Kane’s Mysterious Waters: Transient Polynyas

Open_Polar_Sea (1)

From “Arctic Exploration Grinnell Expedition 1853-1854-1855″, artist James Hamilton after sketches by Elisha Kent Kane, engraved by R. Hinshelwood.

Led by Elisha Kent Kane, M.D., the Second Grinnell Expedition (1853-1855) continued on-going searches for the missing Franklin Expedition. According to Kane’s writings in Arctic Explorations, his approach was to take a course that should “lead most directly to the open sea of which he had inferred the existence” and to “examine the [Greenland] coast-lines for vestiges of the lost party.” Within the first dozen or so pages of his book, Kane had established the theoretical existence of an open polar sea.

Kane further supports the existence of open seawater by referring to noted historical explorers:

An open sea near the Pole, or even an open Polar basin, has been a topic of theory for a long time, and has been shadowed forth to some extent by actual or supposed discoveries. As far back as the days of Barentz, in 1596, without referring to the earlier and more uncertain chronicles, was seen to the eastward of the northernmost cape of Novaia Zemlia; and, until its limited extent was defined by direct observation, it was assumed to be the sea itself.

The Dutch fisherman above and around Spitzbergen pushed their adventurous cruises through the ice into open spaces varying in size and form with the season and the winds; and Dr. Scoresby, a venerated authority, alludes to such vacancies in the floe as pointing in argument to a freedom of movement from the north, inducing open water in the neighborhood of the Pole. [1]

Kane also theorizes a milder climate towards the [North] Pole; however, he does not provide an explanation as to how such an open sea may exist:

It is impossible, in reviewing the facts which connect themselves with this discovery, — the melted snow upon the rocks, the crowds of marine birds, the limited, but still advancing vegetable life, the rise of the thermometer in the water, — not to be struck with their bearing on the question of a milder climate near the Pole. [2]

While discussing the northern extent of the search for Franklin, Kane provides the number of miles searched and approximate longitude and latitude coordinates of ice-free water:

During this period [August and September, 1854] the labours of the expedition have delineated 960 miles of [Greenland] coast-line, without developing any traces of the missing ships or the slightest information bearing upon their fate. The amount of travel to effect this exploration exceeded 2000 miles, all of which was upon foot or by the aid of dogs.

Greenland has been traced to its northern face, whence it is connected with the further north of the opposite coast by a great glacier. This coast has been charted as high as lat. 82° 27’. Smith’s Sound expands into a capacious bay: it has been surveyed throughout its entire extent. From its northern and eastern corner, in lat. 80° 10, long. 66°, a channel has been discovered and followed until further progress was checked by water free of ice. This channel trended nearly due north, and expanded into an apparently open sea, which abounded with birds and bears and marine life. [3]

Kane recorded these observations of open Arctic water north of Cape Andrew Jackson, and his findings were reportedly corroborated by Isaac I. Hayes, M.D., Hans Hendrik, and by notations in William’s Morton’s journal:

The journeys which I had made myself, and those of my different parties, had shown that an unbroken surface of the ice covered the entire sea to the east, west, and south. From the southernmost ice, seen by Dr. Hayes only a few weeks before, to the region of the mysterious water, was, as the crow flies, 106 miles. But for the unusual sight of birds and the unmistakable giving way of the ice beneath them, they would not have believed in the evidence of eyesight. Neither Hans nor Morton was prepared for it.

Landing on the cape, and continuing their exploration, new phenomena broke upon them. They were on the shores of a channel, so open that a frigate, or a fleet of frigates, might have sailed up it. The ice, already broken and decayed, formed a sort of horseshoe-shaped beach, against which the waves broke in surf. As they travelled north, this channel expanded into an iceless area; “for four or five small pieces” – lumps – were all that could be seen over the entire surface of its white-capped waters. Viewed from the cliffs, and taking 36 miles as the mean radius open to reliable survey, this sea had a justly-estimated extent of more than 4000 square miles. [4]

Note: Line-of-sight to a 36-mile water horizon requires the viewer to be ~650 feet above mean sea level.

Polynyas are semi-permanent open water greater than five square kilometers and are surrounded by sea ice. Generally, they are formed by two mechanisms: 1) upwelling warmer sea water melting surface ice, and 2) wind and wave-action breaking ice, particularly thinner first-year ice, that is then widely dispersed by wind and by water currents. These hydrodynamic forces in combination can potentially open vast areas of Arctic seas in summer and/or winter with year-to-year variations, forming polynyas that range in size 10 to 100 kilometers. [5,6]

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago has at least 23 documented polynyas and several shorelead polynyas, the latter of which can extend hundreds of kilometers. Of note, the North Water (NOW) polynya is one of the largest and most widely studied, occupying much of Smith Sound and extending north towards the southern entrance of Kane Basin. Smaller polynyas are present at Flagler Bay (Ellesmere Island), and at the confluence of Robeson Channel and the Lincoln Sea. Numerous smaller, transient polynyas can be found year round throughout the Arctic, and at times, along the Ellesmere-Greenland waterway. [7]

Kane alluded to the importance of polynyas to nearly all Arctic animals, especially marine mammals, when he observed that the open sea “abounded with birds and bears and marine life.” According to Martin, the NOW polynya “contains large concentrations of white whales, narwhals, walruses, and seals, with polar bears foraging along the coast… All of this suggests that polynyas are vital for the overwinter survival of arctic species. [8]

Because 19th century Arctic explorers lacked adequate instrumentation to study and measure Arctic polynyas, Kane and others theorizing them as an open sea is understandable, since their presence had been observed for hundreds of years by Arctic region fishermen and explorers. Kane, nonetheless, had identified one key element of polynya formation, comparatively warmer water (though without the upwelling component). Because these open areas of water were predictable along the Ellesmere-Greenland coastlines, Kane aptly utilized them as part of his overall strategy when searching for the lost Franklin Expedition. Research continues on the formation and oceanographic characteristics of Arctic and Antarctic transient polynyas.


  1. Arctic Explorations in Search of Sir John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, M.D., U.S.N., T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row, Edinburgh and New York, 1877, p. 182.
  2. Ibid, p. 183.
  3. Ibid, p. 206.
  4. Ibid, pp. 179-180.
  5. “Polynyas,” Seelye Martin, University of Washington, Department of Oceanography, 2001, p. 1-7.
  6. On Sea Ice, W. F. Weeks, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 2010, p. 281-329.
  7. “Polynyas and Tidal Currents in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago,” Charles G. Hannah, et al, Arctic, 62, 1, March, 2009, p. 83-95.
  8. Martin, p.4.

Frances Hennessey writes informally on Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and other 19th century Arctic-related topics. Fran tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com

After Icebergs with a Painter: An Inspiration for Bradford’s 1869 Voyage

In Arctic Regions, William Bradford chronicled his 1869 voyage to the Arctic along Greenland’s coast, & cites two books that initially inspired his exploration for art’s sake: Lord Dufferin’s Letters from High Places and Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations in the years of 1853, ’54, ’55.

At least one other book would have caught Bradford’s attention and imagination: Rev. L. L. Noble’s After Icebergs with a Painter, published in 1861. Noble described his 1859 voyage searching for icebergs–for art’s sake–which he made with the great American landscape artist, Frederic E. Church.[1] As Richard Kugler stated[2]: “Although Bradford makes no mention of it, it is likely that he was…familiar with Louis Legrand Noble’s After Icebergs with a Painter…, an account of an 1859 trip made with Church, who provided illustrations for the volume. A copy of the book was also on board the schooner Benjamin S Wright during Bradford’s 1864 voyage to Labrador…”[3]

Interestingly throughout After Icebergs…, Noble refers to Church only as “C_____”; but, as Kugler said: “many of its readers would have instantly recognized him as Frederic E. Church, whose enormous painting The Icebergs caused a sensation when put on view in New York in 1861.”[4] It would seem likely, then, “that Bradford was inspired by…The Icebergs, which…was hailed by the New York Tribune as the ‘most splendid work of art that has yet been produced in this country.’ Bradford would surely have seen The Icebergs in late 1861 in New York, or at least in 1862, when it was exhibited in Boston.[5]

We also know that Church was a friend of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, who accompanied Bradford on the 1869 voyage. Church had, in fact, given artistic counsel to Dr. Hayes, as Hayes desired to make sketches of scientific interest. In return, Hayes gave Church one of his sketches: “a scene that would become the basis for Church’s second Arctic painting, The Aurora Borealis (Smithsonian Museum of American Art).”[6]

In Bradford’s scrapbook of news clippings, several articles refer to Church, often comparing his artistic work with Bradford’s.

 “ARCTIC PICTURES,” written in London: kudos to Bradford, Church, Bierstadt…to personally observe natural phenomenons..”the sincerety and hardihood” of which “appeal to English feeling.”

Arctic Pictures (1)

Yet in another of Bradford’s scrapbooks–a very special piece of evidence of Bradford’s and Church’s connection with each other is Church’s signature: “Yours sincerely Frederic E Church.”[7] (#A-288)

Frederick_E_Church (1)

With the various connections between Bradford and Church, it seems fitting to share Church’s 1859 voyage with followers of Bradford and the Arctic Visions exhibit. As we are fortunate to have Bradford’s and Hayes’s accounts of their 1869 voyage, we are also fortunate to have Noble’s account of Church’s 1859 voyage in his After Icebergs with a Painter: again, for art’s sake.

So, to share with everyone the passion of Church’s voyage–which also inspired Bradford’s–William Bradford @WmBradford_NBWM will soon “tweet” to his followers passages of After Icebergs…! Please stay with us as the voyage continues….


[1] Frederic E. Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900) was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chur/hd_chur.htm, by Kevin J. Avery. 

[2] Richard C. Kugler: William Bradford–Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas,New Bedford, Mass.: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003, p84 n2

[3] D. A. Wasson, ‘Ice and Esquimaux,’ in Atlantic Monthly 7 (January 1865), 46.

[4] Kugler, William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 17

[5] Ibid, p84n2

[6] Ibid, p. 26

[7] The last four words of Church’s note to Bradford can be seen: “…at the Studio Building,” which may have referenced a studio building in NYC where both Bradford and Church had presences.

Joanne Seymour is a New Bedford Whaling Museum volunteer in its Research Library. As such, she has contributed to the Arctic Visions exhibit: in part, her contributions have included transcription of entries in the three Bradford scrapbooks, and “tweeting” as William Bradford from Arctic Regions and as Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes from his Land of Desolation.

LeGrand Lockwood

William Bradford dedicated Arctic Regions to the memory of businessman and financier LeGrand Lockwood. Bradford stating that Lockwood was “widely known for his generous patronage of the arts and for his acts of unselfish benevolence.”

Arctic Region's Dedication

Lockwood was, as described by  Steve Lubar in a talk delivered at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, an enthusiastic adopter of the new technologies. Bradford’s use of photography to aid in his creative process, and in the end his painting, may have been influenced through his connection to Lockwood. Unfortunately for Bradford Lockwood’s financial support didn’t materialize, Bradford was left to cover the expenses from the 1869 voyage on his own less the amount contributed by other passengers. [1]


[1] Kugler, Richard C. William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas. New Bedford, Mass.: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003

Faces in the Crowd

Posted by on Jan 13, 2014 in Persons Represented | No Comments

panoramaAmong the lesser-known signatures in the Bradford scrapbooks is that of Lucette E. Barker, an artist in her own right, whose connections with other London artists and writers were considerable. Her brother-in-law, Tom Taylor, was the editor of Punch, as well as (somewhat less fortunately) the playwright whose play, “Our American Cousin,” was being presented at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. Lucette, though described in some sources as an “amateur” artist, achieved considerable success in her day; she provided the frontispiece for Mrs. Alfred Gatty’s popular The Fairy Godmothers (1851), and counted among her admirers Anthony Trollope, to whom she sent several of her drawings. She also regularly provided illustrations for George Bell’s annual Poetry of the Year series.

Another little-known signer was Rosa E. Beaufort, who was the sister of Emily A. Beaufort, at the time a well known “lady traveller” whose Egyptian Sepluchres and Syrian Shrines (London: 1874) was dedicated to Rosa, “who shared in every scene depicted in these pages, and with whose kind assistance they were written.” The book was handsomely printed, and included a full-color fold-out frontispiece, “Panorama of Tadmor” (shown above). The Beaufort sisters were the daughters of W. Morris Beaufort, an active member of the Royal Geographical Society, who also signed the scrapbook (but no relation, apparently, to Sir Francis Beaufort after whom the Beaufort Sea was named).

One last group of signers of the Bradford scrapbook, though their individual names may not be familiar today, played a significant role in African-American musical history. These were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group just founded in 1871 and embarked upon a European tour.  Six of the group’s nine original members — Benjamin Holmes, Thomas Rutling, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, and Ella Sheppard, along with their director George White, signed their names. Their singing, including a command performance before Queen Victoria, elicited universal praise. When the group departed on their return trip to America, one member — Rutling — decided to remain in England, where he continued to perform and teach music until his death in 1915. The Jubilee Singers have carried on through the generations, and in October of 2014 will mark their 144th year.

The cross-section of those who were drawn to Bradford’s studio is remarkable for its diversity; clearly men and women of every walk of life were fascinated by his Arctic canvasses, and as we continue to search for the stories behind the names, I have every expectation that there will be yet more surprises.

Understanding by Degrees: The Open Polar Sea (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by on Dec 15, 2013 in Arctic Visions | No Comments

OPS Smith SoundDuring the 19th century, some scientists and explorers believed (or wanted to confirm) that an Open Polar Sea existed north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, presumably as an ice-free area of navigable water in the region of the Lincoln Sea. Much like the search for the Northwest Passage, this legendary open sea was thought to provide a more Greenland-oriented Arctic seaway. Isaac Israel Hayes, a medical doctor-explorer, believed in this Open Polar Sea and dedicated most of his life (and health) to its discovery and substantiating its existence. This third and final post discusses Hayes’ “most northern land” that he claimed to have reached.  

In 1853 as a newly-graduated physician, Hayes had served as ship’s surgeon on the Second Grinnell Expedition. This expedition was led by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane on the schooner Advance. New York City businessman Henry Grinnell, sponsored this expedition (as he had a previous one in 1850) to search for the lost Franklin Expedition, which had been sent by Britain in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage.  

Early in 1860, Hayes published his first book, An Arctic Boat Journey, in which he described his arduous if not life-threatening trek from the ice-beset Advance in an attempt to reach Upernavik, a Greenland settlement with adequate resources to send a rescue party to Kane and his scurvy-debilitated crew. Because of extreme cold, a lack of food, and impassable conditions, Hayes and his party were force to return to the Advance, where the entire crew, including invalids, made a heroic 83-day forced march to Upernavik, one of the most extraordinary events in 19th century Arctic exploration. 

Borne out of this extraordinary Arctic experience, Hayes secured funding to lead his own expedition in search of the legendary Open Polar Sea. Leaving Boston Harbor in July, 1860 in the schooner United States, Hayes had with him Kane’s astronomer, August Sonntag. With Sonntag as his second in command, Hayes followed much of Kane’s earlier course along the convoluted shores of Greenland and Ellesmere Island.  

Tragedy struck Hayes’ expedition when his close friend, Sonntag, died of hypothermia secondary to falling into icy water. Sonntag’s death was devastating to Hayes and to his crew, to the extent that they felt the expedition had lost direction. Nevertheless even without an astronomer, Hayes persisted with his quest north to find the Open Polar Sea. This two-year expedition culminated in a harrowing, forty-day push north along the Kennedy Channel coastline of Ellesmere Island. In Hayes’ second book, The Open Polar Sea, published in 1867, he wrote: 

This point, the most northern land that has ever been reached, was visited by the undersigned, May 18th, 19th 1861, accompanied by George F. Knorr, traveling with a dog-sledge. We arrived here after a toilsome march of forty-six days from my winter harbor, near Cape Alexander, at the mouth of Smith Sound.  My observations place us in latitude 81º 35’, longitude 70º 30’ W. Our further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks. Kennedy Channel appears to expand into the Polar Basin; and, satisfied that it is navigable at least during the months of July, August, and September, I go hence to my winter harbor, to make another trial to get through Smith Sound with my vessel, after the ice breaks up this summer. May 19th, 1861, I. I. Hayes.  

The location of Hayes’ “most northern land…reached” has been a matter of scholarly debate if not controversy. Research of historical dairies, drawings, and photographs suggests that Hayes was significantly further south than he stated, possibly in the area of picturesque Church’s Peak (N81º 15’ 30” by W65º 37’ 30”) or Cape Joseph Good (N80º 15’ 7” by W69º 54’ 41”). To further complicate this investigation, In the “enlarged and illustrated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey, Hayes indicated in Note 8. – Page 22:

“In my journey to Grinnell Land in 1861, I further traced the coast line to latitude 82º 45’, and from its shores I looked upon the Open Polar Sea. This is the most northern known land, and the most northern point of it I name Cape Union.” 

This retrospective notation adds one full degree of north latitude (~70 miles) to Hayes’ statement found in The Open Polar Sea. Interestingly, Hayes’ coordinates for Cape Union are north of Alert (N82º 30’ 05”). The concern is whether Hayes could reliably claim to have seen Cape Union, much less “traced” that northern point on foot since his “further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks.” Ultimately, Hayes’ Open Polar Sea may have been a  transient summer polynya, or open area in the ice, in the far reaches of Kennedy Channel or Hall Basin. 

Fourteen years later in 1875, the British explorer George Nares in the HMS Alert reached the most northern limits of Ellesmere Island. Nares’ observations potentially placed Hayes’ northern-attained landmarks into question. This may have prompted Hayes to bolster his authoritative position by publishing the “notated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey before he died December, 1881. 

As found in The Open Polar Sea, “Chart of Smith Sound” shows Hayes’ track north and the longitude and latitude of his claimed most north point attained. While elegantly engraved for publication, this chart contains errors in geographic locations and in latitude and longitude. As discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog, Hayes likely made some fundamental errors in distance calculations. He may have miscalculated his distance north traveled along the difficult Ellesmere Island coastline, his progress significantly impeded by perilous ice hummocks, deep snow, and tiring sledge dogs. 

Douglas W. Wamsley, in his revelatory biography, Polar Hayes, has complied comprehensive research on Hayes’ final push north. According to Wamsley, Hayes’ most northern attained point was closer to Cape Joseph Good or about 100 miles south of Cape Lieber, the point Hayes indicated he reached. Whether or not Hayes climbed to some elevation and peered north into Hall Basin, some debate exists, at least in Hayes’ own writings, that he actually saw ice-free water that could have been interpreted as an Open Polar Sea or even a navigable passageway into Hall Basin. 

With regard to Hayes’ sextant sightings, Wamlsey indicated that Hayes and Knorr suffered from snow blindness, and that Hayes made sextant sighting(s) with an instrument that he had not previously used. Whether Hayes’ sightings (one or more) were made at local solar noon is not known or whether he had a clear view of water or ice horizon. Nevertheless, no doubt exists that Hayes’ longitude reading (W70º 30’) is within the mountains of Ellesmere Island and not along the Kennedy Channel coastline. 

The debate of Hayes’ most north point attained could be solved if modern-day explorers could find the cairn built by Hayes and Knorr. As Hayes wrote in The Open Polar Sea: 

It now only remained for us to plant our flag in token of our discovery, and to deposit a record in proof of our presence. The flags were tied to the whiplash, and suspended between two tall rocks, and while we [Hayes and Knorr] were building a cairn, they were allowed to flutter in the breeze…” 

Subsequent explorers into the Greenland-Ellesmere region found historical rock cairns and gravesites, including that of August Sonntag. The possibility exists that Hayes’ cairn could be discovered, though its contents may be lost. Nevertheless, this archaeological evidence could potentially solve a puzzling 150-year mystery posed by this 19th century Arctic luminary. 

Retrospective Thoughts

From the perspective of someone who admires Hayes and studies his published writings, I struggled through months of angst, attempting to reconcile the discrepancies discussed. My approach was to read Wamsley’s Polar Hayes and eventually to place less emphasis on vexing numbers (degrees and miles). I returned to the books I love and focused on what Hayes does best: exemplary narrative accounts, poetic-like passages, and majestic descriptions. Derived from this personal odyssey of agonizing over maps, nautical charts, and measurements, I arrived at a greater understanding of Dr. Hayes, his historical writings, and published maps that represent personal ambitions, achievements, and a life-long quest for greater discovery and knowledge of Arctic regions. I wish to thank Russell Potter, PhD for his guidance in making this three-part blog possible. 

Frances Hennessey writes informally on Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and other 19th Arctic-related topics. She has a small collection of Hayes first-edition books, two signed by the author. Fran tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com