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Ada Blackjack: Survival in the Arctic

November 18, 2019

Approaching Wrangel Island, July 2019 (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven, 2003

In 1921, Ada Blackjack, a young Alaskan Inuit seamstress, was persuaded to join an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. In this book, Jennifer Niven tells the story of this remarkable woman.

Ada Cover Book (2)

The organiser of  the venture, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, had arranged a previous disastrous expedition to the Arctic, during which eleven men had lost their lives. Now he decided to send four young men to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire, despite the fact that it was off the coast of the Soviet Union. The men would stay on the island for three years to consolidate the claim and demonstrate how easy it was to live in the “friendly Arctic”.

The men chartered a ship to take them from Nome to the island. They hired several Inuit families to travel with them, the men to hunt, and the women to sew. Seamstresses were vital to make clothing to protect the men from the cold.

When the time came to depart, the Inuit families refused to go because, they said, the trip would be too dangerous. Ada did not want to go as the only female with four men, but eventually agreed to join the trip. She would use her wages to pay for medical treatment for her son, who had suffered from tuberculous.

Lcation map Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island Location Map by Norman Einstein (CC Licence)

They arrived on Wrangel Island in September 1921 and immediately raised the British flag and claimed the island for Great Britain. Then they set up three tents, built the frame of a house and later, when the snow arrived in October, they covered the house walls with snow blocks. Ada worked diligently, sewing and cooking.

After two weeks, Ada changed. She cried uncontrollably and did no work. She had become infatuated with one of the men, and believed the other three were planning to kill her. One of the men, Lorne Knight, was always sharpening his knife.

One day, she disappeared. They followed her footprints. When they found her, she began to scream. She wanted to die and had drank a bottle of liniment.

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Ada was terrified of being eaten by a polar bear (Photo by Ann Alcock)

The men tried to discipline her by refusing her food, or tying her to the flagpole until she promised to work.

Jennifer Niven suggests that Ada was suffering from Arctic Hysteria, but I think such a dubious diagnosis is unnecessary. Ada had not wanted to join the trip, and regretted doing so. She was desperately homesick, and longed for her son and her sister. She was a town girl and “knew little about fishing, nothing about hunting, and guns and knives terrified her.” And she was always frightened she would be eaten by a polar bear. It would not be surprising if she had reactive depression.

By December, she had recovered. Now “Ada worked harder than any of them. She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean, and scraped skins. She rose at 6 am to bake bread. She was pleasant, cheerful and friendly.”

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Bird cliff on Wrangel Island (photo by Bryce Alcock)

They all looked forward to the arrival of a ship to restock their provisions in June or July. The men were growing fond of Ada, and would miss her when she returned home on the ship.

But the ship could not get through the ice. And it would be another year before Ada was rescued, by then the sole survivor of the expedition. To survive, she trapped foxes for meat. Despite being terrified of guns, she taught herself to shoot, and bagged seagulls, eider ducks and seals. To help with her hunting, she made a skin boat. She scared polar bears away with rifle shots.

Jennifer Niven tells Ada’s story well, and she also brings to life the many other players in this drama. Ada’s character is revealed though her interactions with others, especially the four men. Ada is strong and engaging, full of fear but also full of courage, initiative and cleverness to overcome that fear. Thrown into an ongoing disaster, she develops the ability to deal with it.

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Wrangel Island (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

The last part of the book narrates Ada’s life after Wrangel Island, as she tries to avoid her celebrity status. Niven describes her relationships with the families of the four men. This part of Ada’s life is interesting, but not as engrossing as her story of survival in the Arctic. Having recently visited Wrangel Island, I was grateful to immerse myself in this piece of its history.

My thanks to Jenny Gold for lending me the book.

 

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