Travel the Mackenzie River Then and Now in Disappointment River

Detail from cover of Disappointment River by Brian Castner

Google Maps and other programs may have led most Americans to think that there isn’t a single part of the North American continent that can’t be explored via one’s computer. But in Brian Castner’s thrilling account of his canoe voyage up the vast Mackenzie River—a 1400-mile river that empties into the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Northwest Territories—he demonstrates the limits of those projects.

Most of us know the story of Christopher Columbus, who set sail in the late 15th century, heading west across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a faster trade route to Asia. Europeans had an eastern overland route, but with the advent of faster ships, and without any knowledge of what lay between them and Asia, Columbus and his patrons sailed east. And while accepted wisdom had held for centuries that Columbus had accidentally “discovered” the Americas, making him the first European to do so, in the 1960s, archaeologists uncovered a thousand-year old Norse longhouse, evidence that the Vikings had been the first white men to arrive in North America.

Of course, this whole view of “discovery” is dependent upon notions that the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who occupied the land from the far reaches of the Arctic North to Patagonia, hadn’t somehow had knowledge of their own land. Regardless of previous claims, however, many explorers journeyed to the Americas to claim land and resources for their native countries. And despite encountering the enormous land masses that comprise the Americas, contingents of explorers continued to hunt for shortcuts to Asia, envisioned as a navigable river that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Many of these explorers devoted themselves to trying to find an elusive “Northwest Passage,” across what became Canada. In Disappointment River, Brian Castner provides readers with a history of one particular search, the journey up what natives called the “Deh Cho,” a river that begins in Great Slave Lake, and which was rumored to end in salt water. How the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie found out about the Deh Cho, which was thousands of miles away from the population center of Montreal, is a fascinating tale in itself.

Castner devotes the first section of his book to elucidating how the demand for furs in Europe led to the creation of a vast network of trapping and trade that took place between white trappers and the Natives. The system of trade that Richard White documents in his magisterial study, The Middle Ground, is similar: prior to wars of conquest that massacred Native Americans, whites and Native Americans had established a system of  trade, intermarriage, and cooperation that produced a thriving economy in the 18th- century borderlands of the western frontier. A similar system was at work in Canada, where trappers who departed from Montreal and traversed the Great Lakes system of lakes, rivers, and portages, trapped and traded with Natives on the far edges of the Canadian frontier. As this trade expanded westward, members of trading companies such as Mackenzie became convinced that the elusive passage to the Pacific lay in these new territories.

But Castner does more than ably recount this history. At the point in Castner’s narrative where Mackenzie begins his journey on the river he would come to name for himself, Castner begins to recount his own tale of rowing those same waters. Castner does not row alone. Because the 1400-mile journey is expected to take six weeks, he invites four friends to each accompany him on different legs of the trip.

In his remarkable narrative, he intersperses chapters in which he recounts Mackenzie’s experiences on positions of the river, and then presents readers with what those same areas are like now. Much of Mackenzie’s voyage was dependent on the members of various tribes that either voluntarily—or under coercion—accompanied him as he traveled farther and farther north, convinced that the Pacific Ocean was just around the next river bend. When Castner stops in the tiny villages and towns that dot the river now, he speaks with the descendants of those peoples and hears their stories. An added treat of the book is that Castner renders word-portraits of each of his four traveling companions that add moments of humor. He reveals himself to be quite the observer, not only of the people he meets, but also in his ability to describe to readers the sensory experiences of life on the river. Whether it’s the heart-pounding moments in which he traverses rapids that threaten to swamp his tiny craft or the days of boredom when he was forced to sit in his tent waiting for extreme weather to pass, Castner makes for an excellent guide. And while reading his account may give readers the itchy feet of wanderlust,  don’t be surprised if the battles against horse flies nicknamed “bulldogs” make one itch, too.