DISASTER SURVIVAL – A Personal Story

Ada Blackjack after her survival ordeal at Wrangel Island

In 1921 a veteran explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson organized a
speculative attempt to claim the island of Wrangel in Siberia for Canada. He
assembled a team which was left on 15 September 1921 on the Island. The team
included five people: a woman in her early twenties named Ada Blackjack who had
been hired as a cook and seamstress, the American men Lorne Knight, Milton
Galle, and Fred Maurer; and a Canadian Allan Crawford. Maurer had spent eight
months in 1914 on the island after surviving the shipwreck of Karluk,
which was a part of the Canadian Arctic Expedition financed by the Canadian Government
in 1913-1916

The four young men were inexperienced and ill-equipped for the
trip and the conditions soon turned bad for the team. After rations ran out,
the team was unable to kill enough game on the island to survive. So, on 28 January
1923 three men tried to cross the 700-mile frozen Chukchi Sea to
Siberia for help and food, leaving Ada and the ailing Lorne Knight behind.
Knight was afflicted with a dietary deficiency known as scurvy, and was cared
for by Ada until he died on June 23, 1923. The other three men were never seen
again, and so Ada was left alone except for the company of the expedition’s cat
Vic.

THE MOTIVATION

Blackjack was born in 1898 in Spruce Creek, Alaska, a remote
settlement north of the Arctic Circle near the Gold Rush town of Nome. Married
at the age of sixteen, she had three children, two of which died shortly after
birth. Bennett, her surviving child, suffered from general poor health and
tuberculosis specifically. Ada lacked the resources to care for him and
therefore, placed him in a local orphanage, vowing that she would find a way to
make enough money to bring him back home and care for him properly.

It was during this time that Blackjack heard about an expedition
heading for Wrangel Island: they were seeking an Alaska Native seamstress who
spoke English. At the time, she had no idea what ill-conceived venture this was.
She was promised $50 per month, which was at that time a huge sum of money and
the ticket which would get her son proper care.

Though Stefansson picked the team himself and funded the
mission, he never had any intention of joining the party. He sent the
inexperienced team north with only six months’ worth of rations and supplies along
with a  hollow assurances that “the
friendly Arctic” would provide ample game to augment their stores until a ship
picked them up the following year.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

For the first year on Wrangel Island, the land lived up to
Stefansson’s promises, but as summer came to an end, the once-plentiful game
disappeared and the pack ice closed in with no sign of a ship. Unbeknownst to
the party, the Teddy Bear, the ship chartered to pick them up, had
been forced to turn back due to impenetrable ice. As the weather turned, the
expedition faced the reality that their inadequate stores would have to last
another year.

By the beginning of 1923 however, the situation became critical.
Everyone in the party was starving, and Knight was extremely ill. On the 28th
of January 1923, Crawford, Maurer and Galle decided to leave Blackjack with the
deathly ill Knight and set out on foot across the ice to Siberia in search of
help. They were never seen again.

For the next six months, Blackjack was alone with Knight. She
served as “doctor, nurse, companion, servant and huntswoman in one,” said
the Los Angeles Times in 1924. Her time was taken up by
hunting, cooking, caring for Knight but despite her best efforts Knight died in
June 1923.

 SURVIVAL

After Knight’s passing, Blackjack refused to fall into despair
and instead dedicated herself ferociously to the task of surviving. Her dream
of reuniting with her son was her driving force. It’s been said that Ada had neither
the physical strength nor emotional fortitude to bury Knight’s corpse so she left
him resting on his bed inside of his sleeping bag and erected a barricade of
boxes to protect his body from wild animals. Terrified of polar bears she built
a cupboard out of boxes, which she placed at the entrance of the storage tent
she moved into to escape the stench of the rotting corpse and in this cupboard she
stored her field glasses and ammunition. Most importantly, Blackjack built a
gun rack above her bed so that she would not be caught by surprise if the bears
ventured too close to camp.

For three months, Blackjack was alone. She learned how to trap
white foxes, shoot birds and she built a platform above her shelter so that she
could spot polar bears in the distance. Blackjack also crafted a skin boat from
driftwood and stretched canvas after the one initially brought to the island
was lost in a storm. She even experimented with the expedition’s photography
equipment, taking pictures of herself standing outside of camp.

On August 20, 1923, almost two years after first landing on
Wrangel Island, the schooner Donaldson appeared over the
horizon to rescue the persevering seamstress, who was doing quite well on her
own. The crew of the Donaldson later
agreed that Blackjack mastered her environment so well that it seemed likely
she could have lived there another year, even though the isolation would have
been a dreadful experience. As news of expedition’s tragic end spread,
Blackjack found herself at the epicenter of a flurry of press attention lauding
her as a hero and praising her for her courage. But the quiet seamstress shied
away from the attention and titles, insisting that she was simply a mother who
had needed to get home to her son.

THE END

Eventually Ada was reunited with Bennett and used her payment,
which ended up being significantly less than what she had been promised, to
seek treatment for her son’s tuberculosis in a Seattle hospital. Later on, Ada
had a second son, Billy, and returned to live in Alaska. Despite the seemingly
happy ending, Blackjack’s remaining years were tinged with pervasive sadness
and poverty. While Stefansson and others profited greatly from the story of the
tragic expedition, Blackjack herself saw none of that money, and smear
campaigns against her later emerged. They claimed that she had callously
refused to care for Knight during his time of need and that she was responsible
for his death.

Bennett’s health issues were never fully resolved. He died of a
stroke in 1972 at the age of 58. Blackjack followed her son roughly a decade
later, passing away in a nursing home in Palmer, Alaska at the age of 85. She
was buried by her sons’ side.  

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