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134 Polar Explorers, pt. 2: The Heroine of Wrangel Island

22 . 06 . 2021


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POLAR NEWSREEL In Episode #125 we talked about Dinosaurs in Antarctica and recently we stumbled across the trailer for an upcoming film with the same title, check it out! The 43rd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting between 14 and 24 June marks the 60th Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty and the 30th Anniversary of the Madrid Protocol (also known as Protocol on Environmental Protection. While those talks are taking place a debate on the future of the Antarctic Treaty System has been initiated, raising the question how to maintain Antarctica a military-free continent. In Russia the supposedly most dangerous vessel no longer poses a nuclear threat to the Arctic. Researchers of the University of Waterloo have recently found that several toxic, long-lasting human-made contaminants have found in people living in northern Canada.

THE HEROINE OF WRANGEL ISLAND Born in the remote settlement of Spruce Creek, forty miles east of Nome, Alaska, 23-year-old Iñupiat women Ada Blackjack was stricken by life hardships already at young age. When she joined an Arctic expedition across the Chukchi Sea to Russia's Wrangel Island in 1921 out of her desperation to pay for her last surviving son’s medical care, no one could have guessed that she would raise to fame.

The Wrangel Island Expedition was a curious and baffling episode in the history of Arctic exploration—at best, an example of shocking hubris; at worst, a case of murderous neglect. Almost from the beginning, the team was ill-prepared, had bad luck and made poor decisions.

Setting sail with four young men in their twenties on an expedition to colonise the island north of Siberia, she had doubts when she realised that the hired Inuit families to come along on the expedition bailed out of the venture on the day of departure. Hired for her sewing and cooking skills, Ada suddenly became in charge of the camp when three of the expedition party perished while searching for help after the promised ship didn’t picked them up the next summer. Left alone with the deadly ill last man of her team, she took care about him until his death and learned how to survive in the hazardous condition of the high north. Even though she lacked any wilderness skills, she taught herself to hunt and trap, picked roots, hauled wood, made her own clothing, and dodged hungry polar bears.

It was her wish to be reunited with her son that drove her will to survive. She returned two years later as the only survivor put in the rank of heroines, presented as the female Robinson Crusoe. Later she has been accused of negligence, after having let the fourth man, Knight, die. Fame did not benefit her and she spent the rest of her life trying to get out of poverty.

Despite of her fame, life continued to be a struggle for Ada. Bennet never overcame his health issues and eventually died, at age 58, in 1972. Unlike the organisation of the expedition, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Ada didn’t profit from the expedition. Deeply wounded by the media circus and the experiences she had on Wrangel Island, she withdrew more and more and led a simple life as a reindeer herder.

Then, on May 29, 1983, Ada Delutuk Blackjack Johnson died at age eighty-five at the Palmer Pioneers’ Home, where no one knew she was once an Arctic hero.

The experimental dramatic short film Ada Blackjack Rising preserves her memory and brings together the current inhabitants of Northern Alaska with that legendary woman from the same land. The film is based on the biography, Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, written by Jennifer Niven.

This is an episode of the Curiously Polar podcast

with Chris Marquardt Henry Páll Wulff: Mario Acquarone

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