Reluctant Alaskan hero

by Ray Cavanaugh

Wrangel Island was never a place people would visit unless they had a really good reason. Technically part of Russia, it’s some 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and almost as many miles away from the Alaskan coast. It tended to attract young men seeking adventure, danger, and perhaps some personal glory.

For the first two, the island was a safe bet. The glory part, however, proved rather more elusive, often fatally so.

This hostile piece of territory, with far more polar bears than people, had managed to become a source of international controversy, with Russians, Americans, and Canadians at different points making claims for their homeland.

All this was far outside the thoughts of Ada Blackjack, until a set of life circumstances placed her directly on Wrangel’s icy surface and forever linked her name to its formidable legacy.

An Alaskan Inupiat, Ada Blackjack was born Ada Delutuk in 1898 in the settlement of Spruce Creek, eight miles east of the village of Solomon, Alaska, which is part of the Nome Census Area. Her father died when she was eight years old, and her mother then sent her to Nome, where she was raised by Methodist missionaries.

At age 16, she married a hunter and dog musher named Jack Blackjack. They had three children, two of whom soon died. The husband “treated her brutally—beating her and starving her, and eventually deserting her,” as related by Jennifer Niven’s biography Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic.

Along with her one surviving child—a boy named Bennet—she walked 40 miles to Nome. There she tried to eke out a living by working as a seamstress and house cleaner. Amid all her setbacks, there was another problem: Bennet had tuberculosis. Seeking money to get him proper medical treatment, Ada Blackjack signed up to join an arctic expedition team as a cook and seamstress. She was promised $50 per month, more money than she’d ever had.

As the website of the Anchorage Museum relates, she was led to believe there would be other Inupiat on the expedition. But when time came to sail north on Sept. 9, 1921, it became apparent that Blackjack, age 23 and under five feet tall, was not just the only Indigenous person on board, but also the only female with four men. They reached Wrangel Island uneventfully enough. But, as the months passed, the expedition team’s rations expired, and they were unable to sustain themselves by hunting local game.

As a second winter loomed, supplies were dwindling, and there was no sign of help arriving. (A ship endeavored to come, but the way to Wrangel Island had become inaccessibly icy.) Desperation began to take hold, along with scurvy and frostbite—temperatures dropped to near 70 below.

Three of the young men set out for Siberia. Nobody ever saw them again. The fourth man, debilitated by scurvy, stayed with Blackjack. As his physical and mental state declined, she took care of him to the bitter end.

Blackjack became the sole occupant of a bone-chilling universe. Another problem was that, although she was an Inupiat, she had spent her formative years with a white family and lacked Indigenous Alaskan survival skills. But she had at least one item in her favor—an indomitable will to survive to get back to her son.

She also had a few guns and began practicing on empty tea tins next to her camp. Eventually, she was dropping seagulls with a single shot. She also scored ducks and even snagged an occasional goose. Having used her seamstress skills to stitch together a reindeer coat, she could be found crawling on her stomach in pursuit of seals. She hunted every day even though she feared falling through ice or becoming prey to a polar bear. She also started trapping foxes and collected seagull eggs and sweet roots for stew.

For eight months, Blackjack subsisted alone. Then, on Aug. 20, 1923, she heard what she first thought was a group of walruses. It was actually a ship’s engine, and her ticket back to the world.

The 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition team: Ada Blackjack, Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, Milton Galle, and Victoria the cat.

For her rescuers, the joy of initial contact vanished as it became apparent that Blackjack was the only person left to rescue and that the others almost undoubtedly met with an awful fate. Not long after her return to Nome, people with far more connections than Blackjack began squabbling over publication rights to what was essentially her heroic triumph over near-certain death.

As word spread of her ordeal and survival, she became known as the “female Robinson Crusoe.” Many people would love such media coverage, but Blackjack was an introverted, modest person who didn’t like the attention. 

She managed to find treatment for her ailing son at a Seattle hospital, before returning to Alaska. In 1983, she died in Palmer, Alaska, at age 85. Blackjack never made a dime from her harrowing tale. Moreover, she never received the full chunk of her $50-per-month seamstress salary.   

Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer who enjoys long walks and his Kindle Paperwhite.

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