Ada Blackjack, an Alaskan Eskimo from Nome, Alaska was just 23 years old when she signed up to be a paid seamstress for a group of young men led by author and explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Stefansson hired three Americans, plus Ada, to accompany him to Wrangel Island, an island 83 miles north of Siberia in the Arctic Ocean. Stefansson thought that the expedition would aid in the claiming of the island for Canada.
As a single mother, Ada was in desperate need of money for the medical bills for her very sick son, Bennett, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Stefansson made promises to Ada that other Alaskan natives were also hired to go along with the expedition, but that never happened. Their ship, the Silver Wave, landed on Wrangel Island on September 16, 1921. Upon landing, and realizing that Stefansson had made empty promises, Ada wrote, “I thought at first that I would turn back, but I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the boys. Soon after we arrived, I started to sew.” (litsite.org)
Stefansson, thinking the glass was half-full, only packed a six-month supply of food for the expedition, thinking that Wrangel Island would be bountiful enough to provide food for them for the rest of the year. And indeed, in the spring of 1922, diaries from the expedition reported that the party had killed 30 seals, 10 polar bears, and many geese and ducks. A long winter eventually set in and things went horribly bad. The four men packed up to search for help, but Lorne Knight was too ill to continue the trip and the men returned to camp. Ada and Knight were left behind while Stefansson and the other men packed up the remaining food supplies and left for Siberia to get help. They promised they would return. They were never heard from again.
Ada took as much care of Knight as she could, but he succumbed to scurvy on June 22, 1923. Ada buried him as best she could.
Before the expedition, Ada knew nothing about guns, hunting, or survival, but Stefansson left behind a rifle, a cat, a Bible, and a typewriter. Ada recorded her life on Wrangel Island and passed the time trying to get food, care for Knight and by reading the Bible. She says that polar bears would constantly steal what she shot before she got a chance to retrieve it. Wrangel Island has the highest density of polar dens in the world. Wrangel Island is also cold for most of the year and is prone to high winds, fog, and mist.
Ada survived for two years on the island before being rescued in August 1923. Ada, being a young, unskilled survivalist knew that she had to endure the harsh climate and get over her fears in order to survive the Island. When the media pounced on her story upon return, calling her brave, Ada responded, “Brave?… I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.” (sitnews.us) As the only woman on a five-person team to survive the Arctic expedition, I certainly call Ada brave.