Race to the Polar Sea tells the story of a forgotten explorer?
Elisha Kent Kane was once the most famous man in America. In 1853, he sailed out of New York City as the leader of an Arctic expedition. He was searching for that hapless, long-lost British explorer Sir John Franklin—and for an Open Polar Sea at the top of the world.
So what happened?
He ended up spending two horrific winters farther north than any explorer before him: cold, dark, scurvy, rats, starvation, amputations, deaths, mutinous rebellion – you get the idea. Eventually, he led the most spectacular escape in Arctic history. When he got back to the U.S., The New York Times devoted an entire front page to his adventure. He should be known as the Shackleton of the North.
Yet nobody knows his name?
Kane came from an old Philadelphia family. Secretly, he married an entrancing “spirit-rapper” named Maggie Fox. She was famous throughout the northeast. Knock, knock, knock. Spirits, can you hear me? Eventually, Maggie died in poverty—and for this, Kane has been wrongly blamed. In Race to the Polar Sea, I show that he acted honourably, but was betrayed by his brother and best friend.
What makes the book relevant today?
Righting an historical wrong is always relevant. But also we’ve got global warming. You’ve seen the headlines. The retreat of the polar ice cap has put the Arctic on front pages around the world. Kane was the most literate of all northern explorers. And he left such a vivid word-picture of the Arctic that it constitutes a singular touchstone. Not long ago, I was sailing in the Northwest Passage where Kane struggled with pack ice and massive icebergs . . . and we encountered nothing but open water!
You can read about that recent voyage here.
And you found a long-lost journal?
The second half of Kane’s journal about his final expedition is the most important document in Kane studies. For decades, scholars have been searching for the first half. Almost by chance, I found it: Kane’s handwritten, 376-page logbook. That private journal, missing for 150 years, sheds new light on the explorer’s entire life. I write about finding it in the prologue to the book.
You’ve written other books about Arctic exploration.
This one makes four. The best-known of the others is Fatal Passage, which won an American Christopher Award as “a work of artistic excellence that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” It also won several literary prizes in Canada, and was turned into an award-winning docudrama that aired on BBC and History Channel. I do a cameo as a rugged, wind-blown historian. The other two titles are Lady Franklin’s Revenge and Ancient Mariner.
You’ve also written novels?
Only one of them still has legs: Visions of Kerouac: Satori Magic Edition. It’s billed as A Novel of the Beat Generation, the Nineteen-Sixties, Psychedelic San Francisco, Deviltry On The Road, Dharma Bums in the Rockies, the Jungian Self, Drink, Drugs, the French Connection, and the Quest for Great Walking Sainthood, Revised and Introduced by the Author. You can read all about it right here.
And what’s this about John Steinbeck?
For a while, I fronted a band called Ken McGoogan and the Immoral Minority. When an elected government official set out to ban Of Mice and Men from area schools, I went ballistic. Among other things, I wrote a song called “Say Goodbye to John Steinbeck.” You can check it out here.