The Woman Who Survived Two Years Alone in the Arctic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history has ignored this early Arctic explorer.
By Fiona Zublin
When rescuers came for Ada Blackjack, she was alone except for a cat named Victoria, or Vic for short. The pair were the only survivors of a quixotic five-person expedition to an Arctic island, with hopes of claiming the land for Canada. Instead, the land claimed the lives of four of the explorers.
Ada Delutuk was born in 1898, 60 years before Alaska became the 49th state, and grew up in the Inuit settlement of Spruce Creek, Alaska. When she was 8, her father died, and Ada was sent to a Methodist school in Nome, where she was taught enough English to read the Bible and how to clean houses and cook.
At 16, she married Jack Blackjack, but after six years and three children (only one of whom survived), their marriage dissolved. When Jack abandoned Ada, she and her 5-year-old son, Bennett, walked 40 miles from the Seward Peninsula to her mother’s house in Nome. Bennett was sickly and needed full-time medical care, so Ada took him to an orphanage while trying to earn enough money to provide for her son by sewing for the prospectors who were the lifeblood of the violent and rough-edged Alaskan city.
That was when she first heard of Wrangel Island, a dot in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia thought to be the last place on earth where woolly mammoth had survived. An expedition was planned, and its organizers were looking for an Alaska Native to serve as cook and seamstress. In 1913, Icelandic-Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had launched an ill-fated expedition to the island: His ship was crushed by ice and the crew had to walk across the island before being rescued. Half of them perished.
One of the survivors was American Fred Maurer, and in 1921 Stefansson organized a second expedition to see whether the island could be claimed for the British Empire as a strategically important airstrip (and profitable walrus-hunting and fur-trapping ground). Maurer was joined by two other Americans, Milton Galle and Errol Lorne Knight, and Canadian Allan Crawford. Ada Blackjack was hired to cook and to sew survival gear for $50 a month. They sailed to Wrangel aboard the Victoria, with a gray kitten they dubbed Vic. Once on the island, the four men raised the Union Jack and officially claimed the land for King George.
None of the group, including Ada, who barely reached 5 feet tall, possessed much in the way of wilderness skills. They built a house out of driftwood and blocks of snow, and the men spent their days hiking and collecting scientific data. After a few weeks, Ada’s behavior became erratic — she refused to work, convinced that some of her companions wanted to kill her. She occasionally ran away and had to be retrieved, or she tried to follow the men on their expedition, both symptoms of a condition known as Arctic hysteria.
Months passed and the promised rescue ship with fresh supplies and more colonists never appeared. Back home, Stefansson was having trouble raising the funds to send a boat. The ship he did manage to send, the Teddy Bear, had to turn back before reaching the island due to foul weather, thus missing the yearly window before the island became too iced in to reach. By early 1923, the situation at the camp was dire. Knight — already suffering from scurvy — and Crawford attempted to cross the ice via sled to seek help, but had to turn back. In January, leaving Knight in Ada’s care, Crawford, Galle and Maurer tried again — it would be the last time the three men were seen alive. Alone and tending to a sick man, Ada taught herself to shoot and set traps, turning carcasses into broth for Knight when his gums were too tender to chew solid food. She even experimented with building a boat from animal skins, as she had seen the prospectors in Spruce Creek do. On June 23, despite Ada’s care, Knight died.
In the months that followed, Ada left a daily note in Galle’s old Corona typewriter, recording her activities in case she died before the trio returned. “I’m going to the other side of the harbar mouth do some duck hunding,” read one. “I thank god for living,” read another. Determined to survive, Ada learned how to kill seals, using their skins for shoes, and built a gun rack above her bed in case polar bears ventured too close to camp.
On Aug. 19, nearly two years after the Victoria first landed, help arrived — Stefansson had finally mustered the funds for a relief expedition. The crew of the Donaldson came ashore expecting to find the five explorers. Instead, they found only Ada, who sobbed and asked them to take her back to Alaska, where she was reunited with her son.
Back in Nome, as the families of Maurer, Crawford and Galle clamored for an investigation into the men’s fates, Ada became something of a celebrity, hailed in the press as a heroine on par with Robinson Crusoe. And then the press turned on her, suspicious of the fact that Knight had died in her care — even as his family, with whom she’d formed a bond, defended her. Ada and her song moved to the Pacific Northwest and, later, to the Aleutian Islands, where she lived well into her 80s. One month after Ada died, the Alaska Legislature honored her for “bravery and heroic deeds.”
As for Wrangel Island, two years after the botched expedition, the Canadian and British governments announced that they had no interest whatsoever in the territory.