In 1921, Ada Blackjack sailed to the Arctic’s Wrangel Island. She had no idea it would be a life and death struggle to survive.
The petite woman was hired as a seamstress for the risky journey. Her travel companions were four men and a female cat called Vic.
Blackjack was born in 1898 in Alaska. She was a Native American Inupiat woman but raised by white Methodist missionaries. They taught her to cook, clean, sew, and read the bible. They didn’t teach her the hunting and survival skills of her native tribe.
At the age of 16, she married Jack Blackjack. They had three children together, but two died young. Jack beat Ada and starved her. He later abandoned her and her only surviving son, Bennett, in 1921.
Bennet suffered from tuberculosis, and Blackjack didn’t have enough money to care for him. She put him in a local orphanage and vowed she would make enough money to bring him home.
Soon after, Blackjack joined the journey organized by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He wanted to claim the remote Wrangel Island for the British Empire.
The ocean around Wrangel Island would freeze during part of the year making it completely inaccessible. The plan was for the group to sail there and live for two years, the time necessary to legally claim the island.
They arrived on Wrangel with just six months of supplies. The ship that was supposed to deliver new supplies the following year never arrived. It couldn’t break through the ice. Supplies had run out, and the once plentiful animals on the island disappeared.
By the beginning of 1923, the party was starving. Three of the members set off in search of help. They died in the wilderness. The remaining male survivor, Lorne Knight, was deathly ill. Blackjack did her best to care for him, but he also died.
Alone with only her cat, Vic, for a companion, Blackjack made a vow to survive for the sake of her son. For three long months, the woman with a crippling fear of polar bears fought tooth and nail to survive. She taught herself to shoot, to trap, and to hunt like her ancestors. She even made a makeshift boat.
On August 20th, 1923, Blackjack was finally rescued. She was wearing a coat she had made out of reindeer skin. The boat’s captain wrote, “She had mastered her environment. She could have lived there another year.”
Blackjack returned to Alaska as a hero but avoided the spotlight. She reunited with her beloved Bennet and used her payment to fund his treatment in a Seattle Hospital.