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Dead Reckoning thriving in Alaska

 By David James / Anchorage Daily News

In “Dead Reckoning,” his masterful history of Europe’s search for the Northwest Passage, Canadian historian Ken McGoogan argues persuasively that those explorers who paid close attention to Native peoples of the Arctic, and who worked closely with them, generally thrived. In an often deadly climate, learning from those who dwelt in it was paramount.

By the time American expeditions began pushing northward late in the 19th century, this appears to have been well understood, and employing local men to assist with hunting, overland travel, dog handling, translation and other necessities was common.

One such individual was Hans Hendrik. Born and raised in the small trading post of Fiskernæs (now Qeqertarsuatsiaat) in southwestern Greenland, Hendrik was an Inuit who was hired by Elisha Kent Kane, commander of the Second Grinnell expedition, bound for the island’s northern end.

It was Hendrik’s first voyage north, and the experience would define his life. He remained near Upernavik to settle while Kane and his men began their long march south when the sea ice refused to release their ship. Hendrik would go on to serve in three more expeditions — two American, one British — and emerge as the hero of the Polaris Expedition nearly two decades later, when deaths would have been numerous but for the efforts of himself and another Inuit man.

After his journeys, Hendrik did something else. He wrote a book. “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik” is a brief but fascinating account of Hendrik’s experiences as a hand on these expeditions. Originally composed in 1877, it has been oft reprinted. There is a new, reasonably priced edition available through Amazon, one of several print versions. And as it has long passed into the public domain, it can also be obtained electronically at no charge from Project Gutenberg and other sites.

However one wishes to obtain it, the book is a classic of Arctic literature and worth seeking out. Hendrik’s is one of the few firsthand Native accounts we have of European expeditions, rendering it especially valuable, as is the fact that he was writing from the perspective of a hired hand, not a captain seeking glory.

Hendrik was hired by Kane in 1853. His world had been limited to Fiskernæs when he took the job and shipped out to help provide for his parents. At the time, the Native peoples of far-northern Greenland were isolated from their southern compatriots. Superstitions abounded in the south that the northerners were a dangerous people. Hendrik found them quite honest and kind, although as someone raised a Christian he worried for their souls. Still, when Kane prepared to turn south, Hendrik chose to remain.

He soon found a wife and they began a family. In 1860, a ship commanded by Isaac Israel Hayes, a veteran of Kane’s team, arrived and took Hendrik into employment, again as hunter and resident expert. During that winter, Hendrik went on an overland trip with the ship’s astronomer, who succumbed to the cold. The death, while in no manner Hendrik’s fault, cast a shadow on his reputation, although Hayes himself had high praise for Hendrik.

Despite lingering concerns, Hendrik was next engaged by Charles Francis Hall as part of the Polaris Expedition in 1871, which hoped to reach the North Pole. This is one of the legendary tales of Arctic survival. Hall took ill and died late in the year, but under new leadership the expedition persisted. It was the following fall when things went bad. Part of the expedition — including Hendrik, his wife and children — were atop an ice floe with materiel from the Polaris (the ship) that had been jettisoned as part of an emergency escape attempt, when the ship and the ice floe suddenly broke lose from each other. It was mid-October. The castaways would drift atop the floe, later relocating to a different one, for six Arctic winter months before being rescued.

It’s a horrible fate to imagine, even in our modern time. But despite many of the men being in poor condition, all aboard survived owing to the skills of Hendrik and a fellow Inuit. They kept killing seals and keeping the cook kettles filled with a meat that is both nutritious and, as luck would have it, a source of vitamin C, and hence a defense against scurvy.

After their rescue, Hendrik and the other Inuit were taken first to Washington, D.C., where they were feted as heroes. For Hendrik, the northeastern United States was as exotic as his own home was to American visitors. The longest chapter in this book concerns the Polaris Expedition and aftermath, and Hendrik provides vivid descriptions of survival on the floe and his impressions of America.

One can understand why Hendrik would have been hesitant to sign on for any further such adventures, but he reluctantly joined the British Arctic Expedition of 1885 under George Nares. Poorly equipped, the results were mixed, and deaths occurred. For Hendrik, who lived until 1889, it would be his final adventure with Arctic explorers.

Despite its brevity, “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik” is an instructive and important historical work. Hendrik only briefly mentions the cultural gaps with the Americans he worked alongside. He speaks well of each of his commanders, and they returned the praise. But some of the men never trusted him, and their suspicions were painful for him to endure. We also learn firsthand about hunting seals and polar bears from the ice, and musk oxen onshore — surprisingly, and contrary to logic, meat was sometimes left behind. We gain insight into famed commanders from a man who served under them. And Hendrik’s encounter with America reminds us that anthropological fascination can be directed at our nation as well.

But mostly we learn why McGoogan’s conclusion about the explorers who ventured into the Arctic is so on point. While Hendrik never brags or exalts himself, on four separate expeditions, including one that went horribly awry, he kept people fed. Without him, many would have died. We’re fortunate to have his story.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at

Ken McGoogan
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Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, dead at 101. I remember meeting him in 1987, at Le Grand Derangement, the international Quebec City Conference on Jack Kerouac. I drew on that phantasmagoria in my novel Kerouac's Ghost. I got to hang out with Ferlinghetti because he and I were the only anglophone visitors who could speak French. The second time I met him was early 1988, when Ferlinghetti visited Calgary for the literary festival attached to the Winter Olympics. We chatted briefly, reminisced and laughed about Quebec City. But my favorite meeting came in 1995 in San Francisco, where I had gone to promote the second of four versions of Kerouac's Ghost. Back home in Calgary, still feeling the Beat, I wrote a short feature in second person. It ran under the headline Kerouac: His spirit is alive and well in San Francisco. . . .

You arrive in San Francisco knowing that, here, Jack Kerouac lives. Never mind that the legendary King of the Beats, best-known as the author of On the Road, died in 1969. In spirit, Kerouac lives forever in the City by the Bay. You're not here to prove it, but simply to revel in it, and to meet some of the people who are keeping his legacy alive. 

Front and centre is biographer Gerald Nicosia, who's embroiled in a legal battle to keep Kerouac's archive intact and accessible. Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac -- demonstrably the best of a raft of biographies -- lives with his wife and baby daughter just north of San Francisco in a comfortable old house that's loaded with character. He's finishing up a massive book about Vietnam veterans . . . but he's more emotionally engaged in trying to save Kerouac's books and papers from being sold off in profitable pieces . . . . 

Back in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, the heart of Beat country, you and Nicosia join Neeli Chernovski in the Cafe Greco. He's best-known as the biographer of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary American poet who founded -- and still owns -- the nearby City Lights Bookstore. Chernovski is going through page proofs -- a revised version of his biography of the late Charles Bukowski called Bukowski: A Life. . . .

You're enjoying your second double latte when who should wander into the cafe but Ferlinghetti himself, easily the most respected living writer who knew Kerouac personally. Ferlinghetti joins the table and reminisces about visiting Calgary during the 1988 Olympic Writers' Festival: ``They took us out to a lovely little town in the mountains -- Banff!" 

Ferlinghetti also brings tidings that the on-again, off-again movie version of On the Road, which Francis Ford Coppola is bent on making, is most recently off-again: ``He hasn't been able to get a good script.'' If and when he does, the betting is on Sean Penn to play the madman Dean Moriarity, and either Keanu Reeves or Johnny Depp to play the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise. How can it miss?  

You head out to Golden Gate Park, where the De Young Museum is holding an exhibition called Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965. . . So The Beat (movement) goes on and on, yes, but what about the young? The next generation? One evening you fall in with Ken Kaplan, late 20s, who leads you from Vesuvio, Kerouac's old favorite watering hole, to one down-and-dirty blues club after another. Kerouac would have loved it. Another night, Jim Camp, an early-30s ex-teacher, ex-stockbroker, excitedly describes his novel-in-progress and trots out several chapbooks he's published as Synaethesia Press. One glance and you see the signs: they're Beat.  

Another day, back in North Beach, you spend an hour in City Lights bookstore, then cross Jack Kerouac Alley -- so-named after a long campaign, led by Ferlinghetti, involving many streets -- and return to Vesuvio, that crowded and colorful bar. Nicosia has described the corner where, habitually, Jack Kerouac sat. When it comes vacant, you get Jim Camp to take your picture there. Look out the window: Kerouac lives!  

Ferlinghetti photo: Clay Mclachlan/AP

Ken McGoogan
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MacGregors hail Flight of the Highlanders

Wayne MacGregor Parker writes in The Maple Leaf MacGregor . . . .

This is a good book for all Canadians of Scottish descent to read. What sets this book apart from so many well documented accounts is that it goes beyond the clearances, crosses the ocean, and follows the struggles of these wretched souls as they overcome enormous challenges carving out a life and a country here in Canada.

In many instances the author brings the story of their descendants right into the present day. A word of caution though: it is deeply disturbing to fully grasp the dire circumstances under which our ancestors and many others came to Canada. I felt frustration and outright anger at the treatment of these poor people.

The book is divided into three tracks. The first provides a good overview of what was going on in Scotland that led up to the Clearances. The debacle of the failed ’45 with Bonnie Prince Charlie and its ramifications is well developed and sets the stage for the destruction of the clan system and the complete corruption of a number of chiefs as they abdicated their duties of protection and support in favour of material gain. This set the stage for the Clearances. It was at this point in the book that my ire began to rise.

The second track deals directly with the forced evictions of poor crofters who had lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years subsisting on these lands under the collective protection of clan. Heart rending after heart rending account, well supported with direct quotes, tell the stories of widespread brutality at the hands of absentee landlords wishing to improve the financial returns on their lands by forcefully removing people to make room for sheep. They were loaded onto coffins ships with nothing more than the shirt on their backs and then off-loaded at unknown destinations without resources or support. There is one particularly brutal account of the forced eviction of a Gregor as witnessed by Donald Ross.

“Margaret McGregor, aged forty-seven years, was the wife of William Ross, tenant, Greenyard. This poor woman met with savage treatment at the hands of the police. She wanted to reason with the sheriff on the impropriety of is conduct, because Mr. Munro, the tacksman, had denied all knowledge of the warrants of his removal. The answer she got was a blow on the shoulder, and then another on the left ear with a baton. That blow was so violent that it cut up the gristle of the ear, breaking the skull and shattering the temporal and sphenoid bones. Result: concussion and compression of the brain. The blow was so forceful that it knocked the poor woman to the ground and caused blood to flow copiously from both ears.

Even after she was on the ground, the police struck her with their batons, and with their feet; and then left her with her head in a pool of blood. Donald Ross could not see the smallest hope of recovery. She was the mother of seven helpless children, and when he saw the poor little things going backwards and forwards, “toddling” around her sick bed, looking with sorrow at her death-like visage, he felt his heart break. The few sentences which the poor woman managed to speak went clearly to show that she had been barbarously treated. Ross’s firm conviction was that she was as cruelly murdered as if a policeman had shot her on the links at Tain.”

At this point my blood, my Highland blood, began to boil. At the outset, the author correctly draws attention to the fact that under the current United Nations definition, these people were not immigrants; they were refugees. In today’s terms, their treatment would indisputably be characterized as ethnic cleansing.

The final track deals with what happened to these poor souls once they landed in the new world. Unfortunately, in all too many cases, more of the same in the form of poor treatment, exploitation, and abuse. Shamefully, the history of mankind reveals a pattern of man’s inhumanity to man and the struggle of haves and have-nots.

The Highlander refugee has to fight for every break against overwhelming odds. McGoogan does a good job of taking the reader through a number of the divisive and often abusive situations they had to work through to get established here in the new world. The emphasis in this final section is centered on how these resilient folks succeeded in stabilizing their lives enough to begin to live again.

In this final section my mood at last transitioned from outright anger, through pity, and on to hope. Eventually their fortunes start to improve as homes and communities are established and institutions based on democratic principles are upheld. It was here that hope blossomed into pride as one begins to see the formation of Canada and the profound effect the mass of Scottish refugees have had on the shaping of our country and its unique and very Scottish form of government.

I highly recommend this book. While historically accurate and presented in good taste, none the less the subject material is disturbing to consider in human terms.  It is interesting and well-written and will directly appeal to Canadians of Scottish descent.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.