Theme Layout

Boxed or Wide or Framed


Theme Translation

Display Featured Slider


Featured Slider Styles

Display Grid Slider

Grid Slider Styles

Display Author Bio

Display Instagram Footer

Dark or Light Style

Search This Blog

Blog Archive


Popular Posts





None of us expected our voyage to make history, not when we boarded the Clipper Adventurer in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), near the west end of the Northwest Passage. True, our cruise was billed as an expeditionary adventure. But we numbered roughly one hundred and twenty, most of us were over sixty, and we were sailing in comfort if not luxury: white linen tablecloths in the dining room, a well-stocked bar in the forward lounge, and a staff of expert presenters that included scientists, Inuit culturalists, and authors Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood.

Hundreds of ships had plied these northern waters since the early 1800s, when the British Admiralty began to chart the Arctic archipelago while seeking a trade route across the top of North America. So nobody even dreamed of achieving a first of any kind. We forgot that climate change has made a difference. We did not anticipate that this year, the Arctic would have the second lowest extent of sea ice in recorded history. We did not expect that, according to the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the pack ice would reach its least extent just as we arrived in northwest Greenland.

But on September 10, one day after it did so, we sailed into Rensselaer Bay, where in the mid-1850s, explorer Elisha Kent Kane spent two terrible winters trapped in the ice. And three days after that, as on Day Thirteen of our voyage we approached the island town of Upernavik, I went to the bridge. As the staff historian, I needed to announce the surprising news.

By now, everybody on board knew that we had reached a latitude above 79 degrees. We had achieved a “farthest north” for Adventure Canada, which regularly runs voyages like this one into the Arctic. Everybody knew that, although a number of explorers had travelled by dogsled in this region, very few ships (if any) had entered Rensselaer Bay since 1853, when Kane got trapped there in the Advance. And everybody knew that in 1855 -- decades before Ernest Shackleton made his name with a spectacular, small-boat voyage in the Antarctic -- Kane led sixteen men in an extraordinary, 980-kilometre escape along the Greenland coast.

What drove me to the bridge was that our voyage had just become the first to trace Kane’s escape route from Rensselaer Bay to Upernavik, where Danish settlers welcomed the explorer, and now their posterity welcomed us.

Nobody would describe this as an epochal achievement.
Nobody would call it Big History. Yet those of us on board found it thrilling, even though we had done the deed in a double-hulled, state-of-the-art ship that dwarfed Kane’s vessel: the Clipper Adventure is four times as long as the Advance (101 metres compared with 26) and thirty times as heavy (4,376 to 144 tons).

Our voyage had begun with a reversal. Originally, out of Kugluktuk, we had been slated to sail west and then north through Prince of Wales Strait to Winter Harbour on Melville Island. There, in 1818, explorer Edward Parry spent a signal winter, and in 1909 Joseph Bernier asserted Canadian sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago.

But satellite imagery showed Captain Kenth Grankvist that a small patch of heavy ice blocked Winter Harbour, and other stretches looked problematic. So we turned east from Kugluktuk and followed the southern or coastal route through the Passage: Coronation Gulf, Victoria Strait, Bellot Strait, Prince Regent Inlet, Lancaster Sound.

The change gave us extra time. We hoped now to sail north through Smith Sound into Kane Basin. Perhaps we could reach Etah on the west coast of Greenland, situated at a northern latitude of 78 degrees 18 minute 50 seconds. Etah was as far north as Adventure Canada had yet ventured along “the American route to the Pole.”

During our first attempt to enter the Sound, however, on Day Nine, we ran into heavy weather and retreated behind some Greenlandic islands to calmer waters. The storm passed, and on Day Ten, under clear blue skies, we sailed through Smith Sound . . . all the way to 79 degrees 3 minutes 45 seconds. We had set an Adventure Canada record.

More importantly, as I told anyone who would listen, we were now north of Rensselaer Bay (78 degrees 37 minutes), where Elisha Kent Kane survived his two-year ordeal by forging an alliance with the Inuit of Etah, 80 kilometres south. We sailed into that Bay -- Kane named it after his ancestors -- and dropped anchor.

While most voyagers went ashore in zodiacs to explore beaches and ridges, five of us -- an archaeologist, a geologist, an artist-photographer, an outdoorsman, and an author-historian (yours truly) -- spent three hours searching small rocky islands for relics of Kane’s expedition. We found what I believe to be the remains of his magnetic observatory. And from the zodiac, prevented from scrambling onto slippery rocks by a receding tide, we spotted what I believe to be the site on “Butler Island” where Kane buried the bodies of two of his men.

Probably, those bodies are still there in the rocks, preserved by the permafrost. Nobody is known to have disturbed them. Certainly, Inuit hunters have roamed this area, and in the early 1900s several explorers -- among them Robert Peary, Frederick Cook, and Knud Rasmussen -- led dog-sled expeditions in this region. But all these had their own objectives.

Ice conditions here have always been difficult and unpredictable. And in recent decades, recorded visits have been few. A 1984 article in Arctic magazine describes a study undertaken by scientists who helicoptered in from the American airbase at Thule to investigate the long-term decline in the caribou population. And an exhaustive archaeological study of northwest Greenland by John Darwent and others, detailed in Arctic Anthropology in 2007, turned up 1,376 features, including winter houses, tent rinks and burials -- but sought and discovered no bodies in Rensselaer Bay.

But at this location in 1855, Kane abandoned the Advance (we found no trace of the ship). He and his men spent one month (May 17 to June 16) transporting supplies and hauling three small boats 80 kilometres south across ice to Etah. On the Clipper Adventurer, sailing through open water and occasional icebergs, we covered that distance in a single night. Next morning, after an eight-kilometre zodiac ride into the spectacular Foulke Fiord, we went ashore at Etah.

In Kane’s time, Etah was a permanent Inuit settlement, home to several extended families. Today, it serves as a temporary hunting camp. We stayed six hours and hiked to Brother John Glacier, a natural wonder that Kane, oblivious to Inuit nomenclature, named after his dead sibling.

Here at Etah, having reached open water, Kane said a fond farewell to his Inuit allies. With sixteen men (one had perished along the way), he piled into tiny boats and began a 900-kilometre voyage to Upernavik. He and his men spent seven weeks in those open boats (June 19 to August 6), battling blizzards, icebergs, and near starvation.

On the Clipper Adventurer, dining variously on Greenland halibut, veal marsala, and braised leg of New Zealand lamb, we retraced Kane’s perilous voyage in two days. We called in at Cape York, where the explorer overcame a last great barrier of protruding shore ice, and from there gazed out over open water.

On arriving in Upernavik, today a bustling town of 1,100, we explored the buildings, now a museum, where Kane and his men stayed for a month before leaving on a Danish supply ship. We had lost nobody to scurvy or frost bite. We had suffered no amputations. But many of us found ourselves marvelling anew at the great escape of Elisha Kent Kane. And we savored the knowledge that, as the lucky first voyagers to retrace his escape route from start to finish, we had in a modest way become part of exploration history. 

Photo Credits:
Contemporary photos are by Sheena Fraser McGoogan. The map is courtesy of Bill Bialkowski. Historical photos come from the personal archive of Ken McGoogan



Hirta, Scotland -- 

So this was Calum Mor's House, the oldest dwelling on the Scottish island of Hirta. According to legend, young Calum had built it in a single day to prove his worth: He had been passed over for the annual fowling expedition to Borera, a smaller island in the group that makes up St. Kilda.

This happened a thousand years ago, and I found my imagination racing. That's what comes of writing historical narratives, as I've been doing for the past dozen years.

I could see it all. The September expedition to Borera, six kilometres away, was the one great adventure of the year. The strongest men would risk their lives paddling through rough seas to harvest hefty birds that had to be killed at night while they slept on slippery ledges. Often, the men would stay a few days on Borera, sheltering in the stone cleits or storage houses they had previously erected. In my mind's eye, I could see the aggrieved Calum Mor building furiously with these heavy stones, bent on showing those who had voted against him that they had been wrong, wrong, wrong.

Later, on reflection, I began to doubt that anyone working alone could erect such a structure in a week, never mind a day. But the details I could tease out later. The racing of the imagination – that is what I seek when I travel, that inspirational revving. I'm a history junkie. In places where history happened, I get excited. And I was finding this voyage through the Scottish Isles almost (but not quite) too stimulating.

This circumnavigation of Scotland was mounted by Adventure Canada. Our home for the 11-day voyage, the 335-foot-long Clipper Odyssey, was rightly billed as a "small luxury ship." We're talking well-stocked bars and lounges, white-linen tablecloths in the dining rooms, fully equipped presentation rooms, and cabins with portholes or windows.

The vessel carried a full complement of 110 passengers, among them a number of lecturers: authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, musician Ian Tamblyn, publisher Douglas Gibson, ornithologist Brent Stephenson, myself and another author-historian, Ted Cowan. Starting from Oban on the west coast, we sailed north to Orkney and Shetland, and then south to disembark at Edinburgh. Once a day, sometimes twice, we would pile into 12-person Zodiacs – inflatable craft with outboard motors – and zoom ashore to explore a different island.

The archipelago of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of Scotland, gave me not only Calum Mor but Lady Grange, a headstrong woman who, in the 1700s, spent eight terrible years there as a prisoner. Articulate, uncontrollable and enraged by the philandering of her husband, she had threatened to expose him as a treasonous Jacobite. That gentleman responded by having his irrepressible wife kidnapped and bundled off to this almost inaccessible island. Even today, only one ship in five is able to put passengers ashore.

Of course, my mind went into overdrive: possible book, possible book? But then, on another less-isolated island, I got talking with a young woman who runs an art gallery. She told me that her mother, Margaret Macaulay, had just published a book about Lady Grange: The Prisoner of St. Kilda. Not only that, but someone had optioned the film rights and started shooting the movie. I was too late.

Some of my fellow voyagers were less about history than birdlife. As we sailed out of St. Kilda, several passengers saw two massive birds swoop down onto a smaller one, drive it into the water and kill it. The ornithologist explained that the great skua, predatory birds with a wing span of up to 1.5 metres, have always been given to dive-bombing smaller birds to steal fish from their mouths. But the quantities of fish in the central Atlantic have dwindled, and the great skua have learned to co-operate in drowning other birds to eat them.

But enough about seabirds, back to history! For some, the highlight of the voyage was visiting Iona, where Saint Columba founded a monastery in 563. For others, it was clambering around Dunnottar Castle on the east coast where, in the 1600s, scores of Covenanters suffered miserably and died for clinging to their Christian creed. At St. Andrews, a third contingent of voyagers stood entranced, gazing up at the rooms where Prince William apparently resided when he was courting Kate Middleton.

And if that wasn't history enough, St. Andrews also served up a ruined castle and cathedral that figured in the Scottish Reformation of the mid-1500s. Here, a mild-mannered preacher was burned at the stake. There, the body of a murdered cardinal was dangled over a parapet. And from these shores, the rebellious John Knox, eventually the father of Scottish Presbyterianism, was carried off to France to serve as a galley slave.

Some of the passengers expressed an interest in whisky. We visited a distillery on Jura and did what was asked of us, and also we got to Islay, rightly famous for Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore. These distilleries I had investigated during a previous visit. This time, we landed at Port Askaig and hiked overland to Loch Finlaggan, once headquarters of the Lords of the Isles. From an island in the middle of that lake, starting in the late 1100s, the Macdonalds ruled a Gaelic-Norse sea kingdom that lasted three centuries. My own ancestors, descendants of Danish Vikings who came to Scotland with the MacNeils in 1038, would have witnessed the decision-making from the shadows.

Probably you've heard of the Barra MacNeils, those celebrated musicians from Nova Scotia? On the island of Barra, we rambled around Kisimul Castle, ancient stronghold of the Clan MacNeil. The castle sits just offshore on a tiny islet, a situation that made it almost impregnable. That evening, gazing at Kisimul Castle from the water, I found myself imagining a scene from 1802, when 75 families sailed from here to Pictou, N.S. They were driven by hardship, and this view of the castle from the water was the last they would have had of the only home they had ever known. That moment would resonate.

Yet for me, Orkney provided the greatest magic of the voyage. In bustling Kirkwall, population 8,700, we explored St. Magnus Cathedral, a magnificent edifice that proclaims the sophistication of 12th-century Scandinavian society. Outside town, through a dark tunnel, we entered Maeshowe, a massive chambered cairn, replete with etched graffiti, built around 2700 BC. We visited the standing stones of Brodgar, and at Skara Brae we explored the ruins of a 5,000-year-old Neolithic village.

But finally, Orkney came down to John Rae, the explorer who discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage and the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition of 1845. During this stopover, I got to revisit sites I discovered while researching my book Fatal Passage. I saw the marble statue of Rae inside St. Magnus Cathedral, and the simple cross out back, marking the spot where the explorer was buried. Across the island, near the town of Stromness, I revisited the Hall of Clestrain – the ruined mansion in which Rae spent his boyhood. While standing out front, I imagined young Rae emerging from the house with a musket on his shoulder, ready to embark on his life's adventure. And I realized that this vision, and those like it, were making this voyage unforgettable.

Share This Post :
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.