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Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane

by Ken McGoogan

With the imminent opening of the Northwest Passage due to climate change, information about Canada’s North is becoming more and more valuable. Enter the journals, sketches, and published books of American explorer Elisha Kent Kane, an incredibly literate man who left a vivid record that defined the North in his day. Using these and many secondary sources, Ken McGoogan, the Toronto-based author of three other Arctic histories, has written Race to the Polar Sea.
    The book is divided into three parts: Kane’s youthful adventures in East Asia, Mexico, and Africa; the two winters he spent locked in Arctic ice; and his homecoming and sudden death in 1857 at the age of 37. Both his early and later life were full of action and adventure, and his family and friends are fascinating studies of society in the antebellum U.S. But it is in Arctic exploration that Kane’s contribution to history must be recognized – he discovered the Humboldt Glacier, documented the lives of the “Esquimaux,” and found the “American route to the North Pole.”
    McGoogan clearly admires his subject, but leaves room for counter-narratives, including one by the man who led a mutiny before the second ice-locked Arctic winter. Surprisingly, it is this section, ostensibly the most intriguing one, that grows a bit tedious. Trapped by the ice, Kane and his crew are repeatedly subjected to scurvy, frostbite, mutiny, reconciliation, and then scurvy again.
    Given his obvious fascination with Kane, it is disappointing that McGoogan fails to adequately analyze why he remains unknown today. And yet, the author and his subject are both such descriptive, lyrical writers that the book still manages to be compelling. Descriptions of the loneliness, isolation, and helplessness suffered by the explorer and his crew raise the question: was it all worth it? For McGoogan, who has seen the disappearing ice, Kane documented a dying world, and we should be grateful to have his observations as we prepare ourselves for a future without the North as we now know it.