Alexander Mackenzie, Lewis & Clark of Canada, and Why I Told His Story

Alexander Mackenzie by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas/National Gallery of Canada

Editor's Note:

Brian Castner is a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer who received a Bronze Star for his service in the Iraq War. He is the author of The Long Walk, All the Ways We Kill and Die, and Disappointment River, and the co-editor of the anthology The Road Ahead. His journalism and essays have appeared in Esquire, Wired, Vice, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other publications.

Alexander Mackenzie has been nearly lost to history. Despite his achievements and the number of places on the map bearing his name, including the second longest river system in North America, Mackenzie is almost unknown in the United States. Up in Canada, he is a figure a little like Daniel Boone, a famous name though most would be hard pressed to say exactly why. His journals are out of print, his expeditions largely forgotten, his exploits usurped by Lewis and Clark.

So how did I find Mackenzie? As one does, in our modern world. An accidental Google search, of course.

In the summer of 2015, I was looking for a new challenge. All of my literary projects to that point, starting with my war memoir The Long Walk, concerned combat and blood. I wrote about the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lives of amputated soldiers after they returned home, the US military deployment to Liberia during the Ebola crisis. I felt worn out, and was looking for a book project both inspired and reinvigorating.

Authors often feel trapped to follow the old adage to “write what you know.” So instead, I tried to turn that around, to consider the kinds of books I most like to read, the kind I most want to know. For me, that’s nonfiction stories from far-away places. The travelogues of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Ian Frazier, Denis Johnson’s reportage from Africa, the majestic outdoor writing of Jon Krakauer and Hampton Sides. I’ve long been a fan of Arctic and Antarctic literature in particular, and as a Shackleton nut, I think I’ve read just about every crew biography on the shelf.

As I tried to figure out a way to combine these genres, one book stuck in my head: David Grann’s Lost City of Z. It had all the elements I was looking for. Not only does Grann resurrect Colonel Percy Fawcett, erstwhile infamous Amazon explorer who died searching for ancient ruins in Brazil, but he travels to the still-hazardous region himself. It was the perfect model….if I could just find an unknown Arctic explorer and somehow manage to recreate his journey.

Fortunately, I thought I had already stumbled upon one. Living in Buffalo, my family and I make frequent trips to Toronto, just a short drive away. We like the restaurants and culture, especially the Royal Ontario Museum, and never miss a show. Years before, the gallery had done a retrospective of a Canadian artist named Paul Kane. He was like a 19th-Century Ansel Adams, traveling across the continent to paint epic landscapes. He crisscrossed the west, the plains, up the Rockies, and the museum had large displays tracing his journeys. As writers do, I filed this character away in a special subsection of my brain devoted to unspecified future projects.

But years later, when it came time to start my research and find my own Percy Fawcett, I couldn’t remember Kane’s name. So I googled “Lewis and Clark of Canada.” But Kane didn’t pop up, of course. Alexander Mackenzie did.

I stayed up half the night reading Mackenzie’s story. How in 1793 he led the first recorded expedition across North America, a decade before Lewis and Clark. How even before that, in 1789, while searching for the Northwest Passage, he got lost and canoed into the Arctic instead, paddling 1200 miles down the river now known as the Mackenzie. The more I read, the more I couldn’t believe that this history was new to me.

And that, more than any genre model, is what every writer is looking for. A flash of energy and enthusiasm that says, at once, both “how do I not already know this?” and “what happens next?”