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Marooned in the Arctic
The True Story of Ada Blackjack, the "Female Robinson Crusoe"
By Peggy Caravantes
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Peggy Caravantes
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
Ada Delutuk was born on May 10, 1898, in the remote settlement of Spruce Creek, eight miles from the small village of Solomon, Alaska. As a child she listened to stories passed down by her ancestors. Some of the tales taught her about stars in the sky. Others told about Nanook, the polar bear — the animal most feared by Eskimos. From an early age Ada developed a dread of being eaten by a polar bear and forever trapped in its stomach.
Imaginary fears turned into real troubles when Ada was eight years old. Her father died of food poisoning, and her mother sent her and her sister Rita to a Methodist mission school in Nome. (Ada had another sister, Fina, but it's not known when she was born or where she lived during this time.)
Leaving home at such an early age, Ada never learned the traditional skills of her people — skills she would desperately need in the future — such as hunting, trapping, fishing, firing a gun, living off the land, and building a shelter. Instead she was introduced to the skills that white society valued. She learned to read and write at an elementary level, to speak English (rather than her native Inuit language), to read the Bible, and to pray. She also received training in cleaning, cooking, sewing, and basic hygiene. The one Eskimo trait she did develop was the ability to sew animal furs into clothing.
Like most Eskimo girls, Ada married young, at the age of 16. The couple moved to the Seward Peninsula. After several gold rushes had emptied the mines there, the community had turned into a supplier of reindeer meat. The processing of huge herds required a great deal of manpower. Perhaps Ada's husband, Jack Blackjack, went to the Seward Peninsula to find such work. He had previously worked as a hunter and a dogsled driver.
The marriage did not go well. Not long after the wedding, Ada realized her husband had a cruel streak. She endured Jack beating her and starving her for six years because she wanted to protect their three children. After two of them died (the causes are unknown) Jack deserted her, leaving her and one son alone. Ada struggled with the devastating loss of her children and with caring for the surviving boy, Bennett, who had tuberculosis.
When Bennett was five years old, Ada divorced her husband before he could return and mistreat her again. She and her son moved to Nome, Alaska, where her mother then lived. Ada and Bennett made the entire 40-mile trip on foot. When the child was too tired to walk, his mother carried him. After reaching their destination, Ada eked out a living by cleaning houses and sewing clothes for miners.
But Bennett needed medical care she could not afford, so she placed him in the Jesse Lee Home for Children, a Methodist orphanage that accepted both parentless children and those whose parents could not care for them, often because of their own illness, such as tuberculosis, the most prevalent and most dreaded disease in Alaska at that time. Victims had to be placed in sanatoriums to lessen the spread of the disease, thus forcing their children into orphanages. Ada's driving focus became finding a better-paying job so she and Bennett could be together again.
One evening when Ada was on her way home from cleaning a house, E. R. Jordan, the police chief, stopped her as she walked by the station. He had known Ada most of her life and was familiar with the circumstances of her marriage and with Bennett's medical condition. He knew she needed money for her son's care, so he mentioned to her that a group of men were headed to Wrangel Island, a remote and uninhabited Arctic island almost 600 miles north of Nome, surrounded by the Chuchki Sea. The men were recruiting Eskimos to go with them to sew fur clothing while they were on the island. Ada was a superior seam-stress, and her ability to speak English would be another plus. Jordan shared with her what he had heard about the trip north but at that time had no knowledge of the real purpose of the expedition.
Jordan told her that Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a noted Canadian and Arctic explorer, was organizing and arranging financing for the expedition, although he did not plan to participate. He would stay behind to continue fund-raising through his lecture tours and to seek private backing for another exploration to search for a continent north of Wrangel Island.
Stefansson personally selected four young men to represent him on the current exploration. He used his strong personality, reputation, and powers of persuasion to convince them to carry out the colonizing expedition while he remained at home. The chosen members included Errol Lorne Knight, a big, 28-year-old, outspoken, happy-go-lucky American from McMinnville, Oregon; he had been on a prior northern expedition with Stefansson. Frederick W. Maurer, another 28-year-old, from New Philadelphia, Ohio, had been a member of Stefansson's five-year Canadian expedition. Joining Maurer and Knight was their fellow countryman, 19-year-old Milton Galle, from New Braunfels, Texas, who was Stefansson's secretary when they traveled on the Chautauqua lecture circuit.
The fourth member was 20-year-old Canadian Allan R. Crawford, a student at the University of Toronto. An 1867 law classified all Canadians as British subjects, so Stefansson named Crawford as leader of the team. His British citizenship would be necessary to claim the island for Great Britain. Since Crawford had not been to the Arctic, his position was only nominal; Knight headed the team because of his previous experience. Stefansson told the men that he could afford to pay only minimal salaries — and nothing at all to young Galle, whom he had not planned to add to the expedition. For compensation, Galle could have a percentage of any furs that he brought back with him at the expedition's end. Despite that, all of them could hardly wait to start their trip and felt quite proud that Stefansson trusted them to carry out his mission.
The Victoria embarked from Seattle with the four young men aboard on August 18, 1921. Knight's parents were at the docks to see them off. The men promised they would write when they arrived at Nome, a voyage of four or five days. Those communications would be their last with their families until a relief ship was scheduled to go to Wrangel in 1922.
Stefansson swore the young men to secrecy about their true purpose in going to Wrangel Island. An excerpt from Galle's letter to Stefansson at that time illustrated the high spirits of the men as they deliberately misled passengers on the Victoria about their reason for going to the Arctic:
From the time we left Seattle all those aboard asked as to our whereabouts this winter, Knight would answer one place Crawford another and Maurer still another and I said passed [sic] Point Barrow. I had most fun when in a bunch, Knight would be asked about some place around Hershall [sic] Island. He answered; another question was asked, he answered, but then it was my turn so I asked questions — some of the most foolish imaginable, he would look at me and then answer, Crawford was not as bad as Knight because he said he was new, he didn't know. Maurer had the most nerve, start answering and soon be talking about ... his shipwreck on the island. All in all it has been a great time.
Stefansson did not want the truth to get out before they sailed because he didn't want anyone else to steal his idea. He planned to postpone announcing his true reason for the expedition until the men arrived on Wrangel. Then he would state his real objective: claiming for Great Britain the 2,000-square-mile island about 100 miles north of Siberia. After ownership was established through occupancy, he hoped to get the Canadian government to assume responsibility for the land. Canadian officials had turned down sponsorship of the expedition because of problems Stefansson had had with previous ones. Once the island was in British possession, he believed it could serve as a stop along future polar air routes of dirigibles and airplanes flying from England into China and Japan over the North Pole.
He also believed the island could support a meteorological station to study and forecast northern weather and possibly a radio station. To protect the mission's real purpose, Stefansson let word drift about that the men were involved in a commercial enterprise about which he shared only vague details. To add to the confusion the men caused with their differing answers to questions, the four spread the word that they were going to make their fortunes in trapping for furs. For the most part, however, no one paid much attention to them anyway. Some thought they were searching for gold, but the prevalent belief was that they would never make it to Wrangel Island.
In contrast to the doubters, the young men were so excited about their venture that they wanted to share in the finances as well as in the expedition work itself. Knight wanted to purchase ten shares for $1,000 but had no resources. So he arranged for $50 to be withheld from his salary each month and deposited into an account especially for that purpose. After securing a loan from his brother John, Maurer also purchased ten shares. Crawford bought $500 worth of shares and put $100 down for a two-year option to later buy $1,000 in shares. Since Galle would not receive a salary, he had no money with which to negotiate a purchase.
In addition to his desire to claim Wrangel for the British, Stefansson had a secondary goal for the trip. He hoped to prove his theory that the Arctic was not "a harsh environment that must be fought, but ... a land that would support a comfortable life for those who adapted their behavior to suit the unique characteristics." He further contended, "There is absolutely nothing heroic in Arctic exploration, for exploration, like any other work, is easily resolved into certain simple rules, which, if properly followed, render it as safe and about as exciting as taxi-driving or a hundred other things which are done in civilization and without a suggestion of heroism either." He believed that white men, properly equipped, could maintain themselves in the Arctic indefinitely.
Such statements made Arctic exploration seem ordinary. But to the four young men, Stefansson pitched the expedition as a grand adventure in a friendly environment with no danger involved. He later told reporters, "The returning party will have a story to tell that will rank with the most romantic in Arctic history."
Ada wasn't sure whether she should even consider the job. She had a paralyzing fear of polar bears, and there were sure to be polar bears in the far north. If one ate her, she would never get back to Bennett. Because of her doubts, she visited a shaman who, in exchange for a little tobacco, foretold her going on the trip but warned of danger and death. He told Ada to especially watch out for knives and fire.
Although the warning scared Ada, she respected the shaman's advice to go on the trip. She was torn between the desire to take care of her son and the need to obtain enough money to get him better medical treatment. Still pondering what to do, Ada went to meet the four men. They assured her that they planned to hire some Eskimo families to accompany them. The husbands would hunt while the women cooked and made or repaired clothing. Ada would live with one of the families.
The men explained that they needed a seamstress because staying warm and dry was essential for the success of their northern adventure. The best way to do that was to have animal skin clothing that was properly made and repaired to protect against the bitter cold winds and the icy waters. The usual Eskimo wardrobe consisted of a fur coat, fur trousers, and skin boots. Only Eskimo women knew how to roll and stitch a seam that was in itself waterproof. On boots they did this by skillfully sewing the soles to the tops with a sinew thread. Arctic clothing sold in stores had an ordinary seam that was greased to make it waterproof. If an Eskimo woman saw someone putting grease on a seam she had constructed, she was insulted, believing her competence was being questioned.
The four men planned to follow Stefansson's advice to hire more than one Eskimo family. They offered Ada and each person in the prospective families a salary of $50 a month for a two-year term, to be deposited directly into a Nome bank while they were on Wrangel. The men believed they had made an agreement with sufficient families for their needs. However, on the day their ship, the Silver Wave, got ready to depart Nome for Wrangel Island, the only Eskimo who showed up was 23-year-old Ada Blackjack. Why the others didn't come is not known. Perhaps they feared a trip so far to the north. Perhaps the $50 a month salary seemed too little; Alaska had become more prosperous since the discovery of gold.
The explorers had already hired the ship and paid the deposit to take them to Wrangel, so they didn't have time to seek out more Eskimo families. When Ada saw she was the only Eskimo there, she became suspicious and wanted to go home. She was not sure about being the only woman with four men. But they promised her she would not be alone; they would stop along the way to hire some Eskimo families.
Going so far away from her family scared Ada, and she wanted to stay near Bennett, who was in the children's home. But she was desperate for the money to get him out of the Jesse Lee Home and to provide for his medical needs. She figured that in two years she could save enough to bring him home and perhaps even have enough to take him to a Seattle hospital for special treatment so that he could grow to be strong like other children. For Bennett's sake, Ada decided to go along with the expedition as their seamstress.
The Silver Wave, a motor schooner with a gasoline-powered engine, pulled out of the Nome harbor on September 9, 1921. Captain Jack Hammer, an experienced and respected captain, was at the helm. Also aboard the ship was a small gray kitten. The four men had arrived in Nome on the Victoria. During their voyage from Seattle the ship's cat produced a litter of kittens, and the chief steward insisted on giving the men the best one as a good luck charm. The men named the little cat Victoria after the ship but soon shortened it to Vic.
On board, Ada stood out from the four white explorers and the crew with her olive skin, straight blue-black hair, and petite size. Under five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, she looked like a child as she stood near the men, watching Nome disappear from view. She seldom spoke to the others, and her dark brown eyes often darted from side to side as if seeking escape.
Before they sailed, the men had given Ada some money for sewing supplies. She bought needles, sinew, linen thread, thimbles, and a recent invention — an Eversharp pencil. It was the first mass-produced pencil that never needed sharpening, and she treasured it. While she shopped for her sewing needs, the men had arranged for their cargo to be loaded.
The expedition was scheduled to last two years, but they were furnished with only enough provisions for six months. The plan was to prove Stefansson's theory about living off the land in the friendly Arctic. Supplies included hunting gear, such as guns and ammunition, fish nets and hooks, and harpoons. Canned or boxed food items, but none in glass, joined the supplies. They did not take much meat or butter because seals, bears, and foxes could provide oil and meat.
Survival items like flashlights, batteries, lanterns, stoves, and cooking gear were added to the goods, along with several tents. They also took basic clothing like socks, mittens, shirts, and underwear, but they limited the amounts of outerwear since Ada would provide more fur clothing as needed. To help pass the long days and nights ahead, the men selected 100 secondhand books by a variety of well-known authors. To finish off the supplies, each added favorites, such as gum, candy, tobacco, and chocolate.
Two days after their departure from Nome, they arrived at Russian-held East Cape, Siberia, where they planned to hire some Eskimo families and to purchase an umiak, a light animal-skin boat that can be hauled out of water, dragged across intervening ice floes, and launched again on the other side. These were two essentials that Stefansson had told them they must have. While the ship docked, representatives of the Soviet government boarded the Silver Wave. The Russians insisted they be told where the ship was headed and the group's plans.
Authorities laughed when they heard the destination was Wrangel Island. They predicted the explorers would never reach it because of the ice. The young men ignored them because, at that time, there was not a cake of ice visible anywhere. The expedition party's attempts to hire some Eskimo families failed, but, full of confidence, they didn't worry that Ada would have no Eskimo companions or that they would have no hunters to help them. Ada kept her fears to herself and did not share her doubts because she had made a promise, and she didn't break promises.
The men also did not fare well as they tried to buy the umiak. They thought the quoted price of $120 was exorbitant. Knight had enough hunting experience to know that they could catch polar bears, seals, and foxes without a boat. He saw no need to worry about catching walruses.
Excerpted from Marooned in the Arctic by Peggy Caravantes. Copyright © 2016 Peggy Caravantes. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
1 In The Beginning 1
Meet Vilhjahnur Stefansson 19
2 Settling on the Island 27
Meet Milton Gaile 45
3 Changing Winds 49
Meet Lorne Knight 66
4 Fading Hopes 71
Meet Allan Crawford 87
5 Treacherous Treks 91
Meet Frederick Maurer 101
6 Oh For a Bear! 105
7 Downward Spiral 115
8 Rescue! 131
9 Conflict and Confusion 149