Wrangel Island lies north of the Siberian coast in the harsh arctic waters of the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas. Surrounded by ice for much of the year and rocked by strong cyclonic winds, it is the last known redoubt of the woolly mammoth and the site of the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.
It was also the site of one of the most chimerical and unfortunate Arctic expeditions in history. In 1921, five people landed here and sparked a diplomatic incident; two years later, only one has survived to tell the tale: a 25-year-old Iñupiat woman called Ada Blackjack.
Expedition to Claim Wrangel Island
The expedition was designed by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Manitoba-born Arctic explorer who spoke out against the idea of the North Polar region being an inhospitable wasteland, presenting it instead as “the friendly Arctic”. Although Wrangel is Russian territory, the fact that it was uninhabited meant that in Stefansson’s eyes it would be possible to claim it for Canada or the UK, a dream apparently motivated by the vision to turn it into a base. aerial for the future pan-Arctic flights.
He recruited four young men for this task: three Americans and a Canadian who would be the nominal leader to give the team the standing to claim territory. After leaving Seattle on August 18, 1921, they arrived in Nome, Alaska, to secure passage to Wrangel for the four men and the Alaskan natives they intended to hire to accompany them. Although they were able, after some effort, to find a ship that would take them to their destination, all the Iñupiat families who had expressed an interest in being hired ultimately refused to go, leaving Ada Blackjack alone on the dock as she left. ‘they were getting ready. go.
The plan was for the Inupiat to provide essential hunting and survival skills, skills Ada lacked. Originally Ada Deletuk, Ada Blackjack was born in 1898 in the native colony of Spruce Creek, Alaska. She had been sent by her mother from an early age to Nome, where she had been raised by Methodist missionaries, who had taught her to read, write, and cook “white food.” She had become an expert seamstress, and her skills in tailoring fur garments would prove invaluable.
Stefansson had promised her $ 50 a month on her expedition, much more than she could otherwise earn. And that was the money she needed: she had divorced her husband, Jack Blackjack, whom she had married at age 16, after he beat her, starved her and finally abandoned her; of the three children she had given him, two had died and the survivor, Bennett, suffered from chronic tuberculosis and lived in an orphanage because she could not afford to care for him on her own.
Blackjack: nervous, scared of the expedition
Even so, she was naturally nervous about going. On the one hand, she had a deep fear of polar bears. A visit to a shaman in Nome didn’t exactly ease her anxieties: death and danger awaited her, the shaman told her, and she should watch out for fire and knives.
She also didn’t think it was right for her to go alone to a remote island with four men and they in turn considered it improper to travel with one woman – but she had given her word, and she was sure they would hire more Inuit during a stopover in Siberia. And so, on September 9, they left — Canadian Allan Crawford, 20; Americans Lorne Knight and Fred Maurer, both 28, and Milton Galle, 19; Blackjack; and the expedition kitten, Vic, presented to the men by the crew of the ship that had brought them to Nome.
A week later, they arrived at Wrangel – a brief stopover in Siberia that failed to produce Iñupiat reinforcements – and Ada immediately felt overwhelmed by what awaited her. As the men lifted the Union Jack and declared the island a British possession, she walked over to the beach, her eyes riveted on the departing ship, and wept.
Still, the weather was surprisingly mild and the team quickly picked up the pace. After a few weeks, however, the situation took a turn. Ada, painfully nostalgic and scared, withdrew. Every sight of the men’s knives terrified her, convinced that she was by the shaman’s warning. She knew that none of the men particularly wanted her there and that they all regretted taking her, and was convinced that Knight was going to kill her.
She left one day in the snow with a bottle of liniment that she intended to drink to kill herself; on another occasion she followed fox tracks away from the camp because she believed there were spirits that disguised themselves as foxes and if she could find them she would be treated kindly. Her cooking and sewing became sporadic, and in response, the men first tried to cuddle her, then laughed at her, then turned to starving her food, forcing her to stay out in the hall. cold, and even tying it to the flagpole. At one point, they threatened to whip her.
As winter approached, Ada’s mood seemed to brighten as the men’s moods sagged; she threw herself into the work and the five banded together to survive the dark, cold months, to stay fed and warm, and to deter the polar bears that stalked the camp. They looked forward to summer and the arrival of a relief ship; but even as the summer wore on, peaked and passed, the ice barrier around the island remained, and the ship Stefansson had sent from Alaska was unable to reach them.
The return of winter saw the group struggling, not just emotionally but physically. Despite Stefansson’s promises that game would be plentiful, much of their potential prey – foxes, seals and bears – had moved elsewhere on the island. They started to weaken, especially Knight, who had fallen ill during solo exploration and was showing signs of scurvy. Finally, in January 1923, with temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius, Crawford, Maurer and Galle crossed the pack ice towards Siberia, intending to sound the alarm and organize a rescue. They were never seen again.
Ada now found herself with a rapidly deteriorating knight. It was now up to her, the young Inuk who had never lived in nature before, to provide for both of them. She learned on her own to catch foxes in traps and shoot birds in the air. She even found the courage to scare the bears away from the camp. She gave Knight the lion’s share of the fresh meat to fight scurvy, but as her decline deepened, he continually berated her, accusing her of not doing enough to feed them and them. keep alive. During this time, she too was falling ill with early signs of scurvy.
Ada Blackjack becomes the sole survivor
On June 23, Knight passed away. Ada couldn’t bear and didn’t have the strength to remove him from his sleeping bag, so she erected a barricade of wooden crates around him to protect him from wild animals and moved into the storage tent. to escape the smell of rot. Ada was now, outside of the foster company offered by Vic the cat, truly alone. She hoped and expected the others to return, but she couldn’t be sure. What would happen to her if she was forced to spend another winter in this cruel and remote place? Would she ever see Bennett again?
Soon after Knight’s death, she killed her first seal, but with ammo running out of ammo, she focused on collecting eggs and even used wood and hides to build a boat for herself. . When the wind carried her to the sea, she built another. And she waited.
On August 20, she woke up from her sleep thinking she heard a noise. She heard him again. And even. She grabbed her binoculars and rushed outside. Perpetual fog enveloped the island, but for a brief moment he stood up and through his glasses she saw a ship. She ran to the beach and dove into the water just as a boat reached shore.
She expected Crawford, Maurer and Galle to be on board; the man who got off the boat, Stefansson’s accomplice Harold Noice, expected them to be ashore. From the first words they exchanged, they both realized the gravity of the situation. Ada Blackjack, the seamstress of Iñupiat who had been reluctant after the fact on the expedition, who had been belittled, scolded and tied up, who had had to learn to hunt, trap and live in the Arctic, was the last survivor. . She was alive and she was going home to her son. And with that, she collapsed into Noice’s arms and cried.
His return and the deaths of the other members of the expedition generated enormous public fury, but Ada tried to avoid it all. She took Bennett to Seattle to treat his tuberculosis, had another son named Billy, and eventually returned to Alaska. She died there on May 29, 1983, at the age of 85, and is buried in Anchorage Memorial Park cemetery. On her grave is a plaque erected by Billy, with the words “Wrangel Island Heroine”.
A century later, her story continues to resonate and inspire, especially among her native Alaskan compatriots.
“As an Inuit woman who grew up like Ada – in a village, but so contemporary – I wonder if I would survive this? Says Holly Mitiquq Nordlum, an Iñupiat artist who co-produced a short documentary on Ada. “Here in Alaska, that strength and survival that she’s shown, doing what you can and understanding, these are things we all need to have in order to survive, even growing up in a village. She is one of us; I see myself in her. This is what inspires me.