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


  But God was near and she prayed to him to take care of her and to give her the strength to survive. Every day, she thanked God and Jesus in her diary, and asked God to forgive her sins.

  She vowed to be grateful for each day she lived from now on, and she made sure to note her gratitude to God in her journal entries. “Thank living God... that help me every day and night if God be with me till I should get home again I thank God very much that he had mercy on me and forgive my sins,” she wrote on August 1.

  She prayed he would forgive her sins, just as Jesus had forgiven the Samaritan woman.

  She was making Bennett a pair of slippers, sewing beads on them to make them handsome so that he would like wearing them when— if—she got home again.

  On August 2, she shot five birds, and she thanked the good Lord for her bounty. On August 3, she collected some greens to boil up with the meat and saw a polar bear some distance away inland. But the bear didn’t come closer, and the ice had opened up around the shore, and so she thanked God.

  She finished Bennett’s slippers on August 4 and set them aside so that they would be safe and ready for when she took them to him if a ship came. When she took a walk to stretch her legs she spotted a bear track on the east side of her tent, but no bear in sight. Not that Ada could see very far; the fog had crept in, thick and low, so that she couldn’t see much past the beach. But the shore looked clear of ice cakes.

  After she had finished reading her Bible, Ada picked up some of the books the men had brought to the island. She began to read about Frederick A. Cook, the explorer, who had spent two decades in the Arctic and Antarctic. The men had loved to read and sometimes they had lent Ada their books. Now they were her books and she would read as many as she could.

  On August 5, she tried out her new canvas boat, launching it into the shallow water offshore and climbing inside with her gun. She was going duck hunting, and with the umiak she had a better chance of reaching the birds in their distant pool of water. There was frustration as she paddled out to them but couldn’t seem to get close enough. But there was happiness and relief because the ice was moving west and beyond it the sea was open. If the sea was open, a ship might still come. The next day, she was able to shoot a gray bird with two eggs, and then she washed her hair and thanked “the Lord Jesus Christ the saviour.”

  She spent a foggy morning on August 7 at home, reading Frederick A. Cook, and opened a tube of dental cream and thanked God again that the ice had now disappeared in the sea. “So it looks like...I was going to see boat coming,” Ada wrote in her diary. She could only see a mile or two into the horizon, but there were no patches of white to mar the blue-black surface of the sea.

  She was desperately lonely and she missed Lorne Knight. Sometimes she slipped into his tent to visit him and to sit beside his body in silence. There was a comfort in having him near, even if he was no longer able to hear her or speak to her. She longed for him to return as she longed for the other three young men to come back with a ship to take her home. But she thanked her “saviour Jesus” for keeping her from loneliness because she was trying so hard to be good and to be grateful for all she had been given.

  On August 9, she inserted a new fur lining inside her moose mittens and sheltered and bolstered her tent with logs. The temperature was dropping steadily, although the sun still sat high and bright in the sky, and Ada knew she must continue to prepare for winter, in case the ship could not get through. She would need to have a head start on the foul weather and cold which was to come. She must repair her tent as best she could to keep out the chill. She must stock wood and mend her clothing so that she would not risk frostbite when she was outside hunting.

  There were walrus and bearded seals to the east of camp and close to shore, but the walrus were too far, the bearded seals too slippery. She hauled wood and took an entire roll of pictures of herself and a young bird she found. She set the bird on top of a box and took pictures of it, and then she knitted a seal net for hunting and thanked the Lord Jesus for another day.

  She dreamed that night that the boss—Stefansson—asked her what she would have from the store, and she answered that it would be a case or nothing because she would be staying on this island for two years.

  The next morning, when she awoke, she found the lard can empty of the seal blubber she had stored there and knew that once again a polar bear had come during the night to feast. She would have to be more careful if her blubber was to last the winter.

  She finished her seal net on August 13 and began to knit a pair of winter gloves for her callused and toughened hands. She had worked them hard and they would probably never be soft or ladylike again. She took more pictures of herself the next day and of a bird that she shot, and then took photographs of the mountains, which rose so majestically from the fog covering the earth.

  There were more walrus off the beach on the evening of August 15, and again she wrote a diary entry thanking Jesus.

  She saw the walrus on August 16, too, and that day made an eider duck cap for her mother, because she knew her mother would like it very much. The next day, she took one shot at a walrus whose giant form was stretched across the ice—the ice that had begun to return. She hit him once, but didn’t kill him, but still she thanked her savior Jesus, “and I thank Jesus loves my little boy Bennett.”

  On August 18, she finished her right glove and began the left one. Her hands would be warm for winter, and that was something to be glad about.

  On August 19, the wind blew in angrily from the west and the ice once again began sliding out to sea. Ada watched it and hoped it would go, go, go forever, until the sea was open for a ship. But the ice paused in the harbor and refused to move any farther.

  On August 20, Ada finished her new pair of gloves and opened the last of the biscuits. After this tin of bread, the only food would come from the animals that roamed the island, if she was lucky enough to have good aim and strong enough to bring the meat back to camp.

  In the distance, there was the sound of thunder. Walrus perhaps. The ice had drifted again and now lingered just below the belt of the far horizon. The path looked clear. The fog lifted. Yet again, Ada thanked the Lord Jesus and his Father that she was still alive.

  Noice and his crew could not shake their sense of gloom. They had miraculously made it through the ice but had begun to despair of finding anyone alive on Wrangel Island. The low, black cliffs of the island pierced the belly of the fog. They were formidable. Beyond, the mountains rose, at once graceful and stark. “It seemed to us that no human being could find a foothold, let alone a living in such a desolate place,” Noice observed.

  When day broke and the forbidding shoreline was revealed as not just gravel but also moss-covered prairie, Noice felt his hope returning. A herd of walrus roared at the ship from the edge of the pack, and at the sight of them, the Eskimos aboard immediately brightened as well. They had spent most of the trip from Nome sulking and brooding, but the walrus restored their good spirits and told them, more clearly than Noice’s words, that this was good country.

  A skin boat was lowered and several Eskimos sailed off to hunt. They killed two of the massive walrus and towed them to a nearby ice cake and waited for the Donaldson to pick them up. When they were hoisted aboard, the rest of the Eskimos began to chant a traditional walrus song in celebration until the mood of the ship became festive and joyful.

  As they approached the section of the coast where Noice expected to find Crawford, Knight, and the others waiting, everyone kept a lookout, some up in the rigging, some in the crow’s nest, others on deck. “Prepare a special dinner for the marooned,” Noice told the steward. His optimism was growing.

  By Noice’s guess, the Donaldson was near the old Karluk camp at Rodger’s Harbour, where he expected to find the stranded party. But as he stood on deck, studying the land through his field glasses, Noice could see no sign of life on the shore. There were no tents, no evidence that anyone had lived there. The fog rolled back in suddenly, swe
eping down upon them in great, gray clouds, and his vision was obscured. Noice ordered the ship’s speed cut down to a quarter, and they crept at a snail’s pace, hugging the shore as closely as they dared.

  Ten miles farther, he and his men discovered an abandoned camp. Perhaps Crawford had moved his group to another spot on the island to summer or to winter. Noice and his men went ashore and picked through the debris, searching for clues, and found a slender, oblong box buried in the mud. Inside was a bottle, which contained a piece of paper sealed with tallow. Noice opened it and read the claim to Wrangel Island, in the name of King George, dated September 16, 1921. The names of all four men—Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle—were signed at the bottom.

  But although Noice and his men searched thoroughly for a monument or perhaps a cave where they might have left other records, there was no other trace of Crawford’s party. Now with a nagging sense of worry and a bit of the old gloom returning, Noice steamed the Donaldson along the coast, through the fog that covered the sea, the ice, and the island. It was hard to see anything. They nudged the ship along, creeping along the shore, and stopping to investigate every large stone or mound they saw, in case it should offer some clue. They blew the ship’s whistle continuously, hoping someone might hear it and come out to greet them.

  Finally, on the morning of August 20, the Eskimos on deck let out a great, exuberant shout. They were pointing through the fog toward the shore, and when his eyes focused, Noice saw a figure standing on the beach. At first, he could not tell if it was real or ghostly, but as the ship drew closer he could see it was human.

  Full speed astern, he ordered, and then brought the ship to a complete stop. They were near Doubtful Harbour, as far as he could tell. “Were we in time after all?” he wondered. “Certainly some one still lived upon the island, and soon we should know whether all survived or not.” He gave orders to launch one of the skin boats and, with several of the Eskimos, Noice climbed into the umiak and pointed her toward shore and the figure, who stood facing them, hands outstretched in a silent plea.

  All through the night, Ada had dreamed of a ship, but when she awoke she could see nothing but fog. The fire had died while she was sleeping, and Ada huddled inside early on the morning of August 20, building it back again. The warmth was always a comfort to her. Hearing a strange, rumbling sound in the distance, she assumed it was the walrus. She began preparing her breakfast of tea, seal oil, and a bit of dried duck. But the sound persisted, muffled by the fog, and growing steadily stronger. Ada stopped what she was doing and listened.

  Then she picked up her field glasses and ran from her tent, up the ladder to her platform. The fog enveloped the land and Ada could see nothing. The rumble continued. She peered through her glasses, directing them out to sea, and strained her eyes until the fog shifted and there, like a phantom, was the mast of a ship.

  Ada jumped from the lookout post to the ground beneath and rushed to the beach, the binoculars bobbing against her waist from the string she had slung over her shoulder. She walked right into the water and began splashing toward the ship.

  And then she saw the skin boat with a white man and some Eskimos, coming toward the island. The white man had a shock of dark hair and a homely face and he was no one Ada knew. She had expected Crawford or Galle or Maurer. Perhaps they waited for her on the ship and she would see them again shortly, just as soon as the white man and his Eskimos came for her.

  Noice watched her as they paddled closer, and as soon as he reached her, he leapt from the little boat to take her hand. She had the look of a hunter, he thought. She was dressed in furs, from head to foot, with a snow shirt worn over a reindeer parka trimmed with wolf skin. Her face was lined and dirty, toughened by brutal winds and cold and hardship.

  They regarded each other silently for a moment, and then Ada tilted her face upward and pushed back her hood. “Where is Crawford and Galle and Maurer?” she asked. “Why is not Mr. Galle with you?”

  The questions took Noice by surprise. He had expected to find all of the men on the island, just as Ada clearly expected to find them on the ship. He told her as gently as possible that he had just arrived from Nome and that there had been no word of them there. “I expected to find them all on Wrangel Island,” he told her.

  Ada’s eyes widened and swiftly brimmed with tears. “There is nobody here but me,” she choked. “I am all alone.”

  Again, Noice was stunned. What of Lorne Knight?

  “Knight, he died on June 22,” Ada told him. Her voice was broken; her expression dazed. “I want to go back to my mother. Will you take me back to Nome?”

  Yes, of course, he told her, and then Ada collapsed. Noice had no idea how long she had been alone, but by the look of her toughened face, her scarred and callused hands, he knew she had been fending for herself for quite some time. Noice held her as she sobbed and assured her that she was safe now. Her ordeal was over. They would take her home.

  * * *

  She heard the man calling, “Keep to the left, if you want to get home and see your father and mother.” But she kept running along the smooth road, and just then she looks back, and she is out of the sea and into the air; and as she looks back the trail behind her fades away...

  —ADA BLACKJACK

  “The Lady in the Moon”

  * * *

  Chapter Fifteen

  NOICE PICKED UP ADA and carried her to the umiak. They rowed her back to the ship and Noice ushered her below to his cabin and warmed her with a cup of hot coffee. She managed to eat some breakfast, and then, when he felt she was ready, he asked her to tell him what had happened to her and to the others. Every now and then, she interrupted herself to say, “I wonder if this is only a dream?” or “I can hardly believe that you have come.”

  Ada told him how Crawford, Galle, and Maurer had left for Siberia in January, taking all the dogs with them, and how a storm blew in the next day. She never doubted that they would make it to the mainland and then on to Nome, as they had planned. It never occurred to her that they might be lost in the ice and the winds and snow. Ada was distraught at the thought that her friends might be missing or dead, and Noice had no words to comfort her. There had been no sightings, no reports of three white men landing on the Siberian or Alaskan coasts.

  Ada was convinced they would turn up somewhere, but Noice was not so confident. He knew how difficult it was to traverse the ice, and how fickle and volatile the pack could be. If a gale had blown up with force, as Ada had described it, the men might easily have fallen through the ice or been crushed by shifting floes.

  Even with Maurer’s knowledge of the Arctic, it would be hard to find a safe path over the water in such winds and blinding snow. Then there was their inexperience in ice travel—only Maurer, to Noice’s knowledge, had ever made a journey of such peril, but that was over a different route and under the guidance of the seasoned and savvy ice master Robert Bartlett. Added to that, the men and the dogs must have been in a weakened condition when they set out on their journey. Ada had described the lack of food, the alarming shortage of game.

  Noice had the crew fix up a small cabin for Ada on the Donaldson, and there she sat and wrote out the story of her time on the island. “I had hard time when he was dying,” she wrote of Knight. “I never will forget that all my life. I was crying while he was living. I try my best to save his life but I can’t quite save him.”

  Noice and Ada returned to the island by themselves after she was warmed and fed. The day had turned dismal, Noice noted, as he paddled the skin boat to the beach. Ada sat quietly, watching the shoreline. Surveying the camp, it was hard for Noice to believe anyone could have lived that way, in those conditions, for long. That Ada had done so, on her own for all those months, was a miracle.

  Two thin and tattered tents were perched near each other. There was a scattering of broken boxes across the gravel of the beach. Ada pointed to the larger of the tents. “Knight—he dead man now—he stay inside over there. Better we go first to my
tent.”

  She led Noice to the smaller tent, where there was a tiny cupboard of boxes in which she kept her ammunition and field glasses, and a crudely built canvas boat, tied near the entrance. Ada’s gaze fell on it with pride. “After Knight die and birds and seal come I work hard to make a little boat so can get anything I shoot in the water,” she said.

  She led Noice into her tent, which hung like loose flesh from the driftwood spokes she had erected. Inside there was a decrepit, fire-eaten stove made of kerosene tins and a pile of driftwood. There was an old teakettle sitting atop a small box, which contained the remainder of Ada’s food—bits of hard bread and a few scraps of dried meat. Noice’s eyes skimmed the sleeping platform against the rear wall, the threadbare reindeer skins which covered it, and the guns which hung on the rack overhead. The tent was chilly and the cool air and mist drifted in through the holes in the canvas. “Such was the habitation in which this girl had slept, eaten, hoped and waited—praying that help would come,” he observed.

  It had always struck Noice profoundly how elements of the outside world lost all significance in the Arctic. “The white man’s customs go the way of the mist. The world of newspapers, business, telephones, ballot-boxes, and jazz seems in memory no more real than his dream does to the sleeper awakened. Is it possible that somewhere there are people even now being ostracized by their kind for eating olives with a fork or peas with a knife? People who judge a man by his grooming, his bank account, or his ancestry? Our new world has stripped us to the fundamentals; and it is salutary, if not a little humbling, to reflect that these fundamentals—intelligence, character, and health—are not peculiarly human, that they are the same with men, with horses, with dogs, and with the ants.”

  Noice sat down on a box while Ada lit a fire. “I’m sorry I can’t give you any good thing to eat,” she told him, “but I make a little tea.” The gesture was poignant. Soon she had the fire burning and the chill air of the tent began to warm. Noice watched Ada make the tea and began to relax to the hum of the kettle, the glow of the fire, when a gray-striped cat wound its way out from behind a box and walked over to Ada. She bent to lift the creature to her chest, stroking its fur, calling it by name—Vic, the expedition cat, looking fit and fat and content in Ada’s arms.

 
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