Race to the Polar Sea

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Title: Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures and Romantic Obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane
Published by: HarperCollins Canada / Counterpoint Press U.S.
Release Date: 2008


Race to the Polar Sea tells the true story of a remarkable American explorer who went in search of an Open Polar Sea at the top of the world, hoping to rescue survivors from the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. In the 1850s, after sailing farther north than anyone else, Elisha Kent Kane got trapped in the pack ice off Greenland. Having discovered "the American route to the North Pole," he forged a unique, life-saving alliance with the Inuit. Over two years, he battled starvation, disease, and a near mutiny before abandoning ship to lead an astounding escape in sleds and small boats. Ken McGoogan celebrated its publication by sailing into Kane Basin with Adventure Canada – a voyage that inspired a travel article and a video.

Reviewers Respond

“A terrifically accessible account of this wide-eyed, extraordinarily intrepid adventurer's thrilling and chilling exploits.”
Kirkus Reviews

“McGoogan's readable biography ensures Kane's place in the pantheon of polar explorers. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal Review – Starred

“McGoogan's fascinating biography focuses on a neglected figure from the early era of polar exploration. . . .With his access to previously unknown Kane logbooks, McGoogan makes an impressive case for the bravery and importance of the explorer who first identified the Greenland ice sheet.”
Publishers Weekly


For The Nervous Breakdown, a site based in California, Ken wrote a piece about voyaging in the wake of Elisha Kent Kane. March 10, 2020.

During our first morning in the High Arctic, a polar bear drove us off Beechey Island. We had been walking along the snow-dusted beach near where, in 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane discovered the graves of the first three sailors to die during the tragic 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin.

Kane, serving as doctor with the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition, had been standing on the deck of a nearby ship frozen into the ice. He was chatting with a couple of British officers when a sailor came stumbling across the ice hollering: “Graves! Graves! Franklin’s winter quarters!”


Q&A from The Nervous Breakdown

Race to the Polar Sea tells the story of a forgotten explorer?
Elisha Kent Kane was once the most famous man in America. In 1853, he sailed out of New York City as the leader of an Arctic expedition. He was searching for that hapless, long-lost British explorer Sir John Franklin—and for an Open Polar Sea at the top of the world.

So what happened?
He ended up spending two horrific winters farther north than any explorer before him: cold, dark, scurvy, rats, starvation, amputations, deaths, mutinous rebellion – you get the idea. Eventually, he led the most spectacular escape in Arctic history. When he got back to the U.S., The New York Times devoted an entire front page to his adventure. He should be known as the Shackleton of the North.

Yet today nobody knows his name?
Kane came from an old Philadelphia family. Secretly, he married an entrancing “spirit-rapper” named Maggie Fox. She was famous throughout the northeast. Knock, knock, knock. Spirits, can you hear me? Eventually, Maggie died in poverty—and for this, Kane has been wrongly blamed. In Race to the Polar Sea, I show that he acted honorably, but was betrayed by his brother and best friend.