Interview: Ken McGoogan – Race To The Polar Sea

LP: You have a new book coming out any day now called Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures and Romantic Obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane. What can you tell us about this book?

KM: Race to the Polar Sea tells the story of Elisha Kent Kane, a nineteenth-century explorer who sailed north in search of an Open Polar Sea, hoping to rescue survivors from the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. After surviving two horrific winters in the Arctic, discovering the so-called American Route to the North Pole, and forging a unique alliance with the Inuit, Kane led his men in the most dramatic escape in northern exploration history, man-hauling sledges and sailing hundreds of kilometres in small open boats. Kane was the most literate and artistic of all northern explorers, and he left a vivid portrait of the Arctic that speaks to the contemporary debate about global warming. Once celebrated, Kane has been largely forgotten. In my book, I trace this to his relationship with Maggie Fox – a “spirit rapper” from Ontario whose tragic death has been wrongly blamed on Kane. Race to the Polar Sea also draws on a long-lost journal I found in the possession of a Calgary antiquarian. There’s more at www.kenmcgoogan.com.

LP: This will be your fourth book dealing with early Arctic exploration. These books have been extremely popular. What’s next, do you have plans for more books looking at the same eras? Do you have any plans for a contemporary Arctic book?

KM: Race to the Polar Sea is the fourth and final stand-alone volume in what I consider an Arctic Discovery Quartet. These works augment and resonate with each other, and can be read in any order. I see the four as speaking to contemporary concerns, and for the moment, at least, they represent all I have to say about the Arctic.

LP: What aspect of the Arctic region appeals to you personally?

KM: I seem to be obsessed with exploration history: so many dangerous voyages and disastrous expeditions, so many complex and revealing encounters with native peoples, so many heroic figures and damn-fool idiots, so much hubris, so much cheating and lying, so many mistakes, so many tragic deaths. Arctic exploration is Canada’s answer to the American Civil War: we can’t get enough of it. Certainly, I can’t.

LP: With the Arctic seeming to suddenly emerge as an important environmental and news story do you find yourself in demand now as an Arctic expert?

KM: I have experienced an increase in requests, yes. Some people say I’ve never seen a microphone I don’t love.

LP: You’ve been visiting the Arctic on a fairly regular basis over the past decade, what changes are you noticing?

KM: Because I have spent ten years immersed in the history of Arctic exploration, I carry in my head a vivid picture of the Arctic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a result, when I look around today, I see the changes that have happened since then – both among the Inuit, but also in the landscape. Last year, while sailing in the Northwest Passage, where once Elisha Kane struggled through upraised tables of ice fourteen feet thick, I looked out and saw nothing but open water. That contrast shocked me. Obviously, it speaks to global warming.

LP: What do you see transpiring in the Arctic over the next couple of decades?

KM: More melting of the ice cap, less sea ice, worsening conditions for polar bears, more ships arriving from around the world, more chest-thumping from polar nations, more disputes about who controls the Northwest Passage, more searches for Franklin, more argument and contention, more ships carrying diamonds, more tankers carrying oil, and maybe an environmental disaster or two.

LP: Other books you have written have used Jack Kerouac and the Beats as a subject, any plans to return to that theme?

KM: Jack Kerouac was the first explorer I went chasing. Not long ago, I published a final revision of my first novel, called Visions of Kerouac: Satori Magic Edition. It’s available online and at www.WillowAvenueBooks.com. I had fun with it, and like to think it stands up.

LP: You spent many years as a working journalist and books editor. Do you miss that world at all?

KM: These days, while I put most of my energy into books, I do write some journalism – articles for The Beaver and The Globe and Mail, a books column for Active magazine. Of course, that’s different from daily newspapering. I don’t miss the stress or the office politics, but for sure I interacting with so many interesting people. Also the soapbox and the regular pay cheque – they were big positives.

LP: You grew up in Quebec, spent many years in Calgary and now live in Toronto. As a writer what are the differences?

KM: For someone who writes in English, no matter how well you speak French, living in Montreal means dealing with the French-English dichotomy, one way or another. You can’t get away from it. A writer in Calgary is up against it locally. Slowly but surely, neo-conservatives have decimated a once-thriving book publishing industry. Toronto still has a viable book-trade infrastructure. The barbarians are at the gates, but writers at all levels can still find places to publish.

LP: What are you reading now?

KM: We recently returned from five weeks in Scotland, my wife and I, and I’m reading a whack of books about Scots in Canada.

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One Response to “Interview: Ken McGoogan – Race To The Polar Sea”

  1. [...] Kent Kane By deepstop I’ve just read the book Race to the polar sea : the heroic adventures and romantic obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane by Ken McGoogan about the life of Elisha Kent Kane and his search for the Franklin Expedition [...]

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