“What can we learn about ourselves looking back in time”?
A short film that came out recently inspired by the story of Ada Blackjack. The 6-1/2 minuet short, was filmed and produced in Alaska. Based, in part, on the biography Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven.
In 1921, Ada Blackjack had been abandoned by her husband outside of Nome, Alaska with a five year old son who suffered from tuberculosis. She needed money to care for her son, so she joined an Arctic Expedition to Wrangel Island, which was being put together by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition sought an Alaska Native seamstress who spoke english. Ada was hired on, and left for Wrangel Island in September 1921.
The expedition itself, was on thin ice from the very beginning. The goal was for the team to travel to Wrangel Island to claim it for the British Empire, even though the British government had shown little interest in the island previously. Stefansson, who organized the entire expedition, had no intention of going himself. Instead, four men: Allan Crawford, 20, Lorne Knight, 28, Fred Maurer, 28, and Milton Galle, 19, went with Blackjack, 23, and Vic the cat, age unknown, to claim the island.
The team had enough supplies to last six months, although Stefansson assured the expedition members that wild game would be easy to find.
The first year went relatively well, but by the end of autumn 1922, game had suddenly diminished from the island. By January 1923, the expedition was in trouble. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle left on foot across the sea ice to Siberia for help. Knight, who was suffering from scurvy, was left behind with Blackjack and Vic. The three men who went out on foot were never seen or heard from again. Ada cared for the ailing Knight for six months, until his death in June.
For the next three months, Ada Blackjack was alone on the island. She trapped fox, shot birds, and patrolled for polar bear. She even used the expedition camera gear to take selfies outside of camp.
On August 20, 1923, almost two full years from first arriving on Wrangel Island, the schooner Donaldson arrived to rescue the last surviving member of the expedition. The crew found Blackjack doing quite well for herself, stating: she “mastered her environment so far that it seems likely she could have lived there another year, although the isolation would have been a dreadful experience.”
Blackjack took her money from the expedition, which was less than promised, retrieved her son, and avoided the spotlight. Stefansson profited greatly from the failed expedition, but none of that money went to Blackjack. She spent much of her adult life in poverty. She did remarry, and had a second son, Billy. Bennett died in 1972 at the age of 58 from a stroke. Ada Blackjack passed away on May, 29 1983 at the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska. Blackjack is buried at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, next to her son Bennett.
A recent storm that hit Nome, Alaska had such a storm surge, that it took a cabin off its foundation, floating it upstream on the Nome River.
The cabin, owned by Rita Hulkill (82) of Nome, had been on the site for decades. According to Hulkill, the water had never been that high, ever. Without any sea ice, there was nothing to protect Nome from the surge. The cabin sat on a parcel of land that was a part of a native allotment that belonged to the Hulkill family. Much of that allotment has been eroded away, and only a few feet remain.
The cabin, originally built in the 1970’s, was deposited, intact, up river from its original location. It had been used primarily as a subsistence residence in recent years.
Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes
Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race. Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.
Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.
Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924. He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice. In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.
His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:
An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP
With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire. After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.
Nome, Alaska circa 1916
The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles. The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage. The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled. The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan. “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana. The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs. When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
The serum went from relay team to relay team. At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up. One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars. It was -56F.
By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome. Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather. The relay went on.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay. He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill. His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.
Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.
Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK. Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind. His lead dog was Balto. Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds. At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled. The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.
In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on. They arrived in Nome at 5:30am. The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours. Not one vial of serum had been broken.
Gunnar Kaassen and Balto
For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns. Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities. Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.
If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.
It isn’t a figment of Alaskans’ imagination: Alaska’s winters are indeed warmer. Winter months (December through February) have seen a substantial rise in average temperatures over the past fifty years. The northern part of the state has seen the largest increase, with a 9.0 to 9.2F degree rise, but the entire state is under a warming trend.
Nome Sea Ice:
Data credit: UAF, ACCAP, NOAA, @AlaskaWx
Sea ice off the coast of Nome, Alaska is nonexistent in December, defying the historical record. Everything but recent history, that is. The drop off the statistical edge that the graph shows is pretty eye-opening.
The Port of Nome was open and operating at the end of November, which is the latest that has happened on record.
Lead dog Balto and his team on Front Street in Nome, Alaska, after delivering the diphtheria serum on 2 February 1925. Musher Gunnar Kaasen can be seen behind the sled.
Racing against time, 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs relayed the serum from the railroad in Nenana overland to Nome, using a river and trail system. They faced blizzards, extreme sub-zero temps, and fierce winds causing whiteout conditions, in what the world press dubbed “The Great Race of Mercy”. The relay teams traveled 674 miles in 5-1/2 days.
Temperatures during the serum run dropped to -62F and wind chills of -85F were common. Many mushers developed frostbite and several dogs died in the effort. Despite all of that, not one vile of serum broke. Within hours after arrival, the serum was thawed and ready for use.