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


  It was at that point that Alexander Allen stepped in, offering his ship, the Donaldson, which was solid and sound but which possessed a musty, unreliable engine of only 40 horsepower. Allen volunteered to remove it and replace it with a new engine of 65 horsepower, which sounded just fine to Noice, and a lot better than the rusty, leaky Gladiator. Stefansson had been vaguely associated with Allen in years past, and Noice thought him a decent man. The ship was seventy-two feet long, had a seventy-four ton burden, and should—with the new engine—get them to their destination.

  To staff the ship, Noice would take along Allen as navigator, a man named Hansen as captain, as well as two engineers and second mate Charles Wells, an Alaskan prospector and trapper. Noice wanted three Eskimos to accompany him on the sled trip across the frozen sea to the island—should the ship be forced out by ice. He spoke the language so wasn’t worried about dealing with the Eskimos, but as yet, he had only found one Eskimo willing to go. Too many of them feared the danger of the mission, of being crushed in the ice, of being swept away by the pack and the current. Before Noice could convince them otherwise, word spread of an accident in which one Eskimo sprained a wrist and another smashed a foot. It had happened while loading the ship with cargo, and now the remaining Eskimo refused to sail.

  All reports of the ice conditions that season were favorable, and Noice hoped the route would be clear, smooth going, and that the Donaldson could reach Wrangel within two weeks. They would head toward—but not to—North Cape, Siberia, and if the ice was too thick and they weren’t able to break it, Noice planned to land a depot of supplies there, in case the ship was crushed. If he didn’t find Crawford or Knight or any of the others along the Siberian Coast, he would wait until the sea froze over completely so that he could cross to the island by sled. With his plaster cast now removed and his shoulder healed, he felt fit and ready for that particular challenge, although he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

  Noice jotted off a note to Knight’s father to let him know the status of the relief expedition. If he couldn’t reach the island by ship, he promised to find a way to reach the men and Ada. Mr. Knight was skeptical—he harbored a bit of prejudice toward Noice based on the stories he’d heard from his son—but he passed the news on to the Galles just the same because he knew that they, at least, would be comforted. “In case he could not reach the island by boat he would take Nome’s best dog team and sled and an Eskimo skin boat and, in case the boat became impossible, he would take to the ice hauling the boat on the sled and in case he encountered open water which he would, he can ferry over and thus be sure to reach the island and the boys.”

  Although he feigned confidence, Mr. Knight wished it was someone else going after Lorne and his comrades. Noice was unnervingly unproven to be leading such an important expedition, no matter what Stefansson seemed to think. But perhaps Noice would make good on this one, and perhaps he really would get through. After all, years had passed since that earlier expedition with Lorne, and they were men now, not boys.

  The only problem with Noice’s plans was Stefansson. Both Noice and A. J. T. Taylor wired him repeatedly, urging him to send the money they needed if they were to move forward with hiring the ship and purchasing supplies. For weeks, they tried to reach Stefansson, each correspondence growing more beseeching, more frantic, more demanding. If they were to have a better shot at making the island than the Teddy Bear, they must leave soon. Noice did all he could to secure the equipment and stores they would need, and the Lomen brothers held the goods he had chosen while Noice tried without success to get word from Stefansson about the money.

  But there was nothing, and the Lomens were unable to advance any credit to Noice. Alexander Allen, too, would have to relinquish the ship to someone else who could pay him upfront and soon. The Donaldson was the only suitable ship available that summer, and if they lost her, they lost their chance at Wrangel. Noice was all too aware that he was working with a two- to three-week window during which the sea promised—as much as it was able—to be open and clear of ice.

  “It is unthinkable that Mr. Stefansson does not realize the seriousness of the present situation,” Mr. Taylor wrote to the explorer’s secretary, “and the far reaching and unfavourable effect that any public appeal for money will have upon him personally. There are only two sources that the money for this expedition should come from, the government or privately from us.”

  “Must load... while weather favourable otherwise surf may cause two weeks delay and jeopardize success stop unless receive credit august first will broadcast worldwide appeal for help,” telegraphed Noice.

  “Do not make me wait,” he wired the next day when he still had not received a response.

  To make matters all the more urgent, the Russian government began issuing threats in international newspapers. “The Siberian Government is outfitting a vessel at Vladivostok for a voyage to Wrangel Island,” read an Associated Press dispatch, “with the avowed intention of capturing the little band of British explorers...and taking possession of the island in the name of Russia.” “Soviet officials are antagonistic to the Wrangel party of occupation,” read another.

  The British government retaliated in the press, warning that the capture of Allan Crawford and his companions would be looked upon as the “equivalent to an act of war.”

  There were rumors that any ship sent to Wrangel from a country other than Russia must first ask permission from the Soviet government. If and when permission was granted, members of the Russian Red Guard would sail with the ship, confiscating any commercial property or furs collected by the expedition members. There were whispers of a Russian gunboat, which was supposedly sailing from Siberia for Wrangel with the sole purpose of protecting the territory from outsiders. And Noice received a direct missive from Siberia, announcing that a ship was being sent to the island to capture it and everyone ashore.

  Without any word from Stefansson, who was still unexplainably silent, A. J. T. Taylor took matters into his own hands and wrote directly to William Cory, the Deputy Minister of the Department of the Interior in Ottawa. “A critical time is approaching,” he said, “when if the credit is not established and the expedition consequently delayed, four men and among them, Allan Crawford of Toronto, may perish, if not from exposure, then possibly at the hands of the Siberians mentioned in Mr. Noice’s telegram of the 28th.”

  Cory’s response was short and to the point. The Dominion government had informed Stefansson that he must first obtain the support of the Imperial Authorities in England before he would gain the support of the government of Canada. “Until we are aware of the decision of the Imperial Authorities,” wrote Deputy Minister Cory, “it is impossible to consider any application for a grant to aid any expedition to Wrangel Island.”

  Neither Taylor nor Noice felt it wise to go to the public for support of the venture. As Taylor pointed out in one of his many letters to Stefansson, such a maneuver could be harmful to the explorer’s reputation, implying extreme governmental disrespect, going over the heads of the government and the authorities.

  By the last week in July, the ship was ready to sail, but they would wait to load it until they received the amount needed for security— $12,600, or $133,000 by today’s standards. Captain Cochran of the U.S. revenue cutter Bear hand-delivered a wire from the Siberian authorities in Anadyr, warning Noice again to telegraph Petropavlosk for permission to travel to Wrangel Island, and to stop at Whalen, where he must show his credentials and pick up two Russian guards.

  Naturally, Noice and Taylor were alarmed by the Soviet threats, and again wired a message to Stefansson. “Siberian sending ship from Vladivostock to capture Wrangell stop must prevent capture by leaving immediately.” It was Noice’s instinct to disregard the threats. After all, the lives of four men and their Eskimo companion might be at stake, and until he had word from Stefansson to do otherwise, he would ignore the Russians entirely.

  Each day that lonely summer, before setting out to hunt, Ada sat down
at Galle’s typewriter and wrote him a note about where she was going. She left a sheet of paper in the machine so that she could add to it daily because she did not want to risk the ship coming and not finding her in camp. She wanted to make certain her rescuers did not leave her there after they had come all that way to fetch her.

  It was also a way for her to have a conversation with someone, now that she was alone. It was a way of talking to Galle, just as she had talked to him before he left for Siberia. She began lengthening the entries, confiding and sharing more about herself and her work, and reporting in again at the end of the day, telling him what happened and what she did, how the hunt went and how she felt about it. It was a comfort to be able to write those words, even if he wasn’t able to listen and respond.

  June 24th. I’m going to the other side of the harbar mouth do some duck hunding.

  She brought four eiders home that day and then took pictures of her tent and herself, even though she hadn’t quite figured out how to work the camera. She had seen Crawford set the contraption on a box or log and pull the string that snapped the shutter. When she tried to imitate his methods, her photographs only turned out blurred and dark. But she would learn to use that camera, she promised herself, so that she could leave a photographic record of her time as well.

  June 25. Going same as yest rday. I got seven eiders.

  When she got back to the tent, she plucked the birds and then hung the legs and the breasts to dry.

  June 26th. I’m going to take a walk to the smale Island. I saw two Polar bears going in shore from the ice way over west of the camp. It’s four oclock now. I write down when I saw them. I don’t know what I’m going to do if they come to the camp. Well, God knows.

  She collected three seagull eggs that morning and cooked them for her lunch. She drank them down with tea and saccharine and “had a nice picknick all by myself.”

  The very next day, Ada was able to kill her first seal. There were two of them, basking in the sun, and she fired one shot. The other seal slipped into the water, but Ada’s seal lay still. She was filled with pride as she bent over the animal to examine it.

  One week later, she shot another seal with Knight’s rifle. She had fashioned a stretcher out of skins to haul the animals home, and she was sitting in her tent, cleaning the second seal, when she heard a noise outside her door. It sounded like a dog to her, and for one brief moment she believed it was Crawford, Galle, and Maurer come back to find her. But when she raised the tent flap, her heart stopped. Two bears, a large one and a younger one, stood fifteen feet from the tent, gazing down at her. In seconds, Ada was clutching her rifle. She knew that if she hit them in the shoulder or the foot and only injured them slightly, they would be angry and come after her, so she must not even try to kill them because she might miss. She raised the gun, as she had before, and fired over their heads until they turned and began to run away. When the gunfire stopped, the bears paused and looked back toward camp, considering. Ada raised her gun once more and fired five consecutive shots until they disappeared over the horizon.

  June 28th. I clean the seal skin today and lat this afternoon Polar bear and one Cub was very close to the Camp and I didn’t take any chances. I was afraid if I didn’t hit it right I’d be in danger. I just shot over them and they wend away. I was glad thank the living God.

  The bears they had waited so long for, that Knight had prayed for, had returned, but it suited her much better when they stayed away. Now, they haunted her. She found fresh polar bear tracks one morning outside the door of the tent. She investigated, but there was no bear in sight. One of her tins of oil, though, was licked clean, and she knew she would have to be more careful with her stores.

  July 1st. I stay home today and I fix the shovel handle that I brack this spring and I saw Polar bear out on the ice and this evening I went to the end of the sand spit shot a eidar duck I shot him right in the head thank God keep me a live till now.

  On July 4, Ada crawled on her stomach across the beach after a seal. She remembered what Knight had said about waiting until she was at least 150 yards from the animal before shooting, and so she tried to creep as close as possible. She cocked her gun and was just about to pull the trigger when an enormous cake of ice rose up between Ada and the seal, blocking her view. She moved quickly before the seal could disappear and took aim again, but the gun exploded with a deafening bang before she meant to shoot, and the seal slipped away, unharmed, into the water. Ada jumped to her feet and yelled, “Fourth of July,” shattering the vast, impenetrable silence of the landscape. She may have come home empty-handed, but she had enjoyed a celebration, fireworks and all, she would note that evening.

  She killed her third seal the following day, just a few yards from the back of her tent. The beach ran behind her little house, and she could see a seal some two hundred yards out on the ice. Once again, she fell to her stomach and wriggled, pretending she was another seal. When she was within range, she shot it once through the head, killing it instantly. She was ecstatic and thanked the Lord Jesus for giving her such a gift. The seal did not slip off the ice and into the water this time. It was hers and it was everything—skins for clothing, oil for lamps, and meat for food. She cut up the seal, hung the meat, and pulled the skin taut over the stretcher. If only Knight were there to share it with her, the victory would have seemed sweeter.

  On July 6, she shot a seal at the harbor mouth. Because the seal lay a fair distance from camp and because the animals typically weighed well over six hundred pounds, Ada would need something to help her bring this one back to the tent. She had just fetched a poling line and started back toward her seal when she glimpsed something against the white of the sky that looked like a gigantic yellow ball coming toward her. A polar bear. Ada was four hundred yards from her tent, and now she ran back as fast as she could until she was safe inside.

  She was afraid she might faint, but instead she climbed onto the platform she had built at the back of the tent and peered through her field glasses. She could see the outline of the bear and its cub as they bent over her seal—the seal she had labored for—and tore it to pieces. She was helpless to do anything as they devoured it before her eyes, but at least, she thought, “I am glad it is not me polar bear eats.” She fired her gun toward them in anger, and watched as they scattered west and then east and then as they seemed to cross the harbor mouth, their noses pointed toward camp. She fired one more shot and waited.

  Ada stood up on her platform until the sky grew dark and the fog billowed in like the soft, cold breath of the landscape. She decided it was better just to leave the seal to the bears. The next morning, she walked out to where her seal had fallen and found only smears of blood on the ice.

  She purposely did not mention much about the polar bears in her diary. She knew that if the spirits were to take their revenge on her and she should die, that her diary would fall into the hands of others. And if her mother read mention of Nanook, she would always believe that Ada had been eaten by a polar bear and was living in his stomach, no matter how she had really died.

  The mother bear and cub returned on July 7, circling the spot where the seal had fallen. Ada fired her gun at them, but missed, and they eventually wandered back the way they had come. She hunted for ducks then, but was unable to retrieve the one she shot because the ice on the harbor mouth was thin and would have given way beneath her. She returned to camp, discouraged.

  She sewed a new flap onto the tent door, where the wind blew in through the holes in the canvas, and she added canvas to the tent frame to bolster her house. Ada did not know if a ship would come for her. Mr. Stefansson had not been able to make the island last summer, and there was a good chance Ada might face another winter without relief. Last September, she and the men had been unprepared for the ship’s failure to reach them, and now she would ready her equipment and her house before the snow and the storms arrived—so that she would be ready for the worst.

  She chewed up the sealskins to make them
more pliable to mold into soles for her boots. She added new soles to her short boots. She practiced shooting at her target, and opened a new box of shotgun cartridges. She knitted fingers into her gloves to replace the ones that had worn away from all the work she was doing. And she began making a parka out of fancy reindeer skin and wolf trimming. It would be a beautiful parka and she felt she deserved it. It made her happy to work on it, and she indulged herself for days, picking it up whenever she had time to add a new hook or to work on the hood. When she finished it, she looked upon it with pride, with its fancy trim down the front and around the hood. “It look like a parky alright,” she boasted in her diary.

  On July 10, Ada rested in bed because she was frazzled and worn from the exertion of her work, the constant, unending work without a break. Vic lay against her, warm and breathing, and Ada opened a new can of tea and thanked her heavenly father for letting her live another day.

  She was able to bring home two birds on July 16, gray ones she didn’t recognize. And on July 18 she shot two squaws and a duck. She was storing her meat now, in case the ship didn’t come or in case Galle and Crawford and Maurer were unable to reach her by sled. She would save the meat for winter because she would need it if the game disappeared again. She filled up her food box with the seal meat she had dried in the sun, and then she gently removed the seal skins from the stretcher.

  Ada often stood on the beach and looked out to sea, in the direction of Nome—or where she thought Nome might be. She watched for Crawford and Galle and Maurer or for a ship. It was time for a ship to come. The water offshore was clear and calm and open. Ice still hugged the shore in spots, but the space beyond was free of it. There would be nothing to hold a ship back, to keep it from reaching her. But on the morning of July 20, when she turned her gaze to the sea, she saw the pack of ice to the west side of the harbor mouth and felt a chill in her blood.

 
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