Except for the polar bears, a corpse, and a small house cat named Vic, Ada Blackjack found herself alone on Wrangel Island in late June 1923. Nearly two years had passed since a schooner dropped her off with four young white explorers who intended to claim the Arctic isle for the British.
Blackjack, a petite 23-year-old Inupiaq woman, had come along as a seamstress. Her job was to sew foul-weather clothing out of animal hides so the men could survive the northern winters. The team was planning to live off six months’ worth of supplies and local game before being relieved a year later with a new crew. But when a ship didn’t show up as promised in the summer of 1922, the expedition turned desperate. Three men went for help by dogsled over the ocean ice, some 100 miles south to Siberia, leaving Blackjack on her own to care for the remaining expedition member, Lorne Knight, who was bedridden with scurvy.
Blackjack was barely five feet tall and 100 pounds and lacked any wilderness skills. Nonetheless, she taught herself to hunt and trap, picked roots, hauled wood, made her own clothing, dodged hungry polar bears, and cared for Knight. After he died, in June 1923, Blackjack clung to survival on this treeless 2,800-square-mile expanse of ice and tundra, where summer temperatures hover in the thirties. Living in frigid solitude for the last two months of her two-year sojourn, she frequently scanned the horizon for rescuers. Some days, it seemed uncertain what would overtake her first: scurvy, a ship, or the nerve-fraying despair.
The Wrangel Island Expedition was a curious and baffling episode in the history of Arctic exploration—at best, an example of shocking hubris; at worst, a case of murderous neglect. After years of expeditions in the far north, Vilhjamur Stefansson, a charismatic Canadian explorer and ethnographer, believed the British should claim Wrangel Island as a future air base, weather station, or even a reindeer herding ground. The only trouble was that the British had no interest, and the Canadian government refused to finance an expedition. (Stefansson had earned a controversial reputation after the Karluk, a ship used in a previous expedition, was carried away by ice, resulting in the deaths of 11 men, some of whom perished on Wrangel Island.)
Nonetheless, Stefansson, a vociferous self-promoter, had no trouble persuading four adventure-hungry young men—Allan Crawford, 20; Milton Galle, 19; Lorne Knight, 28; and Fred Maurer, 28—to represent him in the Arctic. Stefansson never had any intention of accompanying the team. He was busy performing a lucrative lecture circuit in the United States, but he personally financed six months of supplies; gave the men instructions to hire Inuit families to hunt, cook, and make clothing for them; and assured them that the Arctic was a “friendly” place that would provide plenty of food. They left toting British and Canadian flags.
Almost from the beginning, the team had bad luck and made poor decisions. They intended to purchase an umiak, a lightweight skin-and-wood boat, to use for hunting, but scoffed at the asking price of $120. Instead, they purchased a much tinier skin boat—which wound up washing overboard—and a clumsy wooden dory. They hired Inuit families to come along, a common practice among Arctic expeditions of that time. (Most indigenous people got little to no credit for their critical roles in European and American expeditions.) On the day of departure from Nome, Alaska, all the Inuit except Blackjack thought better of it. Too risky, they said.
Blackjack had no interest in claiming far-flung territories for distant empires. She agreed to go because she needed the money. She had lost two of her three children and divorced her husband, who had beaten and starved her for years. Penniless, Blackjack was forced to place her sole remaining child, Bennett, who suffered from tuberculosis, into an orphanage. She signed on with the expedition desperate to pay for his medical care. When she realized that no other Inuit people wanted to come, however, she had reservations.
“I thought at first that I would turn back,” Blackjack told a newspaper reporter later. “But I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the boys, so I felt that I had to stay.”
After arriving in September 1921, the men ran scientific observations and hunted—clumsily without an umiak—and Blackjack sewed, but she also fell into fits of despair and loneliness. She was fearful of Knight, who was big, strong, and loud and referred to her as “the woman.” Over time, however, the crew became friendly as they lived off their supplies, dined on walrus stews and boiled bear blubber, and sat next to fires made of driftwood.
By the end of the second summer, the team was running out of food—but not optimism. In their diaries, the men didn’t seem concerned that their larder wasn’t full of meat. They assumed they would be picked up soon. But that summer brought unusually dense pack ice, and the ship, which Stefansson paid for by persuading the Canadian government to give him money on humanitarian grounds, was unable to reach them. By October, the team realized they’d need to winter over. Three months later, Maurer, Galle, and Crawford set out with weak, hungry sled dogs across the wind-blasted ice to seek help in Siberia. They were never seen or heard from again.
Blackjack, having grown up in a Methodist mission school, didn’t know much about surviving in the wilderness, and the men had assured her she wouldn’t have to. But Knight was too weak to do anything but wallow in his deer-hide sleeping bag. So Blackjack learned to trap foxes. She hauled driftwood and chopped it for the fire. She taught herself to shoot and brought in geese and seals for the two of them to eat. She even built herself two lightweight boats out of driftwood, canvas, and animal skin—which she had shot, dried, and sewed herself—so she could hunt more successfully.
Knight had once been a booming presence, but he withered over the months. Sores bloomed all over his body, his gums loosened, his teeth fell out, and blood seeped out of his skin and nose. Every morning and night, Blackjack heated sand to put on Knight’s feet. She even emptied his bedpan. In return, he projected his angst, throwing books and yelling at her. With exacting cruelty, he told her that she was doing a terrible job and that her husband was right to abuse her. Blackjack rarely shared emotions in her diary, but one day she broke.
“And he [mentions] my children and saying no wonder your children die you never take good care of them,” Blackjack wrote in April 1923. “He just tear me into pieces when he [mentions] my children that I lost. This is the [worst] life I ever live in this world.”
And yet she persisted in caring for Knight, even with a measure of kindness. Later, she wrote, “I didn’t say nothing to him and before I went in my sleeping bag I [filled] his water cup and went to bed.” Blackjack feared being alone in this hostile wilderness even more than she feared Knight. When he died, sometime during the night of June 22–23, 1923, Blackjack wept. Unable to bury him, she barricaded the tent against wild animals and moved into the cook tent.
At that time, Blackjack had no way of knowing if or when a ship would ever show up to rescue her. The entries in her diary were straightforward and uncomplaining, despite the fact that she suffered from headaches, stomachaches, swollen eyes, and the symptoms of growing scurvy. In broken English and haiku-like prose, she reports her activities, the weather, and her thanks to Jesus. “I caught one female fox and I haul one sled load and chop wood,” she wrote in March 1923. “I had a good rest today,” she wrote in July. “Thank God.”
But in the delicate pages, Blackjack also imparts hints of her desperation. The strange dreams. The visions of a peaceful church service in Nome she wasn’t sure she’d ever live to see again. The wishes for her son should she perish. She also suffered from a crippling terror of polar bears. While hunting one day, she narrowly escaped a bear when it stalked her but chose to eat the seal she’d shot instead. Occasionally Blackjack would shoot at hungry bruins from her tent door. She later said she might have gone nuts if it hadn’t been for the companionship of the expedition cat.
One foggy night, Blackjack thought she heard the faint cry of a boat whistle but chalked it up to the wind or a bird. The next day, August 19, 1923, the Donaldson, out of Nome, Alaska, finally appeared. Blackjack leaped and ran, laughed and cried. She had been on the island for 703 days, 57 of them alone. Her rescuer, Harold Noice, was impressed with her fortitude. “Even I, who had long since ceased to believe in hero worship, found myself unconsciously a little thrilled by the quality of her spirit,” he later said. Blackjack returned to civilization with great fanfare, as newspapers across the continent heralded her as the “female Robinson Crusoe.” In Nome, she was reunited with Bennett and her sisters.
“It’s a tremendous credit to her skills of adaptability and canniness in the wilderness that she survived,” says John McCannon, author of A History of the Arctic: Nature, Exploration, and Exploitation and professor of history at Southern New Hampshire University. “Native people were incredibly important in these expeditions, but only in a couple of cases would they achieve the kind of celebrity status as the white explorers they were helping.”
Despite her renown, life continued to be a struggle for Blackjack. Bennett struggled with health issues until his death, at age 58, in 1972. Unlike Stefansson and others, Blackjack didn’t profit from the expedition. (Stefansson published The Adventure of Wrangel Island in 1925, partly with the help of Blackjack’s diary.) Some newspapers later published accusations that she hadn’t cared for Knight properly, which were roundly debunked by Knight’s family, Stefansson, and others, and eventually retracted. Still, the unwarranted public criticism stung, and Blackjack vowed not to talk to reporters, a promise she kept for nearly 50 years and one that helped carry her into obscurity. She remarried and divorced twice and had another son, Billy. She nearly died from tuberculosis, dropped in and out of poverty, and led a quiet life herding reindeer, picking berries, hunting, and trapping. Blackjack died in Anchorage in 1983 at the age of 85.
In her elderhood, Blackjack started to grant interviews, and her story resurfaces from time to time. “Some say she is the greatest heroine in Arctic history,” wrote a reporter in the Boston Globe in 1973. In the past 15 years, a couple books have memorialized her ordeal.
Meanwhile, the expedition’s men died for naught. In 1924, Wrangel Island became part of Russia, which used it as a concentration camp for political prisoners and a training ground for KGB foreign agents, among other purposes. Today it is largely a nature reserve. Besides walrus, polar bears, Arctic foxes, and snow geese, researchers and occasional cruise ships are the only visitors. The crosses that once marked the graves of adventuresome young men were pulverized by the elements long ago. No signs remain of the woman who survived them all.