Born in Alaska in 1898, Ada Blackjack was an Iñupiaq woman who found fame in the 1920s after surviving a doomed two-year expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Hired as a seamstress and cook, Ada, who had no survival skills to speak of, was the sole female in a five-person team tasked with preparing the island for settlement, the land ultimately to be claimed by Canada. But in 1922, four months after they arrived, their resupply ship failed to appear, leading to three of her teammates setting off for Siberia in search of help, never to be seen again. Her remaining companion, sick with scurvy, died months later. For the next two months, completely alone but for the expedition’s cat, Vic, Ada learnt to hunt, trap and fend off predatory beasts in the relentless cold, testing her strength to its limits, each of those treacherous days recorded in her diary. She wrote the following entry days after the death of her final teammate. Ada and Vic were finally rescued in August. Shunning the spotlight, she quietly returned home and stuck to her original plan, using the money she had earned to care for her son, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Ada Blackjack died in 1983, at the age of 85.
The Diary Entry
Jun 28th. I stay at home today and clean seal skin and late this afternoon I hear some funny noise so I look out thought the door and saw Polar bear and one cub. I was very afriad so I took a shot over them, see if they would go so they went away and they were looking back and I shot five times and they run away. I thank God that is true living God.
Ada Blackjack’s original, handwritten diary is part of the collections at Dartmouth Library and can be viewed on their website. Entry reprinted here with thanks to their incredibly helpful archivists.
My condensed bio of Ada Blackjack barely scratches the surface. Please find a copy of Jennifer Niven’s book, Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, in order to fully appreciate her incredible journey. She was treated terribly, not least by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the man who (mis)planned and (under)financed the trip, and then exploited the story for financial gain when, against all odds, she returned.
On YouTube, you can watch a short-but-sweet film titled Ada Blackjack Rising. Six minutes is all you need.
And finally, a photo of Ada and Vic on the rescue boat, courtesy of Dartmouth Library: