Farthest North: America's First Arctic Hero and His Horrible, Wonderful Voyage to the Frozen Top of the World. Byliner Orignals. $1.99 Publisher site.
Reviewed by David Dobbs
When people today imagine scientists, they tend to picture a man in a white lab coat, glasses, and a scraggly beard. A century and a half ago, however, people imagining a scientist were more likely to conjure a man with a heavy fur coat, a telescope, and a beard twisted not by eccentricity but by the gales of distant places. It was the great age of exploration, when many scientists did their work afoot or at sea. The scientist was a person not just of thought but of action.
In America, no one typified this scientist-explorer image more thoroughly than Elisha Kane, an unlikely explorer who trained formally in neither science nor seamanship; who led one of the era's most extraordinary and influential polar journeys; who was ill much of his life but found extraordinary strength during his severest trials; and who convinced himself and others, for a time, that he had made one of the most important discoveries of his era, only to be largely forgotten. He vividly occupies Todd Balf's Farthest North: America's First Arctic Hero and His Horrible, Wonderful Voyage to the Frozen Top of the World.
This is great material, and Balf, a former editor at Outside, handles it deftly. He gets the scientific dilemmas spot-on while telling a gripping, overlooked tale. He also paints a wonderful picture of how a person's qualities, applied with energy and savvy, can find the doors of opportunity in an era and knock them open.
For the restless Kane, the exploration of the Arctic proved an irresistible draw. The voyage examined here was his second, but the first under his command. The prior journey, which he took as a naval officer, went so badly from an exploratory point of view that its leader happily left the traditional captain's author's account to Kane. Kane, with a romantic's heart and a novelist's touch for earthy detail, seduced the American public with an Arctic world they paid little heed to before; his treatment was half Twain, half Whitman, says Balf. Their mission had been to find and rescue the lost British explorer John Franklin, who had disappeared years before while seeking the Northwest passage. Kane's poignant description of the traces they found of Franklin's path — an abandoned camp with three sailors' graves, an armorer's forge, and a pair of officer's gloves washed and set out to dry — flamed enough interest in Franklin's fate to generate funding for a second rescue attempt, this one led by Kane.
So in May 1853 he set sail. He would search not just for Franklin, but for the "Open Polar Sea" — a coveted passage to the North, and ultimately the Pacific. Kane suspected Franklin may have found this sea but not lived to report or take credit for it. A British adventurer named Inglefield, thinking likewise, set sail from England at about the same time thatKane did, and on the same mission. Kane's trip was at once an attempt at rescue, a test of a hypothesis, a bid for fame, and a race.
As a scientific venture, his search for an Open Polar Sea posed all the seductions and dangers of any powerful idea. It tempted not only extremes of action but the perceptual warping we're all subject to — the tendency to see what one wants to see. The expedition's naturalist-surgeon, Isaac Hayes, encountering in the hills around Baffin Bay a "lush summer bloom," thought it presaged mild weather and open water ahead. Likewise, as they worked their way up through Baffin's ice flows that July of 1853, both Hayes and Kane found hope in seeing many animals moving northward, as if warmth lay there.
They soon found otherwise. Above Baffin they met cold gales that sent the ship careening among ice floes. The sea glazed over. Two weeks later, the ice seized them. They were further north than anyone had ever wintered and survived — 78 degrees, 44 minutes. And though it was only September, it soon became apparent that winter was coming early and hard. Over the next 18 months, locked in ice the whole time, the men suffered a near-continous stretch of arctic torments: weeks on end of darkness and subzero temperatures; scurvy that turned old wounds into open sores; frostbite that forced amputations. Kane's journal through those winters, writes Balf, "is a record of unbroken misery."
Kane's great feat is that he got 14 of his 17 men through an ordeal that should have killed them all. Through the second winter, Kane, who actually felt stronger then than in the winter before, relentlessly nursed and cajoled and supported his men, even as he himself sometimes bordered on delirium. It was a spectacular triumph of deadening, dumb, determined endurance. Finally, in the spring of 1855, they abandoned the ship. After weeks of dragging two lifeboats southward over300 miles of brutal terrain to reach open water, they sailed 1200 miles to Greenland and safety.
That October, Kane returned to the United States to a hero's welcome, his book-won fame spread explosively by news of his survival. But his health deteriorated. When he died in 1857 in Cuba, where he'd gone hoping to recuperate, it made all the front pages. His funeral procession from New Orleans back home to Philadelphia was watched by thousands -- the biggest public mourning the young country had yet seen. It wouldn't be topped until Lincoln was shot. His status is suggested by a banner overhanging Fifth Avenue: "Science Weeps, Humanity Weeps, the World Weeps."
Now few know of Kane. He's rarely mentioned in short lists of great Arctic explorers. Balf's tale serves both as an historical corrective and a sort of fable of the fickleness of fame and the cruel risk of reaching for but failing to bring home a big idea. "Like the earliest, most ambitious pioneers to any new land, he got some things wrong," writes Balf. "He also got a lot right." He found new ways to survive cold and hunger. He returned "by a smart retreat and an unprecedented alliance with the native Inuit; he worked tirelessly to nurse his party back to strength."
This contrasts, Balf notes, with Franklin, who died early on and left his men to march to their deaths. Kane's program for surviving an Arctic winter "was brilliant … and duplicated by almost all future Arctic expeditions," including Shackleton's more famous escape. A notable exception is Scott's disastrous but romantic failure at the South Pole, which arose partly because he ignored some of Kane's lessons and innovations. Yet both Franklin and Scott remain far better known, probably because they did not return. And Shackleton's name far outshines Kane's, even though Kane accomplished something every bit as difficult and unlikely. They both did the impossible. Shackleton's impossible was just more obvious.
It didn't help that someone else largely solved the mystery of Franklin's party. Kane also had the back luck to get the science wrong.
In that spring of 1855 in which he finally took his men south and home, he first sent two of the strongest men north to take one more shot at finding the Open Polar Sea. They marched 200 punishing miles, all the way to 81N, 22', "shedding everything" to get that far. There they encountered a 500-foot bluff. Only one of the men, steward William Morton, had the strength to climb it. When he reached the top, he saw before him an "unfrozen sea" with "waves, … surging from the furthest north, breaking at my feet." A northerly gale blew in his face — but carried no ice toward him. The open water stretched north to the horizon.
From this tantalizing data point — a big, fat, seemingly infinite n of 1 — Kane drew an understandable conclusion: He had found the Open Polar Sea. Balf properly forgives Kane this error. And when he reveals the freakishly unique alignment of forces and events from which this false finding rose — an assembly that starts with Franklin and ends with an astonishing satellite photo taken in 2010 — it's hard not to join him. For the full, strange, richly told story, steer your browser to Farthest North.
David Dobbs, the author of The Atavist e-book bestseller My Mother's Lover, writes on science, culture, and sports for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magzine, National Geographic, and Slate. He blogs at WIRED and is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion.