Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where Elisha Kent Kane spent two Arctic winters

The June issue of Up Here magazine contains a piece about visiting the spot on the coast of Greenland where explorer Elisha Kent Kane spent two years trapped in ice. Written by yours truly, it begins . . . .

At last I could see how it unfolded. From where I stood, on a small rocky island off the northwest coast of Greenland, I could see where, one May afternoon in 1855, an expedition leader fixed a final message to a post near the gangway of his ship. Elisha Kent Kane, age thirty-five, posted that message to explain to any searchers why he was abandoning the Advance and “in case we should be overtaken by disaster.”

Now, 156 years later, in my mind’s eye I watched as Kane joined his men, all of them starving and suffering from scurvy, some of them unable to walk because of frostbite, and set out to haul three small boats eighty kilometres over ice to open water. I could not help but see this because for three years, while researching and writing a book called Race to the Polar Sea, I had immersed myself in the life of this resourceful doctor. And as I stood there, watching his departure unfold in the distant past, I felt engulfed by a great wave of sadness.

This surprised me. I had expected euphoria. This was the place, after all. And I was the first here. No other author-historian had reached this spot. Four years before, when on the outskirts of Philadelphia I became the first biographer to wander through the house of Kane’s grandfather, I had felt a rush of satisfaction. And when, at the home of a Calgary antiquarian, I became the first to peruse a long-lost journal Kane had written while trapped aboard the Advance in this very location, I could hardly contain my excitement: this was it, the real thing!

Why, then, this wave of sadness? My unpreparedness had to be a factor. I hadn’t expected this voyage to take me anywhere near Rensselaer Bay, as Kane named this desolate location. I was sailing as a lecturer with Adventure Canada. Ice conditions had forced a change of itinerary. Instead of sailing west and north out of Kugluktuk, our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, had followed the coastal route eastwards into Baffin Bay. . . .

(for the rest, track down the June issue of Up Here)

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