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


  Stefansson’s biggest worry was the Japanese. There was Japanese penetration in Siberia, and there were rumors that the Japanese were trying to seize land from Russia. He was certain that it was only a matter of a year or two before Japan realized the importance of Wrangel Island and sent its own team to occupy it.

  Knowing how daunting and formidable the ice conditions could be as far north as Wrangel, Stefansson was anxious to sail by summer. Members of the Canadian government had placed the matter under discussion and he was told to do nothing further until they decided whether to grant their support. In reality, however, they had already made up their minds. The government was wary about the reputation Stefansson had earned on his disastrous Canadian Arctic Expedition. He was resented by some for his ego, his insolence, and his unreliability. No one wanted to give him the responsibility of another expedition under the Canadian flag because they didn’t trust him. His patriotism, in this case, seemed suspiciously self-serving, and, as J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Dominion Parks, noted skeptically,“Stefansson is a Canadian in the sense that he was born in Canada but that is all.”

  With the summer fast approaching, Stefansson decided to take matters into his own hands.

  While Stefansson, with Galle as his secretary, continued on the Chautauqua seven-day circuit, Fred Maurer and Lorne Knight were both now traveling on a separate four-day tour. Stefansson knew Maurer and Knight were waiting anxiously in the wings, eager to serve him and to return to the North. “Of course you must realize that I am very anxious to go,” Knight, typically direct, had written him recently, “and am awaiting eagerly that opportunity. Last night Maurer lectured in Amity and I brought him home in a car. We were together all day and he continually talked about the North. I think (if possible) he wants to get back up there as bad as I do.”

  Stefansson had been vague about any plans, except to say that they should stand by and wait for information, but on June 6, he sent a confidential telegram to both Knight and Maurer regarding a mission that would combine exploration with commercial development. “Would you go some Arctic island via Nome for hundred dollars month and small share in proceeds of operation?” he wanted to know. “Would you become Canadian subject if that is necessary to give you command of this enterprise which I believe has a future?”

  Both Knight and Maurer answered immediately, yes.

  By the end of June 1921, Stefansson was back in touch to let them know that everything was coming together, and he asked Knight and Maurer to be ready to leave just as soon as they received word. Rumors of a supposed expedition had already leaked to the papers, and everyone in McMinnville, Oregon, was bombarding Knight with questions about where he was going and what he would be doing there. Knight himself had no idea, but he talked it over privately with his young fiancée, Doris Jones, and she was anxious to go with him. Even though Knight did not know where they were headed or what the nature of the work would be, and even though he knew his father would not approve—Mr. Knight was none too fond of the simple and scatterbrained Miss Jones—Knight wrote to Stefansson to tell him that he would like to bring Doris, if possible. But he also made it clear that if it came down to a choice between his betrothed and the North, the North would win.

  Stefansson enlisted his old friend, Alfred J. T. Taylor of Vancouver, to organize the expedition. Because Stefansson didn’t want to risk confiding in the unsympathetic Canadian government, he and Taylor agreed to keep their plans secret. When an attorney informed them that an application for Canadian citizenship would not make Knight and Maurer British enough to claim the island, Stefansson once again contacted young Canadian Allan Crawford.

  It was the end of June, and Stefansson was still lecturing on the Chautauqua circuit. To his great satisfaction, the University of Michigan offered him an honorary doctorate, but there was one stipulation—Stefansson must be present on commencement day to receive it. Although reluctant to shift his lecture schedule, Stefansson was eager to collect the doctorate, and also saw it as the perfect opportunity to talk with Sir Auckland Geddes, British Ambassador to the United States, who would be receiving an honorary doctorate at the same ceremony.

  After rearranging his schedule with Chautauqua, Stefansson wired an invitation to Crawford: “I am not sure I can offer you this year anything attractive in the way of northern exploration, but can you meet me at Ann Arbor, Michigan, June 30. It will be a brief conversation. But on the chance of its coming to something I shall pay your expenses if you will risk the time.”

  Crawford was in Muskoka, Canada, with some of his friends from The Goblin, when he received the letter. He had been waiting for further word from Stefansson since April. The highly anticipated two weeks had stretched into seven weeks, and he had almost given up hope of ever hearing from Stefansson again. He replied immediately. He would be there.

  While awaiting Crawford’s arrival in Ann Arbor, Stefansson discussed his ideas about Wrangel Island with Sir Auckland Geddes, who listened diplomatically and noncommittally. Stefansson sensed enthusiasm, but Geddes could make no promise of support. Geddes did caution him strongly to keep word of his proposal as quiet as possible, as both Russia and Japan, in his estimation, were likely to find Wrangel Island an appealing acquisition as well.

  Allan Crawford, meanwhile, arrived in Michigan, not knowing what to expect. He and Stefansson spent the better part of a day together, discussing Canadian politics and the upcoming election, and Stefansson was greatly impressed with the boy’s maturity, sensitivity, and shrewdness.

  That evening, Stefansson confided his plan for Wrangel Island to Crawford, after swearing the boy to secrecy and forbidding him to mention the plot even to his own parents. Crawford would have agreed to just about anything at that point, and listened with bright interest as Stefansson talked to him of the island and the claim that needed to be made. Stefansson himself would not be able to go to the island until the following year, and so Crawford would need to be in command. There might not be any pay, Crawford was warned, if the government decided not to participate. At the most, Stefansson could pay him $150 a month, which seemed a great deal to the boy. But regardless of money, Crawford felt he wanted to be a part of this noble cause, and told Stefansson he was willing to take any chances in order to go.

  Stefansson sent him back to Toronto to wait and see, and then rejoined the Chautauqua circuit. He was still waiting for word from the Canadian government and promised to wire Crawford as soon as he heard anything. Very quickly, the government responded, letting Stefansson know that they would not support his expedition. He decided to move forward anyway, with the thought that he might be able to sway the government—particularly if a new regime moved into office after the upcoming election—in the months to come.

  In early July, Allan Crawford received a formal invitation to come to Vancouver, where he would receive his orders for the Wrangel Island Expedition of 1921. In a whirlwind, he packed his bag, said farewell to his faithful college friends, and then dashed to Mary Lake, where his family was summering. He bid a hasty good-bye to his mother, father, Marjorie, and Johnnie, and then caught the Trans-Canada train, arriving in Vancouver on July 5. He met with Alfred J. T. Taylor, Stefansson’s business partner, who issued him a contract of employment and handed him three Canadian and three British flags, which were to be planted in the soil of Wrangel Island.

  From there, Crawford headed down to Seattle, where he was introduced to the two veterans, Lorne Knight and Fred Maurer. Knight and Maurer were already good friends by now, and they found it hard not to like the bright, well-spoken young Canadian who seemed older than his years. Crawford’s quiet disposition meshed well with Maurer’s more retiring, contemplative personality, while his smart sense of humor blended nicely with Knight’s boisterous good nature.

  Because he was a Canadian citizen, and therefore a British subject, twenty-year-old Crawford would be in official command of the expedition. But Knight, having the greatest length of experience in the North, would be the unofficial voice o
f authority and officially second in charge. Crawford was given geological and meteorological instruments and various books on collecting and identifying birds and animals on the coast of Siberia so that he could document life on the island accurately.

  First, the young men would head to Nome, Alaska, where they would purchase dogs and hire Eskimos, and then they would continue on to Wrangel. Tension ran high because the last boat sailing to Nome that year would leave August 5, and if they weren’t on it, they would be forced to delay the expedition until the following summer. Stefansson had resumed his lecture tour and said the men—including his assistant, Galle—might as well join him and see the American northwest as hang around in Seattle waiting for word on a ship. They would be telegraphed just as soon as a boat became available. Until then, they would travel through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

  Galle was still employed by Chautauqua, helping to set up tents, fulfilling secretarial duties, and running the projector for Stefansson. He liked the travel and meeting new people; he had made good friends and seen a part of the country he’d never expected to see. But when he overheard Knight, Maurer, and the new fellow, Crawford, talking over the Arctic with Stefansson in hushed, conspiratorial tones, he knew he had to figure out the best way to convince Stefansson to let him go along. Crawford, after all, was only a year older than Galle.

  Knight and Maurer, for their part, went directly to Stefansson on Galle’s behalf. Galle was a strong, smart fellow, they argued, and he had already proven what a hard worker he was. He might not have the experience that they had, or the education and pedigree of Crawford, but he had heart and a quick, sharp mind.

  Stefansson was agreeable but dismissive. It was fine if they wanted Galle, he said, but he still wasn’t convinced. If Galle did go, Stefansson couldn’t afford to pay the boy a salary. Galle would earn a percentage from any furs he managed to bring back from the island, but that was all. The arrangement suited Milton Galle perfectly.

  After the team was formed, Georgia Knight worked all day in her kitchen to prepare a celebratory meal for her husband, sons Lorne and Joseph, Milton Galle, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Allan Crawford, and several of the Chautauqua performers. The young men were preparing to leave for Seattle, where they would spend the weeks preceding their departure outfitting and organizing the expedition, and the Knights had graciously welcomed all of them into their home in the agricultural town of McMinnville, Oregon, thirty miles outside of Portland in Yamhill County.

  This dinner would mark the first time the Knights had met Allan Crawford, and it was exciting for them to have everyone—excepting Maurer, who was fulfilling his Chautauqua obligation—at the same table. There was much to celebrate—Lorne’s return to the Arctic, the introduction to Crawford, the expedition’s future success, the presence at their table of a man as famous as Stefansson. In John Irvine Knight’s work as an insurance man and bill collector, there had been little opportunity to brush shoulders with people such as Stefansson.

  “Milton’s knowledge of Spanish won’t be of much use to him in the North,” Mr. Knight remarked to Stefansson over the meal. It was meant to be a casual, lighthearted comment, but when he saw the crestfallen look on young Galle’s face he instantly regretted saying it.

  There was a weighty, collective silence as Stefansson turned thoughtfully to Galle and asked him if he wouldn’t rather go to South America with Teddy Roosevelt.

  Galle had never wanted anything more in his life than to go to the Arctic. But he wasn’t going to argue the point with Stefansson. Maurer and Knight, he knew, had already argued for him, and finally it appeared they had convinced Stefansson to take him. Whatever Stefansson thought best for him was what he would do, he said aloud, although it took an effort to form the words. But he did want to go north. This last was said softly but firmly, and there was no mistaking the great rush of feeling behind it.

  A few days later, Galle received a telegram from Stefansson saying that Roosevelt reported unfavorable conditions in South America and Stefansson was unable to procure a position for Galle there. If he still wanted to go north, Stefansson would pay his expenses.

  Galle had to read the words over again to believe them. He had never been so relieved. To think he could have been sent to South America with Teddy Roosevelt, when his heart was so set on the frozen Arctic with Stefansson.

  As far as Galle was concerned, he was the luckiest boy in America. It was what Stefansson wanted him to believe. He counted on the kind of enthusiasm that bred great loyalty, and wanted each of his four young expedition members to appreciate the importance and honor of what they were setting out to do. Although he did not advertise his expedition or invite any men other than the four he had chosen, Stefansson told Galle that he had beaten out ten thousand other fellows for his spot on the Wrangel Island team, even the chief engineer of the highway department of Kansas and some college professors. Galle couldn’t believe his good fortune. He, Milton Galle, nineteen-year-old son of a house painter and a piano teacher, with the dust of New Braunfels, Texas, barely swept from his skin, had beaten out all of them. “I am simply overjoyed, yes tickeled [sic] to death. Out of this whole bunch Stef had to choose me,” he wrote his parents elatedly. “Is this not enough as yet to show you that there is something besides just lollypopping around, if it isn’t, GOOD NIGHT!”

  The more Galle saw of the rest of the country, the more embarrassed he was by the provincialism of New Braunfels. Things were different out here in the big world. People traveled and went places. They worked during the summer so that they could save their money and then head off to the beach for a vacation. Nothing like that ever seemed to get into the heads of the people in his hometown, who did the same old thing day after day and never seemed to have any ambition. There was also a spirit in Seattle, in Oregon, and in the other cities and states he had visited, that New Braunfels lacked. People seemed more adventurous, more exuberant, more alive. They weren’t just waiting to die in some dead-end little town at the bottom of the map where no one ever dreamed of going, and where no one ever left.

  Ever since Galle had landed in Seattle, he had been befriended by many of the prominent local businessmen. The girls of McMinnville had thrown him a party upon his arrival and had been ardent and dedicated followers ever since. The Knight family had welcomed him into their home and into their hearts as one of their own. He enjoyed the stimulating camaraderie of Knight, Maurer, and Crawford. Suddenly, there were people who shared his beliefs and his ambitions, who didn’t pressure him to be sensible, to go to school, to come home and settle down.

  “Stef has chosen me amongst all those men and it is up to me now to make good[;] whether or not I am to receive your blessing is still a real puzzle and I feel as tho I should leave thinking that you have given them to me,” he wrote to his mother. “You should feel real proud of the fact that I can have the chance of going to work for such a man as Stef, doing other things than living in Drawing Rooms and the like. My frank opinion is that I really do not care to live in Texas any more. I have seen how they are in other places besides Oregon too. This trip will very likely be of almost any length. I really hope that it will last about five years as I know of nothing I would rather do than go north for Stef.”

  For his mother, it was heartbreaking. Alma Galle hadn’t seen her son since April, and now she would not see him again until he came back in a year or two years or five years. If he came back. “To my thinking,” his latest telegram said, “it is about time I leave the apron behind.”

  Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle would head for Wrangel Island while Stefansson footed the bill for the voyage and remained in Canada, campaigning their cause to the government. On June 23,1921, to protect the expedition as a private venture, Stefansson incorporated the Stefansson Arctic Exploration and Development Company.

  Stefansson had essentially ended his active exploring career in 1919 and was living largely off the income he made from his books and lectures. He saw this expedition as an investment for his
future. Perhaps the governments of Canada or of Britain would reward him for capturing the island. Perhaps, as he hoped, they would grant him a lease on the island out of gratitude. A fifty-year lease would suit him, and after he secured it, he would stock the island with reindeer, which he could raise and farm for profit. Or, if the government was unwilling, perhaps he could simply maintain possession of the island himself, subletting it “to some fur company for enough to get a handsome annual return on the money so far invested.”

  Stefansson and his business partners pooled what money they had so that Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle could buy the equipment and supplies they needed for the expedition before they sailed for Nome. Maurer was surprised when Stefansson approached him privately to let him know he was short of ready cash to cover the expense of the equipment. Were he in New York, he told Maurer, he could have access to all the money he needed, but not so here on the west coast. Maurer wrote his older brother immediately to ask for a loan, which John Maurer initially rejected. When Fred appealed to him again, his brother relented and sent him one thousand dollars. Stefansson accepted the money with the agreement that he would pay Maurer back with interest at the end of one year, or he could choose to put it toward shares of stock in the Stefansson Arctic Exploration and Development Company.

  Additionally, Stefansson gave the men signed checks from his New York account, not to exceed a total of $2,500—nearly $26,000 by today’s standards—to complete the outfitting of the expedition. While Crawford handled all communication with Stefansson, and took special effort with all records of expenditures, the polar-experienced Maurer and Knight were in charge of the purchasing. Galle’s only instruction was to assist the others when needed.

 
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