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


  The explorer, said Stefansson, is the scientist urged by a thirst for knowledge who struggles on through the Arctic night with the same spirit that keeps the astronomer at his telescope, neither of them thinking of material profit or necessarily of glory.

  During Chautauqua’s visit to New Braunfels the year before, enterprising and rebellious young Milton Harvey Robert Galle had earned the envy of all his friends when he landed a job running the projector for Stefansson. Afterward, he joined the tour and traveled from April until August on the circuit, making sure to send his mother flowers for Mother’s Day from Pomona, California, an event that was reported excitedly in the New Braunfels paper. The tour took Galle through all the western states, and he tapped out vivid and observant notes on his prized Corona typewriter.

  Now, after a brief, unsatisfying stint as a traveling salesman for the Brown Rawhide Whip Company—which, at the very least, had kept him from having to attend college—nineteen-year-old Galle was resuming his career with Chautauqua. At the start of the 1921 spring Chautauqua tour, he had been on the road only a week, operating the projector as he had before, when he received orders to return to New Braunfels and take the position of Stefansson’s secretary. It was an exciting step forward for him. “Purpose—plus punch—plus persistence equals most anything your heart desires,” read the thought for the week of March 18 in the Chautauqua weekly newsletter. Galle had plenty of persistence and now he had a purpose. To him, Chautauqua and Stefansson meant a chance to fulfill his dreams of exploration and adventure.

  With his father’s tall, high-cheekboned leanness and his mother’s infectious, quickfire grin, Milton Galle was irresistible to everyone— parents adored him, boys admired him, girls developed wild, fervent crushes on him, swooning over the angular lines of his face, his straight nose, his firm chin, his strong hands, and his tousled brown hair. He won people over instantly with his raw and reckless good looks, his wicked sense of humor, his easy charm, his quick and active mind, and his confidence. The oldest of three, Galle was nicknamed Sohnie—“little boy” in German—by his mother, and had been encouraged by his parents to think freely, to learn, to explore, and to appreciate life. Because of that, he grew up filled with faith in himself and others and believing he could do anything he set his mind to.

  So at age nineteen he was set on going north. Maurer and Knight welcomed him into their elite circle; in his eyes, they had been privileged to have gone north with Stefansson and he meant to have his chance, too. The front page of the newspaper ran a list every week of the local young men who had been lucky enough to be called to fight in World War I and the places they served: Britain, France, Germany, Austria. Although he and his family had lived for a few years in nearby Mexico, the only other place Galle had been—until meeting up with Chautauqua—was Texas. Yet he had grown up in a house where Spanish and German were spoken along with English, and he was fluent in all three.

  His ancestors had founded New Braunfels, the poor and dusty German-settled Texas town where he was raised. Founding fathers were on both sides—his mother’s and his father’s people had established the town, which lay in the heart of cow country, thirty miles northeast of San Antonio and forty-five miles southwest of Austin. One hundred years of Galles had lived and died on Academy Street. But Galle was determined that he wasn’t going to live in New Braunfels forever.

  Maurer and Knight took an immediate liking to Milton Galle when they met him on the 1921 tour. They told Stefansson that if they did have the chance to go north again, they wanted him to come along. The three young men talked backstage at the Chautauqua events and were unable to stop conversing about the hoped-for journey. It wouldn’t cost much to go, they reasoned, because it didn’t take a lot of money to live up north. They could dress in the skins of the animals they hunted and eat off the land.

  There was something about the Arctic once you had experienced it, Maurer and Knight told young Galle, something indescribable that nagged at you, even if you had seen and nearly tasted death and vowed never to return. Something about having gone there once—just once— that made you unfit for anything, or anywhere, else on earth.

  For Maurer, it would mean not staying in Ohio and working at the Goodyear Tire Company or at his father’s tailoring shop. For Knight, it meant not keeping on as chief of police of McMinnville, Oregon. And for Milton Galle, it would mean not selling rawhide whips or hanging about in the drawing rooms of New Braunfels, flirting with the local girls. But it was more than not wanting to do those things temporarily, and more than not wanting to do them forever.

  Wrangel Island had claimed a part of Fred Maurer while he was there. Eight years ago he had scraped seal oil off the tops of his boots to nourish himself when there was no other food. Eight years ago he helped to bury three of his friends there. Eight years ago he prayed on his mother’s Bible for salvation, and hoped never to see his comrades—or that island—again. Now, going back was all he could think of. He wanted to make sense of what had happened, to try to justify the deaths of his friends and companions, and to prove, once and for all, that he could master that place.

  Maurer’s life was good now—he had a supportive family, a decent job, and a sweet-smelling, smartly dressed girlfriend named Delphine Jones, who seemed to love him fiercely. But he believed that he would never be able to live happily until he returned to the Arctic. There was only one man who could offer Maurer that opportunity— Stefansson.

  Knight also made it clear to Stefansson that he needed to go north again. As always, he was more forthcoming about it than the more reticent Maurer, telling Stefansson repeatedly that he wanted the chance to go and trying to persuade him to send out an expedition.

  Young and clever Galle was quiet because he had no right to assume that he, of all the wide-eyed boys who worked at Chautauqua and who hung about after Stefansson’s lectures to ask questions and steal an autograph, would be chosen to go on such a journey.

  When the world was once known to be round, there was no difficulty in finding many navigators to sail around it, Stefansson told his audience. When the polar regions are once understood to be friendly and fruitful, men will quickly and easily penetrate their deepest recesses.

  They continually approached Stefansson about the possibility of a new expedition north. He seemed interested but noncommittal. Consumed with his writing and his lectures on the Chautauqua circuit, he told them he had no plans to return to the Arctic in 1921. The time wasn’t right, he said. It was too late in the year to get up an expedition, and, as always, there was the issue of funding.

  But in private, Stefansson was actually planning and had been planning in earnest since the fall of 1920 when he had approached Canada’s Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, and various members of the government about his desire to send out another expedition to Wrangel Island. As far as Stefansson could see, the ownership of the island was debatable. Some believed the Russians had rights to Wrangel because Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell had been the first to search for it—albeit unsuccessfully—between 1822 and 1824; the island was named for him by the American captain Thomas Long in 1867. More substantially, the Soviets occupied the island for a brief period of time in 1834, and in 1911 erected a navigation beacon there. But others believed that Americans had held it ever since Captain Calvin L. Hooper made the first official landing on the island in 1881 and took formal possession for the United States.

  Stefansson felt otherwise, however. In his view, any claim that might have belonged to the Russians or the Americans had lapsed. Captain Henry Kellett had discovered the island in 1849 for England far before Captain Long claimed it for America and renamed it after Baron Wrangell. When Maurer and other members of Stefansson’s own ill-fated 1913–1914 Canadian Arctic Expedition landed there after their ship Karluk had been crushed in ice, and lived there six months before the survivors were rescued, it was the longest occupation of the island by anyone. Thus Stefansson felt Great Britain—through its dominion Canada—had just as much ri
ght to the island as the Russians or Americans.

  Stefansson had never set foot on Wrangel himself, but its primary attraction for him was its far northern location, which promised a future air base. No flights yet ventured across the Arctic, but Stefansson, who considered himself a visionary, believed it was only a matter of time before the world would be flying by that route from America or Eastern Asia to Europe. When they did, his Wrangel Island could be one of the primary embarkation points.

  “During your stay on Wrangel Island did you ever go any considerable distance inland?” Just the previous year Stefansson had questioned Maurer about the game conditions, livability of the island, vegetation, and topography. “Did you see lichens, mosses or grasses? Were flowers common? On what parts of the island did you find the most driftwood and what kind of wood was it?”

  Stefansson was particularly interested in the British-Canadian flag hoisted on Wrangel’s soil, July 1, 1914. Maurer and two of the other Karluk men had raised it in honor of Dominion Day without any other motive. But Stefansson thought it could mean something more, possibly even that they had, by doing so, claimed official possession of the island. He had interrogated Maurer about it, asking him about the particulars of the flag-raising ceremony with such intensity and frequency that Maurer told Knight he had a strong feeling Stefansson was interested in Wrangel. If this was true and their hero was really planning some sort of expedition to the island, both Maurer and Knight—and now Galle—wanted a part of it.

  Stefansson had not yet been able to convince the Canadian government to back such a politically tenuous and ambitious venture, but he hoped, with enough substantiation that the island was indeed an invaluable asset, that they would forget the disastrous results of his previous expedition. There was the fact of the eleven lost lives, the matter that he may have abandoned his ship, and the condemnation by his peers in the government and elsewhere.

  He knew they would need a British or Canadian citizen on the expedition in order officially to claim the island—someone who, if not the actual leader, could at least act as one in name. He hadn’t yet told Maurer, Knight, and Galle that he was actually planning on sending them on the expedition they so desired. And so it was entirely unknown to them that he had already sent out a letter, dated March 13,1921, to the University of Toronto, advertising for a recent graduate who might be interested in lending his nationality to the cause.

  * * *

  Ottawa, Ontario

  13th March, 1921.

  Confidential

  Dear Sir Robert,

  I am planning a three-year polar expedition. This year I want to send north to a point within the Arctic Circle an advance party, consisting of a Topographer, a Botanist, a Zoologist, a Geologist, and one or two other men.

  My experience has been that generally the younger the man the more readily he adapts himself to northern conditions. For that reason I should prefer to get men just out of college. The chief qualification is temperamental. There should be no tendency to imagine that you are a hero or that it constitutes remarkable hardships to be away from movies and operas for a year or two. Moderately good health is desirable. The man should be especially a good walker; his circulation should be at least so good that there is no marked tendency to numbness of hands or feet, and the eyesight should be above the average. No man is useful in mid-winter work in the far north who is not able to get along without glasses. . . . The wages would be nominal—$1,800 a year. The man should at the very least have specialized as an undergraduate in Botany, Zoology or Geology; preferably he should have had at least a year’s post-graduate work.

  This letter is confidential in so far that I should not like to get any mention of the undertaking into the public press.

  Yours sincerely,

  V. STEFANSSON.

  SIR ROBERT FALCONER, PRESIDENT,

  University of Toronto,

  Toronto, Ontario.

  * * *

  Chapter Three

  I AM PLANNING a three-year polar expedition.

  Allan Rudyard Crawford had never been north of his native Toronto, Canada, but, like most boys his age, he had grown up hero-worshipping the explorers and adventurers who were reshaping the world.

  The younger the man the more readily he adapts himself to northern conditions. For that reason I should prefer to get men just out of college.

  Crawford was twenty years old and taking his third-year exams at the University of Toronto. He had not yet received his degree, but he had a solid grounding in mathematics and science, and had been awarded the first Edward Blake Scholarship in Science at the honor matriculation examination in 1918. As far as he was concerned, that was close enough.

  The chief qualification is temperamental.

  Crawford was known for his extreme patience, his even temper, and his warm sense of humor. His parents were highly educated, his father a popular professor at the university. Crawford had grown up in Toronto, a sophisticated city, and those who knew him found in him a quiet strength and a sharp, well-nurtured intelligence that made him seem capable and dependable.

  Moderately good health is desirable.

  He was in excellent physical condition. His five-foot-ten-inch, 150-pound frame was lanky but athletic and he never suffered from poor circulation, stomach trouble, irregular heart action, or any serious illness.

  And the eyesight should be above the average. No man is useful in mid-winter work in the far north who is not able to get along without glasses.

  His eyes were a clear green, and his vision was definitely above-average.

  The man should at the very least have specialized as an undergraduate in Botany, Zoology or Geology; preferably he should have had at least a year’s post-graduate work.

  Crawford was studying geology, paleontology, chemistry, and mineralogy at the University of Toronto when one of his professors, Dr. W. A. Parks, gave him the letter, marked confidential, which had originally been directed to Sir Robert Falconer, the university president. Crawford was desperate to be chosen by Stefansson, and his father, Professor J. T. Crawford, backed his son’s enthusiasm wholeheartedly. He knew how capable Allan was, how quietly passionate and determined, and he knew his son could make good at whatever he put his mind to, be it teaching or exploring.

  For young Crawford it was impossible to think of anything else. “If you are disposed to consider me we might arrange an interview either in New York or wherever would be convenient to you,” he wrote to Stefansson in his introductory letter of April 11, 1921. It was a difficult letter to write, having to advertise himself like that, trying to convince Stefansson that he was just the man to join his expedition. Crawford’s name would be forwarded to Stefansson by the university, as a possible candidate for the position, but he felt the situation called for going above and beyond, and that he should provide additional information that might help his cause.

  “I was under age to go overseas but I was in the Officers’ Training Corps in Canada,” he continued. “I was employed by the Geological Survey of Canada last summer in Algoma and so have some practical experience in Pre-Cambrian geology.”

  At age twenty, Crawford was an attractive, dapper young man, with a trim mustache and dark hair, which he wore slicked back in a neat, precise part. His skin was pale and his eyes, a deepset green, were framed expressively by arched brows. He was shy by nature, but he wasn’t afraid to speak up if he wanted something—his parents had taught him that—and he felt confident that he had stumbled onto a tremendous opportunity.

  “Although I have not written for my degree, I find in my course I am up against men much older and more experienced than myself. I feel I could acquit myself much more creditably if I had the opportunity such as you offer.”

  Crawford lived with his family at 168 Walmer Road in Toronto. The oldest of three, he was close to his parents, and to his siblings, Marjorie and Johnnie. His mother, Helen, he considered a good friend, although perhaps a tad domineering and smothering at times. His father, a handsome,
small-boned man, even more dapper and polished than his son, was a great favorite among his students.

  John Thomas Crawford had been a mathematics professor for seventeen years before he accepted, in 1910, the appointment to lecturer in mathematics at the University of Toronto, as well as the role of chief instructor of mathematics of the university schools. He was the author of arithmetic and algebra textbooks, and a frequent contributor to The School, the monthly magazine of the Ontario College of Education.

  Allan Crawford did his best to emulate his father’s academic and personal success. Allan had been an avid Boy Scout as a youth and was now circulation manager of The Goblin, the University of Toronto’s comic newspaper, which he had helped to found. He was a good, humorous writer and a rugby player on his college team. He was studious and inquisitive, and had formed a makeshift laboratory in the cellar of his house, with liquids and powders, vials and bottles that he used to conduct scientific experiments.

  He sent off his letter to Stefansson on April 11 and waited, trying to concentrate on his friends, the latest issue of The Goblin, his school-work, and the upcoming summer vacation to a resort in Muskoka. More than a week passed and he heard nothing.

  The return telegram from Stefansson arrived, at last, on April 24: “Your qualifications look good. You should hear from me again inside two weeks.”

  Wrangel Island’s appeal was not only as a future airstrip for trans-Arctic aviation. Stefansson viewed the island as a possible radio station and meteorological station as well. He believed a meteorological station on Wrangel would be invaluable in forecasting the weather of northwestern Canada and Alaska. He also knew that the island would be a prime spot for walrus hunting and fur trapping, both of which would be immensely profitable, and he calculated that it would be a useful place for reindeer breeding.

 
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