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

  Milton Galle wrote a last, uncharacteristically serious letter to Stefansson. He had shrugged off his family’s concern and, in his frenzy and excitement, had been almost cavalier about their feelings. His mother had fretted and pleaded, and tried her best to be supportive, and he had cut her off and dismissed her, only thinking of his great adventure.

  Now, as he faced the voyage ahead, and the fact that he was off to the unfamiliar Arctic without a last look at the faces of his loved ones, the enormity of the venture struck him.

  “I wish to write you as a last thanks till I see you next year. I believe I can hardly thank you enough,” he wrote. Stefansson would be speaking in San Marcos, just outside of New Braunfels, some time during the next few months as part of his lecture circuit. Galle hoped he would make the time to see Alma, to talk to her, to ease her mind. “If you can spare the time would you write to her and let her know when you will speak there and then if you can spare more time talk to her while there. I am sure she would feel a bit easier if you should do that than she feels now. Again, sir, I wish to thank you as much as I can.”

  On September 10, the Silver Wave sailed into East Cape, Siberia. The ship was boarded by the Russian governor, who seemed pleasant but agitated. Through an interpreter, he demanded that Crawford reveal where they were headed and their reasons for traveling. But instead of being scolded, Crawford and his comrades were laughed at when they stated their destination. It seemed they had run into croakers, once again. You’ll never reach that island.

  They were also warned. It became very clear to the four explorers that the Russians believed they, and not Britain, owned Wrangel. Crawford had been careful not to tell the governor of their true purpose in going to the island, but they were warned just the same that the Siberian Patrol might pay them an unexpected visit there at any time.

  At East Cape, they bought some extra sinew and white sealskin, and then they did their best to haggle over an umiak with the local merchants, who were, as Knight observed, a bunch of robbers. The prices for the skin boats were just too high—$120, which was at least double the usual cost—and so instead they obtained a heavy wooden dory from Captain Hammer and a small skin boat for five silver dollars. They assumed the wooden boat and the tiny umiak would be fine, and that the dory would serve them the same way an umiak would.

  While they loaded the additional supplies onto the ship, Ada watched and waited for them to bring more Eskimos on board. But none of the Eskimos in East Cape were willing to go with them to Wrangel Island. They feared the men and the mission.

  Ada wanted desperately to turn back, to go home, to be returned to her sisters and her mother and Bennett. She agonized privately, without talking to her four companions. But it was too late. She had promised Crawford and the others. She had said that she would work for them and help them, and she had already traveled so far.

  All too soon, the shaman’s prophecy seemed to come true. Almost immediately, they were battered by high winds and swelling, heaving, rolling waves. They couldn’t walk the decks for fear of losing their balance, and they clung to the walls, the railings, the door frames, to steady themselves. Forty-four hours were lost in the storm after leaving East Cape, and the small skin boat washed overboard and was gone. After the storm dissipated, the engines broke down—as if exhausted from the effort—and the Silver Wave sat in the middle of the sea while the crew worked on her. The wait, the delays were excruciating. A day and a half later, when the engines were finally running again, Crawford, Knight, Galle, Maurer, and even Ada were greatly relieved.

  As they sailed at last toward Wrangel Island, the ship ran into a vicious gale from the west, which rocked the vessel violently. They were, much to their chagrin and the joy of the fish, noted Knight,“the sickest mortals that ever heaved.” Crawford alone seemed to withstand illness, but Galle stayed below deck, clinging to his bunk, and Knight and Maurer weren’t much better off. They groaned in their beds and cursed the sea.

  When they headed closer and closer to Wrangel Island without asking him to alter course, Captain Hammer was shocked. Even after traveling to Siberia, he had been incredulous about the supposed destination and now, he finally realized, they weren’t just pulling his leg. They actually wanted to go to Wrangel Island, although he still couldn’t understand why. It was a place no one ever visited on purpose.

  Crawford was the first to spot the peaks of Wrangel from the ship’s deck at noon on September 14. The coast itself was expansive and flat, but the island seemed to rise farther inland, climbing into dramatic gray mountains. Snow dotted the crowns of the hills, but they had yet to see a single ice cake.

  The sight of land, to seasick Galle, was the most beautiful vision he had seen for as long as he could remember. To Crawford, the outline and color of the place looked like the country around Lewiston, Idaho, which they had visited with Stefansson on his Chautauqua tour. Ada thought the island looked enormous, but they told her it was only a small piece of land. She felt the desperation building inside her as she thought of the ship leaving her on that island and heading back to Nome, but she held her tongue and willed herself to be strong.

  On the fifteenth, the Silver Wave anchored half a mile off shore because there was a strong surf running from the southwest, and Captain Hammer thought it was too dangerous to sail into the harbor. At 7:00 P.M., the four men landed by dory on a high sandspit from which they could spy a promising abundance of driftwood. When they stepped onto the island—just miles from Rodger’s Harbour, where Maurer and other members of the Karluk expedition had been rescued years before—they noticed that fox and bear tracks appeared plentiful.

  They unloaded their equipment and supplies quietly and efficiently because they remembered the warning about the Siberian Patrol. Remarkably, the unloading went off without a hitch. Luck seemed to be with them. The weather was good, the offloading had been easy, and they had finally reached their destination.

  All of their provisions were on the island by 11:00 P.M., and afterward they returned to the ship to eat a meal and to spend their last night for at least a year in warm beds with real sheets and pillows. Before turning in, the men sat down to write letters home.

  Knight penned words of devotion to his mother and the promise of great adventure to his father and brother. Galle composed a telegram to his family, telling them they should find out from Stefansson how long the stay on Wrangel Island would be, and mentioning that he hoped he had enough film for his camera to last the duration.

  “Keep note of all the interesting things that occur during the winter and let me know next spring,” Crawford wrote to his mother. “I am not sure whether I will be out next year or not—possibly not. Don’t write current events except Canadian Politics. Love to you all, good-bye, Allan.”

  For Maurer, the words did not come so easily. His first step onto Wrangel’s soil after seven years was surreal and thrilling. To be there again, and so near to Rodger’s Harbour, where he had lived for all those months and nearly died, was indescribable. He had prayed for salvation in the summer of 1914, when he was starving and when his body was wasting away before him. Yet he had known for some time that he must go back.

  In some way, he felt that he had died years before, just like a character on the old whaling ship he first sailed on in 1912, an Eskimo man nicknamed Billy the Bum. Billy was a small, shrewd man with a homely, wizened face and a knack for wheedling tobacco out of you. The Eskimos aboard ship shunned him and Maurer once asked why.

  Billy, they told him, had fallen ill fifteen years earlier, and was pronounced dead by the people nursing him. They had constructed a crude coffin made of boards from a ship, and, after dressing Billy in his fur clothing, they had placed him inside and closed him up. Then they carried the coffin up a nearby hillside to a place where his ancestors were buried and laid him there with great finality.

  Later that night, after the proper rites had been performed over his still, cold body, Billy the Bum “in total disregard of the proprieties of we
ll regulated Eskimeaux society,” miraculously revived. He was able to push the lid off his coffin and crawl out. Then he wandered down the hill to the houses of his friends to let them know he was still alive. His sudden, unannounced reappearance inspired many members of the tribe to hysteria. They argued with Billy that he was dead and should, out of common decency, return to his coffin. But Billy had always been stubborn, and, as he was still very much alive, he refused—much to their dismay—to be dead.

  From that moment on, Billy was viewed with great suspicion and people feared him. He had served them a mean trick, and they knew that he couldn’t be trusted.

  A man supposed dead who really lived. Maurer was fascinated by the idea, and by the fact that the same man’s friends and family weren’t happy to see the man alive after all he had gone through to rise from the dead.

  “The old island looks familiar,” Maurer wrote to his mother aboard ship, “and when I set foot ashore today for the first time in seven years, I was a little thrilled as the memories of our former experience came to me. But we are here for a new purpose and I hope to forget my past here. This will be my last letter to you for sometime, at least for the next year, so don’t worry over my silence. I hope all of you will write next spring for I shall be mighty hungry for news. Best wishes for your health and happiness from your ever loving son, Fred.”

  * * *


  September 28, 1921

  Stefansson’s Party Digs In

  An advance party of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s fifth expedition into the Arctic has arrived at Wrangell Island, where it will “dig in” for the winter. Stefansson announced today on receipt of a relayed telegram from Allan Crawford, of Toronto, leader of the party. Stefansson said the party consisted of four white men and four Eskimos who sailed from Nome, Alaska. They will be the first white men to spend an entire winter on the island.

  * * *



  A land more severely solitary could hardly be found anywhere on the face of the globe.

  —JOHN MUIR, 1881

  Chapter Five

  IMMEDIATELY AFTER PUTTING ashore on September 16, 1921, the four men raised the British flag in the name of King George, Monarch of the British Empire, and claimed Wrangel Island for Great Britain.

  From the deck of the Silver Wave, Captain Hammer watched with suspicion as the Union Jack was planted and the men appeared to read from a document. He couldn’t hear their words from where he stood, but the message of the flag was clear. The Silver Wave was an American ship with a largely American crew, and Hammer had the sneaking feeling that he and the rest of his countrymen had just been duped into aiding a bold political maneuver on behalf of the British Empire.

  But on Wrangel Island, standing atop a hillside in the shadow of the British flag, Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, and Milton Galle signed their names to an official proclamation, and celebrated the first victory of their expedition. They had raised the flag, from what they could tell, at a point somewhere between Doubtful Harbour and Rodger’s Harbour, where Maurer had fought for his life in 1914.

  I, Allan Rudyard Crawford, a native of Canada and a British subject and those men whose names appear below...on the advice and council of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a British subject, have this day, in the consideration of lapses of foreign claims and the occupancy from March 12th 1914 to September 7 1914 of this island by the survivors of the brigantine Karluk . . . raised the British flag and declared this land known as Wrangel Island to be the just possession of His Majesty George, King of Great Britain...and a part of the British Empire.

  While the four men sealed the proclamation with tallow, enclosed it in a bottle placed inside a slender box, and buried it in the earth, Ada Blackjack walked down the beach, her eyes on the ship. She watched as the Silver Wave pulled away from the island and pointed its nose toward Alaska. She knew she was going to cry and she didn’t want the men to see her. She could hear their voices as they celebrated and she walked on so that she would be away from them. She wanted to call the ship back so that it could take her home. She was frightened to be so far away with strangers.

  She walked and cried until she could barely see the flag the men had planted. And then she stopped, looking out to sea.

  “If I turn back, who is going to sew for them?” she said to herself. She wiped away the tears as they fell and continued to watch the ship. “I promised them I would sew for them, and I must keep my word.”

  The Silver Wave returned to Nome, carrying letters from the men to the loved ones at home and correspondence to be sent by telegram from Crawford to Stefansson. Captain Hammer didn’t want anyone— particularly his own government—to believe he had assisted another nation in taking possession of an island which could have just as well been claimed by the United States. And so he reported the flag raising to the authorities in Nome. The news spread rapidly and soon there were a number of infuriated Alaskans who felt something needed to be done to stop this suspicious venture.

  Wrangel Island rises gloomily from the sea. The rocks, which cover much of the island, are a jumble of coarse and sharp slate, most as large as a grown man’s hand. Even with this jagged shell, the earth supports mosses and lichens, and richly burnished fields of wildflowers of brilliant gold, periwinkle, magenta, violet, and blood-red. As the members of the expedition landed, summer lingered in blooms that held on stubbornly even as the temperature hovered just above freezing. The earth was bare of snow and ice, but the air had a bite that promised both, and with the stormy season beginning in September, they all knew that it was only a matter of time before winter was upon them.

  Some eighty miles long with a width ranging between twenty and forty miles, Wrangel is bordered by the Chukotsk and East Siberian seas. It has rivers, streams, and lagoons. Two mountain ranges—one jagged and sheer, the other gently sloping—stretch from west to east, with the highest point, Berry Peak, rising 2,500 feet. A layer of low clouds shrouds the island from the view of approaching ships, so it is almost always tucked away, Brigadoon-like, from the world.

  In the north, the mountains flatten into the expansive Tundra Akademii, which covers nearly half of the island, while the southern tip, where the men and Ada settled, is lined with low black gravel beaches and peninsulas that jut out into the water. There the bluffs drop to thirty feet or so before disappearing entirely, and the water off the shore is far more shallow than the water that hugs the northern side.

  The weather was a surprise: a gentle breeze, sunshine burning through the perpetual cloud layer, and no ice at all. One of Maurer’s most lasting impressions of that island had been the ice—ice everywhere, locking in the land from all sides and cutting it off from the world below. He had cursed that ice in 1914, when he was starving and in despair, waiting for a ship. And now, there was not even one ice cake to be seen.

  After planting the flag and reading the proclamation, Wrangel Island’s newest colonists set their watches for the twelfth International Time Zone and worked sixteen hours straight trying to set up camp. They pitched three tents on the sandspit—one for living quarters and two for supplies. There were no trees on the island, but there was a seemingly endless supply of driftwood, and with it they managed to construct the frame of a house against a steep hill, using the sheer side of the bank for one wall.

  They would cover the remaining three sides with snow blocks in October or whenever the snow arrived, and build a storm shed off the front, where they could stock wood and other stores so that they wouldn’t have to brave the treacherous winter weather whenever they needed supplies. The floor would be made of split logs, and the roof, inspired by dwellings Maurer and Knight had seen in their earlier travels, fashioned out of sod. For extra insulation they pitched two tents—one ten feet by twelve feet, the other eight feet by ten feet— end-to-end and sewn together inside the house. Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle slept in the larger portion of the tent, while Ada’s quarters were in th
e smaller tent, which doubled as the kitchen. They placed a woodburning stove in each space, with the stovepipes extending through the roof.

  Upon opening boxes of their supplies, Knight noticed that some of the items he had ordered in Seattle hadn’t made the trip. Even the supplies that had made it left something to be desired, like the rotten potatoes and the box of prunes that turned out to be full of maggots. The seven dogs they had purchased in Nome were also in wretched condition, but Crawford and the others would do their best to fix them up, feeding them excessively to fatten them.

  In spite of it all, there was no denting their collective optimism and exhilaration. For Crawford and Galle, it was simply a great and glorious new adventure. To Knight—who, on his earlier expedition with Stefansson, had sometimes lived on half rations, with no driftwood for fuel— this island, with its roaming polar bears, piles of driftwood, and flocks of birds, was paradise. For Maurer, all of the memories of his previous days on the island flooded back with staggering force and then swept away again like the tide that rushed against the gravel beach, as he realized that now, at last, he had the chance for absolution. He could endure here and beat the place that had once very nearly beaten him. And for Ada Blackjack, it meant money, which equaled survival.

  Quickly and easily, they fell into a routine. They carried out scientific and exploratory work during the days, and when they weren’t hiking across the island or studying its vegetation, wildlife, or minerals, they were writing entries in their journals, shooting craps for chewing gum, and eating candy. The friendly Arctic was just as Stefansson had promised.

  Galle began work on a tool chest and helped Maurer and Knight cut and stack wood, while Maurer organized supplies and made a door for the front of the house. Crawford arranged his meteorological instruments, eager to put them to use, and built a table for the kitchen and some furniture for the house. Knight repaired the dog harness and sled, which had somehow been damaged in transit, and made another sled, for wood hauling, out of some lumber they had brought with them from Nome. They constructed gun cases and made sleeping bags out of blankets.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]