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


  Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi, oi.

  Every time one of the men felt gloomy, the others would only have to oi, oi, oi until the gloom disappeared and they were sick from laughing. Ada—Oofty, as they’d taken to calling her, or, even more commonly, the Nymph—may not have been doing any work, but at least, they felt, she was good for making them laugh.

  She wanted to go back with Crawford and live at the other camp, to be near him in case he changed his mind about marrying her. If he wouldn’t have her, she was willing to marry any of the rest of them, she announced, a fact which made them all wince. “This may all sound funny for the reader,” Knight wrote after her revelation, “but I can assure him or her that it is NOT funny for the four of us to have a foolish female howling and refusing to work and eating all of our good grub. Heaven only knows what she is liable to do to herself or one of us and to be continually watching her gets rather monotonous.”

  On the evening of November 18, Knight and Galle set off for the other camp, but not before Knight warned Ada to stay home. She had a way of looking at him, stoically, stubbornly, which made him know she wasn’t going to listen. He repeated the order again, more emphatically. She must stay home and not follow them.

  The next day, as the men were hard at work at the new camp, Ada appeared, worn and peaked from the fifteen-mile hike. She had come, she said sweetly, matter-of-factly, to see Crawford and Maurer, and to tell them hello.

  Knight was three times Ada’s size, and now he bundled her up easily and strapped her to the sled, ignoring her screams. She must learn to obey them if she was to be anything but a hindrance to the expedition. They must find some way to make her listen. He and Galle bid good-bye to Crawford and Maurer and took her home. The next morning, of course, she was gone again.

  They found her at the other camp, where she had awakened Crawford and Maurer early that morning, her eyes eager and happy, her lantern swinging from her fist. This time, Crawford threw her out of the tent and refused to let her back in. He made her sit outside until Knight came to fetch her. The men talked it over and decided that if they didn’t teach her a lesson once and for all, she would never learn. Her work had gone undone, winter was approaching, they had little clothing to protect them from the cold, and her unruly behavior had distracted them from completing other necessary work.

  Knight hitched up the dogs to go home and ignored Ada as she sidled over to him, a persuasive grin on her face. Suddenly, she was as agreeable as she had been difficult, and now she wanted a ride home. Knight told her that if she wanted to go home, she would need to walk back herself or sleep outside all night. Then he left her at the trapping camp, and as he rode away he could hear her howls. As she stood there, head thrown back in a wail, Crawford and Maurer returned to their tent and wouldn’t let her in.

  Five hours later, she stumbled into the original camp, exhausted and distraught. The next day, when she refused to patch a pair of boots, Knight tied her to the flagpole until she promised to do the work. Kindness had failed, he noted, so now he would try forcefulness. As far as he was concerned, she could stay there for hours.

  She began to chant oi, oi, oi while she was tied to the flagpole, and paused only to ask Knight to fetch his Bible and read it to her. She hoped that this might give him a change of heart and inspire him to untie her. When he stubbornly refused, she offered him money to let her go, a dollar and fifteen cents, which was all she had. Again, he refused. She then asked both Knight and Galle to marry her, and they told her once again that they had wives outside. “But if at first you don’t succeed try, try again, seems to be her axiom,” observed Knight dryly, “and if she don’t lay off of us for a while we will all be nuts by spring.”

  Eventually, after three hours bound to the flagpole, Ada at last ceased howling, and when Knight felt she had calmed down enough and when he tired of her grumbling, he set her free. She retired to her bunk, where he could hear her reciting from his grandfather’s prayer book and singing hymns.

  On Thanksgiving morning, Knight gave Ada her usual work orders before he left camp. She was to make some mittens and skin socks and begin scraping a deerskin while he went to the trapping camp. When he returned later in the day, he found the work untouched, and Ada just arrived from a walk out on the ice. She had followed a fox track, she said. The Eskimos believed that there were spirits who lived in hollow hills and disguised themselves as foxes. Ada knew that if she followed those tracks, she might walk into those hills and be treated kindly. She also knew that she might marry one of the people from the hills, as was often the case in the stories she had heard. It would be nice to live up there with people who were kind and who understood her, but instead she was sent to bed without any food.

  She left again the next morning, leaving a trail of footprints heading for the trapping camp. No food appeared to be missing, but one of her nightgowns and a suit of underwear were gone. This time, Knight didn’t go after her. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and he had spent his holiday haggling with her. Now he and Galle were celebrating, and they would just wait to see if she came back.

  When she hadn’t returned by the following morning, Knight hitched up the dogs and set out for the other camp. Crawford and Maurer hadn’t seen her, but Galle reported finding her tracks heading along the beach and then zigzagging northwest. He had followed them for miles without sight of her. A cold wind was blowing from the east, blasting the snow about, and it was well below freezing.

  On the morning of November 27, Knight and Crawford hitched the dogs to the sled and followed the tracks Galle had seen. After an hour plowing through the blistering wind, they spotted a dark form on the horizon. Peering through their field glasses, they could see it was Ada. She was walking slowly, wearily toward them, dressed in her nightgown and underwear, her usual camp suit, and a double Siberian native reindeer suit on top. She looked, Knight observed dryly,“like an inverted sack of spuds.”

  Once again, they bundled her onto the sled and brought her home. Crawford tried to talk to her, to find out why she had left and where she had been, but Ada wouldn’t answer him. She had taken a few pieces of hard bread with her, she said, but that was all she would tell him.

  The next day, Ada did nothing but wash a few dishes, and when Crawford asked her if she planned to run away again she answered maybe. Knight had warned her that if she didn’t work she wouldn’t eat, and for the next two weeks the only food she had was what she could steal, which was mostly bread. He didn’t want to torture her, but as long as she refused to hold up her end of the bargain, she would have to be punished. He felt that discipline was essential. As it was, she was holding them back, causing double the work for all of them, and she hadn’t done anything except get in the way. “She will not work and sits about and disobeys orders and eats up our food and is being paid fifty dollars a month for doing the opposite always,” he wrote in his journal. “I’ll bet I can get a job in the bughouse at Eslem when I get back.”

  No one wanted Ada on the expedition now. Hiring her was, according to Lorne Knight, a decision he soon felt he would regret for the rest of his life. “If there is anything serious happens to her,” he wrote, “it will be a reflection on Mr. Stefansson and us when we get back to Nome.”

  Even the tolerant Crawford at last reached a point when he felt there was nothing left to do but threaten to dog whip her. None of them would actually take a switch to a woman, even Ada, but they were tempted. The first order of business when the ship arrived next summer was to make sure she was on it. She would never be of help to them, only a hindrance—she couldn’t take care of herself, much less the work she needed to do for them—and it was worth staying on the island an additional year, just to have her off it and far, far away from all of them.

  The truth was that Ada did not mean to make them miserable. She wasn’t a joke, she wasn’t a nymphomaniac, and she wasn’t a “Foolish Female,” as they called her. Instead, she was homesick and she was terrified. The men didn’t want her there. She knew that. And Cr
awford, no matter how she tried to persuade him, didn’t love her. She knew that, too. But her heart yearned for him because she had never met anyone like him, and she trusted him and believed that he alone would keep her safe. She did not know why she must be separated from him when she was so afraid of Knight and of the bears that wandered through camp.

  There was a name for what she was feeling, although she didn’t know it, and the men didn’t know it. Arctic Hysteria sometimes develops in people who are trapped in a cold place with endless day, or, worse, endless night, as was the state of things by then. The polar night had officially begun November 21, when the sun dropped below the horizon, to remain there until January 20. Sixty-one days of darkness.

  The victim of Arctic Hysteria is easily frightened or startled; he or she often runs away, in search of relief, and sometimes commits suicide; a fit can begin with a moan or a sigh and then grow into sobs and just as quickly stop, with the victim returning to normal as if nothing had happened; the victim becomes sluggish and sedentary; and there is an inclination toward “utterances of erotic expression.”

  One authority on the affliction dubbed the Arctic the “nest of hysteria,” reasoning that the extreme cold, which keeps people cooped up indoors and which deprives them of necessary fresh food, is to blame. The most acute cases were found in Eskimos who were used to warmer climates and then moved to colder ones. Wrangel Island was a great deal more brutal than Nome, and as the days and nights passed and the cold only grew more severe, and as the sun disappeared from the sky, it was normal for desperation to creep in until the victim—in this case, Ada—craved sunshine and warmth “as only a dying person can.”

  It was this, most likely, which made Ada’s eyes constantly red and watery and which left her voice raw. It was also the fact that she was used to the “white man’s world” in Nome.

  She had become accustomed to living in the city since she had left the mission school. No one had ever taught her to set a steel trap or shoot a gun. She knew little about fishing, nothing about hunting, and guns and knives terrified her. She had never built a house or a shelter to live in, and she had never needed to live entirely off the land. She did not know how to be resourceful, like so many of her people. She had never learned how to ration provisions or how to make a seal poke to store the blubber they would need in winter or how to kill a seal so that she wouldn’t lose him to the water afterward. She could sew and she could cook, and that was all.

  She did not know why she had thought she could live out here. No amount of money could be worth what she was facing—the self-doubt, the homesickness, the loneliness, and the fear that she would never live to see her son again.

  * * *

  SPECIAL CABLE TO THE NEW YORK TIMES

  London, March 20, 1922

  The announcement made by the New York Times that Vilhjalmur Stefansson had hoisted the British flag on Wrangell Island came as a complete surprise to the authorities here. The British Government has had nothing to do with his explorations and has received no notification of his action. Inquiries in official quarters showed much indifference as to the fate of Wrangell Island, and it appears likely that Downing Street will leave the Government of the Dominion of Canada to deal with Stefansson’s actions as it pleases.

  * * *

  Chapter Six

  CAPTAIN HAMMER’S NEWS of the flag raising on Wrangel Island caused a great stir at the U.S. State Department. The story printed in the Nome Nugget drummed up enough negative public opinion to condemn Stefansson and his four young explorers as underhanded and dishonest. A protest was sent by Alaskans to Washington, D.C., and when the New York Times learned of it, they asked Stefansson for a statement. His secret mission at least partially revealed to the world, Stefansson spoke up. In his mind, it was free publicity, and he was skillful at spinning press accounts to suit his purposes. He hadn’t been ready to go to the press so early in the venture, but he would head them off now, feeding them what he wanted to see printed. Besides, his men had been living on Wrangel Island for months, which, he felt, meant that the status of the island was secure.

  The Times article was published in the fall of 1921, featuring Stefansson’s own statements about the expedition and his young exploratory team. Stefansson was careful not to give too much away. The group he had sent to the island was only the vanguard for a grand and elaborate British expedition, which was to join them later the following summer. He expected they would remain there for two to three years, gathering scientific data and mapping the island.

  “I shall not announce the plans for the expedition until Spring,” he stated, “probably not before March.” He mentioned nothing about colonization, nothing about political claims, although he casually and pointedly referenced the time his Karluk party had spent there, which, he asserted, “effected a renewal of the British right of occupation of the island.”

  He also hinted at the future of the island as a place to farm reindeer and as a viable spot for the fur industry. Allan Crawford and the others were merely there to make preparations for the larger expedition to follow. Some twenty-five applications a day poured in, Stefansson boasted, with offers of thousands of dollars to fund the undertaking, but he was more interested in recruiting men fueled with the spirit of adventure.

  “Of what use would this ice-encompassed island be to any nation?” asked the New York Times. Other papers picked up the story and gave their own opinions on the matter. The American press damned Stefansson for claiming property that might very well belong to the United States. The Canadian papers implied that he was crazy for even attempting to take Wrangel Island for the dominion of Canada in the name of its sovereign Great Britain, while the British press expressed grave concern about what Stefansson’s private venture would do to British-American relations. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. State Department launched an official inquiry into just which country held the rights to this remote no-man’s-land.

  On March 11, 1922, Stefansson wrote a letter to Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister, Mackenzie King. King was unfamiliar with Stefansson’s current activities, and so the explorer detailed the background and history of Wrangel Island. He also requested support for his claim to the island, and, if that couldn’t be given, he asked King to allow him to move forward without opposition. The subject was put to discussion in the House of Commons on May 12, with Prime Minister King pronouncing, “The Government certainly maintains the position that Wrangel Island is part of the property of this country.”

  As far as Stefansson was concerned, this was good news. It would, in his opinion, only be a matter of time until the government backed him officially and fully, at last relieving him of the financial responsibility of the enterprise.

  One week later, the U.S. State Department completed its investigation, concluding that “Wrangel Island, claimed by the explorer Stefansson for Canada, in reality is the property of Russia.” Furthermore, it was the State Department’s opinion that, due to its icebound condition, the island was of no real value to any country.

  The hunting was frustrating. Either the weather was too vicious, or the seals too far out on the ice, or the foxes too elusive. Every now and then, one of the dogs—those that remained—managed to catch a fox, and the men—mostly Maurer—had been able to shoot a few. But the traps were worthless and the bears were scarce. Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle thought back to their first weeks on the island, when polar bear tracks had overlapped each other on the ground and they hadn’t attempted to hunt them. And now the bears were gone. Every now and then, a stray white form was glimpsed in the distance, hulking away from camp, but when the men gave chase they usually came back with nothing.

  By December 1921, the weather was rotten and kept them confined to their house for weeks on end. Ada woke first to start the fire and make breakfast, while the men lay around “like plutocrats,” according to Knight. They got up when they felt like it and went to bed when they were sleepy, and they spent their days chopping wood, hauling ice, and feed
ing the dogs. Galle wrote in his journals, invented humorous lyrics about the others, and plucked away happily at a pair of deerskin pants he was making; Maurer stretched out in a corner and read; Crawford, ever the diligent student, added to his scientific notes; and Knight, who liked to think himself in charge, tackled whatever task needed to be done, like making a sled-raft covering with the sewing machine. Afterward, they were so weary from all that exertion that they had no choice but to rest and read and lie about until bedtime.

  Now, Ada, miraculously, worked harder than any of them. She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean, and scraped skins. She rose at 6:00 A.M. to bake bread. She was pleasant, cheerful, and friendly. It was hard to believe there was ever a time when she hadn’t been doing her share.

  The change had literally happened overnight. On the first of December, Ada had stopped speaking to them. On the sixteenth, she packed both her suitcases and walked toward the mountains, returning later empty-handed. She said nothing about where she had taken her suitcases or why, and she said nothing about why she had gone. Knight and Galle refused to let her in the house unless she promised to start sewing. Ada wouldn’t promise—wouldn’t even utter a word— and so they banished her to the old snowhouse.

  A light breeze was blowing from the east, but otherwise the weather was calm. She sat in her igloo and listened to the wind and was grateful for the break from gale and snow. The winter had been the harshest she had ever known. To Ada, it was an omen of bad things to come and it meant that the ship would not be able to break its way through the ice to them in the summer.

  Knight and Galle awoke on December 17 to the beginnings of a blizzard, converging upon them from all directions. The snow came frenzied and thick, blotting out the sky until the rest of the world seemed to vanish, leaving only their small house and whirling, enveloping white. The numbing cold inched inside where they huddled, until it was an effort to move their hands and mouths.

 
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