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

  On the second day at sea, Ada spent only an hour or two on deck before becoming seasick. She retreated to her cabin and her bed, and Peggy Fletcher sat with her for an hour or so and chatted. Ada was not yet sure she could trust Peggy, and so she spoke briefly of Wrangel, testing the waters, telling Mrs. Fletcher of Maurer’s hunting prowess and the seals she had shot. “You must shoot their heads,” she told Peggy firmly, and then fell silent.

  Later, she spoke of money matters, which were always on her mind. She worried about money constantly, especially now that she had some. She was easily led and influenced, although extremelyfrugal. She seemed at once helpless and fiercely independent. It was hard for Peggy to imagine, looking at Ada as she layon her bunk, her cheeks apple red, her hair black against the pillow, that this pretty, fragile woman had endured for so long and so well on Wrangel Island.

  From her bed, Ada said she thought she might travel back to Seattle by train instead of ship, as long as the ticket would not cost too much. She was miserable from the gentle, rocking rhythm of the water beneath the boat. She told Peggy that she planned to head back up to Nome by June and that she couldn’t wait to be home again. Seattle had been terribly damp and chilly, and she had caught the first cold of her life there.

  Then—Knight had been so sick, she said suddenly, as if she couldn’t hold the feelings at bay anymore. So weak that she must hold his head up to give him a drink. Her voice broke when she spoke of him, and the tears came quickly, but then she fell quiet once more.

  Peggy quickly learned that when Ada did not want to talk about a subject, she would simply say, “Well, I don’t want to say anything about that.” Peggy was struck by Ada’s direct way of speaking. Ada’s own mother, she confided to Peggy, was unable to express herself. She would, according to Ada, “just sit still and say nothing.” Ada preferred to sit still, like her mother, and absorb everything. She simply sat in silence until she thought of the next thing she wanted to say. And then, Peggy learned, it would come: “I have been thinking,” Ada would begin.

  “Do you think in English?” Peggy asked her.

  “No, in Eskimo.”

  Peggy longed to take notes as Ada was talking, but she was afraid doing so would only distract Ada and make her clam up again. So as soon as Peggy returned to her cabin each night, she would sit down and write a long letter to Stefansson containing everything she could remember about her time with Ada.

  The other passengers on the steamship clamored to meet Ada, who, as usual, only wanted to be left alone. People were naturally curious and asked all sorts of questions about her experiences on Wrangel Island. They wanted to do things for her and help her because there was something about Ada that inspired that impulse. But she did not want their help or ask for it. She used as few words as possible in answering their questions, and she never spoke of Wrangel to anyone except Peggy Fletcher.

  Ada was reluctant to tell her story, but she was afraid “they” would murder her if she didn’t. She wasn’t clear about who “they” were, but she seemed adamant that it would happen. She had been brought up on ancient superstition and, as a result, was often quick to suspect and fear the unknown. Mrs. Fletcher soothed her and explained that Ada was already a part of history and therefore her story was a part of history. She reminded Ada of the Eskimo storytellers who kept the records and stories of the tribes alive by passing the tales onto one another. “It is like that with white people,” she explained, “only they write theirs down.”

  “Oh,” Ada exclaimed. “Is that it.” And she was satisfied.

  The reporters found her, as they inevitably did. As always, she refused to talk to them or have her picture taken, and she seemed to have an uncanny ability to pick them out of a crowd. As soon as she spotted one, she would whisk Bennett away to their cabin, where they would hide until the newshounds gave up and went away. Some took their revenge by publishing stories of the snubbing she gave them. They made fun of her native dialect and her “halfbreed” son.

  One day, when a newspaperman managed to corner Ada, he wanted to know, “Were there many wild animals on Wrangel Island?”

  He stood there for fifteen full minutes, waiting for the answer. Finally, Ada spoke, “A few.” But that was all she said.

  It was better to hide in her cabin where no one could find her. She did not believe this talk about being a hero. In the Arctic, she had done what she had to do to survive and what she needed to do to get home again to Bennett, without any thought of glory or praise. And now strangers were staring at her on the street and rushing to embrace her and applauding her. More than anything, she wanted to forget, but they would not let her. The cold, the fear, the polar bears, the hunger, the sickness, the death. When she thought of it, she confided to Mrs. Fletcher, “it always makes me have a choke in my throat and tears come to my eyes.”

  Every now and again, she would offer Peggy, unprompted, a piece of the puzzle. It usually had to do with Lorne Knight’s illness. It seemed to be the aspect of the venture that most disturbed her because she circled it, kept coming back to it, revisiting it and the emotion she had felt at the time.

  Bennett, unlike his mother, chattered constantly and asked questions about everything. “Too many questions,” said Ada. “Not like me. Always my people say I never ask questions about anything.” Whenever Ada felt Bennett was talking too much, she spoke his name softly and he fell silent. He tried to teach Mrs. Fletcher the Eskimo language. Horse, he would say, and then give her the Eskimo word for it. She would forget it and he would repeat it, and on they would go. Ada watched the whole time, smiling with pride. Bennett was a smart boy, clever and quick.

  Sometimes when Ada was feeling particularly weak or ill, or when she preferred to remain out of the public eye in her cabin, Peggy would take Bennett up to the deck, where they would walk and look out over the water together. He loved to watch the gulls and to imitate the cry of the ducks. He chattered happily, without his mother to make him hush, and he boasted to Peggy about the reindeer they had in Nome, which he would ride fast across the shore.

  Peggy noticed that Ada took pride in dressing Bennett nicely and keeping him clean and tidy, just as she enjoyed dressing herself in one of her many dark blue serge suits. Ada took great effort with her appearance, and the people they met aboard ship seemed impressed by her poise and good manners. Most of them had never seen an Eskimo in person before, which was reason enough to stare, but Ada further surprised them by not fitting their preconceived image of the unkempt, uneducated heathen.

  There was a man in her life, Ada confided to Peggy one day, a man named Harvey. He was her friend and right now he was on a ship called the Alameda, which was cruising in the waters of southeast Alaska. Ada did not say much about Harvey, but Peggyhad certainly heard the rumors back in Seattle, and was of the impression that he was not a very good “friend” for Ada to have.

  Ada spent most of her time in her cabin, having her meals delivered there. When the service was too slow for her liking, she would call Peggy on the telephone in her room and ask her to bring ice water so that she wouldn’t have to go out in the midst of people to get it. Ada seemed thirsty all the time, and as soon as she was finished with a glass of cold water, she craved another. Bennett drank glass after glass himself and devoured the ice in chunks.

  Ada told Peggy that she wanted to go back to Oregon sometime to see the Knights. She liked them very much. She thought she might like to buy a little boat and go into the fishing business in southeastern Alaska with her cousin. Or perhaps find a restaurant or hotel in Nome, where she could wait on tables and her sister Rita could cook. If her mother would agree to move to southeast Alaska, though, that is where Ada thought she would most like to go because she had heard there was good work there for sewing.

  Peggy suggested the movie business in California—perhaps a film studio might hire her to make fur clothes for their northern pictures. Ada was skeptical about that, but knew she must find something because she was afraid of running out of m
oney. The way she figured it, she could only spend about $20 a month or she would not be able to get back to Nome. There was money in her bank at home, but she didn’t want to touch this because she was saving it for Bennett and her mother.

  On the evening of February9, 1924, Ada felt well enough to venture up to the deck. There was a festive masquerade dance, and Ada stood very still and watched. As the maskers marched down the deck, she drew closer to Mrs. Fletcher, not understanding what it meant. As Peggy explained the custom to her, Ada watched a dancing girl dressed in a thin, beaded costume. After a long while, she tilted her face up at Mrs. Fletcher and smiled, “If I have a dress like that on Wrangel Island, I think I freeze to death very quick.”

  At Mr. Knight’s request, the Crawfords, Maurers, and Galles each received a copy of Lorne’s diary from Stefansson. Theyhad been warned about the missing pages, but seeing the blacked-out passages was much more disturbing to the families than hearing of them. It was distressing to read about the lack of food, daybyday, and the inability to find enough game. They suffered as they read, in a way they had not suffered before, because now they could picture all too vividly what their boys had been up against.

  For the Galles, who had had no last letter to comfort them, and who still had not been allowed to see their own son’s notes, Lorne Knight’s journal brought some consolation. For Mrs. Galle, it was a chance to see her son again, as described by Lorne. She was proud to read of Milton’s ambitious and fearless three-day excursion to the mountains by himself, and she was comforted to find no mention of sadness or depression. She had suffered guilt at letting him leave, even though he had taken himself off without a look back, but now she felt a little better about him, and about his decision.

  “When thinking of... Milton the young, growing, and slender boy. . . and Milton developing into the hardened, strong man, I can hardly realize it was our boy,” she wrote to Stefansson. “He was out all the time keeping busy and seeking diversion and occupation and I am glad. He showed himself what I had wished for, that, once he had gone, he would be man enough to do his best and overcome difficulties as well as was possible.”

  Reading Knight’s diary made the Galles long even more to read Milton’s journal. To know that such a thing existed but that they weren’t allowed to see it was maddening. They had heard no word from Noice about it, but Mrs. Galle could not keep silent. She had done that long enough. So she wrote to Noice, to ask him to please send their son’s notes, and then she wrote to Stefansson to tell him, knowing he would be displeased.

  She would not blame anyone for the tragedy, as the Crawfords did. It was true that there was still a great deal about their son’s last journey that they did not know. But “I am more at peace to believe that everybody did all with the best of intentions and that Mr. Stef only thought of doing the best for the boys. He will see, better than me, where the fault or mistakes lie.”

  Others continued to blame Stefansson, however. H. H. Langton, of The Canadian Historical Review, observed at the time, “The truth is that Wrangel Island was a most unsuitable place for trying the experiment of ‘living off the country.’ Mr. Stefansson had never been there; he knew its resources only by the report of survivors of the Karluk disaster. But from their report he knew that there were neither caribou nor musk-oxen, as there are in the islands of the Canadian Arctic, and he knew that the Karluk survivors had all but starved.”

  Beyond newspapers and magazines, former associates began to speak out as well. Captain Bernard, leader of the 1922 relief expedition attempt to Wrangel Island, noted that the man was “ ‘done for’ from Seattle to Ottawa,” and that no one had anything good to say for him. In Nome, Stefansson was known as a champion liar, as well as in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

  William McKinlay was the only scientific member of Stefansson’s Karluk expedition to survive the disastrous 1913 trip to the Arctic. His memories of the expedition embittered him toward Stefansson for the rest of his life. “If I would venture any criticism, then it would fall entirely and exclusively on Stefansson,” he wrote of the Crawford tragedy, “because of his unscrupulous efforts to present to the young men a picture of Wrangel Island that never was.”

  Stefansson ignored the press, and concentrated his efforts on writing his own definitive account of the expedition for publication. He had written most of the story, the history and background of the venture, the events of Wrangel Island during 1921–1923, and the aftermath of the discovery. But now he needed the input and cooperation of the parents of the four young men. Specifically, he was most interested in biographical sketches of each of the men, which he asked the parents to write for him, and also any photographs they might have in their possession relating to the expedition.

  Do not give him anything, Mae Belle Anderson warned Helen Crawford. “Mr. Knight thinks in his innocence that V.S. is going to make a book out of his son’s diary. The diary will be only a small part of a book on Wrangell Island, which will be full of the old lies. Moreover when the book is published he will find that V. S. is not to blame for a solitary thing. The boys will be to blame—perhaps his son—for all the tragedy. Stefansson is very strong at quoting dead men.”

  She was referring to the diary of John Hadley, a passenger on the Karluk, who had survived the tragedy but died in 1918 in the influenza epidemic in San Francisco. After Hadley died, a mysterious document appeared, which Stefansson quoted at length in his book The Friendly Arctic. Hadleyhad also kept a diaryduring his time on Wrangel Island in 1914, but that document and the one that surfaced after his death were suspiciously opposite in viewpoints, opinions, and grammatical structuring. Stefansson had invented the second diary to suit his own purposes, critics said, but Hadley, of course, was dead, so there was only Stefansson’s word that the document was authentic.

  There was also the matter of unpaid salaries, which did nothing to endear Stefansson to the families. As supportive as she was of Stefansson, Delphine Maurer was forced to write inquiring about the moneydue Fred, which had still not been paid. Stefansson had written to her of the money he stood to earn on an Australian lecture tour, and the fact that they offered him double for the following year, so surely there must be money to pay Fred’s salary. Emotionally, she was sustained by her deep, unshakable religious faith, while her parents were able to care for her financially. Delphine had managed to return to work herself, yet she wanted what was due Fred, and she had to press Stefansson for an answer.

  Eventually he responded, saying that the Stefansson Arctic Exploration and Development Company had no money in its treasury. He blamed the deficit on Noice, who, he said, had spent their money and run up their credit recklessly before sailing on the relief trip. He would try to cover the amount due Maurer with a personal check, but Stefansson estimated his debts relating to the expedition as being between $20,000 and $30,000. As Mae Belle Anderson remarked to Mrs. Crawford, “Stefansson could not manage a peanut stand, my husband always said.”

  Letters from Mr. Knight and the Galles followed, and then one from the Crawfords’ attorney. Mrs. Galle wrote that, “Now that a year has passed since the tragic news and little hope that I held out for the boys is vanishing, I am about to ask you for more about Milton’s affairs and agreement with you and the Company, upon leaving for the north.” Milton had never told her exactly what he was to be paid or what his agreement with Stefansson was, but it was now time to find out and receive his due.

  According to his records, Stefansson owed $1,450 to Allan Crawford, $10 to Lorne Knight, $100 to Fred Maurer, and nothing to Milton Galle, who was only to be paid in furs. Stefansson hoped to be able to pay all that was legally due to the relatives bythe middle of March of 1924, but first, he told them, he must pay back Griffith Brewer and settle other debts, including the $17,000 he claimed Noice had accrued in bills in Nome. Now that Noice was married to a wealthy woman, though, Stefansson told the families, perhaps they could get some of the money back from him.

  In the meantime, Stefansson offer
ed to sell Wrangel Island, first to Canada for $30,000, then, when the government ignored the offer, for $27,000 to the United States. When the United States also failed to respond, he offered the island to the Lomen brothers. Of course, it was preposterous. Stefansson no more owned Wrangel Island than he owned France.

  Ada grew into her sea legs by February 10, the fourth day of her sixday voyage. Now that she was able, she took a stroll on the deck of the ship and stood at the railing to stare at the mountains that hugged the shore. They made her wish she was back in Nome, with the ice and the snow. But when the ship docked in San Francisco and Peggy took Ada and Bennett for a ride through Golden Gate Park with some friends who met them at the dock, she sat straight and still with her hands clasped on her lap, exclaiming over and over again to herself, “Oh, Oh!”

  There was such beauty here, and a kind of grandeur of color and form that she had never seen before. Flowers bloomed in February, and the sound and smell of the nearby sea awakened her senses. She found the celebrated redwoods glorious. At one point, she turned to Peggy and said, “If my mother could see this, I don’t know what she would say. Maybe she would say nothing, just like I do.”

  And later, as she gazed in wonder at the vibrant colors of the flowers, Ada said, “I do not know why white people want to come to Nome where there is ice and snow when they have everything so beautiful like this.”

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