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


  Buy two tons of groceries, Stefansson advised them, but no canned goods or preserves kept in glass. They should limit their purchase of bacon and butter because those could be replaced by seal and bear fat. Likewise, they shouldn’t buy much meat because they could catch their own game on the island. Stefansson also suggested they limit the number of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition, and that they should take four tents, two big and two small, instead of eight, as previously discussed, because they could build driftwood houses instead.

  They focused primarily on the purchase of hunting equipment because they planned to take supplies for only six months. After that, they could hunt and kill their own food and prove that they could live off the land. That, after all, was one more important component of the expedition—to prove Stefansson’s theory that anyone with sense could thrive in the Arctic. Stefansson had also instructed them to spend their time on the island trapping, and to save the furs and skins to bring back with them.

  They chose five thousand pounds of groceries, and purchased guns, ammunition, traps, harpoons, fish nets, fishhooks, photographic supplies, thermometers, flashlights, batteries, lanterns, stoves, shovels, ice picks, cooking gear, canvas, and assorted other hardware. For each man, there were twelve pairs of socks, eleven pairs of pants, skin mitts, blanket mitts, skin shirts, towels, water boots, canvas boots, belts, handkerchiefs, undershirts, one pair of drawers, and one suit of underwear. Once they were on the island, the rest of their clothing would be sewn from furs and skins by the Eskimos they planned to hire. They also bought chewing gum, tobacco, and chocolate, as well as twenty-six boxes of candy, Galle’s lone request.

  The choices were left to Maurer and Knight because they were the only ones with Arctic experience, although neither had ever outfitted an expedition. The only thing Stefansson stressed was that they must buy an umiak, a skin boat, for hunting in the water off the island. Made of driftwood and covered in seal or walrus skins, an umiak usually spanned from twenty-five to thirty-five feet in length. It was light enough for men to carry, yet it was able to transport a load of two or three tons. The other thing they must do was to hire Eskimo families to hunt, to cook, and to sew their winter clothing. Both the umiak and the Eskimos would be imperative for their livelihood and their survival.

  There would be a $1,250 line of credit waiting for them in Nome, which they could use for any additional supplies and for buying dogs if there was money left over. Before they left Seattle, all four men stopped in at the Old Book Store to browse their secondhand stock. They shared a love of reading and knew the books would help to ease the long solitude that lay ahead. They bought a hundred dollars’ worth of the best books by authors from Thomas Carlyle to Rabelais.

  The ship would need to be of British registry if it was to be operated in British or Canadian waters by a Canadian expedition. Crawford, Knight, and Maurer struggled for weeks to find a vessel that was appropriate and that met the criteria, as well as one that was already heading for Nome. At last they located the passenger ship Victoria.

  Back in Oregon, Ohio, Texas, and Canada, the parents, at first, were kept in the dark about their destination, given only some vague sketch of mysterious northern lands. They knew they must send any letters to their sons in cloth-lined envelopes and write them in such a way that moisture would not blur the words. Mail was to be addressed in care of the Stefansson Company in Vancouver, and would be forwarded to the boys from there.

  Although both the Galles and the Crawfords were given the impression that Stefansson would be joining their young sons on the expedition, he had no such plan. Had they known he had no intention of accompanying their sons, neither the Galles nor the Crawfords would have allowed them to go. All four men expected that Stefansson would join them on the island in one year’s time with a larger expedition. But whether he joined them or not, the plan was for a supply ship to be sent in the summer of 1922 with a relief party aboard to join them or to take back any of them who cared to go home.

  They were told they were to represent the front line of a grand Arctic expedition. Young, green Crawford and Galle, and the older and more seasoned Maurer and Knight were thrilled with the responsibility, as well as the enormity of their mission, and all were anxious to prove themselves worthy of Stefansson’s trust and confidence. There were several nations that wanted this island, Stefansson had told them, and who would only covet it more if news leaked out that Stefansson and his four explorers were taking it for Britain. They must not breathe a word of their mission to anyone.

  There were whispers—false ones that Stefansson led them to believe—of governmental support from the British. Perhaps, he hinted, the government was secretly behind the expedition after all. And there were whispers—actual ones that he kept from them—of danger from the Russians. If the Russians had known of the political nature of the expedition, of the fact that another country was approaching a Russian-owned island to claim it and take possession, there was a very good chance of trouble and of peril to anyone found on their territory.

  While Crawford and Knight were busy outfitting and readying the expedition, Maurer had taken a brief sojourn to Montana with Delphine Jones. He had met twenty-four-year-old Delphine on the Chautauqua circuit and become immediately smitten. She was fashionable and smart, wore a great deal of perfume and lace, and shared his deep faith in Christian Science.

  They hadn’t known each other long before their first argument— Delphine was emotional and temperamental, and it mystified Maurer, who was always so calm and cool. They had words, they fought—or Delphine fought, while Maurer avoided. She threatened, they made up, and the conscientious Maurer always seemed to be left with a deepening obligatory guilt. He constantly felt as if he let her down, and she seemed almost perpetually unhappy. When she threatened suicide, he was beside himself. If he didn’t marry her, she would kill herself, and so, fearing conflict, he gave in.

  When Maurer’s summer lecture circuit ended, he joined Stefansson and the others for a few days on their Chautauqua leg, which was headed to Missoula, Montana. When Maurer told Stefansson he wanted to be married, Stefansson arranged for a minister there so that Maurer could wed Delphine before he and the other men set sail for Wrangel Island.

  Delphine took the train up from Niles, Ohio, and the couple was married on August 11, with Stefansson standing up as best man. They honeymooned for two days in Seattle before Maurer arrived at the dock where Knight, Crawford, and Galle were waiting for him. At nearly twenty-nine, Maurer was the old, somber man of the group, but that day he looked like a boy, with a shining face and huge, irrepressible grin. He and his new bride, it appeared, had worked things out.

  Afterward, he wrote an apologetic note to his mother, telling her of his marriage and letting her know that he was sorry she could not be there for it. “But after meeting Stefansson and learning that I was going North for one or two years, and in view of the little trouble between Delphine and myself, I thought it would not be adviseable [sic] to go away without giving her the choice of marrying. It is unfortunate that we had a little trouble but that was all remedied and has been forgotten. She is a mighty fine girl...and is a brave girl to prove her loyalty as she did by coming out to Missoula to marry me.”

  J. T. Crawford was as philosophical about his son’s new career as he was about most things. After the expedition was over, he was confident Allan would return to Toronto and resume his studies at the university. Until then, the professor would educate himself about the Arctic, and began by immersing himself in Stefansson’s book My Life With the Eskimo, which Allan had recommended.

  Before they left for Nome, Allan Crawford asked Stefansson to write his overwrought mother a line or two to reassure her of the safety of the journey. “Without an actual trip north it is scarcely possible to get out of people’s heads the terrors of the North that have been planted there by countless books of fiction and of half-fact,” Stefansson wrote to Helen Crawford. “I have always found the North a very commonplace and friendly co
untry, just about like Manitoba or Montana and Dakota.”

  And, to Maurer’s new wife, he wrote, “The polar regions are just as commonplace as Ohio. Lightning may strike you next summer but from that Fred is safe. Then there are all the multiplied dangers of civilization—railroad accidents, panics, fires and falling downstairs. If you can once divest yourself of these beliefs about the North that are untrue you will see that the few dangers of the North are paralleled by the same sort of dangers down here.”

  Maurer ordered his brother to sell all his suits and overcoats because they would be out of style by the time he was back to wear them again. They should save his trunks, though, even if they were in the way. Place them in storage if they must, but do not sell them. Delphine was to handle his monetary affairs while he was gone, which concerned him a bit. Finances flustered her, so Maurer wrote his brother John to ask him to help her as much as he could.

  They should not worry about him this time out, Fred assured his family. He was not going for adventure, but to carry out specific plans, important plans. Also, they would be better prepared than the Karluk expedition, and this time there would be no chance for disaster. “Al-though we are going to Wrangel Island,” he wrote his mother, “we are going to be living in comfort compared to the last experience up here.”

  Maurer’s parents had come to America from Germany, like so many others, to make something of themselves. After putting himself through tailoring school, Maurer’s father had eventually worked his way up to owning his own business. He bought the entire building where he had been working as an apprentice, and it became home to his family as well as to his own tailoring shop.

  He didn’t understand why Fred needed to go so far away. But David and Mary Maurer and all of Fred’s siblings resigned themselves to the fact that Fred was returning to the place that had nearly claimed his life years before. They didn’t approve or celebrate his choice, and they didn’t necessarily understand it, but they figured it was his to make. He was a grown man, making his own decisions. He had made them before, and he would make them again, and there was little they could do to sway him.

  Privately, though, Fred Maurer worried about his mother. His brother had reported her recent poor health and Fred was afraid that his returning to the North would weaken her. He would write her again, just as soon as he arrived in Nome, to let her know he was thinking of her.

  Mr. Knight, for one, was proud of his elder son. He had seen Lorne through that first expedition and had endured being separated for four years with no means of communication. He had struggled with the worry, the fear, the anxious nights of wondering. He had noted the great change in Lorne when he had returned from his first expedition—more polished, experienced, deepened, wise.

  “He has the utmost confidence and faith in you,” Mr. Knight wrote to Stefansson, “and should you ask him to meet you on the Moon next week and if it were humanly possible for him to do so; he would be there knowing in his heart that you would not fail him. You can bet on him at every turn of the road and we are proud of the friendship and confidence that you seem to have for him. We are so proud of the belief that we have that he will never fail you.”

  He and Mrs. Knight set up a calendar on the dining table where she could record the happenings of each day so that they could share them with Lorne in letters. They also planned to save the local papers for him, so that he could read them upon his return.

  The Galles were trying their best to be supportive, but Alma Galle was anxious and wished Milton would change his mind. Mr. Knight had been so fond of Milton Galle in the days Milton had spent living with them prior to the group’s departure that he sat down and wrote Mrs. Galle a letter of reassurance. He told her what a fine boy Milton was, how much they had enjoyed having him in their home, how safe he would be with Mr. Stefansson, and with Lorne to look after him. “We are proud that Lorne has become a real explorer,” he wrote, “and we would be ashamed to try to hinder him in pursuit of his favorite occupation. The only concern you need have in this matter is, will he make good? He is on a good job, is as safe physically as if in Texas, and in the hands of men of good morals.”

  Afterward, Alma sat down and wrote to Stefansson. She felt so far removed in Texas from her son and all that was happening to him, and he had not even waited for her consent, but instead had left on his journey directly from the Chautauqua circuit before his parents had a chance to contact him. Milton had given her little to go on except that he was headed somewhere in the unspecified North for an unspecified length of time. He had only told her that he was sailing to Nome, Alaska, and from there that they would board another ship, which would take them through the Bering Sea, past Point Barrow, past Herschel Island, and from there to their final destination,“not for me to tell.”

  “We may have told you that we hesitated in giving our consent at once,” Alma wrote to Stefansson, “but now...he has all our blessings and good will. I assure you, a few lines from you would be greatly appreciated. We are convinced that your influence and association with you have been greatly beneficial to Milton.”

  She only wished she could have seen her Sohnie’s face—just once more—before he left.

  Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle were too distracted and excited to think too long of home or of the loved ones they would miss. Overnight, they became celebrities as word leaked out about their departure, and reporters swarmed them on the Seattle docks, trying to sniff out information regarding their mysterious destination. Stefansson had given them orders not to talk—not to family and friends, and certainly not to newspapermen—and so they remained proudly and delightedly silent.

  The day before they sailed for Nome, Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle met with John Anderson, another colleague of Stefansson’s in his Arctic Exploration and Development Company. Stefansson had promised his explorers a salary, but when he wasn’t able to deliver up front, they were offered shares in his company instead. The limited liability company had been given an authorized capital of $100,000, divided into $100 shares.

  Because he didn’t have the money to invest, Knight agreed to pay a share of his wages—$50—every month into an account. It was a safe investment, he assured his family—every bit as safe and sound as Stefansson’s reputation. The $1,000 Maurer had borrowed for Stefansson from his brother John was designated toward purchasing ten shares of stock, and Crawford arranged to purchase $500 worth of shares by also authorizing $50 to be drawn from his salary monthly. Then, at the last minute, Crawford decided he wanted to purchase ten additional shares of stock, which he must pay off in a year’s time. Galle was to receive no wages and purchased no shares, but was to obtain, as promised, a percentage of the profits of any furs he managed to bring back from Wrangel Island.

  On August 15, Stefansson wrote his twenty-year-old commander a letter containing formal instructions for the journey:

  Always remember the following: Although I have confidence in you, you are in command through the accident of being British while Knight and Maurer are not. They have valuable experience which you lack. The wiser you are the more you will follow the advice of your experienced men. If you can not reach the island in question you should spend the winter on the mainland...and cross over by sled in March or early April to raise the flag. This should be done no matter if men of our or any other nation are already on the island. You might consider the advisability of crossing to the mainland in March and sending out a wireless by the same means used by Amundsen. Whatever happens send me a night letter the first day after landing in Nome. You may give out any news that does not reveal anything confidential.

  Crawford took the instructions to heart and vowed to himself and to Stefansson to follow them. “We will do our best,” he wrote on August 18, the day they set sail from Seattle.

  The Knights, Doris Jones, and Delphine Maurer saw them off at the docks. Miss Jones was prostrate with grief, ever much the grieving widow, even though she had been unsuccessful in convincing Lorne to marry her in a last-mi
nute ceremony. The two girls clung to each other, united in their mourning, and refused to be consoled as they were parted from their men. Next year, they vowed, they would join Fred and Lorne on the island.

  Mr. Knight secretly hoped that Lorne would get himself involved with an Eskimo woman up there on Wrangel Island, something he knew would disgust the silly Miss Jones and scare her away. If not that, he was tempted to pray for something—anything—else which might diminish her overly keen interest in his son.

  It would take four or five days to make the voyage to Nome, and the men promised to write when they arrived. These would be their last transmitted letters for a year, until the relief ship reached them in 1922. Till then, their loved ones must wait anxiously, trusting in God and Stefansson that the four would return home safely.

  “I guess this will be the last...for some time as it is 12 noon and at 3 p.m. the Victoria sails. Expect to hear from me end of September. Will send two similar letters, one father, one you, in case one is lost. Love to all, Allan.”

  * * *

  The female shaman departed to the sky. The soul of her son was there, tied fast to a pole with arms and legs spread asunder. He asked his mother, “Why do you come here?” “I come to fetch you home.”

  —STORY OF A FEMALE SHAMAN

  Reindeer Chukchee Folktale

  * * *

  Chapter Four

  SINCE THE BEGINNING of seafaring history, cats have been considered good luck on voyages, and have earned their passage by hunting the rats that live in the dark crevices of ships. In 1914, Maurer had taken special care of the Karluk’s kitten, protecting her from his comrades when they were starving and wanting to make a meal out of her. And now the chief steward of the Victoria presented them with a tiny gray-striped furball with pert ears and big eyes. She was the prettiest one in the litter, and the steward felt that Maurer and the others should take her with them to bring them luck on their trip north. They dubbed her Victoria, Vic for short, and they vowed to look after her and keep her safe.

 
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