A Woman to Know: Ada Blackjack

Even I, who had long since ceased to believe in hero worship, found myself unconsciously a little thrilled by the quality of her spirit. — Harold Noice

Even I, who had long since ceased to believe in hero worship, found myself unconsciously a little thrilled by the quality of her spirit. — Harold Noice

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ada is pictured above, in the middle, her head covered in a thick, fur-trimmed hood. The men surrounding her were Arctic explorers, hired by Canadian celebrity and financier Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Stefansson wanted this chosen party — Ada brought on to act as a seamstress and camp housekeeper — to claim a far-off island for the Commonwealth.

In the spring of 1921, the four white men and Ada set off on their treacherous journey to Wrangel Island. They established camp on the windswept tundra and watched for the coming freeze. In 1922, having survived a dangerous winter, they eagerly waited for the ship that was supposed to bring them fresh supplies and relieve them with a new crew. But the ship never came.

In the subsequent months, the party devolved into chaos. The expedition ran low on key supplies and one of Ada’s crewmates contracted scurvy. Facing a harsh winter, the two other men plotted a dogsled mission to find help. They left Ada to act as a nurse and headed for Siberia, never heard to be heard from again.

Ada taught herself to hunt and trap and went about her duties keeping herself and the sick man alive. She dug for edible roots, sewed new clothes and cared for her sick teammate, withstanding his sexism and persistent verbal abuse. When he finally died in June 1923, she cried — his death left her entirely alone on the island.

She began keeping a diary, recording her daily life surviving polar bear attacks, making walrus stew and sewing blubber skins. Before she left for the trip, she’d put her sick son in an orphanage, hoping the caretakers there could cure him of tuberculosis. In the diary, she recorded poems for him and wrote of one day returning to take him home.

“I had a good rest today,” she wrote in July of 1923. “Thank God.”

The next month, she saw a ship in the distance. She ran and waved, cried and sang until the crew spotted her ashore. Ada grabbed her diary, hugged her rescuer, called for the expedition’s mascot (Vic the cat) and climbed aboard. The captain, Harold Noice, called her “the female Robinson Crusoe.”

Ada spent 703 days on Wrangel Island — 57 of them on her own.

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