.

  She wished she was home where she could see her son and have someone to talk to. She longed to go to church and hear the people singing hymns. She read Knight’s Bible whenever she had a spare moment, and she had just finished the Old Testament. Now she would begin reading the New Testament. The words were comfort and solace and she grew to crave them. She prayed the Lord would carry her home so that she could join in the singing one day.

  There was a distant moaning and a rumbling that told her the walrus had returned. When Ada turned her gaze toward the ocean, she could see them basking on the ice offshore. The birds had come again as well, and the sky was thick with them as they soared back to their island nests, but now she could not seem to get a single one with her rifle. The fox traps remained empty, and she added some seal oil to them, hoping it would help attract the evasive little creatures. A walrus would last both Ada and Knight for days and would help Knight feel better. But there would be no reaching the walrus on foot. The ice was too unstable, the animals too skittish, too massive, and too ferocious when angered.

  The dory remained at the old camp, and she knew it would be useless to her, even if she could somehow drag it from there to the water. A dory would be too cumbersome, too awkward. Better to have a skin boat, which was much lighter and which she could maneuver more easily. So she decided to build one. She had never built a skin boat before, but she had seen them, had watched as men in her village had made them, and so she worked the skins and formed the base and gradually, little by little, its shape began to emerge, like a sculpture from clay, and Ada knew that it would work.

  As Ada grew stronger and taught herself how to shoot and how to shape a boat out of skins, she could see Knight growing weaker. His nose bled constantly now. He could barely manipulate his bed pan, which Ada had placed beneath his sleeping bag. She had cut a hole in the bag, which would fit around the pan, and every day, when the pot became too full or too offensive, she carried it outside and emptied it. She tried not to be sickened by the stench, the mess, but Knight’s bodily functions were failing him fast a
nd he had little control now of his evacuations. Sometimes he wasn’t even able to adjust himself over the pan in time, and then Ada had to clean up the filth in his sleeping bag while he lay there, helpless to do anything but watch her.

  Lately she couldn’t sleep because there was too much to think about and to worry about. Knight looked as if he might die any minute, some days more than others. He still had moments—brief ones—when he felt better, but these had become rare. She could tell by his voice then, which would sound stronger, clearer, more like his old self. But other days, most days, she could barely hear him or understand his words because his voice was so faint and halting, just a whisper, and she had to lean in close to hear him.

  His stomach turned on him and he began refusing food. He didn’t eat anything for nine days straight until finally she was able to persuade him to eat a fried biscuit. His spirit was there—she could see him in his eyes—but his body was giving out. He drifted in and out of consciousness—so that sometimes he was there with her and sometimes he wasn’t. He was trapped in a deteriorating shell of bones and flesh, unable to free himself except in sleep, and Ada was afraid it wouldn’t be long now before he was gone forever. She prayed that they would survive until a ship came.

  It wasn’t that Knight could be of any help to her now, but the very fact that he was there, breathing, meant that she was not alone, and that someone else shared this remote, forgotten place. His presence was a comfort to Ada, and she needed him almost as much as he needed her. He relied on her to care for him physically, to talk to him, to be there if he should need something, and she counted on him to keep her company and remind her that, no matter how lonely she felt, there was someone else to share this hell.

  While Knight lay in his bed, Ada sat nearby and made herself some sealskin boots, a blanket coat, a parka, and a sun hat to go hunting in, along with a pack for carrying things. The little house was cozy, but the weather was blustery and cold, and fog hovered over the mountains. It snowed on May 19, unfolding a vast, smooth blanket of white across the earth, and burying all of Ada’s traps. But the sun began shining in the evening, which meant there was more time for Ada to work outside at chopping wood, washing clothes, scraping skins, and, of course, hunting, which occupied most of her time.

  Every day, when the weather allowed, she cleaned her gun and then set out with it and her shoulder platform to find some game. She had seen ducks, geese, gulls, ravens, and owls across the sky. But her aim was still unreliable, and she knew she must be careful not to waste her ammunition. Rather than come home empty-handed each time, she collected sweet roots to boil up into a stew.

  If she made a mistake once, she didn’t make it again. When she fell into the mouth of the harbor up to her ankles, she learned. When she shot too far to the left or to the right and frightened off the birds without hitting one, she took note. When she pulled the trigger, forgetting that she had already set the hammer, it nearly knocked her over, but she wasn’t hurt. And she never forgot again. She also learned to keep the fox skins out of reach of the cat, who kept trying to eat them. All this she documented in her journal.

  A storm roared in on May 27, blowing snow into the storm shed and threatening to invade the house. Ada had meant to go over to the old camp to see how the hunting conditions were there, but was forced to delay until the weather was calmer. When she did go, she was not prepared for how desolate the camp seemed. It was strange being back there, where the five of them had once lived together. There was evidence of all of them littered across the ground, but there was no sign of life. No animal tracks, no birds flying above, no indication that a bear or fox had ever been there. It was only six months ago that Ada, Knight, Crawford, Galle, and Maurer had lived here together and celebrated Christmas and talked of all their future plans. Only five months since Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had headed off with the dogs, so full of ambition and determination and hope.

  The first week in June, Ada took a walk west of camp. As she crossed the harbor, a flash of white caught her eye, and she paused to study the seagulls, which seemed busy along the beach. They scattered as Ada approached, and she saw that they had been building a nest. She shot at the birds, but they flew away, and she had to content herself with stealing their egg.

  On her way home, a flock of white geese suddenly took flight above her, and she raised her gun and took aim. She lowered the gun again, watching, but the geese continued their journey. A hundred feet or so later, however, one fell to the ground, and Ada scooped it up and carried it home.

  “Look what I got,” she called out to Knight as she entered the house.

  He opened his eyes with difficulty and tried to focus them. “What is that, a seagull?”

  “No, it is a white goose and one seagull egg.”

  His head suddenly cleared. Was the egg fresh, he wanted to know. Yes, Ada said. It had been warm when she first touched it. She broke it open into a cup and showed it to him so that he could see for himself. He wanted it fried, he said. He should have eaten it uncooked, of course, because the frying only killed the nutrients he so desperately needed, so that he might as well have eaten a hard biscuit as an egg. But food had always tasted better to him fried or overcooked, especially now that his stomach was so queasy. The egg was easier for Knight to eat than solid meat because he was now having to gum everything. Besides, his throat was raw and sore and the meat hurt going down. Ada cooked the goose tenderly, though, until the meat fell away from the bone, just in case Knight felt like attempting it.

  She held his head, to give him a drink of water. And every morning and every night she heated a canvas bag filled with sand and placed it on his feet to keep him warm. He was so terribly cold because he was only skin and bones. The chill penetrated easily and deeply, and he lay shivering in his bed until Ada warmed the bags for him and built the fire even higher. She kept the fire burning continuously so that Knight would not be uncomfortable, although it sometimes died while she was sleeping.

  Ada was growing weaker herself. She could feel her energy slipping away, but she still made herself walk the three or four miles it took to get to the traps every day, and then she hurried back to camp to chop, split, and stack wood for the fire, and to collect snow for drinking water. When she finally felt that she could no longer make the three-mile walk to the trapline, she set numerous traps in a circle about the house so that she could reach them more easily and so that she would be closer to Knight should he need her. There were just as many fox tracks in camp as there were on the trapline, so she felt sure they would be fine.

  Day after grueling day, Knight would lie in his bunk and watch Ada work and sometimes he would offer his advice or criticism. When she placed her fox skins on stretchers, he whispered, “White ladies want wide skins and you must stretch them as wide as you can—you are stretching them too long.”

  Ada kept doing it exactly the way she had been told. “Some native men who got skins have been telling me to make them long in the stretchers,” she replied.

  “That’s not right,” Knight insisted. “White people who live outside like them wide.”

  Ada fell quiet because she had never been outside where the white people lived, except to Nome, and so she did not know how they liked their furs. But the Eskimos had told her to stretch them this way, and that is the way she would continue to do it, no matter how frustrated it seemed to make Knight. She knew he also disapproved of the way she left the claws of the animals on the skins because he and Crawford and the others had always cut the claws off theirs. But this was the way she knew to do it. She was in charge now, not Knight, and she would have to do exactly as she believed best.

  Knight was so thin that he was frightened to shift in his bag at all, for fear his bones would snap in two, so he lay prone and still as could be. Ada placed the cotton pillows she had made him beneath his shoulders and hips to cushion his bones, and she filled the canvas bags with hot sand and placed these around his entire body to warm him.

  She cared for him
now with a mother’s instinct. She had a son who was ill and would probably always be ill from tuberculosis, unless she could take him to the doctors to cure him. And she had had two sick babies who had died. She said to herself, “Ada, Mr. Knight is sick now just like a little baby and I will take care of him just like my own little babies that are sick and die.”

  When Knight’s stomach refused to hold anything—not biscuit or blubber or fox soup—she remembered that soda and salt added to water were good for an upset stomach. She had drunk this many times herself and had felt better afterward. She told Knight she would make him some, but he refused it. He couldn’t stand the thought of it. Ada felt she couldn’t insist—even if it was something that might help him— because she could not tell a white man what to do.

  Sometimes she read to him from his grandfather’s Bible, which she carried around with her and treasured above all else. The words were so soothing to her.

  “Ada,” Knight said one day, as she was reading, “when we get back to Nome, I am going to give you this Bible.” And that thought filled her with joy.

  On June 5, Knight fainted in his bed. He was gone for a while this time—much longer than before—until Ada wondered whether he would ever come back. When he once again opened his eyes and searched for her, they both sat shaken and afraid. The next day— Knight’s thirtieth birthday—Ada shouldered her rifle and set out with grim determination. Knight must not die.

  Frustrated and angry, she shot her gun over and over that day, but only got one bird to show for it. And then she saw the polar bear. It was far out on the ice and was heading toward camp. Ada stood rooted, her legs unsteady, watching as the bear veered closer. First to the beach near camp, then a bit south again, and then west to the beach, and then south once more. She couldn’t tell what path it was taking, but she knew it would only be a matter of yards before it was upon her. Hands shaking, she raised her gun and took aim. And then the sky opened and snow began to fall and soon she could see nothing but white. She waited there, watching, with the snow falling around her, until her legs finally moved again and carried her back home.

 
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