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

  26. Ada Blackjack, former Arctic heroine, at Palmer Nursing Home during her last years.

  27. Ada’s final resting place in Anchorage, Alaska.


  THANKS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, to my right hand, Jessica Gilroy. Without her keen eye, general all-around genius, and inherent sunniness, writing this book wouldn’t have been nearly so enjoyable— or so (virtually) painless.

  Special thanks as well to the brilliant, dedicated, and effervescent Lynn Thompson, of New Braunfels, Texas. Her persistence and generosity helped me discover Milton Galle.

  Other thanks go to Bobbie Jo Dombey, for her dynamite research; Michael MacDonald of the National Archives of Canada, for his extraordinary professional support; and Earl Olmstead, Steve Vasbinder, and the Tusc-Kent Archives in Ohio, for hospitality, generosity, and expertise. Gratitude also to Charlotte Johnson Houtchens of the American University Library; Loretta Andress of the University of Alaska; Tahitia Orr of the Alaska State Library; Caroline Atuk-Derrick of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library; Mary Boccaccio of the Joyner Library at East Carolina University; Becky Lombardo of the Sophienburg–New Braunfels Archives and Museum of History in New Braunfels, Texas; Matt Sneddon; the folks at StarLab in Bethesda, Maryland; Krista Fogelman and Todd Crawford, the world’s best neighbors and cat sitters; and the amazing Lynne Haaland and her HiP Design team.

  Thanks to the fine staff at Dartmouth College Library, particularly Joshua Shaw, Stanley W. Brown, and Sarah Hartwell, who were tremendously helpful and a genuine pleasure to work with.

  I am beholden to the families of Ada Blackjack, Milton Galle, Fred Maurer, and Lorne Knight, who were so generous with their support and materials, and who quickly became my friends: Ada’s wonderful son, Billy Blackjack Johnson, who fought so long and hard to have his mother’s heroism recognized and who passed away just months before this book’s publication, and his lovely wife, Janice, who welcomed me into their home and their memories; Milton Galle’s nieces, Kathy Long and Mary Pat Hughes, and nephew Jim Lawless; Lorne Knight’s cousin, Don Knight; the many members of Fred Maurer’s generous family; and Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s widow, Evelyn Stefansson Nef. Special thanks to Galle’s great-nephew Bill Lawless, to whom I am forever indebted, and to Maurer’s niece, the late Marian Reiss, who wanted so much to see this book in print and who supported this endeavor in any way she could.

  I consider myself lucky to have a brilliant editor in Will Schwalbe, with whom I am blessed to be working again. A million thanks to him and to all of the amazing people at Hyperion—including the fabulous Kiera Hepford and the supremely gifted Alison Warner—who helped this book be born. Thanks as well to Theresa Craig for copyediting.

  And to the best, most brilliant agent on this planet, John Ware, I send endless gratitude for his wisdom, guidance, humor, and compassion, and for taking a chance on me four years ago.

  My friends, as always, were there for me, understanding my long silences and sporadic e-mails. Love and thanks to Joe Kraemer, for being there from the beginning—from Richmond, Indiana, where our hair was big and so were our dreams, to the here and now, where he is still my best man. To Angelo Surmelis for unconditional love, endless consultations, always “getting it,” and for being my own Will Truman. To Beth Jennings-White—phenomenal woman and true friend—who has been with me ever since Senñor Hollingsworth sat us next to each other in seventh grade Spanish class. To Valerie Frey, Jessica Hartz, and Melissa McKay, for fun, laughter, and understanding. And to Rachel Kay Brookmire and Ami Martin Wilber.

  To the home front—John Hreno, whom I love more than words, and whose love and support and dinner making are indescribable. And George, Percy, and Satchmo, the feline literary trio. Once again, Percy stayed loyally glued to my side for each of those long hours, and Satchmo (brand-new to the literary life) learned very quickly to perch on the computer monitor so that he could paw each word as it came from my fingers. But the biggest scratch under the chin goes to the magnificent George, whose instinctive comic timing helped me make it through the darkness.

  I am blessed with a big, crazy, loving family, too vast to be singled out by name. But I must give thanks to my aunts, Lynn Duval Clark and Paula Sturdivant, and Linda “Mom” Hreno, for special comfort, and to my cousins Lisa von Sprecken, Lisa Duval, Derek Duval, and Evan Sturdivant for stepping into the roles of sisters and brothers when I needed it most. Thanks, too, to my stepbrother, John Keller, and to my brother in spirit, Robert Hamilton. Thanks also to the universe for making Eleanor Marsh Hearon Niven my grandmother. Every inch of her feisty “5 foot 2 and eyes of blue” will be missed more than I can say.

  Everyone has always envied me my mother, and with good reason. Penelope Niven manages to be inspiration, best friend, confidante, commiserator, savior, and angel all in one.

  Lastly, I am blessed to have had Jack F. McJunkin Jr., as my father. He was a remarkable man, who gave more to this book than anyone else, and whom I will always miss, no matter how much he fills my heart. For you, Dad—this book and all those to follow.

  About the Author

  Jennifer Niven’s first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly. A native of Los Angeles, she currently lives in Atlanta. Please visit for more information about the author.

  Also by Jennifer Niven

  The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk


  The author makes grateful acknowledgment to the following for permission to reprint photographs:

  Billy Blackjack Johnson, Bill Lawless, Marian Reiss:

  Photos (Section 1): 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 7; 8; 9; 11; 12; 21; 23; 24; 25; 26; 27; 29

  Photos (Section 2): 1; 5; 6; 7; 9; 10; 11; 12; 13; 14; 15; 16; 17; 19; 20; 21; 23; 24; 25; 26; 27

  Photo of Expedition Team, page 4

  Dartmouth College Library:

  Photos (Section 1): 13; 14; 15; 16; 17; 18; 19; 20; 22; 28; 30

  Photos (Section 2): 2; 3; 4; 8; 18


  Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Niven

  Excerpt from Northern Tales by Howard Norman,

  copyright © 1990 by Howard Norman. Used by permission of

  Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011.

  The Library of Congress has catalogued the original hardcover edition of this book as follows:

  Niven, Jennifer.

  Ada Blackjack : a true story of survival in the Arctic / by Jennifer Niven.

  p. cm.

  ISBN: 0-7868-6863-5

  1. Blackjack, Ada, 1898 or -9— 2. Inuit women—Biography. 3. Women explorers— Arctic regions—Biography. 4. Arctic regions—Discovery and exploration. 5. Wrangel Island (Russia)—Discovery and exploration. I. Title.

  E99.E7B6563 2003




  eBook Edition ISBN: 9781401304423

  Hyperion books are available for special promotions and premiums.

  For details contact the HarperCollins Special Markets Department in the New York office at 212-207-7528, fax 212-207-7222, or email [email protected].

  Cover design by Allison J. Warner

  Cover photograph courtesy of Billy Blackjack Johnson

  First eBook Edition

  Original hardcover edition printed in the United States of America.



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

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