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


  They met in Portland at the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, where he was a delegate. Over two hundred men showed up to listen to him and to gaze at the large scale map of the Arctic he brought along. When he broke down in tears—as he did frequently now—he saw tears in the eyes of his audience. There had been grumblings— growing louder every day—from people who held Stefansson responsible for Lorne Knight’s death. “They seemed to think that you had, in a measure sent this band of boys there with insufficient supplies,” Mr. Knight wrote to the explorer, “and that, you had, in a measure abandoned them. This, we honestly tried to dispel and I believe that we did, in a very large measure, overcome the feeling but, it is due you to know that it exists.”

  There was no grave for Crawford, for Maurer, for Galle, but there was one for Lorne, high up in the North on Wrangel Island. Mr. Knight felt the right thing to do was to put a marker there, a sort of monument to the four lost boys who had given their lives for England. He thought it should be the Canadian government’s responsibility, and with that in mind he wrote to the Crawfords to ask them to use whatever influence they might have to secure it. He wrote, too, to the Galles and the Maurers, to tell them what he was thinking and to ask that they all work together, because they would have a better chance if they all demanded it.

  He also wrote to Stefansson, who said the British government might consider erecting a memorial in a public park somewhere. This, in Mr. Knight’s opinion, would never do. The memorial should be close to the final resting place of the four as a tribute to where they last lived and died.

  It wouldn’t have to be anything terribly grand or imposing—although, in his opinion, it should—but a bronze slab covering Lorne’s grave that would list the names of all four boys, their dates of birth and hometowns, and a brief history of the expedition. It would be a small way of memorializing these brave men, and of perpetuating their memory so that others would know in years to come who they were and what they had done.

  While the families worried about Siberian sightings and Stefansson argued with Noice, Ada Blackjack somehow managed to disappear. She was still living in Nome, as far as anyone knew, but by October there had been no word from her or of her for some time. The Knights, the Galles, the Crawfords, and the Maurers were anxious to find her, to ask her questions about their sons, the conditions, and the island, but no one seemed to know where she was or what had happened to her. Mr. Knight wrote a long letter to Ada, asking her to write to him, and thanking her for taking care of his son. He enclosed several stamped envelopes—addressed to himself, to the Maurers, the Galles, and the Crawfords—and asked her to write to them. He wanted to meet her, and thank her for all she had done to try to save Lorne’s life.

  Continuing the search for the elusive Ada, Mr. Galle wrote to a Nome newspaper reporter named Scarborough, a fellow Texan, to ask if he knew anything about Ada’s whereabouts. The papers said she was living in Nome, and Harry hoped that this man might be able to find Ada for him so that he could talk to her about why, once and for all, the boys had left the island and what their frames of mind were. Did they truly believe they could reach Siberia? “There are hundreds of questions I would ask her, were I to meet her,” he wrote, “and we feel that you are the one person to turn to.”

  Mr. Scarborough had been on the dock in Nome before the men left for Wrangel Island. Did the boys seem fully equipped? Were enough provisions taken? If so, why then were they forced to journey to Siberia for food? In Noice’s latest articles, he openly criticized Knight’s intellect and skill as a leader, while also pointing out the flaws in the planning of the expedition. It was painful to hear Noice speak of Lorne Knight in this way, and excruciating to hear him call the boys incompetent. Alma Galle could not think highly of anyone who spoke so ill of the dead, particularly of men who had traded their lives in a valiant effort. Still, why did the boys run out of food? Why did they not take a skin boat if it was something they must have? Alma knew her son. He was smart and practical, and if he knew they must have a skin boat to survive, he would have made sure they had one.

  The Galles had so many urgent questions that no one bothered to answer. Stefansson had yet to be in direct contact with them, and they felt brushed aside by everyone except Mr. Knight and John Maurer, who wrote faithfully. “I blame Steffanson [sic] greatly,” a friend said to them; “he had no right to send or get up such an expedition without enough funds to back it up all the time.”

  The Crawfords, the Knights, and the Maurers had all received words of condolence from Stefansson. They wrote to the Galles, assuming they had heard from him as well. They also wrote to them of the precious farewell letters their sons had left them, of the bittersweet assurance of having those last lines of love. The Galles waited for Milton’s final letter to be sent to them. It would be something, at least, to have a few words from him. There was a suitcase of Milton’s in Toronto, they were told, that contained some papers of his, but they had yet to see it. The only thing they had received was an empty handbag, a parcel of old letters he had taken with him to the island, and some unopened letters from home. There was no sign of the Corona or of any last lines to Mrs. Galle, although she prayed that some would yet turn up. There was only a skin case for his snow glasses, with initials carved in the side—M.G.

  On October 11, they heard again from Stefansson’s secretary, Olive Wilcox. In Stefansson’s eyes, young Galle had been an afterthought to the expedition, and now Stefansson continued to overlook his family. Instead of taking the time to communicate with them directly, he asked Mrs. Wilcox to inform them that there was no last letter. Milton had left nothing for them after all. “Evidently,” Miss Wilcox wrote, “he was full of hope and thought it unnecessary.”

  Allan Crawford had collected numerous specimens on Wrangel Island, keeping careful records and notes, and categorizing his finds when he was able to identify them. Because Noice had no use for these mementos, he returned them to Professor Crawford. There were birds of different types with faded plumage and withered bodies; delicate blue and yellow flowers tucked inside a tattered cardboard box labeled Societé Algonquin Chocolates; two bottles, both a dark olive, that contained a variety of shellfish and caterpillars; and rocks, fossils, and grass.

  Professor Crawford donated his son’s collection to the Royal Ontario Museum, where the items were placed in a glass case at the top of the stairs of the mineralogical department. This way, he hoped, Allan’s work would have a chance to be appreciated by the public.

  For months, Professor and Mrs. Crawford, the Maurer brothers, Mr. Knight, and the Galles read every newspaper or magazine article relating to the expedition, which was how Alma Galle came across one dated August 28, 1923. The Christian Science Monitor had published the article, datelined from Russia, reporting that the three men had been lost after the British expedition disturbed the Russian government. August 28 was three days before Noice landed in Nome, bringing news of the tragedy to the world. With Noice still at sea on August 28, how then did the Monitor know that the men were missing? To the Galles there was only one possibility—the boys had been found or spotted in Russia, which meant they were still alive. They made copies of the article at once and sent them to each of the other families as well as to Stefansson, and they sent off a letter to the editor of the magazine to inquire about the report.

  The Crawfords, for their part, did not believe it. There must be a logical explanation for the mention of the boys, though no one could figure out what it might be. They saw Harold Noice in Toronto and he described to them the fierce gale that had blown up a day after the three men set out on their journey, as well as their weakened physical condition. Noice did not believe the men could have reached Siberia, and the Crawfords had to agree, no matter how much they wanted their son back.

  Stefansson wrote an article for the London Times on October 9, 1923, in which he made his usual comments about the abundance of game on Wrangel Island. In it, he compared Fred Maurer to Robert Scott and Lorne Knight to Ernest S
hackleton, a comment that alternately amused and enraged readers. Neither Maurer nor Knight, of course, had experiences that touched those of the two legendary explorers, but it was a way for Stefansson to defend his choice of them to the public.

  “Other miscarriages in hunting, combined with the approach of mid-winter darkness, compelled them to feed the dogs on groceries,” he said. “It seems also that the party felt so certain that a supply ship was coming that they spent a large part of the summer just waiting for it. Optimism was again one of their stumbling-blocks.” He also wrote about “The unaccountable omission of a skin boat.”

  Defensively, perhaps deviously, Stefansson was quick to point out the things his men could have done differently. They did not take advantage of precious hunting opportunities. They were sloppy in guarding their meat from marauding polar bears. Ada Blackjack did not understand that some parts of animals were more effective than others in preventing scurvy. Knight, who should have understood this from his previous bout, apparently was ignorant of this fact as well. The outfitting of the expedition was the responsibility of Crawford and the others, not Stefansson, who had merely advised them to take along an umiak, which, of course, they did not. Furthermore, this talk about the men leaving the island because the food had run short was utter nonsense. Noice himself had said that the game conditions appeared to be abundant during the few days he was on the island. Clearly, the men were homesick or craving news from the outside world, which was why they attempted the trek to Siberia.

  To the Crawfords, Stefansson’s thinly disguised criticisms of the four young men were as insulting as Harold Noice implying Lorne Knight was stupid. It was worse, in fact, because Stefansson was casting blame on their son, as commander of the expedition. When Stefansson heard of their disapproval, he wrote immediately to try to pacify them. A mere misunderstanding, he told them. They must remember that reporters rarely were completely accurate. Furthermore, he was only trying to protect the men and their families by taking blame away from anyone.

  Professor and Mrs. Crawford had never criticized Stefansson. When they first received news of their son’s supposed death, they were in sympathy with Allan’s commander. But their friends despised Stefansson and what they saw as his cold, heartless tactics, and shifting of blame to anyone but himself. The man took no responsibility for what he did, for the harm he caused. But the Crawfords did not approach Stefansson directly. Instead, he heard of their unhappiness through his business partner, A. J. T. Taylor. Writing to them again, he asked them to contact him to clear up this grave misunderstanding, and to enlighten him on the offensive points.

  The response he received was brief and succinct. Yes, there were one or two statements in the Times article that made them bristle. But Professor Crawford was unwilling to discuss the matter. “The blow is too recent and overwhelming,” he wrote. “The loss of our son has been the most devastating sorrow of our lives, but nothing which we can say or do can bring him back or heal the wound. We are trying to forget our sorrow and to carry on for the sake of the living, and the less discussion there is, the easier it will be for us to do so.”

  But in private, they remained insulted by the man’s depiction of what had happened on Wrangel Island. Allan was dead, and more and more, they believed they knew who was responsible.

  Early in the fall of 1923, Ada and Bennett Blackjack packed up their belongings and left Nome for Seattle. Ada was intent on getting Bennett to the hospital there where they could cure his tuberculosis. And she wanted to go somewhere where no one would bother her or ask her questions or force her to relive the tragedies of the past two years. If she wanted to cure Bennett and heal herself, she would have to put everything familiar behind her and make a new life.

  Although she kept to herself and didn’t speak to the strangers who badgered her for information, her going and coming caused a stir in the press, as the Alaskans buzzed about her departure, and the Seattle reporters who had somehow managed to catch wind of it eagerly awaited her arrival. The lone woman to survive a two-year Arctic expedition was a prime news story, and people recognized her face now, even though she had never agreed to pose for pictures. The reporters managed to dig up old ones or coerce them out of people who knew her or buy them from Noice for a price.

  Before Ada had left Nome for Wrangel Island in 1921, she was told not to sign a newspaper contract or agreement of any sort, and so she made a promise that she would not sign her name to anything. Taking it literally, Ada refused to autograph photos of herself now because she felt she would be breaking her word. She had also promised never to give interviews or speak about herself, and she adhered to this also. It suited her fine. She was a painfully private person, and to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight almost made her long for the solitude of Wrangel Island.

  * * *

  PATHFINDER OF ALASKA

  September 1923

  Russia and Wrangell Island

  The Isle of Wrangell was officially incorporated as Russian territory, and the Russian flag raised thereon, by an expedition organized by the Russian government and led by Lieutenant Wrangell, in 1821–1824. Russian sovereign rights to the island have never been questioned by any other government, and it has been generally looked upon as Russian territory. This position is taken by British official sources, as well; for instance, the British official publication “The Arctic Pilot,” admits that the Isle of Wrangell was discovered by a Russian expedition. It may also be noted that all geographic maps, including the British “Philips’ New General Atlas,” puts down the Isle of Wrangel as Russian territory.

  In the year 1910, the Russian Hydrographic Arctic Expedition... made measurements around the island, and built thereon an iron navigation pyramid for the guidance of ships seeking entrance to the southwest part of the island, this pyramid being the first and only erection on the island. Thus the Russian government took concrete steps to assert its rights and its duties as the possessor of the territory.

  Finally, in September, 1916, the Russian government formally notified all of the allied and neutral governments that the Isle of Wrangel, together with other islands and territory adjoining the coast of Siberia, constituted an integral part of Russian territory. This notification elicited no objection on the part of any of the governments so addressed, including the British government.

  * * *

  Chapter Seventeen

  ADA AND BENNETT ARRIVED in Seattle on November 2. The local newspapers immediately published their speculations as to why Ada Blackjack had come. To rest and recuperate from her ordeal, some wrote. To begin a new life and turn her back on the North, others reported. To save her young son from tuberculosis. To join forces with Seattle native Harold Noice, who was in the city with his new wife, Frances. To head east with Noice, traveling the country to talk of her experiences.

  Noice, like everyone else, was interested in her story, and it was no secret that he wanted the rights to it, as well as to the photographs she had taken on the island.

  “I wonder what the plan is,” the wife of one of Stefansson’s former colleagues wrote to Mrs. Crawford. “Lecture platform for Ada and Noice, vaudeville stage, book by Noice and Stefansson, just what? Exploitation of Ada’s experiences for all the money there is in it for Stefansson and Noice, of that I am pretty sure.”

  To Ada, Seattle seemed colder than Wrangel Island because there was a dampness in the air that she had not felt before. One of Ada’s sisters lived in the city with her husband, but Ada and Bennett moved into a hotel. The hotel elevators frightened her so much that for the first few days Ada stayed in her room, afraid to come out. When she finally summoned up her courage to explore the street below, she was overwhelmed by the sounds, the smells, the people, the skyscrapers. She was terrified she would lose her way and never find the hotel again, and so she walked around and around the block for exercise, without losing sight of the building.

  Before long, she ventured away from her block, taking Bennett with her to the movies. She would take him
to the hospital soon, but first they would go to see films, which they both enjoyed. Their favorite movie star was William S. Hart, known for his realistic motion pictures about the Wild West, and Bennett loved the stories about Strongheart, the dog hero who triumphed over criminals.

  There were stores in Seattle the likes of which Ada had never seen. She had a weakness for pretty clothes and hats and she often wandered into the children’s department of various shops to find herself something smart to wear. She was careful with her money—she had paid a heavy price for it, after all—but she liked to look nice.

  With its sheltered harbor, Seattle was the closest major port to the Far East. It was a prosperous, bustling city, and in many ways far prettier, safer, and more sophisticated than Nome. Once she became used to it, Ada felt comfortable there. She had met a man on the ship to Seattle, a waiter named W. Harvey who seemed to like her very much. For the first time since her return from Wrangel Island, she felt her spirits lift.

  Even though technological leaps were bringing the far corners of the world closer together, with the Southern Transcontinental Long Distance Telephone Line connecting Los Angeles to Chicago, and President Calvin Coolidge delivering the first official presidential address on the radio, Seattle maintained a sense of separation from Alaska and the Arctic that suited Ada fine. She had no desire to see anyone from her past life or to talk of the terrible things that had happened.

  It didn’t take long for Noice to use Lorne Knight’s own words against him in a smart and cutting article for one of the papers. Knight had written in his diary about feeling unlucky and frustrated, and, at times, overwhelmed by life on Wrangel Island. He wrote with his usual good humor of their frequent inability to shoot well or to find the game they needed, and he wrote honestly about their shortcomings. Noice took this as evidence that the men were ill equipped for the job they were given to do. It was this opinion he voiced to the newspaper, using Knight’s own words to back up his theory. Stefansson’s men were inexperienced and inept and never should have been made to assume such an undertaking.

 
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