Recent Work By Ken McGoogan


Today & Yesterday


One afternoon in August 1850, as Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane stood talking with several fellow naval officers on the icy, snow-covered shores of Beechey Island, a sailor came stumbling over a nearby ridge.  “Graves!” he shouted. “Graves! Franklin’s winter quarters!”

Searchers for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin had found what has since become the most famous historical site in the far north–the graves of the first three sailors to die during Franklin’s final voyage. At this desolate spot in 1846, while hoping still to discover a Northwest Passage, the long-winded Franklin conducted three sonorous funeral services.

Four years later, the American Kane led searchers in scrambling over the ice to the makeshift cemetery.  “Here, amid the sterile uniformity of snow and slate,” he wrote later, “were the head-boards of three graves, made after the old orthodox fashion of gravestones at home.”

Flash forward one hundred and fifty-seven years. Late in August 2007, as a resource person aboard an expeditionary cruise ship, I stood gazing at those three graves while a Scottish bagpiper played Amazing Grace and a light snow fell and instantly melted. Certainly, I felt moved by what I heard and saw – the skirling of the pipes, the desolate loneliness of the landscape.

Yet as I read the wooden head-boards, facsimiles of the originals, I felt more shaken by what I did not see – by the absence of ice. We had arrived at Beechey two weeks later in the season than Kane – and yet, where he had encountered heaps of ice and snow, both in Lancaster Sound and on shore, we found nothing but open water and naked rock and scree.

The contrast shocked me. Satellite images from the European Space Agency had recently revealed that, for the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage lay open to commercial traffic. The retreat of the polar ice cap, I knew, had revived an ancient dream in altered form. Business interests were looking forward not to carrying real gold from Cathay, as in the beginning, but to transporting black gold from the Alaskan oil fields.

Yet to see Beechey Island free of ice drove home the new reality of the twenty-first century, if only because, thanks to Elisha Kane, I knew how the area looked in 1850. As I stood at the three graves, I realized that the opening of the Northwest Passage brought a centuries-old saga to a surprising conclusion. This unexpected finale shed new light on the history of Arctic discovery, but especially on Elisha Kent Kane.

All through the twentieth century, historians portrayed the Arctic as a harsh world that changed hardly at all. The Arctic involved months of winter darkness and stupefying cold; it included pack ice, icebergs, and countless polar bears, walruses, and seals; and it featured “Esquimaux” hunters who lived in igloos or could at least build them.

Suddenly, we realize that this picture is obsolete. And that brings a corollary surprise. The hundreds of pages that Elisha Kane devoted to describing the High Arctic—people and animals as well as glaciers, ice fields, icebergs, and the Greenland ice cap – have become invaluable. They enable us to compare and contrast, and so to appreciate the scale of what is happening in the far north.

The supremely literate Kane, easily the most articulate of northern explorers, wrote of sailing among upraised tables of ice fourteen feet thick. He described hummocks, forced skyward by the pressure of pack ice, rising “in cones like crushed sugar, some of them forty feet high.” He would leave off hunting to sketch a glacier, describing it as “a stupendous monument of frost.” So vivid is Kane’s depiction of the mid-nineteenth-century Arctic that, for today’s readers, his work constitutes an irreplaceable touchstone.

Similarly, Kane’s descriptions of Arctic wildlife resonate with contemporary meaning. The explorer describes hunting birds, seals and walrus, all now seriously depleted in numbers, and waxes eloquent about polar bears. He relates, for example, how several bears ravaged a cache of provisions, smashing open iron caskets of pemmican and tossing aside boulders that had tested the strength of three men. Today, these magnificent creatures are nearing endangered status.

But above all, Kane’s writings about the Inuit, with whom he forged a singular alliance, have taken on new significance. His detailed depictions of clothes, sledges, weapons, housing and habits provide a unique opportunity to juxtapose today and yesterday. Unlike many others, this gentleman from Philadelphia proved humble enough to learn from hunter-gatherers who had been born into a tradition of Arctic survival. “I can hardly say how valuable the advice of our Esquimaux friends has been to us upon our hunts,” he would write. He marveled at how they observed every movement of ice, wind or season and “predicted its influence upon the course of the birds of passage with the same sagacity that has taught them the habits of the resident animals.”

By creating an unprecedented cross-cultural alliance, Kane not only saved the lives of most of his men, but set an example that would be remembered among the Inuit for thirteen decades. In the 1980s, after criticizing several explorers for their arrogance and insensitivity, the Frenchman Jean Malaurie would hail the “extraordinary agreements” Kane made with the Inuit and observe that “the favorable memory that Kane has left among my Eskimo friends is vague, certainly, but tenacious.”

Yet all this, I realized on Beechey, accounted for only half the sense of urgency I felt about Elisha Kent Kane. The other half came from a discovery I had made a few months before, when from my home in Toronto I had visited Calgary, Alberta, to view some Kane-related artwork at the Glenbow Museum. Afterwards, acting on impulse, I had hiked up a hilly street to visit my friend Cameron Treleaven, the antiquarian-adventurer with whom I had visited the Arctic in 1999, while working on my book Fatal Passage.

When I told Treleaven how I had spent the morning, he said: “You do realize that the Glenbow got those images from me?” The sketches and paintings at the museum derived from a collection he had acquired from descendents of Thomas Leiper Kane, the explorer’s dearest brother – some of it at a 2003 auction in Kane, Pennsylvania, a town I had already visited. Treleaven said he had retained the most important material, and that it included journals as yet unseen by any biographer.

This I could not ignore. And three months later, I revisited Calgary to investigate. At his bookstore, Aquila Books, and later at his home, Treleaven produced an astonishing array of journals, documents, letters, drawings, photos and memorabilia. As I sifted through this material, slowly the truth began to emerge: I was making one of those discoveries that invariably happen to somebody else.

Some of the material was interesting but not useful – for example, a handwritten copy of the autobiography of the explorer’s father, Judge John K. Kane, a work readily available as a printed book. Other documents proved disappointing – like the “Boat Journal” which appeared to cover Kane’s Arctic escape, but turned out to be a handwritten copy of the final, anti-climactic section of a journal kept by seaman George Stephenson, who lacked anything approaching his leader’s sensibility and expressiveness. Nor could  many of the illustrations and memorabilia, some hitherto unknown, be regarded as more than potentially enhancing – not even the original marble bust of Kane from which a plaster copy was taken, and is now kept at the American Philosophical Society.

Still, that left three items of note – three handwritten, large-format journals that Kane had produced in the Arctic. Two of these are clearly significant, and one constitutes what I believe to be the most important primary material to surface in the field of Kane studies in one hundred and fifty years. The two significant items are, first, a 161-page journal from Kane’s 1850 expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, during which he visited Beechey Island; and, second, a 239-page “natural history journal” from his 1853 expedition, containing detailed observations on everything from the seal fishery to scurvy, loons, wolves and “Esquimaux.”

The one thunderously important item, if I may so describe it, is a 376-page logbook from that second expedition, covering the period May 31, 1853 to March 23, 1854. I do indeed refer to the long-lost Volume One of Kane’s private journal — the volume that opens at the beginning of the voyage, with the explorer describing, from on board the Advance, the experience of sailing out of New York to go in search of Sir John Franklin and an Open Polar Sea.

Kane evokes crowded wharves and “salutes, bell ringings and huzzas” wafting over the water in a continuous clamour: “To men bound for the Arctic region, sailors with undigested shore habitudes, officers with heads full of home thoughts and disrupted associations, this big response came very cheeringly.” Those words have never before seen print. No scholar or author has even read them in more than fifteen decades. The explorer continues: “I had lived for the past two years as, I suppose, all men live–with much to regret and something to cherish. I had followed one preponderating motive directly connected with my better nature; but had marred it by a host of interludes uncomfortable to recall.”

That “preponderating motive” was to find out what had happened to the lost Franklin expedition. To the less salubrious “interludes” we shall come in good time. Kane would write and reflect in this private journal for two years. In his neat, legible handwriting, while leading one of the most dramatic and arduous polar expeditions ever mounted, he would churn out more than 700 pages, filling two large-format volumes (8 ½ by 14 inches) with roughly 350,000 words.

The continuation of this journal, Volume Two, takes up where this newly discovered manuscript leaves off, on March 24, 1854. The original is housed at Stanford University in California. That journal is rightly regarded as the single most important item in the Elisha Kane archive. Several biographers — notably George Corner, who wrote in the 1960s — have put it to excellent use, comparing journal entries with more polished renditions in Kane’s published, two-volume masterpiece, Arctic Explorations. Microfiche copies of Volume Two are available in several archives and collections.

But with the possible exception of William Elder, who wrote a biography in the 1850s, I am the first author to have read Volume One. The manuscript covers the tumultuous period during which two of Kane’s men lost their lives as a result of a controversial sledge journey. But like its Stanford-held extension, this journal sheds light on the whole expedition–and, indeed, on Kane’s entire life.

That light, I realized on Beechey Island, had changed the way I viewed Elisha Kent Kane. Taken together with the opening of the Northwest Passage, it showed this forgotten American to be not only the most articulate and tragically neglected of Arctic heroes, but also the explorer most relevant to the twenty-first century. And that I felt driven to communicate.



In Search of Franklin

On July 27, 1853, three years after his visit to Beechey Island, Elisha Kent Kane stood at the railing of the Advance, telescope in hand, and peered eastward across pack ice at Greenland. The fog had lifted at last, but now Kane perceived that the icebelt along the coast was breaking up. The conventional route north looked unpromising.

To the west, on the other hand, in the direction of the Middle Ice, the floating pack looked loose, and a deep current drove the largest icebergs north, some of them towering over the ship. His most experienced officers had warned repeatedly against entering the Middle Ice, famously a graveyard for both explorers and whalers. And so Kane, expedition commander at age thirty-three, faced a difficult choice. Should he follow the safe, slow route along the Greenland coast as far as possible, and forget about catching his English competitor, forget about making history by wintering farther north than any voyager yet? Or should he ignore his advisers and risk the Middle Ice?

To many back home in America, Kane well understood, this voyage in search of a lost British expedition seemed foolhardy, dangerous, quixotic, unnecessary. Yet he remained convinced that, while searching for the Northwest Passage, Sir John Franklin had got trapped in an Open Polar Sea at the top of the world. He believed that even, eight years after leaving London, Franklin and his men might be struggling to escape from behind a great barrier of encircling ice.

That was why, in the months before sailing out of New York, Kane had travelled the eastern seaboard raising funds, arguing that his projected voyage could not be dismissed as a scientific curiosity. Rather, it constituted a philanthropic effort to rescue John Franklin and his men, an enterprise that should engage “the sympathies of the whole civilized world.”

Early in 1853, speaking to audiences of hundreds in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and New York, Kane had repeatedly reviewed the historical record. For three centuries, geographers and map-makers had speculated that a warm-water ocean, a polar basin teeming with fish and animals, might exist at the North Pole, ringed by an “annulus” of ice. He had cited expert after expert, starting with the testimony of voyagers from the sixteenth century, and ending with the eye-witness account of British commander Edward Inglefield, who just last year had penetrated Smith Sound and established a new “farthest north” in the western hemisphere.

Before being driven back by a gale, Inglefield had seen nothing to the north but open water. Had he glimpsed a passage to the fabled Polar Sea? Kane argued that he had. Furthermore, this young American, so handsome, so eloquent, and already celebrated for heroic deeds in the service of his country, believed that the Franklin expedition, missing since 1845, had entered that polar basin by another route. He contended that, from Beechey Island, Franklin had sailed north up nearby Wellington Channel and got trapped behind the ice barrier. Who could say otherwise?

To enthusiastic audiences, while drumming up funds to undertake this voyage, Kane had detailed his expeditionary plan. Having secured the brigantineAdvance, the same sturdy vessel in which he had sailed to the Arctic three years before, Kane would proceed north along the west coast of Greenland into Smith Sound. As the weather turned cold and the ice grew thick, he would force theAdvance “to the utmost navigable point.”

During the ensuing winter, with the ship frozen fast, he would send dogs and sledges still farther north to create a chain of provision depots. The following spring, to rescue survivors from the Franklin expedition, he would take sledges and small boats and make for the Open Polar Sea: “Once there, if such a reward awaits us, we launch our little boats, and, bidding God speed us, embark upon its waters.”

Now, on July 27, as he stood on the deck of the Advance, the young explorer wrestled with the biggest decision of his life. If he sailed north along the coast of Greenland, he risked getting trapped by pack ice before he reached the perennially open North Water, and might spend the winter far south of where he needed to be. If instead he steered westward into the Middle Ice, he could shorten the voyage by days or even weeks, and get much farther north – but that treacherous icefield had wrecked hundreds of whaling vessels, and might make short work of the Advance.

Despite his youth, a weak heart and recurring health problems, Elisha Kane had made countless tough decisions in difficult circumstances. He had descended into a volcano in the Philippines, infiltrated a company of slave traders in West Africa, grappled with thieves on the Nile River, and narrowly survived getting stabbed during hand-to-hand combat in the Sierra Madre. For the past six months, he had understood that he might face a choice like the one before him–ever since the day he read, while recovering from illness in his home-town Philadelphia, that Edward Inglefield was returning to Smith Sound to resume the search for Franklin. . . .

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.

During our first morning in the High Arctic, a polar bear drove us off Beechey Island. We had been walking along the snow-dusted beach where, in 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane discovered the graves of the first three sailors to die during the tragic 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin.

Kane, serving as doctor with the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition, had been standing with a couple of British officers on the icy, snow-covered shores of Beechey when a sailor came stumbling over a ridge, hollering: “Graves! Graves! Franklin’s winter quarters!”

Kane led his fellow searchers in scrambling over the ice to the makeshift cemetery where we had previously lingered. “Here, amid the sterile uniformity of snow and slate,” he wrote later, “were the headboards of three graves, made after the old orthodox fashion of gravestones at home [in Philadelphia].”

A few of us had had begun walking along the beach towards the ridge where Franklin’s crew had piled tin cans filled with pebbles, intending to use them as ballast. The polar bear, which had been loitering at water’s edge half a mile away, began trotting around a curved bay in our direction.

This one-ton creature, we knew, could outrun a race horse. So we scrambled aboard the Zodiacs, the inflatable craft in which we had landed on the beach. No sooner had we fired up the engines than the bear stopped running. It stood a moment gazing at us, then turned and shambled off over a hill.

History said goodbye to the natural world. But both would be back, and the meeting and mingling of distinct northern dimensions would prove characteristic of our two-week expedition.

This “High Arctic Adventure,” mounted jointly by Quark Expeditions of Connecticut and Toronto-based Adventure Canada, attracted eighty-seven passengers – most from North America (New Mexico to Newfoundland) but some from England, France, Switzerland, and Australia. Everyone had travelled to Ottawa, then caught a charter flight to Resolute Bay in Nunavut, where we had hopped into Zodiacs, boarded the Akademic Ioffe and settled into cosy cabins.

The Ioffe is no fancy passenger liner but an expeditionary vessel built and operated by Russians. Still, it offers radically different conditions than those faced by the early explorers. In 1853, when he led the Second U.S. Grinnell Expedition north to search for Franklin and the Open Polar Sea, Elisha Kent Kane sailed in the sail-powered Advance – an eighty-eight-foot brigantine that weighed 144 tons. The diesel-driven Ioffe, by comparison, is 384 feet long and weighs 6,450 tons – almost forty-five times the weight of the little wooden Advance.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, after waving to a last group of whalers off the coast of southern Greenland, Kane lost contact with the outside world. He got trapped in the multi-year ice and, to survive, had to lead a spectacular escape using sledges and small boats. On the Ioffe, we had satellite telephones and email and could have summoned helicopters or other vessels in the event of emergency.

Where Kane battled scurvy and starvation, we ate three square meals a day in a full-service dining room and enjoyed snacks and single malt scotch in a comfortable lounge. The superbly literate American explorer, who came from a prominent Philadelphia family, entertained his men by declaiming the poetry of Alfred Tennyson.

The Ioffe carried a dozen resource people. These included two Inuit (Eskimos) from South Baffin Island; a Sante Fe-based art historian, Carol Heppenstall, who is a leading interpreter of aboriginal art; a marine biologist, an archaeologist, an ornithologist and a narrative historian (yours truly) who, with Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press, has just published a book called Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane.

For some passengers, the expedition was mainly about culture. Meeka and Jamesie Mike outlined the rudiments of the Inuktitut language and demonstrated how to hitch a dog team. And on the north coast of Baffin Island, we visited Pond Inlet and Clyde River, where we heard throat-singing, played Inuit games, and hosted a community barbecue. Along the way, we bought Inuit carvings and craft products and the Mikes raised $15,000 for a cultural “core knowledge” initiative.

For a second group of passengers, the expedition was mainly about the Arctic outdoors. At Croker Bay, we cruised along a glacier face and among spectacular icebergs. At seven or eight locations, we spotted polar bears, usually but not always alone, and a couple of those creatures clearly perceived us as seals wrapped in goretex.

While traipsing around Devon Island, we drew within a couple of hundred yards of a herd of muskox – as close as anyone wanted to get. And at a walrus haul-out near Monumental Island, while riding in Zodiacs, we drew so near a herd of one hundred walrus that people were gagging at the smell.

History buffs, too, had their moments. That first morning on Beechey, after fleeing the polar bear, we puttered east along the coast to Cape Riley and put in at the ruins of Northumberland House. Here, in the early 1850s, a British search expedition built a storehouse to serve Franklin, should he ever reappear. The rough structure remains visible, though now it lies in ruins, surrounded by rusty tin cans and barrel staves.

On Day Six of the voyage, we visited Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world. Here, from 1924 to 1933, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained a post comprising a house and three or four outbuildings, all of which remain standing.

At this same site, but seven decades previously, in 1853, an adventurous shaman from Baffin Island met the Franklin-searcher Edward Inglefield, who had sailed north into Smith Sound to 78 degrees 28 minutes. Kane would exceed that latitude by about 12 minutes (14 statute miles).

On the Ioffe, the history-minded were hoping to equal or better Kane’s high-latitude mark – a realistic objective given that the multi-year ice in the Arctic is a far cry from what it was in the mid-nineteenth century.

But on Day Six, at four o’clock in the morning, the captain found himself driving north against storm force winds gusting to fifty knots. The temperature of the sea water had fallen to within one degree of freezing, and the ship had started to ice up. Given time, and because the water ahead lay open, the captain might have put into a sheltered bay, waited out the storm and then pushed on. But at 77 degrees 25 minutes, about eighty-five miles short of Kane’s mark, he turned the Ioffe around and sailed south.

For many on board, major highlights were yet to come. My own favourite moment of the expedition came on Day Nine in the middle of Clyde Inlet, off the north coast of Baffin Island. The expedition’s finest Zodiac driver, John “Flipper” Suta, had agreed to convey me to Clyde River because I had to do a series of radio interviews.

Within minutes, in the fog and waves, we had lost sight of the ship. We passed a few icebergs, nothing huge, and Flipper got the Zodiac pounding along at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Five or six miles from the ship, with the waves and rolling swells reaching a height of eight to ten feet, so that roaring over them felt like riding a roller-coaster, an image came to me unsought.

The scale was smaller, but yes, we were climbing upwards against one of the giant waves that featured in The Perfect Storm. When we crested that magnificent swell and started down the other side, I heard someone laughing a wild-sounding, crazy-man laugh and wondered who it was. I glanced over at Flipper and, in that instant, with a rush of exhilaration, recognized the insane laughter as my own.

Watch a video here.

Ken McGoogan sails as a resource historian with Adventure Canada.