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


  Noice didn’t have a cent to his name, and there were obligations back home that he needed to settle. Stefansson, once he had funding, was willing to take financial responsibility for these and for sending him money for his expenses. For Noice, this was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. He would go north again, and to Wrangel Island this time, the very setting of Stefansson’s tragic Canadian Arctic Expedition. He didn’t care if Lorne Knight was one of the men to be rescued—even though Stefansson was quick to emphasize it was a relief expedition and not a rescue mission.

  With the British government refusing to offer the support Stefansson so desperately needed, he turned his sights to other prospects. He had an acquaintance by the name of Griffith Brewer, an English gentleman and the managing director of the British Wright Aeroplane Company, who had taken an interest in Lorne Knight after meeting him at the Ohio home of Stefansson’s friend and Brewer’s fellow businessman, aviator Orville Wright. Brewer had seen promise in Knight then and was won over by the young man’s enthusiasm, and now he showed interest in Stefansson’s relief venture. Brewer was not a wealthy man, but he was an industrious one, and he vowed to help in any way he could.

  A. J. T. Taylor also offered his support, vouching personally to pay Noice’s expenses from New York to Nome so that he could be on hand, just in case they could scrape up enough resources for the relief trip. Noice, who had recently dislocated his shoulder, which was now bound in a cast, left at the first opportunity. He spent most of the journey in the company of an intriguing woman named Frances Allison, who was several years his senior, a traveler and musician and divorcée. She made the trip a pleasant one, but when Noice arrived in Nome, he was startled by the unfriendly treatment he received from the other Americans there, who had followed the news of Stefansson’s claim on Wrangel Island and were angry because they resented the fact that he was trying to steal this piece of land for Britain. When Noice arrived, word spread quickly as to his purpose there, and he was not welcomed.

  Noice tried to explain Stefansson’s point of view, but the people of Nome weren’t interested in his explanations, and so, whenever he shopped for supplies or goods for himself, he found, time and again, the prices increased by levels that made purchases unaffordable. Only Carl and Ralph Lomen, prominent local businessmen, were good to him, thanks to an arrangement Stefansson had made with them to help supply Noice for the trip. But no matter the headache, the fact that he was going north again was worth all the hostility.

  The Arctic had hooked him. To Noice, it was “challenging, calling, tempting, taunting, and I knew I could never break away from it.” He dreamed now at age twenty-seven, as he had at nineteen when he was just starting out, of seeing his name in the papers. The headlines that would read Seattle Boy Becomes Arctic Explorer.

  Stefansson had told him there was nothing heroic in the work of an Arctic voyager, but Noice disagreed. “Adventure!” Stefansson had scoffed. “There is absolutely nothing heroic in Arctic exploration, for exploration, like any other work, is easily resolved into certain simple rules, which, if properly followed, render it as safe and about as exciting as taxicab-driving or a hundred other things which are done in civilization and done without a suggestion of heroism either.”

  Noice was sufficiently chastened by the words, but it became increasingly clear to him that Stefansson’s was a cold and scientific mind. As far as Noice could see, Stefansson talked but rarely acted, and spent most of his time in the Arctic reading novels or tapping away on his typewriter with his lily-white hands. Noice had wondered then, as he wondered now, “if this man had ever really battled with ice-floes, or even fired a gun at a target, let alone a bear, in his whole life.”

  As much as he may have coveted Stefansson’s public position and fame, the more Noice came to know the man behind the legend, the less enchanted he was. In his eyes, Stefansson had “few ‘human’ traits and no human weaknesses.” Noice vowed early on that he was never going to be like him. He would be his own man instead, and some day people would read about him in history books for the great things he had done, all on his own. By now, he had seen some of the very worst of the North, but he had not been swayed. He had seen some of the best, too, and, in his opinion, “the best was very good.”

  Ada had filled all the pages in her diary, using her prized Eversharp pencil to record her thoughts. It was hard to believe, flipping through the little book, that she had written all those words. Now, Knight told her to use a blank book of photo supply order forms to continue her journal because it was the only notebook they had left. She took great care with her first entry:

  June 10. This very important noted in case I happen to died or some body fine out that I was dead I want Mrs. Rita McCafferty take care of my son Bennett. I don’t want his father Black Jack to take him on a count of stepmother not for my boy. My sister Rita is just as good his on mother I know she love Bennett just as much as I do I dare not my son to have stepmother. If you please let this know to the Judge. If I got any money coming from boss of this company if $1,200.00 give my mother Mrs. Ototook $200.00 if its only $600.00 give her $100.00 rest of it for my son. And let Rita have enough money to support Bennett.

  Death was constantly on her mind. She thought about it every time she looked at Knight’s pale and haggard face—his sunken cheeks, his thin lips, his hollow eyes.

  Knight was going to die. Ada knew it when she looked at him. He was “white like paper,” and just bones now, with a thin layer of skin over them. His voice was growing weaker so that he could barely talk, and when he did it cost him whatever strength he still had. With a shaky hand, he inscribed his grandfather’s Bible and gave it to her. “Presented to Ada Blackjack by E. Lorne Knight on Wrangel Island 1923.” It was hers to keep now.

  Ada was terrified that she was going to die as well. She was hunting every day and was certain that a polar bear would catch her and eat her, or that she would fall through the ice and drown. Her aim was improving, though, and there was at least some small comfort in her ability to shoot gulls and geese with regularity now. There were eggs, too, and Knight ate what he could of these. His throat was still too raw for meat and no matter how he tried, he wasn’t able to swallow it.

  Ada had been wearing her snow goggles, but one day her eyes, which had never adjusted to them, felt so gritty and strained and the light hurt them so much that she knew she was now snow blind. For three days, she was laid up in bed with her eyes closed against the pain, praying her sight would return. Knight breathed softly, raggedly, in his bed, so she could at least hear that he was still there, still with her.

  On June 13, Ada was able to walk as far as the end of the harbor, where she found nine seagull eggs. Her eyes were strong enough now so she could shoot a gull from the sky, and her arms were quite full of birds and eggs by the time she returned to camp. Two days later, she caught a seagull in one of her traps, but once again Knight wasn’t able to swallow the meat. He could only swallow a little bit of raw egg as Ada held his head.

  Determined to improve her shooting further, Ada made another target and shot it twice with her rifle. It was all she dared to do, since the ammunition was beginning to run low. But afterward she picked up the target and brought it into the tent to show Knight what she had done. “Pretty good shooting,” he told her, and Ada felt proud, as she always did, whenever he acknowledged her work. Even though they had had sharp words, even though she had never felt as close to him as to the others, she supposed they were friends now, and she craved his approval and respect.

  By mid-June, the seals seemed to come from nowhere, returning to the ice floes offshore to sun themselves for hours. Their slick, dark skins glistened against the white of the ice, barely specks of black because they were quite far out on the pack. On June 18, Ada, with her rifle and her new rifle stand, went seal hunting for six hours. She crawled along the ice on her belly for three hundred yards after one seal, but when she fired at it, the seal dove into the water and was gone. For the first time
in a while, she came home empty-handed. When she told Knight what had happened, he said that she was too far off from the seal to do any good. Next time, she must get closer before firing, at least one hundred fifty yards or less. And she mustn’t forget and use the soft-nosed bullets when he had told her not to. Those were to be saved for the polar bears.

  Eggs had become their safety net, but when Ada set out to go egg hunting on June 20, she discovered that her passage to the nests had disappeared. As the snow melted, the water level of the harbor rose; now there was no way across to the sand island where the birds nested. She would have to tell Knight that there was nothing again for dinner, but perhaps the next day would bring better luck.

  * * *

  Untitled Poem by Lorne Knight, Summer 1923

  Here lies a Polar Explorer so valiant and bold

  Who devoted his life to snowstorms and cold

  All for prominence, so I’ve been told

  And a few pieces of yellow filth called gold.

  For nourishment he had snow and scenery

  Which reminded him of the grim beanery

  The grim beanery so greasy and grim

  Would look like Paradise now to him.

  Oh! Bring on your roast pork, apple sauce and pie

  And some whipped cream before I die

  Some of that wonderful potato salad, too

  And sliced tomatoes with lots of goo-goo

  And beans. Oh! Beans, that wonderful fruit

  And then to end it all, just to make things suit

  About a gallon of mother’s canned fruit

  And then a wonderful bewitching smoke

  For as tobacco is concerned I’m dead broke.

  But I’m going now where it’s always hot

  Where blizzards ain’t and cold is not

  Where everyone’s happy and anthems ringing

  But having no voice I’ll be out of the singing

  Don’t weep for me now, don’t weep for me ever

  I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

  * * *

  PART IV

  RELIEF

  “I’ll just see where it leads to,” thought Jack, and with that he stepped out of the window on to the beanstalk, and began to climb upwards.

  —“Jack and the Beanstalk”

  Chapter Thirteen

  ON JUNE 21, Ada stood over Knight and began to cry. He had once again slipped into unconsciousness, and she prayed that he would wake up and come back to her. Don’t leave me here alone, she thought.

  When at last he opened his eyes and saw her standing there, the tears streaming down her face, he was startled. “What is the matter, Ada?” he asked gently. She told him that she was afraid he was going to leave her. She needed consolation, but what could Knight say? She was right, wasn’t she? He was going to leave her soon. He was fading quickly, even though he couldn’t predict what the immediate cause of death would be.

  Ada’s tears were flowing and her sad face tilted down at him. She had done her best, after all, and he knew it wasn’t her fault he was losing his last battle. She had taught herself to shoot and had hunted for him nearly every day and had seen that he was as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. She had not been able to save him, as he had not been able to save himself. But she had tried. And so he thanked her for all she had done for him, and he told her that she must be strong, that she must do her best to fight for her life and hang on until the ship arrived.

  Afterward, Ada sat down at Galle’s typewriter and slipped a piece of paper into it, just as she had seen Galle do numerous times. She had never used a typewriter before, and Galle had told her firmly that she must not touch it, but she felt there should be a record kept of the fact that Knight was very ill, in case anything should happen to him or to her.

  Dear Galle,

  I didn’t know I will have very important writing to do. You well forgive me wouldn’t you. Just before you left I’ve told you I wouldn’t write with your typewriter. So I made up my mine I’ll write a few words, in case some happen to me, because Mr. Knight he hardly know what he’s talking about I guess he is going die he looks pretty bad. I hope I’ll see you when you read letter. Well, if nothing happen to me I’ll see you. The reason why I write this important notice I have to go out seal hunding with the rifle. Of course Knight wouldn’t eat any meat he always say he’s got sore throad. That’s about all I well say in this notice I write. I may write some more some times if nothing happen to me in few days.

  With lots of best regards to your self from me

  Yours truly

  Mrs. Ada B. Jack.

  Knight’s words had comforted her, and that night, she slept. The next morning, she checked on him, as she always did, and discovered that he wasn’t breathing. Then she knew that Lorne Knight was really and truly gone. He had died sometime during the night.

  It had been a long, excruciating illness, but now, at last, she felt he would have peace and be with God.

  She knew that she should record the date of Knight’s death because Mr. Stefansson and others back home would want to know, and if she were to die, too, of starvation or illness or from being killed by a wild animal, she would need to leave something behind that would tell what had happened to Knight. Once again, she sat down in front of Galle’s Corona and placed her fingers on the keys.

  Wrangel, Island.

  June 23d. 1923.

  The daid of Mr Knights death He died on June 23d I don’t know what time he die though Anyway I write the daid, Just to let Mr Stefansson know what month he died and what daid of the month

  writen by Mrs Ada B. Jack.

  Galle should be in Nome by now and would probably be coming back to the island by boat. She left the letters in the typewriter, just in case anything should happen to her, so that he would find them easily and could learn about their deaths, and she vowed to write something every day, so that he would know where she was at all times, just in case the ship should come while she was out hunting.

  She did not have the heart—nor the strength—to stir Knight from his sleeping bag. To remove him from her sight would have been too much, and she couldn’t bear the thought of not having another human to look at. If she left him in his bed, it would almost be as if he were still with her. To protect him from wild animals, she built a barricade of boxes around his body.

  She moved into the storage tent to escape the smell of decay. She and Vic would just have to make the small space their new home, and she drove driftwood into the ground to bolster the tattered walls and ceiling of the tent. She built a cupboard out of boxes, which she placed at the entrance, and in this she stored her field glasses and ammunition. The stove she made herself. It was a rusty, rickety thing comprised of empty kerosene tins, but it worked well. She piled driftwood beside it so that she wouldn’t have to go outside to fetch it. On top of the stove sat her battered teakettle, and she stocked her food— pieces of dried meat and bits of hard bread—in a small box.

  She built a sleeping platform against the rear wall of the tent out of empty crates and driftwood, and then covered it with reindeer skins to make it softer. She made a rack for her thirty-forty rifle and her shotgun, which she hung above her bed so that she would have easy access to them should she be surprised by bears during the night.

  Ada collected Knight’s diary and reached into his trouser pocket for the key to his trunk. But when she tried to turn the key in the lock, it wouldn’t budge. She had promised to put his journal in the trunk, but she would protect it as best she could from the elements. She left it in its box and set it out under the tarp which she had propped up outside her tent for storing Knight’s camera and other items she wanted to keep dry.

  Despite all of his cross words and criticisms, she missed Knight. They had developed their own unique and prickly friendship, coming to rely upon one another. Ada did not understand why he had to die so young and leave her by herself, but she supposed that it must have been the evil spirits that had caused his i
llness. She knew of such happenings from her people, who had spoken of them often, and besides, the shaman had warned her. Perhaps Knight had done something to anger the spirits. Perhaps they all had, coming there to the island. If the spirits had claimed Knight, they might very well come for Ada as well. She must be watchful and take good care of herself, she wrote in her diary, and continue to read Knight’s grandfather’s Bible—her Bible now—so that the spirits would not take her away, too.

  Stefansson made it clear to Noice that if Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle wished to return home with the ship, Noice was to stay on the island and take their place or hire men to do so. Noice had no intention of remaining on Wrangel Island to continue British occupation, and he figured it was a safe bet that the men who were living there now would be anxious to come back, with the exception of Knight, who just might possibly want to stay. In case he didn’t, Noice thought it best to hire Eskimo families, with their dogs and sleds, who would be willing to stay behind.

  The ship was called the Donaldson. Noice and the ship’s owner, Alexander Allen, signed an official agreement stating that Allen promised to furnish Noice with a crew and provisions sufficient to cover their needs. In addition, he would supply the engine oil and coal necessary to run the boat. The Donaldson was to be completely outfitted and shipshape by the first of August 1923, and in return Noice, representing Stefansson, would hand over $1,000 in cash for payment for the first twelve days. Weekly installments of $83 per day would follow, to the end of a thirty-one-day period.

  It had been hell, at first, finding a suitable vessel. There was only one boat available when Noice arrived in Nome, a rusty, abandoned ship, inappropriately christened the Gladiator, which hadn’t been at sea for years. Because it was the only option, he was determined to figure out a way to make it work. He tore off the iron bark sheeting to investigate for leaks and was treated to a smattering of them, all the way across the stern. He would have to send the old tub out to be repaired, overhauled, completely rebuilt, at a huge cost of time and money.

 
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