On 19 August 1923, a freezing evening drew in on Wrangel Island, 100 miles north of the coast of Siberia. As a thick blanket of fog rolled over the bleak Arctic landscape, Ada Blackjack sat swaddled in a thick reindeer parka, preparing her meagre evening meal.
Blackjack had arrived on the island two years earlier as the seamstress attached to a party of Arctic explorers. But the ill-fated expedition had been plagued by illness and bad weather, and she was now the only one of the five members left alive.
As she settled down to make her food that evening, Ada heard an unfamiliar noise. Deciding it must have been “a duck or something”, she retired to her tent and tried to sleep. At 6am the next morning, she heard the sound again, but this time, “it sounded more like a boat whistle”. Grabbing her binoculars, Blackjack ran outside. Sure enough, in the distance she spotted a schooner, its crewmen wandering about on the shore. Finally, Blackjack’s salvation had arrived – her two-year ordeal was over.
Act of desperation
Under 5ft tall with no expedition experience, little desire for adventure and a crippling fear of polar bears, Ada Blackjack was an unlikely candidate for Arctic exploration. Born in 1898, she had been raised by Methodist missionaries in the tough Alaskan town of Nome. While many Iñupiat people were well-versed in Arctic survival, these skills were never deemed necessary in Ada’s missionary upbringing – instead, she was taught to clean, cook and sew.
But by 1921, 23-year-old Blackjack was a divorced and destitute single mother. After her abusive husband had abandoned her, she had desperately struggled to support her young son, Bennett, who was suffering from tuberculosis. But supporting him singlehandedly had become impossible, and Blackjack was forced to place him in an orphanage.
Blackjack was in desperate need of money in order to be reunited with her son when, in September 1921, a ship called the Victoria pulled into Nome. Hailing from Seattle, it carried four young men tasked with a daunting mission. At the behest of celebrated Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, they were heading to the remote Wrangel Island, 100 miles north of Siberia. The team – made up of Lorne Knight, Frederick Maurer, Milton Galle and Allan Crawford – planned to live on the uninhabited land for two years in order to claim the territory for the British government.
The other expedition members
At just 20 years old, Allan Crawford was an inexperienced expedition leader. He was chosen because he was Canadian, which made him a British citizen – necessary to stake a British claim for Wrangel Island. Stefansson wrote to his young captain ahead of the mission: “Although I have confidence in you, you are in command through the accident of being British … the wiser you are, the more you will follow the advice of your experienced men.”
American Fred Maurer was no novice in the frozen north. Seven years earlier, the 28-year-old had even spent time on Wrangel Island, on Stefansson’s doomed Karluk expedition. That mission had almost cost him his life – 11 had died on that expedition. He married his sweetheart Delphine before setting off, with Stefansson as his best man.
“My experience has been that generally the younger the man the more readily he adapts himself to northern conditions,” Stefansson wrote to a friend when planning the Wrangel Island mission. His youngest recruit was 19-year-old Texan Milton Galle. In fact, it was in the Arctic that Galle grew his first beard. He was “simply overjoyed” to be chosen for the mission and was keen to record everything on his beloved typewriter.
Loud, raucous and straight talking, Seattle native Lorne Knight had a long-standing appetite for adventure. He had been on previous Arctic expeditions with Stefansson and had even suffered from scurvy – recovering by gorging on fresh caribou tongue. Knight was close to his family, and his father wrote how proud they were that “Lorne has become a real explorer”. Blackjack found him to be a frightening figure and was intimidated by his broad frame, unpredictable temper and wild facial hair.
In Nome, they intended to recruit several Iñupiat people to assist with camp duties, and Blackjack – well known as a skilled seamstress – was a perfect candidate. Initially she was reluctant, afraid of being away from home for so long and aware of her lack of experience. This ominous feeling was reinforced when the other Iñupiat families that had been recruited backed out at the last moment. But Blackjack was desperate. The monthly salary of $50 was enough to bring Bennett home. It was an opportunity she could not afford to turn down.
On the afternoon of 9 September 1921, Blackjack joined the team as they pulled out of Nome aboard a different vessel, the Silver Wave. Within a week, Wrangel Island could be spotted on the horizon. On first impressions, it was far from the barren, ice-locked wasteland they had been warned of: the rocky outcrop was covered in lichen and mosses, the climate relatively temperate. Crawford’s men wasted no time hoisting a British flag and burying a proclamation staking their claim “for His Majesty George, King of Great Britain”.
The first few months were tinged with optimism. Once they had set up camp they quickly fell into a routine, spending their days mapping the island or collecting geological and biological specimens, the long evenings whiled away gambling or reading the same few books cover to cover.
Assured by Stefansson that a ship would be arriving with more supplies in the summer, the team made no attempt to ration their six months’ worth of provisions, which they topped up with the island’s seemingly plentiful wild game – especially polar bears, which scared Blackjack half to death when they roamed close to camp. She cooked up whatever the men were able to catch, from seagulll to fox and owl. Polar bear steaks fried in seal blubber proved especially popular.
Slowly, though, the mood in camp began to shift. Hunting opportunities began to slip away as a disorientating Arctic winter brought 61 days of darkness. The desperately homesick Blackjack had quickly come to regret her decision and irritated the men with her changeable moods and anguished outbursts. Knight showed little sympathy, complaining in his diary: “it is NOT funny for the four of us to have a foolish female howling and refusing to work and eating all of our good grub.”
One cool cat
As well as its five human members, the expedition also had a feline explorer in its number – a cat called Victoria. Named after the ship that had carried the team from Seattle, Vic snuggled in the team’s sleeping bags at night and lived off scraps and leftovers. She also survived the two years on Wrangel Island.
Whatever their hardships, Ada and the team knew that if they could just tough it out until summer, Stefansson’s ship would be arriving with new team members and supplies, as well as treasured letters from home. “I shall not shave or dress up until next year, when Mr Stefansson and several other white men will come,” the youthful Galle declared in his journal. The team tracked the progress of the ice floes with the changing seasons, eagerly awaiting the arrival. Little did they know that their relief vessel had come unstuck.
After a delayed departure due to a lack of funding, the resupply vessel – Teddy Bear – had been caught in some of the worst ice in 25 years. On 25 September 1922, its captain messaged Stefansson that they had been forced to turn back: “Teddy Bear unsuccessful. Encountered Arctic pack, propeller damaged. All navigators here predicted failure due to unusual ice condition.” For his part, Stefansson was not overly concerned, reflecting: “We had no reason to think that the skill of the men already there was inadequate to meet the situation.”
Back on Wrangel Island, as summer turned to autumn, the team slowly realised that no one was coming to relieve them. Their rations were almost exhausted, the polar bears that had once been so plentiful appeared to have all but vanished, and hunting missions were becoming ever more fruitless. It soon became clear that despite Blackjack’s best efforts at serving up even the most inedible cuts of meat, there was simply not enough food to keep all five of them alive. Knight, meanwhile, had begun to feel weak and lethargic. His joints were aching and gums sore. Although he tried to keep these grisly symptoms from his teammates, he recognised them well from his previous Arctic expeditions. It was the early stages of scurvy.
In January 1923, with the looming spectre of starvation hanging over camp, Crawford made a difficult decision. Along with Galle and Maurer, he would embark on an ambitious trek back across the now-frozen sea to fetch help, leaving Blackjack at camp with the rapidly deteriorating Knight. As the three men set off with a tranche of supplies and the five remaining dogs, the dangers involved were not lost on them.
“Whether I reach my goal or not remains to be seen,” Maurer wrote in a final letter to his wife. “If the fates favour me, I’ll have the pleasure of telling you all about it, if against me, then someone else, no doubt, will tell you all.” Blackjack was especially sad to bid farewell to Galle, who had shown her kindness and enjoyed listening to her folktales.
Just a couple of days after the three figures had disappeared over the horizon, the weather turned. A vicious gale struck up, “blowing and drifting as hard as I have ever seen it,” Knight noted downheartedly in his diary. Crawford, Galle and Maurer were never seen again.
Nurse and hunter
At camp, Knight deteriorated quickly. He was soon confined to bed, suffering from aggressive nosebleeds and covered with mottled bruises, teeth falling from his softened gums. Although she had never used a gun, Blackjack realised that she would have to bring in fresh meat if she was going to keep Knight alive. Despite her diminutive frame, she taught herself to shoot with his huge, heavy rifle, and built a platform from which she could spot the dreaded polar bears. She was so afraid of the beasts that she began sleeping with the rifle above her bed in case any roamed too close to camp. Blackjack tended to Knight as best she could. But he was far from a grateful patient, constantly scolding, and even flinging books at her. As Blackjack saw her teammate slipping away, she began to despair at the thought of being left alone on the island. “If anything happen to me and my death is known … I wish if you please take everything to Bennett that is belong to me,” she wrote in her diary. “I don’t know how much I would be glad to get home to folks.” On 23 June, her fears were finally confirmed when she awoke to find Knight cold and unmoving.
Although the prospect of life all alone in such a vast, silent landscape was overwhelming, Blackjack ploughed on with the gruelling daily slog of staying alive. She counted off each day on a calendar crafted from Galle’s typewriter paper, but countless more still stretched out ahead. Yet even as hope was fading, Blackjack was determined to make it back to her son. She filled her journal with worries about Bennett’s future, and sewed him a pair of slippers.
The skills Ada had taught herself were now essential to staying alive. After typing a note each morning detailing her whereabouts in case rescuers appeared, she set traps for foxes and learnt to shoot birds and seals. It was far from easy, and every lost opportunity meant an ever more uncertain fate. When the skin boat Ada had carefully crafted blew away in the night, she wept with frustration. But she refused to be defeated, finding solace in her Christian faith – as she noted in her diary on 23 July: “I thank God for living.”
It was not until 20 August 1923 – almost two years after she had landed on Wrangel Island – that Ada’s ordeal finally came to an end. As the crew of the schooner Donaldson approached her camp, Blackjack was overwhelmed with emotion, and broke down sobbing. When the rescuers asked her where her teammates were, she could only reply: “There is nobody here but me. I am all alone.”
What happened next?
On her return to Alaska, Blackjack was plunged into the middle of a media storm. The press clamoured to hear how the “female Robinson Crusoe” had survived an ordeal so ghastly it had claimed the lives of the other heroic explorers, the pressure intensifying when accusations were made that she had not done enough to save Knight. All this invasive media attention did not sit easily with the private Blackjack, who simply wanted to be reunited with her son.
With her salary from the voyage, Blackjack was finally able to take Bennett to Seattle for treatment. But while she may have escaped Wrangel Island, her fight for survival was not over. Though Stefansson and others profited from writing sensationalist books about her ordeal, Blackjack continued to be plagued by poverty and hardship throughout her life. She later had a second son, Billy, but money problems forced her to place him and Bennett in a home for nine years. She later moved back to Alaska to work as a reindeer herder and lived until the age of 85.
Ellie Cawthorne is section editor at BBC History Magazine