Chasing Kane from Beechey to Greenland

PART 2 of Once More Into the Passage: As author-historian Ken McGoogan prepares to sail again Into the  Passage, he reflects on what he has learned from following in the wake of Elisha Kent Kane. In the second installment of this six-part series, published on the Adventure Canada website, Ken starts on Beechey Island and finishes in Greenland.

Late one morning in August 1850, while talking with fellow naval officers on the bow of a ship trapped in the ice off Beechey Island, Elisha Kent Kane heard a man crying out: “Graves!” A sailor was stumbling breathless across the shore ice. “Graves!” the man shouted. “Franklin’s winter quarters!”

Searchers had found what has since become the most visited historical site in the Arctic—the graves of the first three men to die during Sir John Franklin’s final expedition. At this desolate spot in 1846, while hoping still to discover a navigable Northwest Passage, the long-winded Franklin would have conducted sonorous funeral services for the dead men. Now, four years later, the Philadelphia-born Kane led searchers in scrambling across the ice and up a short slope to the makeshift cemetery. “Here, amid the sterile uniformity of snow and slate,” he wrote later, “were the headboards of three graves, made after the old orthodox fashion of gravestones at home.”

Flash forward one hundred and fifty-seven years. Late in August 2007, while sailing as a historian on Adventure Canada’s expedition team, I stood gazing at those three graves as a Scottish bagpiper played Amazing Grace and a light snow fell, instantly melting. I felt moved by what I heard and saw—the skirling of the pipes, the desolate loneliness of the landscape.

Ken McGoogan Beechey Island

Yet as I read the wooden headboards, facsimiles of the originals, I felt more shaken by what I did not see—by the absence of ice. We had arrived at Beechey two weeks later in the season than Kane had—and yet, where he encountered heaps of ice and snow, both in Lancaster Sound and on shore, we found nothing but open water and naked rock and scree.

The contrast shocked me, even though I had read that for the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage lay open to commercial traffic. Yet to see Beechey Island free of ice drove home the new reality of the twenty-first century, if only because I knew how the area looked in 1850. The hundreds of pages that Kane devoted to describing the Arctic—people and animals as well as glaciers, ice fields, icebergs, and the Greenland ice cap—have become invaluable. They enable us to compare and so to appreciate the scale of what is happening in the far north.

The supremely literate Kane, surely the most articulate of all Arctic explorers, wrote of sailing among upraised tables of ice fourteen feet thick. He described hummocks, forced skyward by the pressure of pack ice, rising “in cones like crushed sugar, some of them forty feet high.” He would leave off hunting to sketch a glacier, describing it as “a stupendous monument of frost.” So vivid is Kane’s depiction of the mid-nineteenth-century Arctic that, for today’s readers, his work constitutes an irreplaceable touchstone.

Similarly, Kane’s descriptions of Arctic wildlife resonate with contemporary meaning. But above all, his writings about Inuit, with whom he forged a singular alliance, have taken on new significance. His detailed depictions of clothes, sledges, weapons, housing, and habits provide a unique opportunity to juxtapose today and yesterday. Unlike many others, this young doctor proved humble enough to learn from hunter-gatherers who had been born into a tradition of Arctic survival. “I can hardly say how valuable the advice of our Esquimaux friends has been to us upon our hunts,” he would write. He marvelled at how Inuit observed every movement of ice, wind, or season and “predicted its influence upon the course of the birds of passage with the same sagacity that has taught them the habits of the resident animals.”

Trapped in the ice off northern Greenland through two terrible winters, Kane created a cross-cultural alliance that not only saved the lives of most of his men but set an example that would be remembered down through the ages by Inuit themselves. His modest, respectful attitude was not unlike that of John Rae, and was one of the factors that inspired me to write a book about him: Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures and Romantic Obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane.

I had recently rejected a publisher’s proposal to write about George Simpson, HBC governor, because researching the man would mean spending two years in the company of a racist. Not for me. The explorers I admired, and could enjoy writing about, were open-minded, humane, and obsessive enough to be interesting. They took on challenges that made for a compelling narrative.

Not only that, but when I visit Beechey Island—and Adventure Canada calls in during every voyage through the Northwest Passage—in addition to feeling the presence of John Franklin and his men, I envisage the scene as it looked in 1850, when Elisha Kent Kane scrambled over the ice to stand before the graves. Looking around today, marvelling at the open water and the sandy shoreline free of snow, I feel again the full meaning of the words “climate change.”

Ocean Endeavour anchored off Northumberland house

Before leaving Beechey, I should mention that the detail-oriented Kane pointed out that Beechey Island is not an island at all because it is attached to the much larger Devon Island by an isthmus. This means that polar bears turn up occasionally because they are ubiquitous along Devon’s coast. They present no real danger because everyone understands that if you spot a polar bear while on land, you vacate the area. Just in case, Adventure Canada posts trained bear guards around the perimeter of any landing site. And someone is always watching from the ship.

On August 21, 2010, for example, a polar bear interrupted a visit to Beechey. As keeper of the log, I wrote that “the bear, a three-or four-year-old male, was spotted from the ship’s bridge as he made his way from Northumberland House (a ruined storehouse at the west end of the island) towards the famous gravesite. Fortunately, by the time the bear appeared, all guests had visited the graves of the first three sailors to die during the final Franklin expedition—surely the most famous historical site in the Arctic.”

But wait! I can’t leave Kane without saying another word about his second Arctic expedition, when he sailed north through Smith Sound and spent two winters (1854-55) trapped off the coast of Greenland. In 2011, I was aboard an Adventure Canada voyage that proceeded north above 79 degrees. That put us within hailing distance of Rensselaer Bay, where Kane survived his two-year ordeal by forging an alliance with Inuit of nearby Etah.

We sailed into that bay and, while most voyagers went ashore in Zodiacs to explore beaches and ridges, five of us spent three hours searching small rocky islands for relics of Kane’s expedition.

We found the remains of his magnetic observatory. And, while scrambling around on slippery rocks, we spotted what I believe to be the location of a vault on “Butler Island” where Kane buried the bodies of two of his men. We ran out of time to investigate. But I would suggest that those bodies are still there in the vault, preserved by permafrost—something that cries out for further investigation.

(Landscape photos by Dennis Minty / people by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)


We invite you to join Ken in August 2024 on the Into the Northwest Passage expedition when we hope to visit the John Rae cairn—and the plaque that three madmen installed twenty-five years ago.

This voyage is part of the Adventure-Canada, Searching-for-Franklin, Three-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza. Ken has already brought his latest book, Searching for Franklin, to the Pacific Ocean. In June, he will bring it to the Atlantic Ocean. And in August/ September, the book will turn up at a yet-to-be-determined location in the Arctic Ocean.

Meanwhile, on March 21 and 22, 2024, Ken will be presenting the book in New York City at The Explorers Club and the New York Public Library. Learn More.

On March 27, Ken will be speaking in Ottawa at the Canadian Geographic Society. Learn More.

Attend either of these events to get a chance to win a $5000 voucher towards the 2024 Into the Northwest Passage voyage with Ken!

Meanwhile, on March 21 and 22, 2024, Ken will be presenting the book in New York City at The Explorers Club and the New York Public Library. Learn More.


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