Long before I moved to Kenya, I grew up as a teenager reading tales of famous explorers in Africa — whether of John Hanning Speke and Sir Richard Burton discovering the sources of the Nile around Victoria Nyanza, or Henry Morton Stanley discovering the lost Dr. Livingstone. It is only as an adult that I have discovered the joy and excitement of tales of exploration in other parts of the world, particularly in the Arctic.
Todd Balf’s Farthest North: America’s First Arctic Hero and His Horrible, Wonderful Voyage to the Frozen Top of the World tells the little-known story of one of the most gripping Arctic expeditions of all time. Despite sickness, mutiny, gnawing hunger, and the malevolent cold, conditions very different from those I had become familiar with in the parallel tales of Africa, these Arctic explorers made discoveries that influenced evolving theories about ice ages while developing survival strategies that became the model for generations of future explorers.
The unlikely hero and protagonist of Balf’s story is Elisha Kent Kane. Short of stature, frail, skinny, and suffering from a weak heart, his personal circumstances made it all the more remarkable that in 1853, he and seventeen men left New York on a high-risk mission in search of legendary British explorer John Franklin, who had vanished in the Arctic with 129 men and two ships.
Balf expertly reconstructs Kane’s little-known expedition, among the earliest Arctic explorations ever undertaken by Americans. While Kane never did solve the mystery of Franklin’s disappearance, his men managed briefly to advance beyond 81 degrees latitude and thus set a new “farthest north” record, from which Balf derives the title of his book. Humans would not reach the geographic North Pole until the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, nearly sixty years later. Kane and his men paid a grim price for their partial victory, and the narrative is at its best describing the brutal conditions they endured, including minus-75 degree Fahrenheit cold, ice that loomed “everywhere and grew by the day,” and the starvation and madness of the crew.
Kane himself was a gifted writer who exercised diligence in keeping his daily diary of events, and it is these notes that Todd Balf exploits so deftly in bringing this long-overlooked story back to public attention. Kane and his men spent two winters in earth’s most remote and unforgiving land, swaddled in furs and walrus-hide moccasins, under constant assault from scurvy, frostbite, hypothermia, lockjaw, snow blindness, and typhoid. Remarkably only two of Kane’s crew died. Decades before Scott, Peary, and Shackleton, it was Elisha Kent Kane who should be hailed as the original polar explorer, the granddaddy of them all.
By the winter of 1854 Kane and his company had been trapped for almost two years, their ship locked tight in a frozen vise of ice somewhere below the North Pole. Some men lost toes to frostbite; others succumbed to Arctic hysteria; all of them were starving, reduced to eating the rats (Kane affectionately calls them “tiny cattle”) that seemed impervious to the horrific conditions. The fifty dogs that had come to pull sleds were dead or starving, and newspapers in the United States had become convinced that Kane and his men were dead or starving also.
Elisha Kent Kane himself never lost hope, indomitable in his resolve to fulfill his mission. He was determined to find Franklin and to prove the existence of a legendary Open Polar Sea that circled the North Pole (he accomplished neither). Under his calm yet unrelenting leadership, he was able to motivate his men to spend two years exploring the frozen realm of the Arctic Archipelago, going farther north than any expedition had before.
In the great tradition of 19th century non-fiction exploration classics from all over the world Todd Balf’s tale of courage, survival and discovery captures polar exploration at its best. This is a great story that will be enjoyed by all who read it.
Source by Franklin Cross