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

  July 23. I thank God for living.

  On July 24, there was a muffled roaring in the distance that let Ada know the walrus had returned. She could not see them, but she heard their foghorn cries for several days. She loaded her gun with brass shells and went out after them, but got two old ducks instead and was content. The game had improved. And when she went to sleep that night, she dreamed she was singing cheers for the red, white, and blue.

  She began another pair of boots, these out of reindeer skins and a set of old slippers, and she stitched herself some deer leggings. She threw out the molded hard biscuits and transferred the ones that were still edible to her food box. And she cleaned some seal flippers and stored them away in case the ship was able to find her, so that she could take them home and share them with her sisters “if the lord let me have it.”

  One night while Ada slept, the wind swept in and blew her skin boat out to sea. She had only used it twice, but she cried all day when she discovered it was gone. Then she cried all the next day and the next. It was too much. Ada was tired and she was weak and there was no one to help her. If she did not get up out of bed to forage for food, she would go hungry. If she did not light the fire, it would remain unlit. If she did not bring in the snow, there would be no water to drink. Eventually she grew tired of crying and pitying herself. She must get up and make another boat, and so she did.

  This one was constructed out of canvas, although skins were preferable, but Ada did not have enough skins for a boat. She gathered driftwood for the frame and placed the wood, piece by piece, into position because the bottom must be built first. The boat should be more canvas than wood because the umiak must sit light in the water and she must be able to drag it easily across the ice and land. With the canvas stretched across the skeletal frame, Ada used her needle to sew the canvas into place until gradually it took the shape of a boat. The little vessel was nothing to look at, but it was sturdy and seaworthy, and she carved a set of driftwood oars to go with it. Every time she finished using it, she tied it up so that the wind could not take it away.

  Her world was lonely and silent. Now that there was open water, there was no longer the crash of the ice pack, the long, low grind of the floes churning against one another, the deep and sudden splash of water as masses of the pack broke off and plunged into the sea, or the staccato burst like rifle shots that echoed across the island as the ice expanded. There was only the sound of her own voice as she spoke to Vic. She fussed over the cat like a mother and picked her up and held her in her arms and talked to her like she had talked to Crawford and the others. Vic was a warm, breathing creature, who responded with purrs and rubs and an occasional meow. Ada thought she would go insane without her.

  * * *

  McMinnville, Oreg. Aug. 8, 1923

  Mr. H. Galle

  Newbraunfels, Texas.;

  Dear Sir;

  You will note that the boys are supposed to be alive and I feel that this is an accepted fact although I am, of necessity, prepared to receive almost any kind of news when we do hear from them for they have been in a very inhuman situation for two long years and that is a long time for men to hold themselves in solitude and be normal.

  Of course, all we have to worry about is that some of the boys may have developed sickness of some sort. This, however, does not impress me as cause for worry because they were all young and healthy and should have no difficulty in keeping themselves well.

  Lorne made a statement to Life Insurance Companies before leaving on this trip to the effect that, he did not consider the hazard of life as great in the Arctic by 40 per cent as here in the modern city with all the swift moving vehicles.

  As to the Soviet interference, I do not believe there is any danger because of the inaccessibility of the island.

  We shall see and in the meantime, all we can do is to hope and sit tight. It will be a happy bit of news when we do see news of the expedition in the morning paper or when the telegraph messenger knocks at the door and delivers the first message from them.

  Yours very respectfully;

  J. I. Knight

  * * *

  Chapter Fourteen

  BY AUGUST 1, Stefansson forwarded the money to Noice. He had finally succeeded in raising funds for the expedition. Now that he was back in communication with Noice and Taylor, he brushed off the Russian threats with irritation and confidence. In his mind, the Soviet Union had no more claim to Wrangel Island than anyone else, and certainly less than Britain now that he had officially claimed the island in its name. At the same time, he did recognize that the Soviets could pose a threat to his relief expedition. Reports had leaked into American papers, stating that an armed Russian expedition was being supplied and readied for capturing Wrangel Island. An article appeared in the London Times, stating that the Soviet authorities were prepared to confiscate the Donaldson if Noice did not ask their permission to sail.

  The sailing of the relief expedition should clearly be kept as quiet as possible, and Stefansson told Noice to say nothing in response to the Russians, and to sail directly to Wrangel Island without calling first on any Russian ports. “Everybody London considers fear Soviet interference ridiculous,” Stefansson said in his wire. “If Russia has claims they will be settled. All nonperishable property should be left Wrangell for resuming company business summer. News of Noice having money enough for certainty sailing should be kept from press if possible till moment sailing.”

  This suited Noice fine, but he secretly wished Stefansson hadn’t made such a media production of the island’s appeal as an air base. Otherwise, Russia might not be so interested and he wouldn’t have to be so careful. As it was, if the outside route to Wrangel was blocked by ice, he would be forced to follow the Siberian coast, no matter what Stefansson said about it.

  The funding for the trip came, at last, from Englishman Griffith Brewer. He was not a rich man, but he believed fervently that Allan Crawford and his team must be rescued. He had written an impassioned letter for publication in the London Times to bring attention to the plight of the “adventurous patriots” who had now been stranded in the Arctic for two years. “The British Wright Company two weeks ago voted the sum of $2,500 to pay for an auxiliary schooner to visit Wrangel Island from Nome, Alaska,” his published letter read. “An additional sum of $10,000 must be deposited in the bank at Nome to safeguard the crew of the only other vessel now available. This sum, to be of use, must be found immediately.”

  While they waited for the money to come in, Brewer pledged his personal property at a bank and sent the money Stefansson needed immediately—$11,000—to Nome. It would be an advance on the subscriptions, which, he felt confident, would soon be forthcoming. In all, they managed to collect nearly $3,000 from subscriptions, with donations from several notable and enthusiastic Brits, including a former Secretary for the Colonies, and Miss M. F. Gell, granddaughter of the late Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

  Stefansson had estimated spending no more than $5,000 on equipment for the relief expedition, but costs grew and multiplied, until the price rose to $17,000. All told, the entire Wrangel Island Expedition, from its outset in 1921 to the present, had cost $46,600, although much of the sum was yet to be paid.

  Before setting sail, an agreement was drawn up between the North American Newspaper Alliance and A. J. T. Taylor, acting as Noice’s attorney, and in his official capacity as vice-president of the Stefansson Arctic Exploration and Development Company. The Alliance contracted to purchase for $3,000 the exclusive world newspaper rights to the story of the Wrangel Island relief expedition as well as the narrative of Noice. He must not speak to anyone else or grant other interviews until after he delivered his story to the Alliance, and to their associate, the Toronto Star. Likewise, no members of Crawford’s party must speak to the press. Furthermore, the Alliance requested first option to Crawford’s story and to the stories of Knight, Maurer, Galle, and Ada Blackjack. Noice would keep the money for himself.

  The Donaldson s
et sail at three o’clock on August 2. In addition to his captain and crew who sailed with him, Noice planned to hire Eskimos at another port and also acquire their sleds, umiaks, and hunting gear. Second mate Charles Wells and the Eskimos would remain on Wrangel Island to continue the occupation for Britain. Noice was taking enough food, rifles, ammunition, clothing, sleds, scientific equipment, and a skin boat to last such a party for at least one year.

  They arrived at Cape Blossom on the morning of August 6, 1923, where Noice and engineer Joseph Earl were forced, due to shallow water, to row eight miles to shore. In town, they purchased all the equipment they would need to repair the engine, as well as additional guns and supplies, and they hired an Eskimo family and two unmarried Eskimo hunters. They also took on eleven strong dogs and a fresh supply of reindeer meat.

  The equipment and the dogs were rowed out to the ship, and only the Eskimos remained to follow in their skin boats. When they didn’t come, Noice discovered he had another problem on his hands. A local missionary had descended upon the Eskimos, spouting that they would be going with people who were not Christians and who would leave them stranded on Wrangel Island so that they could never again see home or family.

  Noice decided he needed to gather the Eskimos and urge them to follow him to the missionary’s house. He rapped on the door and was greeted by the disgruntled missionary, dressed in a nightgown. Noice proceeded to give the man an earful. As a “Christian fostering the spiritual welfare of the natives,” he told him, the missionary should “permit them to go to the rescue of those in dire straits or worse and who if alive must be famished to see their families and friends.”

  His words were ignored, and Noice had no choice but to throw his hands up and turn away. “I am leaving at once,” he told the Eskimos, “and if you fail me I will select my crew from points farther north.” Exasperated, he returned to the shore, and before long heard the sounds of running feet behind him. Turning, he saw the entire party of Eskimos following him.

  It was a sweet but brief victory. Afterward, the day just got worse. When Noice arrived on the ship with the Eskimos, Captain Hansen—a contrary, difficult man to begin with—refused to accept the additional supplies, dogs, or hunters. He gave no reason, but stood firm, and, when it was clear that no argument would change his mind, Noice was forced to ask for the skipper’s resignation. Hansen left the ship and Noice was relieved that the rest of his crew was willing to remain. They raised ship’s anchor and aimed her nose toward Point Hope, where they hired a second Eskimo family.

  Even though he liked to fancy himself a skilled explorer, Noice knew little about navigation. Ship’s owner Alexander Allen had pulled out of the venture at the last minute, fearing the Russians. With Hansen also gone, that left the extremely inexperienced Noice as captain and navigator. He quickly promoted first mate Hans Olson to sailing master, but the burden of responsibility still rested heavily on Noice’s shoulders.

  Wrangel Island, in a perfectly clear season with perfectly clear sailing conditions, was only four days from Nome by ship. Such conditions only occurred by chance a few days or weeks out of the year. The rest of the time it was difficult or impossible to reach the island by boat. Since they were already as far as Cape Blossom, Noice naively hoped to make the trip in two days, even though he would have set a record in doing so. The ship’s new engines were running strong and fast, the vessel itself was snug and sleek and shipshape, and the crew and passengers now meshed harmoniously. “So far we have gone according to our schedule,” he wrote to A. J. T. Taylor, “and I do not anticipate future trouble of any kind which will cause me to modify my plans.”

  From the crow’s nest, they could see nothing but rippling blue-green in every direction and not one speck of white. They expected to meet ice at any time, but there was nothing. Then, on August 11 in the middle of the night, the temperature fell to 37 degrees, and at 4:30 A.M. the sea began to bob with white. They sailed through cautiously and before long the ice stretched across the horizon, infinite and unyielding. They edged backward until they found a lead of open water, and slithered through toward the southwest. They would follow the pack toward the island for as long as they could.

  Then the fog was upon them, creeping in from all sides until they were surrounded. The ship maneuvered its way through blindly, plowing through the ice. The engines labored and pushed, but finally collapsed and fell stubbornly silent.

  “What’s the matter with the damn thing now?” Noice demanded as his engineers furiously took the equipment apart. A needle valve had broken, but they thought they could fix it. Noice climbed to the deck to wait it out, pacing restlessly. The engines could not have failed at a more ominous time. There was an iceberg dead ahead of them, and the current was carrying the ship toward it. It was a hulking, nasty mountain, water dripping off its sides, looming nearly as tall as the ship’s mast.

  Everyone on board seemed to stand frozen in place until they heard the miraculous chug of the engines. With one of the engineers at the carburetor and one at the clutch, they were able to back themselves clear. Noice clung to the rigging, barking directions, while the first mate steered her free of danger.

  They spent ten breathless days bucking the ice floes, and the ship barely escaped plunging to the bottom of the sea. The Donaldson’s bulkhead was water tight, but Noice didn’t know how long she could withstand the pressure. Steering through ice floes was exceptionally tedious and slow work. There was no such thing as sailing the open sea because the ice dictated your path. With every floe they dodged, every twisted, zigzagging lead they followed, they only added more miles to the trip. The bow was smashed and painstakingly repaired by covering it with an enormous walrus hide; the engines broke down again; and Noice was rooted to the deck the entire time they traveled through the pack. He and his first mate roamed the decks in the same clothes they had worn when the ship set sail from Nome. There was no time to change shirts or pants or underwear, barely time to eat. Noice climbed to the masthead barrel to strain his eyes over the horizon, searching for Wrangel Island, but there was no land in sight, only a low layer of fog, dark, thick, and stubborn.

  At least he would have plenty to write about. Per his contract with the North American Newspaper Alliance, Noice had had to dispatch two to three hundred words each day before sailing, describing his plans and preparations, and any newsworthy developments and incidents. After sailing, he was to take pictures and keep track of all the excitement of the journey, so that he could later supply the newspapers with photographs and stories of the crew, the ship, and the rescued members of the Wrangel Island party. If all went well, he would have a terrific tale to tell when he returned. If all failed, he would make headlines of a different kind.

  But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

  On the days when it was too windy or rainy to go outside or when she was too tired to move, Ada stayed in her tent and read about the Samaritan woman in the Bible who was talking to Jesus. The woman was drawing water from a well when Jesus asked her for a drink. “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me,” the woman replied, “which am a woman of Sa-ma-ri-a? for the Jews have no dealings with the Sa-mari-ans.”

  When Jesus spoke of living water, the woman did not understand, nor when he mentioned the gift of God. The woman asked why he thought himself better than others, better than the well, to offer such a thing as living water.

  “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again,” he replied. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

  The woman had five husbands and she did not understand.

  “But the hour cometh,” Jesus told her, “and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God i
s a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

  It was then the woman seemed to comprehend what he was saying. She knew the Messiah was coming and that he would be called Christ, and when he came he would tell them all things.

  Jesus saith unto her, “I that speak unto thee am he.”

  The woman was not a smart woman, nor a good woman, nor a brave woman, yet she met Christ and he showed her what it was to believe. Because she believed, there would be salvation for her and everlasting life.

  With great care, Ada marked the passages in the Bible that spoke to her the most directly. There were those that comforted and those that instilled fear in her heart, making her vow to be good.

  But if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain....

  And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children.

  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Fear the Lord, and depart from evil.

  Ada embraced God fully and her daily Bible readings became increasingly important as the food became scarce and the holes in her tent grew beyond repair. It was August now, and the ship should have been there in July, as far as she could figure. The men had looked for one last year in July and had shown the first stirrings of restlessness by August. Perhaps no ship would come for her. The bay was rapidly filling with ice and Mr. Stefansson might not be able to reach her. She might very well have to face a winter alone, without the sound of another human voice, with only the shelter of her fragile tent, and with no food to sustain her other than the game she could hunt.

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