Making history in the High Arctic

Okay, this was last year. The story turned up on that fabulous website Travel  Thru History. Next week, another voyage begins. Stay tuned. . .



by Ken McGoogan

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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).

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.

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.

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.�

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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