Today is the birthday of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879) (books by this author), the Canadian-born American explorer and ethnologist who spent years exploring vast tracts of the Arctic. Stefansson spent a year living with the Inuit (1906–07), coming to the conclusion that Europeans could easily “live off the land” of the Arctic if they adopted Inuit ways. About life in the Arctic, he wrote, “It is chiefly our unwillingness to change our minds which prevents the North from changing into a country to be used and lived in just like the rest of the world.”
He was born William Stephenson in Manitoba, Canada, to Icelandic immigrants. The family moved to North Dakota in 1880 after losing two children in a devastating flood that drowned cattle and submerged haystacks. He spent his early career as a cowboy, insurance agent, and schoolteacher before lighting out to live a life of dog sleds and adventure.
He discovered new lands like Brock, Mackenzie King, Borden, the Lougheed Islands, and the edge of the continental shelf, but he was also rather cavalier about supplies and planning. Many of the trips he coordinated ended with sinking ships and the deaths of his fellow explorers, like his Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1916, in which he traveled the Parry Archipelago. He enlisted three ships: the Karluk, the Mary Sachs, and the Alaska, but when the Karluk became trapped in the Arctic ice, Stefansson deserted 22 men and two children who were aboard. He simply walked away. Eleven of the men died before a rescue party could arrive.
A colleague said of Stefansson, “Stefansson is the outstanding humbug in the exploration world at the present time — a persistent, perennial, and congenital liar who for years has made his living by sheer mendacity and skill in handling words.”
In 1921, Stefansson financed and planned a trip that would forever taint his legacy. An expedition was set across the Chukchi Sea to Russia’s Wrangel Island, 85 miles off the coast of Siberia. The expedition wasn’t led by Stefansson, but by a Canadian named Allen Crawford. One of the participants was an Iñupiat woman named Delatuk, also known as Ada Blackjack.
There were five people in the team, including Blackjack. Their goal was to claim Wrangel Island for Canada or Great Britain. Blackjack was hired as a cook and seamstress. They lived first in a tent and then a snowhouse. The men killed more than 30 seals and 10 polar bears as well as geese and ducks, so food seemed plentiful, but rations ran out quickly. The team couldn’t kill enough game to survive on the island. Three of the men tried to make it across the 700-mile, freezing Chukchi Sea to Siberia for help and food. Blackjack cared for the remaining explorer, but he died of scurvy. The men were never seen again, and Ada lived alone on the island for two years with Vic, the expedition’s mascot cat.
She was rescued in 1923. Newspapers called her a “female Robinson Crusoe,” and she was invited to give talks and travel, telling her story. Ada used the money she saved to move to Seattle to cure her son’s tuberculosis. Eventually, she returned to the Arctic where she lived until the age of 85. She died in 1983. One of her sons said: “I consider my mother, Ada Blackjack, to be one of the most loving mothers in this world and one of the greatest heroines in the history of Arctic exploration. She survived against all odds. It’s a wonderful story that should not be lost of her self-discovery and cultural re-awakening. And it’s a story of a mother fighting to survive to live so she could carry on with her son Bennett and help him fight the illness that was consuming him. She succeeded, and I was born later. Her story of survival in the Arctic will be a great chapter in the history of the Arctic and Alaska.” When his mother died, he had a plaque mounted on her grave stating simply: “The heroine of Wrangel Island.”
Vilhjalmur Stefansson once said, “If you predict something six months ahead of your time you are a man of vision, but if you are six years ahead of your time, you are a visionary.”
His books include, My Life with the Eskimo (1913), The Friendly Arctic (1921), Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic (1939), and Discovery (completed just prior to his death in 1962 and published in 1964).