In the early 1920’s, a woman nervously joined an expedition to Wrangel Island, an ice island in the freezing Siberia. The group was made up of five people but only she survived. The perilous two year long expedition saw her face polar bears, harrowing isolation and the relentless trials of ice. Her journey has come to be regarded as the most miraculous survival in recorded modern history.
Located in the Arctic Ocean, 100 miles from the Northern Siberian coast and more than 250 miles from Alaska, Wrangel Island is almost completely frozen all year round, with the exception of a short and chilly summer. The island is perpetually surrounded by thick fog, making it extremely difficult to approach.
Two centuries ago, in 1764, a Cossack explorer named Sergeant Andreev discovered the island. Throughout the 19th century many attempts were made to go ashore and explore the island, but non had managed it, due to the harsh weather conditions and unwelcoming wildlife.
However, in the beginning of the 20th century, a Canadian explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson committed himself to the endeavor of conquering it.
During his first attempt in 1914, his ship ran into ice and was destroyed by the giant icebergs surrounding the island, leaving the mission in ruin and the expedition party braving 9 months alone on the ice before being rescued by a fishing vessel.
In 1920, he planned to set out again to conquer the island, but this time with the wisdom of his previous failed attempt. He appealed to the Canadian government for sponsorship, declaring he would claim the island under Canadian sovereignty, however, he was denied. The Canadian government deemed the mission too dangerous. Despite this, he remained steadfast in his determination.
In 1921, Stefansson gathered a group of explorers to embark upon the mission. The group consisted of Allan Crawford, a 20 year old fellow Canadian, 29 year old American Fred Maurer and Lorne Knight, 28 year old American and Milton Galle, another American and the youngest of the expedition at just 19 years old. All of them had remarkable knowledge of geography and the sciences, as well as having previous exploration experience in the Arctic.
Although Stefansson established the expedition and funded the mission, he had no intention of joining the crew. He attempted to recruit additional people to assist the expedition. It should be someone who possessed hunting, fishing and camping skills and could adapt to the severe conditions they would face. However, come the day of departure, there was only one other person recruited to join the crew.
Surprisingly, it as a 23-year-old woman named Ada Blackjack. She was a member of the Inuit clan, was barely five feet tall, and knew nothing of exploration or what it took to live in the wilderness. In addition she had no hunting, fishing or camping skills and was even, at the time, afraid of guns and polar bears. She did however come from Alaska and had expert knowledge of cooking and sewing, this was the basis of her employment.
Ada Blackjack, née Delutuk, was born in 1898 in Solomon, Alaska, a remote region located in the north of the Arctic. She had little knowledge of the world outside of her village and was deeply religious; something that would later play a significant role in her survival.
She married when she was just 16 years old and gave birth to 3 children, tragically only one survived past infancy. The surviving child suffered from tuberculosis, so when Ada decided to join the expedition as the tailor and chef, it was to make money for the care and healing of her son.
The four men of the expedition considered her an obstacle and a burden to the trip and ridiculed her, claiming that she would never survive the voyage. But, with resistance, they were forced to accept her presence in lieu of a replacement. Their ridicule and judgment would prove unwarranted, as Ada would go on to prove herself more capable than any could have expected.
In 1921, the expedition crossed the Chukchi Sea, leaving the explorers on Wrangel Island on September 9th, to claim the island in the name of Canada. They were left with essential equipment and enough food for 6 months. According to Stefansson, this food along with hunted meat and fish would be sufficient for the group to survive for one year, before another ship came to deliver supplies.
The expedition party would have to stay on the island for at least two years; the necessary time for the international community to recognize the sovereignty of a country with citizens living there.
As planned, after landing on the desert Wrangel Island, they would first set up camp, before exploring the land, collecting land samples and then laying in wait for Stefansson to send the next ship with vital food and provisions in the next summer season.
They spent the first few months living on the island relatively well, with an abundance of food, stored and hunted. While the men spent their time hunting for geese and foxes, Ada whiled away her time singing hymns whilst sewing and cooking. The trouble only came when their food source became increasingly exhausted.
In January 1922, they caught only a few foxes, bears and seagulls. In spite of being very anxious about the success of the delivery, the expedition still expected the ship of food supplies to arrive in the summer.
On June 2nd 1922, a strong storm surrounded the island, freezing the sea around them. The arrival of the supply ship became a more and more bleak possibility as their dependency on it became increasingly intense. They were now desperate and sure that their supplies would not afford another year on the island without replenishment.
In early 1923, the situation worsened to the state of near disaster, alongside their near starvation, a member of the team, Lorne Knight fell ill with scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency resulting in ulcerated skin and ultimately death).
On January 28th 1923, Crawford, Maurer and Galle decided to leave Ada behind to seek help for Knight, and cross the ice to Siberia for assistance. Ada helped them pack their belongings onto a sled in the freezing -56 degree weather conditions. Galle promised Ada that they would return for her however the day after they left a violent snowstorm engulfed the island and the 3 men were never seen again.
Keeping faith, a miracle occured
Over the next few months, Ada cared for Knight’s every need. She filled the role of doctor, nurse, guard, hunter and companion. Despite this, once well, Knight abandoned her and left her alone on the island in extremely dangerous conditions.
To survive in the frozen wilderness, Ada used sand to keep her feet warm, learned how to trap white foxes. She also took advantage of Knight’s guns and shot birds, caught seals for meat reserves and built a wooden shelter to detect polar bears from afar. She even crafted a boat from pieces of driftwood she collected from along the shore. During her time alone she also grew increasingly curious about the expedition camera. She taught herself how to use it and took a number of photographs, including powerful self portraits.
In one photograph of herself standing just outside the camp, Ada’s optimistic attitude is palpable, despite the severe nature of the danger surrounding her.
On August 20th 1923, nearly 2 years after Ada’s arrival on Wrangel Island, a relief ship assigned by Stefansson arrived on the island.
Rescuers were in disbelief upon finding Ada alone and thriving on the perilous island.
One account read that ‘Ada was master of her life in an unbelievably harsh environment, if there was no rescue ship, she could still live there for one year more, though the lonely life on the island is truly a horrible experience,’ the Los Angeles Time, in 1924.
Her miraculous return was the epicenter for a barrage of praise and admiration from the press. The media announced her as ‘the hero’, ‘the bravest one’, ‘the female Robinson Crusoe’. But through all of the media frenzy and praise, humble Ada calmly stepped away from the limelight. She simply stated, “As a mother, I needed to live to return to my son.” She claimed to owe her survival on two strengths, the strength of motherhood and the strength of faith.
Ada pinned her success heavily on her devotion to her faith, the presence of her Bible, the singing of hymns and her belief in the supreme being was what enabled her to miraculously survive alone on the island for two years.
Without the comfort and support that her faith provided, Ada may not have found the strength to continue through the hardships she faced on the island. In times of physical exhaustion, painful isolation and perilous conditions she managed to remain calm and optimistic. When faced with the same reality, her four companions, equipped with their scientific knowledge and survival expertise, perished under the weight of the expedition.
At long last, Ada returned home and was reunited with her son Bennett. She used her salary, earnt during her stay on the island, to seek help for his illness and ultimately cure him of his disease. While Stefansson and others involved with the expedition, sold their stories and capitalized off the back of the catastrophic circumstances of the mission, Ada merely returned to her normal life. She and her son lived out their remaining days in quiet poverty, but had no complaint of their humble circumstances. She never lost her optimism or her steadfast faith.
In 1972, her son Bennett, then 58, died after battling lifelong medical conditions. Almost a decade later, on May 29th 1983, Ada Blackjack died in a nursing home in Palmer, Alaska, at the age of 85. She was buried next to her son.
The miraculous survival of such an unassuming and unprepared woman, defeats all logic and is truly miraculous. Her resolve was never broken, nor her willful determination to survive. Her strength remained through it all, drawn from her love as a mother and her faith in her creator.
Ada had an extraordinarily strong belief in the Supreme Being, protecting her and guiding her through it all. This unfaltering faith was what kept her alive and ultimately guided her safely home.