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


  The next afternoon, she dropped a seagull with one shot, and pride replaced fear as she brought it home for Knight. They had not eaten meat in a very long time, and now they had enjoyed birds for two days in a row. Ada could feel her body responding happily to the feed, and she was excited to set out the next day to try again. With the field glasses to her eyes, she scanned the beach and could see two sets of polar bear tracks. One was fresh, probably from the bear of the day before, but the other appeared to be old. There was no sign of seal yet, but she knew it would not be long before the seals reappeared on the ice. She would make a rifle resting board for seal hunting, she decided. It was a type of hunting, she knew, that required great patience and the strength to hold a gun in place for hours, if need be, while waiting for just the right moment to shoot the seal. She would need the resting board to do this.

  On June 9, she brought home one fresh seagull egg and one fat goose. The goose was carrying three eggs inside her, one already with a shell, so there would be added cause for celebration at tonight’s dinner.

  The lack of Vitamin C makes the capillaries fragile, which means they can and do rupture easily. The walls of the small blood vessels become so worn down, so vulnerable and delicate, that the slightest pressure causes them to shatter.

  It seemed Knight was always bleeding now. His nose. His skin. Literally, every time he turned around. He thus lay like a statue in his bed.

  Death would eventually take place from cardiac failure, internal bleeding of the lungs or digestive tract, or a fractured blood vessel of the brain. After a lengthy period of degeneration, during which one’s body seemed to collapse inward, death could come suddenly and without warning.

  There were several times in May and June when Knight thought his time had come. Once, when he fainted in bed. Another when he turned white as an ice sheet. And another and still another that weren’t quite as clear to him now. When he had the strength he noted everything in his journal.

  Nowadays, his body just did what it wanted and there was nothing he could do to control it. It didn’t take formal medical knowledge for him to know he was in the advanced stages of the disease. The reality was that, even as deep as he was into the throes of scurvy, if he’d had a week’s worth—or even just a few days—of fresh raw bear or seal meat, he could have been saved. A measly fox or goose or a gull egg here or there did little, particularly when he insisted on eating the meat overcooked or fried. But with plentiful fresh meat the chronic nosebleeds would have stopped in one day. The stabbing pain in his bones would have disappeared quickly, and his tender gums, a purplish red, would have healed in just three days’ time. The hemorrhaging of his skin—that stormy mass of black and blue which now spread across all planes of his body—would have cleared up in twelve days. Such a short healing period for such a debilitating, drawn-out disease, which had rendered him bedridden and helpless now for almost five months.

  His voice didn’t seem to work anymore, but when he could find the strength to whisper, Knight talked to Ada about what would happen if he died. He asked her to put his diary and any of his other personal papers into his trunk. He kept the key in his trouser pocket, he told her, where she could find it if he should stop breathing. He also wanted her to look after his rifle and his camera, and to be sure to keep them dry so that they wouldn’t be ruined. They must be returned to his parents and Joseph, and he wanted his family to be able to use them.

  On his earlier expedition with Stefansson, during one of their many travels over the ice and snow, they had stumbled across the grave of a small boy. It was obvious that vandals had visited the site at some point, rifling the nails from the coffin and the clothing of the deceased. A single arrow stuck in the ground near the grave, and Knight figured it must have been a sort of exchange for what they had stolen from the boy. A feeble, if well-meaning gesture, perhaps, following a grievously disrespectful one.

  Would they ransack his grave on Wrangel Island? Would strangers come one day to rob him of his boots or his belt? Or would he be buried at home near his ancestors? There was no question now in his mind that he was going to die before the ship came. The only thing that remained to be seen was where he would rest for eternity.

  * * *

  June 17, 1923

  Mr. & Mrs. H. Galle

  Newbraunfels, Texas.

  Dear People;

  I have been guessing that Mr. Stefansson would ask of the British Government, in return for the transfer of the Island to them, an expedition fitted out under his control and directions and that, from London, he would cable for a ship which he would already have located as suitable for his purposes...and would proceed to Wrangle Island which he would make his permanent base and they would penetrate the unknown regions north from there.

  If this is done, it will be a modern, fully equipped and well manned expedition going for perhaps three years and our boys would be given their option of staying another three years or returning home.

  I am getting anxious and so are we all and we wish we could hasten the time of hearing from Lorne and Milton....

  Hoping that I have been some comfort and assurance to you and trusting that we have some word soon that they are all well and have not been hungry, which I believe we will, I beg to remain,

  YOURS VERY RESPECTFULLY,

  J.I. Knight

  * * *

  Chapter Twelve

  KNIGHT’S YOUNGER BROTHER, Joseph, was going to the Arctic. Stefansson himself had requested that he join him on the relief expedition that summer. Joseph wasn’t quite sure what his role was to be, but he knew he would be taking part in the next stage of colonization on the island. He had no experience in the far North—or anywhere outside the Pacific Northwest—but he loved the outdoors and had spent a great deal of time in the mountains and the woods in his job as McMinnville’s special deputy game warden. He was also eager to follow in Lorne’s footsteps. Lorne was widely regarded as the bravest and most adventurous young man to come from their town, and everyone admired him for the work he was doing. He was famous now, and Joseph, at age twenty, wanted to be just like him.

  He couldn’t believe his good luck—that Mr. Stefansson wanted him. Joseph wrote to Stefansson to let him know that he would be a willing part of any venture in which the explorer wanted to include him. He planned to start training right away, so that he would be fit and ready by the time he was called to go. He may have lacked the physical strength and power of his brother, but he was taller at six feet two inches, and quickly growing into his lanky knees-and-elbows frame.

  On June 13, 1923, Stefansson would return to New York from London, where he was trying to muster support for the relief venture, and would let the Knights know the results of his conference with the British government, and the particulars of the relief expedition to Wrangel Island. Till that time, Joseph and his parents must wait. But they were used to waiting. There had been years of it, beginning in 1916, when Lorne first went north.

  Both Mr. and Mrs. Knight were proud of Joseph—the fact that Stefansson had asked for him specifically—just as they were indescribably proud of his older brother. They loved to imagine the look on Lorne’s face when he saw his younger brother stepping off the relief ship. While they hated the thought of being so very far away from both their boys, they were consoled by the knowledge that their sons would be doing important work for the world and that they would play such critical roles in something so grand as claiming an island for Britain.

  Stefansson, meanwhile, awaited word from the British cabinet regarding support of his proposed relief expedition. He had made the trip to London himself to appeal for help because the Canadian government had made it clear that they would do nothing—not even recognize Stefansson’s occupation of the island—without the consent of their sovereign Britain. After all, the Union Jack and not the Canadian flag was planted in the cold earth of Wrangel Island.

  Former Prime Minister Meighen had believed staunchly that Canada “should confine its territorial ambition
s to that portion of the map lying between and about the 52nd and 142nd meridians west of Greenwich, and that to reach out towards Wrangel Island, which is nearer to Russia than any other country, might only give ground for similar incursions into those portions which we claim.” Although there was a new government now, its leaders remained just as unconvinced.

  Stefansson’s own funds were largely exhausted and he had no hope of launching a relief journey without assistance. The money he had earned from his numerous lectures and articles was, according to him, being fed into the running of the expedition, and he had resorted to borrowing on his assets and accepting the offer of charity from friends. It was already June of 1923, and Stefansson knew he must send a relief ship to the island earlier than last year’s belated attempt. They would need to leave in July, early August at the very latest, in order to have a good shot at making the island. Although he had officially given up an active career as explorer, he still wanted to finish his work with the Wrangel Island Expedition.

  He emphasized the difference between relief and rescue. In writing to Mr. O. S. Finnie, of the Northwest Territories Branch in Ottawa, he said, “the men on Wrangel Island are not ‘stranded’ there. From my point of view they are a colony, no more stranded than were the early settlers of Nova Scotia or Plymouth Rock.” Of course, he was being bombarded with correspondence from the families of the men he had sent there. Mrs. Fred Maurer wrote him frequently, wanting to know all the particulars of the relief expedition, as did the Galles, who were always politely asking if there might be any information, and the Crawfords and the Knights, who were more direct with their questions. At this point, there was little to tell them except that he was doing his best to secure the funds he needed, and so he wrote them with the usual lines about how the men were as safe on Wrangel Island as they were at home. “Illness is, of course, possible but the danger of that is no greater than it always has been on our expeditions,” he wrote to Mr. Knight. “It is a very healthful climate, the danger of illness is less than it would be in a city, and about the only drawback on Wrangel Island from that point of view is the absence of surgical care.”

  The men had taken a good amount of ammunition to the island with them, he was sure of that. Both Knight and Maurer knew the importance of conservation, and so he felt confident they weren’t wanting for anything. If they ran low, they would know to save their bullets for the big animals, which could feed five people for quite some time. True, it had been disappointing when the ship had failed to reach them last summer, but Stefansson felt certain that the only trouble they were experiencing now was homesickness. It was possible, of course, that they had grown so lonesome that they had crossed the ice to Siberia in January or February, in which case there would have already been word of them from Russia. But since there had been no such word, Stefansson was content in the knowledge that all of his men, and Ada Blackjack, were doing just fine.

  The British government was understandably distracted by the aftermath of World War I. The Nazi Party, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, had held its first Congress in Munich that January of 1923, while the Allies of the Great War met in Paris to sign an agreement procuring one billion dollars from Germany to repay the United States for the cost of its occupation. The peasants of Russia, aided by Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Association, had barely recovered from their country’s great famine. And the British Government was faced with widespread unemployment, the failure of hard hit commercial industries, and political unrest.

  Four young men and one woman—only one an actual British subject—posted on a remote Arctic island were hardly a priority for a country still reeling from the ravages of war. Since Britain had never officially offered its support for Stefansson’s Wrangel Island venture, the whole expedition, from start to finish, had been nothing but a mortifying, internationally embarrassing affair. The less they had to do with it, the better.

  Stefansson estimated that he would need $10,000—the equivalent of $105,000 today—to thoroughly outfit and launch the relief expedition. While the families of the four young men and Ada Blackjack waited for news of a plan, he scrambled to come up with one.

  Harold Noice, after finishing a stint as an explorer under Stefansson in 1918, had struggled to make a name for himself on his own. What he wanted more than anything was to be as well-known an adventurer as Stefansson himself, someone who would be in constant demand, who would write and lecture and lead his own expeditions into the great, frozen wild. But there had been nothing. It wasn’t for want of trying, of course, because Noice was as ambitious a man as ever fell into Arctic work. He had always imagined great things for himself and dreamed far beyond the limits of his immediate experience.

  In 1923, he was a tall young man of twenty-seven, with a shock of dark hair, swept back and parted severely in the middle, and a round, puckish face. He had the pinched look of a mole who had just stumbled into sunlight—close-set eyes, appled cheeks, and no chin to speak of. He came from a family of farmers and there wasn’t one adventurous soul among his ancestors. But he was raised, as were most boys his age, on adventure stories, and Noice left his hometown of Seattle just after high school to seek the real thing. The Arctic was the last place he had considered going. Instead, he pictured himself prospecting for gold in Bolivia, winding his way down the Amazon, or lion hunting in Africa.

  He had enrolled in a technical school to study mineralogy and hoped for a life as a gold prospector, but before he finished his courses he met a man who was planning a photographic expedition into Alaska to take motion pictures of the scenery. It was a thrilling opportunity, and Noice jumped at it even though his parents—especially his mother—were unhappy about it. They had been reading the then-recent news accounts of Stefansson’s 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition and its tragic outcome—eleven men dead in the Arctic—and it was the last kind of life they wanted for their son.

  Noice’s mind was made up, however, and in 1914 he had set out with several other young men to travel up the coast to Nome to meet their expedition. But the man never showed, and Noice stayed aboard the ship that had carried him to Alaska. The captain was continuing on up to Banks Land and then to Cape Kellett, where they unexpectedly found Stefansson, who had been out of touch with the rest of the world for two years.

  Noice ended up serving nearly that amount of time on Stefansson’s 1916–1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition with Lorne Knight, whom he disliked intensely. Knight was just a bumpkin, in Noice’s opinion, a great, bumbling fool, who seemed to think of nothing but having a good time. Noice was far more serious than that and he quickly grew impatient with people whom he believed were less intelligent. Knight had beaten him once in a fight, too, which had been as humiliating an experience as it was painful.

  Noice had absolutely nothing in common with Knight except that they both worshiped Stefansson, or rather Knight worshiped while Noice coveted Stefansson’s position. Noice had found Stefansson, the man, to be a great disappointment, and he harbored numerous criticisms of the explorer, which he made clear in a book he was writing, With Stefansson in the Arctic. Although he had no publisher as of yet, he was certain the book would eventually be printed, largely thanks to the inclusion of Stefansson’s name in the title.

  It was difficult for him to find work after the run with Stefansson, even though Noice tried to create opportunities for himself whenever and wherever possible. In 1918, after finishing with Stefansson, Noice purchased a five-eighths interest in an old trading schooner with the idea that he was now experienced enough to become an explorer. During that time, he enjoyed stomping up and down the deck of the ship as captain, while he and his crew surveyed and charted remote shores of the Northwest Passage and the Victoria coastline. In the summer of 1920, he had penetrated the interior of Victoria Island, and began compiling a dictionary of the Eskimo languages, the first of its kind ever completed.

  In 1922, he went to New York, trying with no luck to sell a collection of ethnological objects to the American Museum o
f Natural History. He hoped to earn enough money from the sale to support himself and his writing, but he found no buyers. By spring of 1923, he finished his manuscript and found himself with nothing to do and no money. He stayed in touch with Stefansson, who was in New York at the time, and the explorer promised to help in any way he could. It was natural that he would want to do so. Noice was a man who, in Stefansson’s eyes, shared his beliefs and convictions about living off the land. And for all his criticism of Stefansson personally, Noice subscribed wholeheartedly to his theory, boasting that surviving in the Arctic was “easy if only one makes hay while the sun shines.”

  Stefansson knew that Noice was looking for any opportunity to go north, and so at the end of May, before he had sailed for London, the explorer mentioned the possibility of going to Wrangel Island in charge of the relief ship. The attention Noice would garner from leading such a journey might earn him enough prominence to make a good and solid living giving lectures, so it was quite an appealing proposition.

  Stefansson had returned from London without a promise or a farthing from the British government, but Noice knew the explorer was still working on a way to send a ship north. Noice vowed to stand by until he was needed, and Stefansson, in turn, promised to keep Noice informed. They would put everything into place so that, once the money was found, the expedition could sail immediately. With this in mind, Stefansson’s business partner, A. J. T. Taylor, began inquiring in Nome about possible ships available to charter.

 
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