Foolish optimism kills explorers
Four men set out to discover the 'Friendly Arctic' in 1921. Only their female servant returned alive.
Organized by famed explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the 1921 expedition to Wrangel Island seems, in hindsight, destined to fail. The dangers were evident to everyone involved, but poor planning and excess optimism killed four of the five Arctic explorers.
"Ada Blackjack: The True Story of Survival in the Arctic" represents a kind of sequel to "The Ice Master," which described Stefansson's earlier effort to discover a new continent beneath the North Pole. Though that 1913 voyage ended in disaster, eight years later, he was ready to risk more lives in another arctic adventure. The results were similarly deadly.
Full of misplaced admiration for Stefansson, four young men from Canada and America agreed to test his theory that the Arctic was "a friendly place to live in for the man who used common sense."
Barely scraping enough money together to sponsor the trip, Stefansson didn't make the journey himself. Instead, he gave official command of the expedition to an inexperienced young man named Allan Crawford. He and three other equally inexperienced young men - Fred Maurer, Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle - made the trip to Wrangel Island, located off the coast of Siberia.
They had planned to hire additional help, but the only person to sign up was an Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack, who was hoping to earn enough money to rescue her son from an orphanage and get him treatment for tuberculosis.
In the belief that a supply ship would arrive during the summer months of 1922 and that game was plentiful in the "Friendly Arctic," the small party brought only six months' provisions with them - on Stefansson's recommendation - and did little hunting.
That move proved costly when the build-up of ice prevented a relief ship from reaching the island in time, mostly because Stefansson was unable to raise the money needed to send it until August. With their food running critically low by January 1923, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle decided on an attempt to reach Siberia. Knight, suffering from severe scurvy and having failed an earlier attempt, was left with Blackjack.
It is here that Blackjack's story takes center stage. Although she was an Inuk, she had no experience in hunting and Arctic survival. Her life had been spent largely with whites in the ramshackle towns of Alaska. But as Knight's condition grew increasingly dire, Blackjack was forced to learn those skills on the job, and eventually the diminutive woman did well enough to provide food for both of them. The pair waited desperately for the return of their three colleagues until Knight finally succumbed and Blackjack was left to fend for herself.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Stefansson brushed aside fears that the men were in any danger. The Arctic, he repeatedly explained, is no more dangerous than Montana or a city street where one could be struck by a car. He bizarrely attempted to convince the British and Canadian governments to claim Wrangel Island as their own - prompting anger from both the Soviets and the Americans - and he told the families of the explorers that another relief ship would be sent in the summer of 1923.
By the time that ship finally arrived, though, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle had long since disappeared, and Blackjack was the only survivor.
The vivid imagery Niven paints of the desperate struggle for survival on the island gives way to the less compelling - though still interesting - story of personal politics surrounding the aftermath. The last third of the book details the battles by Stefansson, who comes across as little more then a tireless self-promoter, to protect his belief in the Friendly Arctic. Stefansson's detractors - including the man who led the 1923 relief expedition - were determined to discredit him. The families of the men who were lost, of course, want answers. And caught in the middle of this tragedy is Blackjack - praised at first for surviving the doomed project and then vilified before having her reputation restored.
"Ada Blackjack" is a winning account of the expedition and how one woman overcame enormous odds to survive. Niven does a superb job of re-creating harrowing events and weaving them into a narrative supported by official documents and excerpts from the diaries of the five who ventured to Wrangel Island.
Although Blackjack herself, a shy and retiring woman, was reluctant to talk about what she experienced on the island and her life afterward, she's found a stirring biographer in Niven.
• Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.