Review: ‘Race to Polar Sea’ delivers history, adventure
by David A. James / For the Fairbanks News-Miner
FAIRBANKS - “A scientist studying the effects of extreme stress could hardly do better than to confine nineteen men in a cabin and subject them to intense cold and never-ending darkness while attacking them with scurvy and starvation.”
This sentence summarizes the experience readers are in for when they delve into “Race to the Polar Sea,” Canadian author Ken McGoogan’s account of the journeys of American explorer Elisha Kent Kane. McGoogan, who teaches writing in Toronto, is no stranger to arctic history, and he knows how to tell a good story. In Kane he has an ideal topic.
Elisha Kent Kane was born in Philadelphia in 1820, the son of a politically well-connected judge.
Though suffering from rheumatism and a heart arrhythmia, he was determined to make his mark on the world. He studied medicine and enlisted in the Navy, traversing the globe and racking up adventures from Brazil to Egypt to China. He also volunteered for the Mexican- American War, where he demonstrated both valor and compassion. His book about his exploits made him a household name.
But the far north was where he truly earned his fame. In 1850 he signed up for the first Grinnell Expedition, an American attempt at learning the fate of Sir John Franklin, the British explorer who had left to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 and vanished.
Kane served aboard the Advance, one of two ships sent north. Sailing into northeastern Canada, the crew made a brief stop on Beechey Island where they happened upon the graves of three of Franklin’s men.
This was the first sign anyone had found of the lost expedition. After a winter spent locked in the ice, the Advance sailed south with Kane already planning his return trip.
Back in the U.S., Kane raised funds by not only pitching the need to find Franklin, who many believed was still alive, but also to discover what was then known as the Polar Sea. Most experts at the time believed that the Arctic Ocean was ringed by ice, but that open water teaming with wildlife was contained within. It was hoped that by finding an entrance to this sea, the Northwest Passage could finally be located.
While he was busy laying plans, Kane also fell in love with a young woman named Maggie Fox who was widely known through her work as a spirit rapper, a completely fraudulent means of communicating with the dead. Unable to quench his feelings, and despite his family’s sure disapproval, he promised to marry her upon his return.
In 1853 Kane boarded the Advance again, this time as skipper, and headed north. Rather than return to the graves, he pointed his ship up the narrow channel between Greenland and Baffin Island.
The icy water was difficult to navigate, but by hitching to large icebergs that were drifting northward, the ship kept moving. Laying numerous caches along the way, the crew reached Rensselaer Harbor on the Greenland coast, further north than any vessel had previously ventured, before being iced in.
Kane and his crew explored the region, discovering Humboldt Glacier (the world’s largest) in the process. Two of his men also reached open water to the north, suggesting that the rumored Polar Sea existed. But they would become better known for the ordeal that followed than for their discoveries.
Winter aboard the ship was difficult. The men were cramped into a small space, food and fuel had to be rationed, scurvy was endemic, and trips onto the ice were dangerous. The sun vanished for several months and temperatures frequently plunged to 40-below-zero and more. The crew persevered — though not without dissension and a couple of deaths — and by spring the return of the sun brought plans for the journey home.
What Kane and his men failed to anticipate, however, was that they had reached a location where the ice didn’t always melt. As the summer of 1854 passed, the ship remained bound. Faced with another winter in Rensselaer Harbor, an escape using sledges and whaleboats was attempted.
After failing and retreating to the Advance, the men confronted the grim reality of another long winter.
Eight of them, unwilling to accept this fate, abandoned the rest and headed south.
On board the ship the situation grew ever more dire. Food was in short supply, the ship itself had to cannibalized for firewood, scurvy and frostbite ate away at the men’s bodies, and the cold was even more severe than the previous winter. To top it off, the defectors returned after failing to escape, further diminishing the short supplies.
What kept the men alive was Kane’s ability to establish relations with a band of Inuit who had migrated into the area. By trading goods for food and dogs, he kept most of his men alive, but just barely.
By spring, the only hope for survival lay in a perilous 1,300-mile journey to Upernavik, Greenland over ice and open water, again using sledges and whaleboats. For healthy men this would have been extremely challenging. That Kane’s depleted crew managed it with only one death staggers the imagination.
Kane returned to America a hero, wrote a bestselling account of his journey, and married Maggie Fox.
But his ill health struck him down less than two years later.
Kane has since fallen prey to considerable criticism by historians, and McGoogan has attempted here to restore his good name.
The result is a book that’s a bit too uncritical. Kane had more faults than McGoogan seems willing to acknowledge. But this account is nonetheless quite extraordinary.
McGoogan leaves no doubt that, by any measure, Kane was one of the greatest 19th century Arctic explorers.
David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Race to the Polar Sea Ken McGoogan Counterpoint, 404 pages 2008, $15.95