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Foolish optimism kills explorers

Four men set out to discover the 'Friendly Arctic' in 1921. Only their female servant returned alive.

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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.


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