Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

by Jennifer Niven

Published by Hyperion

288 pages, 2003


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Ada Blackjack was an unlikely hero -- an unskilled 23-year-old Inuit woman with no knowledge of the world outside Nome, Alaska. Divorced, impoverished, and despondent, she had one focus in her life -- to care for her sickly young son. In September 1921, in search of money and a husband, she signed on as seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic.

Jennifer Niven, author of The Ice Master, narrates this remarkable true story, taking full advantage of a wealth of primary sources, including Ada Blackjack's never-before-seen diaries, the unpublished journals of other major characters, and interviews with Ada's second son. Filled with exciting adventure and fascinating history -- as well as extraordinary photographs -- Ada Blackjack is a gripping and ultimately inspiring tale of a woman who survived a terrible time in the wild only to face a different but equally trying ordeal back in civilization.

 

Ada pushed open the tent flaps and searched for Knight. He had gone out some time ago to chop wood, and should have been back by now. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had left them just one week before and Ada was still anxious about being left alone.

Suddenly she saw him, several feet away, lying on the ground, limp and still. Ada felt her heart rise into her throat as she took a step forward. Knight couldn't be dead. If he were dead she would be all alone, and then who would care for her? She took another step and another until she was standing over him, looking into his pale, gaunt face.

Thank God, he was breathing. She knelt over him and tried to wake him. It took a good five minutes -- or so it seemed to Ada -- but finally he stirred, the life coming back into him. He woke to see her anxious face, pinched and strained, peering down at him.

"I'm all right now, Ada." His speech was halting, his voice soft, but he wanted to reassure her because he could tell she was terrified. "I just felt a little faint."

Confused and frightened, Ada pulled him to his feet. He leaned heavily on her as she helped him into the tent and once there, utterly spent, he crumpled into a pile on his bed. He began to talk to her then, telling her for the first time how ill he was. It was scurvy, as far as he could tell, and it seemed to be getting worse. He had tried to keep it from the others, but Crawford knew, and Maurer a little, but now he could not hide it. His mood was gloomy, as he lay on his bunk, and he told Ada that for the first time he was scared. "I guess we shan't see Nome again," he said darkly.

She told him to stay in bed and rest, and promised that she would finish chopping the wood. She was used to it, she said, and had done that kind of work at home. The last thing Knight wanted to do was lie helpless in the tent while Ada took care of him. But when he found himself too weak to lift his head, he consented.

Ada went outside and took up the axe and began cutting the wood. Afterward, she collected snow for their drinking water, and then she took the map Maurer had left them of his trapline and followed it to his traps to check for foxes. As usual, there was nothing, and she turned back to camp, discouraged.

She had no idea Knight was this ill. No one had told her. Why had they not told her? She couldn't understand, but one thing was clear. Now she must take care of them until he was strong enough to get out of bed. She prayed he would recover enough in a few days to look after her again.

***

Knight felt the earth spin every time he made a sudden movement, and he lost his breath easily. He became so winded just lifting a piece of firewood that he had to sit down afterward and catch his breath. He didn't remember the severe shortness of breath or the swelling in his legs from the first round of scurvy he'd suffered in 1917.

He dreamed of fresh meat. If only a bear would wander into camp. If only he felt strong enough to make it to Maurer's traps to check for foxes. No doubt there would be at least a fox or two found there, but he had been afraid to check until he felt better because what if something should happen to him? The traps weren't terribly far from camp, but if he should lose consciousness or have an accident, there would be no one there to help him. The thought of being helpless did frighten him, and he would not take that risk, no matter how much he needed the fresh meat.

He should get up out of his bed and go chop some wood to replenish their stock. He needed to gather ice to make drinking water, and he needed to go hunting, to try to find something for them to eat, and to do so many other things. "But on the least movement, especially rapid, I am puffing like a freight locomotive," he recorded. He wished Crawford and the others would come back because he could see now that it was going to be hard for Ada if he became completely bedridden.

For now, she seemed cheerful enough, but he wondered how much of it was for show, to make him feel better, and to make herself feel better. He thought she was probably more frightened and distressed about his illness than he was, although she wasn't showing it to him. He could hear her outside sharpening the wood saw. She had told him she would do everything that needed to be done around camp until he felt better and could get up again and take care of everything as he had before, and he had no choice but to let her.

Ada was terrified of running into a polar bear while she was out checking the traps. She carried a snow knife with her, but that was all, because she was still frightened of rifles, and she knew she wouldn't have the slightest idea how to defend herself if she was caught by Nanook. While she was out walking, she would pause now and then, every so often, and have a look around for bears, knowing she would faint if she so much as caught a glimpse of one.

She went out every day now, looking for food. There was nothing at camp, and Knight was too weak to hunt, too weak to do anything but rest in bed. Ada herself was feeling listless and tired, and very much alone. She missed Crawford and Galle and Maurer, but particularly Crawford and Galle. Everything had changed drastically and suddenly when they went away. Now Knight was sick and she must figure out how to help him and what to do to keep them fed, and she wished the men would come back and help her. She wanted to give up the trapping because there were never any foxes and it made her weary to walk all those miles every single day. Also, daylight hours were still minimal and she worried about being caught in the dark miles from camp.

But she made herself go out, following Maurer's map until she learned the way herself, and one afternoon, she spotted some fox tracks circling around the traps, and she knelt down and dug the trap out of the snow. It was empty, and Ada figured she must have hidden it under too much snow last time. So she baited the trap again, leaving it uncovered.

The next morning, when she checked the traps, she found a fox lying in one of them. Her first one. Ada was proud and exhilarated. No one had told her how to fix the trap or to uncover it and leave it in the open. She had figured that out on her own and now she would have food to take to Knight. The very best part of it was that she had done it all herself. | January 2004

 

Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Niven

 

Jennifer Niven's first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program. The book, which has been translated into nine languages, has been featured in such publications as Newsweek, the New York Times, Glamour, The Washington Post, Outside, and Writer's Digest, and was the subject of full-length documentaries on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel. You can visit the author's Web site at: www.jenniferniven.com.