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. . . .

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KEN MCGOOGAN celebrated the publication of Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane by sailing in the Northwest Passage in the wake of his explorer-subject. Ken has also survived shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, chased the ghost of Lady Franklin around Tasmania, and lugged a memorial plaque honoring explorer John Rae into the High Arctic.

His book Fatal Passage was turned into a docudrama for the BBC and History Channel. And his awards include the Writers’ Trust of Canada Biography Prize, the University of British Columbia Medal for Biography, the Pierre Berton Award for History, and an American Christopher Award for “a work of artistic excellence that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” Ken survived the Psychedelic Sixties in San Francisco, taught French in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and sails now as a resource historian with Adventure Canada.

You can find out lots more at www.kenmcgoogan.com or at his blog.

7 responses to “Race to the Polar Sea: An Excerpt”

  1. Irene Zion says:


    You are without a doubt the opposite of me. You even look like someone who enjoys being outside in the cold. Reading this is frightening to me. Being out in a wooden ship in the the frozen polar sea is seriously terrifying to me. One of my sons and my dad and his dad and his dad and on and on were sailors. One of my relatives died falling from the mast of a tall ship more than a hundred years ago. I am not the adventurous type. Obviously I am a mutation from my father’s sturdy genes. I will go anywhere, don’t get me wrong, but I want assurances that I will not sink in the icy sea or freeze to death or have to eat my leather shoes. I applaud your spunk. (I have to go get a warmer sweater now.)

    • Ken McGoogan says:

      I’ve got a feeling that nothing I say will change your mind.
      But I can assure you that you would NOT have to eat leather shoes.
      True, the ships we sail on don’t look much like the floating hotels you see advertised
      in travel magazines, some with seven dining rooms and four swimming pools.
      But neither do they resemble the wooden ships used by 19th-century explorers
      like Elisha Kent Kane, though we do go to the places they went.
      Otherwise, we are talking cosy cabins,
      dining rooms with white linen table cloths, and superb chefs.
      And a separate lounge with a full bar and revolving entertainment.
      OK, I admit it: you might be in danger of gaining a few pounds.
      Anyway, check out the accommodations for yourself at http://www.adventurecanada.com.
      If you still prefer vicarious adventure, well, have you checked out my books?

      • Irene Zion says:

        Jesus, Ken, I get a response from you and go back to respond and you’ve totally disappeared!
        Glad to see you got a cube!

        Ken, we really do go on adventure vacations. I’m just not willing to be cold anymore. Plus even a very, very sturdy ship can get poked by an iceberg and then you are either in the frozen water, where you will certainly die, or in a life boat, where you will certainly be really, really cold before you die. I go places where, if something untoward happens, you live through it.

        I’m not as much of a sissy as I made myself out to be up there.
        I WILL read your book, though, I’ll just wear a heavy sweater and wooly slippers while reading.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Fascinating stuff, Ken. There’s something about the poles that calls out the wilderness in people, I think – or rather, the fascination with that wilderness.

    The ghost of Lady Franklin?

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. Un none says:

    do u know were i can find a MAP of Elisha Kanes voyages im doing a project over his expeditions

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