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Canoeing 'Disappointment River': 1200 Miles Through Canada's Northwest Passage

Image Courtesy of University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections
Map of the north part of America on which is Mackenzie's track (dotted line) from Montreal to the North Sea.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published on April 24, 2018.

Fourteen years before Lewis and Clark crossed the North American continent to "discover" the Pacific Ocean, Scottish fur trader and explorer Alexander Mackenzie did it in what is now northern Canada.

He was looking for the elusive Northwest Passage to China, but didn't find it. Well, actually he did - sort of - but he ran into impenetrable pack ice in the Arctic Ocean. As author Brian Castner says, had Mackenzie made the journey today he wouldn't have found China, but he would have found a sailing passage to Asia across the northern coast of Alaska.


Castner, who is a Marquette grad and a Bronze Star recipient for his bomb disposal work in Iraq, discovered Mackenzie's letters and journals and became fascinated with his story, which in many ways mirrors the story of the European discovery of the North American continent.

It was a relatively short jump from interest in Mackenzie to deciding to make the journey himself.

During the summer of 2016, Castner canoed the 1,200 miles from Mackenzie's starting point on the shores of Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories to what is now the open Arctic Sea.

He spent 40 days on what is now called the Mackenzie River, which he says was both beautiful and grueling.

"It was a very different experience dealing with the bugs and the lightning and the wind and where are we going to put our tent tonight," he explains. "It’s not a park. There are no dedicated campsites. So sometimes when you were stuck in a swamp there was just nowhere to stop. You really start to appreciate wilderness in a different way."

Castner says that had Alexander Mackenzie found the Pacific Ocean instead of pack ice at the end of his journey, the history of our continent could have turned out much differently. But we will never know. It forever remains in the realm of "what if?"

You learn more about both journeys in Castner's book, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing The Northwest Passage.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.