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  • Writer's pictureKaitlynaMac

BONUS: Woman Who Walked the World

Ada Deletuk was born in Alaska in 1898. Although she was Inupiat, she did not learn how to hunt or survive in the North's harsh environment. Instead, she was brought up largely by Methodist missionaries who taught her English, how to read and write, clean, sew, and prepare European-style cuisine. You know, everything a girl living in one of the harshest environments on Earth needs to know to live life to its fullest. When Ada was 16 she met Jack Blackjack, who was a famed dog musher and popular bachelor. They soon got married, but theirs was not a happy marriage as Jack began to beat her and deny her food. They had three children together—two of which died—and their surviving son, Bennett unfortunately suffered from chronic tuberculosis. Jack abandoned his small family and without his support, Ada could not afford to care for her ailing son. She left him in an orphanage and prayed that she would someday be able to afford to get him out and take him to a doctor for proper treatment. It seemed that her prayers were answered in 1921 when she heard that a group of young explorers were hiring hands to accompany them on an expedition to Wrangel Island. They promised to pay her $50 per month (about $800 in today's money) to do some cooking and sewing, which she was eager to accept because of the aforementioned issue with her son. However, Ada was unaware of the true nature of the expedition, or its dangers. The idea for the trip was hatched by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian-American explorer who was convinced that people could easily live in the extreme North. He had lived among the Inuit for a year between 1906-1907 and went on various journeys into the arctic and no doubt fancied himself a bona-fide arctic survivalist expert. The thing is... he did not originally join the expedition in 1921. There were some issues with funding and at the beginning he could only get enough money to fund about half of the trip. He stayed behind in America to try to get more money and planned to join the expedition later.

Wrangel Island, which was the target of this scheme, is located at the 180th meridian and was one of the last places where Wooly Mammoth's roamed. It belonged to, and still belongs to Russia, but since it was uninhabited, Stefansson aimed to create a kind of settlement there to claim in for North America, thinking that it would become an important territory in the future. The reason why the Russians left it uninhabited was probably because it is practically uninhabitable. When the expedition team arrived in Alaska, the only person who was willing to work for them was Ada. Most of the other Inupiat applicants refused to go, no matter how good the money was, because the crew were leaving too late in the summer and the whole idea was crazy. On September 9th, 1921, Ada Boarded the Silver Wave with Allan Crawford (20), Lorne Knight (28), Fred Maurer (28), Milton Galle (19), and a cat named Vic. Destination: Wrangel Island.

The expedition quickly turned from bad to worse. Winter came upon the group and game grew scarce. The boat that was supposed to come to bring relief and additional supplies to the group couldn't reach them on account of the ice. None of the men had any real hunting experience, so they quickly began to starve. Ada, understandably began to feel homesick and she began to abandon her work. She was also the only woman in a group of young men. By all accounts, nothing untoward had happened to her, but it nonetheless affected her mood and she became distrustful of the men. She thought that Knight in particular wanted to harm her after she had seen him with a large knife. In fact, all knives terrified her; before leaving Alaska, Ada had sought the advice of a shaman who told her to be wary of knives and that the expedition was going to end in disaster. Too bad she hadn't listened to them, eh? After many weeks and possibly months, Ada's mood changed. It was like someone had flipped a switch. Ada began to work diligently to improve her life and the lives of the men, but they, on the other hand, became melancholy. For some reason or other, no relief could reach them, even during the summer months. The group grew even more desperate during their second winter on the island and on a blistery day when temperatures were hovering around a balmy -50 degrees, Crawford, Maurer and Galle set out for Siberia to get help, leaving Ada and Knight alone. Knight had been suffering from scurvy for a long time by that point. He was so ill that he become bed ridden, or I guess, sleeping bag ridden, and Ada was his sole caretaker. She recognized that she needed to feed him fresh food if she ever hoped to save him, but as was previously mentioned, she did not know how to hunt. Driven by her extreme need and incredibly large lady-balls she taught herself to shoot, invented an unusual, yet effective way to kill foxes, and kept herself, the cat, and Knight alive. That is, until, June 23, 1923 when Knight died.

Ada couldn't bear to be completely alone (save for Vic), so she kept Knight's body close. She only moved him to their storage shed once he started to stink. She threw herself into surviving and made herself a set of skins to wear, she killed her first seal, and even made herself a boat for hunting or for escape. Luckily she never needed to make her great escape because on the morning of August 20th, she awoke to a strange noise. Upon getting up and rushing to the shore, she spied a ship and jumped into the water to signal it to come in. The man who stepped down from the boat was Stefansson's benefactor and rival Harold Noice. Practically at the same moment, both Ada and Harold asked after the missing men, the three who had departed so many months ago. It dawned on them that they must have been lost at sea leaving Ada the sole human survivor of the expedition.

Ada finally returned to Alaska after being gone for nearly two years. She was welcomed warmly by her friends and acquaintances back home and was able to get treatment for her son with the money that she had earned from the expedition and from the sale of some of the skins she had collected. Unfortunately, as happens with so many in history, Ada suffered many hardships throughout the rest of her life instead of living comfortably like she deserved. Others profited off her story, while she was left in poverty. She died at the age of 85 in a nursing home in Palmer Alaska and was buried next to her son. Sources: Hulls, T. (2022, March 9). Ada Blackjack, the Forgotten Sole Survivor of an Odd Arctic Expedition. Atlas Obscura. Mulvaney, K. (2021, November 18). The Inuit Woman Who Survived Alone on an Arctic Island After a Disastrous Expedition. HISTORY.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson | Canadian polar explorer. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wikipedia contributors. (2022, May 26). Wrangel Island. Wikipedia.

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