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

  They had brought with them some parkas made of reindeer skin, and Ada fastened hoods to these. She worked diligently—sewing and cooking—and they were relieved. When the Eskimo families had broken their promise, the men worried they were making a mistake by bringing Ada Blackjack alone. But she seemed content and comfortable. She was shy and desperately afraid of bears, but a good, hard worker, and they all got along fine.

  As the days passed, they became used to each other and quickly learned that Crawford liked to tell bad jokes, Knight liked to invent silly poems, Ada liked to sing hymns, and Galle could always be found writing. Everyone but Ada kept a diary, and Galle kept three journals. The first held just notes, which he jotted down throughout the day so that he could remember them later. The second, his notebook, was written in longhand, and then copied into his third, a loose-leaf binder, on his precious Corona typewriter, which he had forbidden anyone else to touch.

  Fred Maurer was the only one of the men who claimed any sort of religion that—as Lorne Knight pointed out—didn’t have to do with making money. Maurer was a Christian Scientist, but every night before bed he swallowed a couple of Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Purgative Pellets. The pills boasted a wild kaleidoscope of uses—“sick headache, bilious headache, dizziness, constipation, indigestion, bilious attacks, and all derangements of the stomach and bowels.” His companions could only make guesses as to which particular malady Maurer was seeking to heal as, night after night, he never missed a dosage.

  Exploring the island consumed much of their time. They took long walks inland or along the shore. Crawford and Galle strapped on backpacks and attempted to scale the largest mountain near their camp to leave a record and monument. It was an opportunity for Crawford to conduct some geological studies and for Galle to test his mettle at mountain climbing. In New Braunfels, he had climbed the bell tower of his mother’s church. Now he was scaling mountains on a remote Arctic island and growing his very first beard. “I shall not shave or dress up until next year,” he wrote, “when Mr. Stefansson and several other white men will come.”

  Polar bears, foxes, walrus, owls, seagulls, terns, and ravens were an everyday sight, while seals, so far, were few. Knight and Maurer reassured themselves that more would come with the ice. The surf was too strong for the wooden dory, which was too awkward and heavy to launch easily, and so they needed to be content with watching the animals from a distance.

  No one knew the first thing about guns. They were expected to kill their own game, but only Maurer had any real experience with firearms, and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t a great shot. On their first day they had each grabbed a rifle, determined to bring in a walrus. The walrus continued his nap, oblivious to the fuss he was causing, as one wishful hunter shot to the right, one to the left, one aimed too low, one too high. Only Ada refused to try her hand at hunting. Weapons of any kind terrified her—especially guns—and the sharp noise made her cover her ears.

  They got their first polar bear one week after arriving. Galle saw it first, from the bluff just two miles west of camp. Maurer and Knight went in pursuit, and after a few failed attempts brought the creature to its knees—their first catch. The ground was so uneven and rocky that sledding was impossible and they realized they would never be able to drag him home. They saved the skin, cached most of the meat, and brought some back for the dogs. After that, bear sightings were frequent. The creatures were so prolific that—to Ada’s horror—you could see them in every direction. They now understood why, during his brief stay in 1881, naturalist John Muir had dubbed the island the Land of the White Bear.

  They saw the first flakes of snow on September 20. When the snow began to fall more heavily days later, they were confined to their tents to read and write. Seven days after that, they experienced their first brush with an Arctic storm. The temperature dipped to 17.5 degrees, and a bone-chilling wind from the east arrived, bringing a blizzard. Gradually, ice began to appear just off the beaches, drifting in from the limitless horizon until the floes ground to a halt against the shore. The island was a vast place for such a small party. Every day, its five human inhabitants watched as they became increasingly locked in for winter.

  Two weeks after landing, they noticed a change in Ada. It started with a sniffle here and there, and somehow worked its way up into sobbing fits, until she was crying uncontrollably.

  Crawford knew little about Ada before hiring her, only what Marshal Jordan had told him: that she was a good worker and a skilled seamstress. They knew she had a son and that her husband, Blackjack, had married another woman. The men had heard that he’d divorced Ada, but sometimes she claimed that he had drowned, and other times she said she had divorced him for abusing her, so they were never sure what to believe.

  She longed for Bennett and her sister, she said. She was horribly homesick. The men treated Ada as well as they knew how. When she burst into tears or was too distraught to work, they were gentle and they tried to be understanding. She seemed, noted Knight, like a child of eight or ten, not a woman of twenty-three. “We will watch her and take good care of her,” he wrote in his diary. Yet they became more and more unsettled and wary because as the days went by she began to behave strangely. Sometimes she worked diligently and efficiently, but other times she would set her work aside and sit, sullen and close-mouthed, refusing to speak. Both Crawford and Knight logged Ada’s odd or difficult behavior in their journals, so that they would have a record of it for Stefansson when they saw him next summer.

  Also disturbing to them was that she seemed to be increasingly infatuated with Allan Crawford. It started innocently enough—admiring looks, coupled with sighs, an eagerness to please him and be near him whenever she could. But it soon became clear to everyone that what Ada was expressing wasn’t merely a simple, schoolgirl crush, but a deep, escalating passion.

  Crawford was mortified by the attention, and Knight, Maurer, and Galle at first delighted in teasing him. They made themselves sick from laughing over Ada’s swooning and Crawford’s red-faced discomfort. What beautiful green eyes you have, Crawford, they would sigh at him before they erupted into laughter.

  For Ada, the choice of Crawford was an easy one. Maurer was cool and standoffish and seemed much older than all the others, although he was kind to her and he spoke Eskimo. She found Knight bombastic and frightening. She was nearly as afraid of him as she was of the polar bears that roamed the island. From her diminutive standpoint, he seemed as large as a polar bear and just as fierce, with his raucous laugh and booming voice. Galle was a nice boy. He didn’t treat her like an inferior, as she was used to being treated by white men, and he didn’t call her “the native” or “the woman” as Maurer and Knight did. To him, she was just Ada. They played cards together and she told him stories, which made him throw his head back and laugh just like music, and he was genuinely warm and thoughtful. But he was so boyish that he could never be a father to her son.

  Only Crawford, with his polite demeanor, his limitless patience, his impressive sophistication, and his dashing mustache, made Ada sigh and flutter. She decided that she loved him and she wasn’t afraid to let the others know it. She had made up her mind. She planned to marry him and become Mrs. Ada Blackjack Crawford.

  If they were to succeed on Wrangel Island, the men needed Ada to work. But, as the days passed, she would only pick up her sewing sulkily and concentrate for a while and then set it aside. She moved out of her tent and into a snowhouse to be alone, and she refused to eat or to talk about how she was feeling. At a loss, Galle, Maurer, and Knight decided to let Crawford handle her because he was the only one with any influence. They resigned themselves to the fact that they just might have to make their own clothing for the winter. They were already cleaning and stretching their own bearskins and Knight was forced to make all the seal pokes, or bags, because Ada didn’t know how.

  Every time they scraped their knives against the animal hides or polished their guns, she watched them with wide, frightened eyes. She seem
ed afraid and edgy, as if she were always ready to jump out of her skin. Somehow, she had decided that they were going to kill her. Ada kept Crawford up one night, all night, begging him to protect her from the others.

  “Oh, Crawford,” she sighed. “Oh, your beautiful green eyes.”

  Then she turned to the men. “Well, I haven’t much longer to live, so please get your gun and shoot me when I am asleep.”

  Then, in the following breath, she beseeched them to save her life. Afterward, she read aloud from letters written to her by friends and began to cry.

  She worked irregularly, some days sewing industriously or washing dishes, and other days doing nothing. “When the mail goes out next summer I can tell you how she finishes up,” wrote Knight in a letter he hoped to mail to his parents when the relief ship came. “This isn’t so funny to you but we are in continual misery from laughing when we think about her goings on.”

  The men tried one thing after another to persuade Ada to settle into a predictable routine. Crawford sweet-talked her; they denied her supper; they made her sleep outside in the cold. “Have tried coaxing but find that sternness is better,” Knight observed. When she asked Crawford for a religious book, Knight loaned her his grandfather’s Bible. He and Crawford paged through the book with her, showing her the beautifully colored illustrations and the passages that said everyone should work faithfully and be kind to others. For days after, Ada worked hard to prove that she, too, was kind and faithful. But soon she was moping about camp again, not lifting a finger.

  And then something happened to take their minds off Ada. Crawford had a seizure. He turned deathly pale, his pupils enlarged, his features contorted, and he suddenly lost consciousness. He was out for a full thirty seconds. The others panicked as they tried to help him. Then he awoke just as suddenly as he had collapsed, and he seemed fine but shaky. He had no idea what had caused it. He had no history of medical troubles—no epilepsy or any other diseases that might trigger such a thing. He was physically sound and he took good care of himself. The fit was gone just as soon as it had come on, but all of them, Crawford especially, were left shaken and hoping to God it wouldn’t happen again.

  The next day, October 14, the sea was completely covered with young ice. The view from the island was already flat and endless, and the whiteness now seemed to spread into infinity.

  By October 22, they had moved into their winter house, which was cozy and comfortable, if not quite as warm as they would have liked. The thermometer dipped below zero, and there always seemed to be a strong, fresh wind blowing through. As winter set in, they began to lose track of the days, and their growing confusion about the time was reflected in their diaries.

  None of them had any experience trapping, although they planned to trap plenty since they would be paid for the furs they brought back. Arctic foxes were profuse and so they set numerous traps near the camp and beyond, and Galle set out ten traps on the nearby tundra. But either the foxes were too slippery or he didn’t know the first thing about what he was doing. Time after time, he brushed the snow off the traps and set them back, and time after time they were empty.

  Sealing was still impossible, but they had, at last, begun hunting the bears which grazed through camp. Bears—their skins and their meat—were worth a hundred foxes, according to Stefansson, and the thought was comforting. If the seals and the foxes remained uncooperative, at least they could count on the bears. They cached the meat wherever the animal had fallen, and made trips to collect meat for the dogs whenever they needed it. There was still no reason to hurry, to try to bring it all home. There were bears aplenty—too many to shoot—and they hadn’t even made a dent in their stores. Besides, whenever they were really hungry for fresh game, there were birds. After a couple of shots, one of the men—typically Knight or Maurer— was usually able to kill one. Owl, they quickly discovered, tasted a lot like chicken.

  One of their best dogs, Snowball, died in November, leaving them with only six to face a long winter of sled work. The dog feed had run out already and they were cooking up cornmeal for the animals. The dogs had been living without shelter, not unusual in the North as Eskimo pups usually slept outside, burrowing in the snow. But as the temperature dropped and the winds increased, the men built a house for the dogs with a separate alcove for each, connecting it by a covered tunnel to their own house.

  November progressed, and they began to notice that the bear population had thinned somewhat; for the first time, the importance of saving any meat they could find became evident. Ada, for one, was relieved to see the bears go. She had moved into the winter house now, her igloo being too cold, but the bears still worried her day and night, and she was terrified of being eaten alive. She had heard that Nanook knew poor people and did not hunt them like others. But she was rich now, with $50 a month, so he might come for her. There was a story she remembered hearing, though, of a woman with a mean husband—mean like Blackjack—who met a bear and looked into its eyes all day from sunrise to sunset until the bear went away and never returned. Ada knew she would need to do this if she ever had the bad luck to meet a bear face-to-face.

  They found Ada’s footprints in the snow. She had been missing for a couple of hours, which was unlike her. The only thing they could figure was that she must have been frightened away by the bushy set of whiskers Knight had been growing so proudly, whiskers that would, as he boasted, make a Bolshevik envious.

  Near the tent, they found a box that contained Ada’s prized Ever-sharp pencil and a finger ring she loved. Then they found a note, which let Crawford know these treasures were for him so that he would remember her.

  He set out with Knight to look for Ada, finding her footprints headed inland toward the mountains. They followed the tracks for an hour, wondering where she’d gone and if she’d actually trudged the ten miles it took to reach the mountain range. The men had become familiar with the island in the three months they had been living there, but Ada hadn’t explored it to any great extent, preferring to remain near camp.

  In the distance, a dark mound blotted the endless white landscape. From the shape, it could have been a rock or a patch of earth, which had somehow forced its way up through the snow. But as Crawford and Knight came closer, they could see it was Ada lying on the ground. Now she was probably dead of frostbite, which would weigh on their consciences forever.

  As they drew nearer, Ada darted up out of the snow. She was going away from them, whichever way would get her there. She knew they didn’t want her, only tolerated her, and she yearned to go home, although she was convinced she would never see Nome or Bennett again. She never should have come in the first place. As she ran, a bottle dropped out of her pocket, and when they picked it up they saw that it was liniment. What she was doing with liniment, they had no idea.

  Crawford and Knight raced after her, their heels kicking up snow and ice and the dirt beneath. When they caught her she began to scream. When they demanded to know why she was running away, she told them she wanted to die and that she had drunk the liniment to poison herself.

  She was mortally afraid of Knight. She had seen him sharpening his knife that morning and she thought he was going to kill her with it. She was homesick and unable to concentrate on her work, and now she was sure that Knight was planning to kill her so that she wouldn’t be a burden anymore. Because she knew she was a burden. She felt it. The shaman had told her to be wary of knives and had promised there would be death.

  Once they returned Ada safely to camp, the men decided that she should be separated from Crawford. Knight, Maurer, and Crawford had already agreed to establish two camps, ten or fifteen miles apart, in order to have a wider trapping ground. Maurer and Knight remembered all too well what could happen when men were confined in a small space, lying idle, waiting for winter to end, having nothing new or diverse to occupy their minds. There could be quarreling, boredom, discouragement, even violence, as there had been on the Karluk mission, when one man had shot another dead in his bunk.

  Now, in mid-November, they would separate, taking turns with different partners, two men stationed at each camp, giving them a break from the tedium of their everyday lives, and giving them a break from each other. If they wanted to see the others, it would force them to walk and keep active, and they would set traps between the two camps so that they could visit these along the way. There had been some initial friction between Maurer and Galle, which had quickly dissipated, but Galle would stay with Knight and Ada at the primary camp, nearer to Doubtful Harbour, while Crawford and Maurer would move closer to Rodger’s Harbour, ten to fifteen miles away along the southeastern shore. They were certain that Ada’s unhappiness came from her unrequited passion for Crawford. Maybe she would forget about him if she no longer saw him every day, they figured, and maybe there would finally be some peace.

  Crawford, Maurer, and Knight left camp at 6:15 A.M. on November 18, Galle staying behind to tend to his traps. As Ada watched Crawford go, she began to cry. Now, if she wanted to see him, she would need to walk fifteen miles, and the thought threw her into despair. Crawford alone—or the idea of him—kept her alive, and now she did not know how she would stand life without him.

  She had confessed her feelings, had told him that she wanted to be with him, but Crawford wasn’t having any of it. He was ashamed of the attention, had grown uncomfortably red and silent about it, and had tried to discourage her as gently—but firmly—as he could.

  At the very thought of him, she would fall into a chant, which resembled more of a howl. Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi.

  She repeated it again and again, rocking herself back and forth, and somehow the repetition of the word made her feel better.

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