The true story “Ada Blackjack- Survival in the Arctic” is interesting in itself, but what we can learn from a young woman stranded on a desolate Arctic island for two years is perhaps more important. I have loved to read these types of stories all my life and it’s been a while since I last reviewed a book I had read. I really got into this one and wanted to share something about the story and some thoughts I have about it.
From the inside jacket we read the following introduction to the book.
Ada Blackjack was an unlikely hero – an unskilled 23 year old Inuit woman with no knowledge of the world outside Nome, Alaska. Divorced, impoverished, and despondent, she had one focus in her life – to care for her sickly son. In September 1921, in search of money and a husband, she signed on as a seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic”
A little background will help to understand the tragic events that unfolded. The expedition Ada became part of was the brainchild of famous Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian who after years in the Arctic sought to claim Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean above Russia for Canada. He felt the island could be developed into a stop over point in the newly forming Airline industry. Stefansson was so confident of the ability to live in the Arctic that he commissioned a crew of relatively inexperienced men to explore and begin to settle the island. Adding to potential problems, they were to live there a year, but were only provisioned with six months of food, which he felt would be plenty as they should easily be able to provide most of their needs by hunting.
It seems Stefansson’s confidence due to his experience may have clouded his vision of what he felt others could do. A couple of his statements about life in the Arctic make it seem almost like child’s play to live continuously in the high Arctic.
“I think that anyone with good eyesight and a rifle can live anywhere in the Polar regions indefinitely”
“Given a healthy body and a cheerful disposition, a family can now live at the North Pole as comfortably as it can in Hawaii”
“It’s just as easy to live up here as it is down home if you know how”
Stefansson, who was able to disappear into the Arctic for a couple years at at time, had become so comfortable with that region, that to him it was no difficulty. This overconfidence would soon prove the doom of his plans on Wrangel Island. From the start there were problems funding the project, and unbelievably to him, Canada nor Britain wanted any part of claiming an island off the Arctic coast of Russia. nor of funding it. Eventually through persistence he got the money together to get his crew to Nome, Alaska, where they began the process of outfitting, getting supplies etc. They were supposed to get an Umiak or seal skin boat to hunt from, also they were supposed to take along an Eskimo family to help with hunting, making things and repairing clothing and such,
which unfortunately they were unable to satisfactorily obtain. Ada went along very reluctantly as a seamstress due to pressure from the town Sheriff. It was even difficult to get a ship to take them to the island and drop them off, no one wanted to get frozen into the ice. The place was foreboding and remote.
Stefansson chose four young men for the expedition, two of them Fred Maurer and Loren Knight he would later compare to the famous Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, though they were certainly not anywhere near them in experience or stature. The other two men were Allan Crawford, an academic, and Milton Galle who worked for Stefansson on his speaking tours running a projector. Maurer and Knight at least had some experience in the Polar regions. Ada though an Eskimo, had little experience in traditional ways, certainly nothing that would be lifesaving.
One of the first things the party found out once set up on the island, the game was not always plentiful and much of the time nearly non-existent, consequently they used much of the food they brought with them feeding the sled dogs. They did not seem to worry too much about the food as they figured they could get by till the one year mark when a resupply ship would arrive. Conditions at times were grim. They explored the island looking for game and other resources. The summer came and went with no ship arriving, the ice had hardly melted before it came back again. No ship could get to them. Stefansson unrealistically did not show much concern, as he figured they were thriving. Not making contact that summer however put the group in dire circumstances as they had little remaining of their food supplies, certainly not enough to make it another year. Game seemed to be scarce. Finally during the dead of winter an attempt was made to send two men with a dog sled and supplies to try to reach the mainland across the ice, a trek experienced men said was difficult in the best of times and they could not imagine doing it in January. The first attempt failed mostly due to Knight suffering from the onset of scurvy and he and Crawford returned to camp after nearly three weeks on the ice. Another was put forth with Crawford, Maurer and Galle going, leaving Ada to care for the declining Knight and herself.
With the other men gone now, Ada had to do nearly everything as Knights bad health soon kept him in bed. He needed fresh meat, a lot of it, to get over the scurvy. Ada was having trouble getting much of anything. A turn in her character soon manifested itself, when she began to determine to live, to do whatever she needed to. She began running the traps the men had been taking care of before, but she began to keep track of what was more successful, she made changes as needed to try to obtain more food. She even started to observe the habits of what animals were around and soon devised methods of trapping them.One of the more important things she did, and which enabled her to survive was to overcome her terrible fear of the rifle. She finally decided she needed to use it if they were going to stay alive. At first it was just overcoming the fear of shooting it, the loud noise and the recoil, however, she determined to spend a certain amount of time practicing. Once she began hunting with it, she was able to bring in seals and some birds, which if she could have gotten enough of soon enough may have saved the life of her only companion, Knight. She knew she would need to be more accurate in shooting, in order to get enough food, so she practiced more.
When seals moved too far offshore and she was unable to get to them, she made her own sealskin boat. After using it only twice, a wind caught it and it was gone forever, though disheartened she cut up some tent canvas and sewed it onto a frame made of driftwood, making another boat, though not as good as the prior one. Ada did not let failure stop her, but tried again and again. She practiced laying low, being stealthy, getting close for a good shot. In many ways she began to thrive, sadly the continually diminishing health of Knight scared her because even though he was of no help, and was very verbally abusive to her as he faced death, still he was a person, any any person was better than none. She did not know if she could face things alone on this desolate island. The winter passed, spring passed and summer came, it was not until August 20 that a rescue boat finally came, two years had passed since she landed on Wrangel island. Now this part of her life had finally ended and a new though not necessarily better life began. Greed and strivings for notoriety propelled those who should have helped her after this ordeal to use her fame against her, stirring up all kinds of tales that made the news, and gained them popularity. Much of the balance of the book details these things.
The points I want to make here relating to survival in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, is that Ada though young, inexperienced, full of all kinds of fears was able to do in six months what the more able bodied men were less successful in. Not to blame them, they were not that much better off than her, and perhaps they did not fear as much initially since they expected a rescue and may not have tried as desperately as Ada, who did not know what the future held, but wanted to live as long as she could. She tried new things, she was observant and made adjustments in order to be more effective, she overcame her fears. She did gain much internal strength by reading daily from Knight’s Bible, it seemed to give her hope when things seemed hopeless, it gave her someone to turn to, someone she felt connected to, she trusted that God could help her.
In each of us there are times we must survive, it may not be alone on a desolate Arctic island, but we all have our Wrangel islands in our lives, the example of Ada can help us to push forward, and to help us hope for a better day.
Until next time, this is Perry Peacock, “Simplifying Survival”
All pictures courtesy of the book, Ada Blackjack – A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, Author Jennifer Niven DD 915.7