Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage
By Brian Castner. Doubleday, 2018. 336 pages. $27.95.
Find a map. Locate the Mackenzie River in Canada's Northwest Territories. It starts at Great Slave Lake and runs 1,124 miles to empty into the Beaufort Sea. Then look for Alaska's Cook Inlet. Notice that at their closest points, the river and the inlet are about 700 straight-line miles apart, across enormous mountain ranges.
In 1789, Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, working for the fur trade, headed off with a party of voyageurs and indigenous hunter-guides into the largest blank space left on the North American map. Based on descriptions from another fur trader, who had brought in luxurious beaver skins from a northern land called Athabasca, as well as from Captain Cook's 1778 mapping of Cook Inlet, Mackenzie believed that the river and the inlet connected. All he had to do was follow the river to the Pacific and become the rich and famous discoverer of the Northwest Passage.
In 2016, Brian Castner, an Iraq War veteran, journalist, author of two previous books and river guide (in upstate New York) retraced Mackenzie's journey by canoe. (Alaskans may remember Castner, who came to the state last year with "Danger Close: Alaska," a program centered on writing by veterans and civilians and partnered by 49 Writers and the Alaska Humanities Forum.)
In "Disappointment River," Castner bounces back and forth between Mackenzie's story (with a lengthy but highly interesting background to the fur trade and Mackenzie's life) and his own adventure.
Castner is a highly skilled writer and engaging companion for both stories, which never flag even as their protagonists weary of fighting wind, rain, mosquitoes and biting flies, challenging river and camping conditions, and — in Mackenzie's case — sometimes recalcitrant guides and hostile tribes. The Mackenzie half of the narrative is extensively researched; this is especially impressive given that the historical record is thin. Castner's own story of traveling the river and stopping among the few villages and settlements along the way is vividly described, in well-wrought scenes that alternate from inspiring to humorous to stomach-clenching.
Although Castner commited himself to the six-week-long journey (30 miles a day) on Deh Cho, the Big River, and did all the planning, he had trouble finding a companion who could devote the same amount of time. He settled for recruiting four different friends to meet him at designated points on certain days, "like runners in a relay race [who] pass me as the baton."
This could have been a recipe for disaster, but the logistics ended up working out well. His worst experience was, early on, finding the canoe plundered at a village stop and losing essential equipment, including a stove and axe. There was also at least one near-capsize. As befitting someone who defused bombs and otherwise managed danger and extreme stress during a war, Castner took his travel hardships in stride.
Castner writes, "Paddling the Deh Cho felt like walking a tightrope. Don't look down, don't look around, don't think too much about what you are doing, don't think about being small and exposed, just put one foot in front of the other, paddle to the next point. That's it. If you pick your head up, look around, you'll realize how far from help you are, and the enormity of the task."
Amazingly, Castner didn't see another canoe on the entire river, and very little river traffic at all. Outside of the handful of small communities, the country he passed through has changed very little from Mackenzie's time. The human population of the valley it runs through, about 10,000, is probably similar to what it was 200 years ago.
Certainly, adventuring in the 21st century is far easier than in the 18th. Castner had a fiberglass and Kevlar canoe (compared to one with a birchbark covering), maps, guidebook, GPS and technologies to track weather and stay in touch with family and advisors. He carried high-tech gear and plenty of pre-packaged food.
Mackenzie's group (10 men and four women in three canoes at the start), on the other hand, didn't even know where they were going. Mackenzie had poor navigation skills and a faulty compass, so that he thought he was traveling west when he was going north. Obsessed with finding the way to Cook Inlet, he was sure the ocean was just over the next hill, and he dismissed the advice he received from his Chipewyan partner and indigenous people they met along the way.
When Mackenzie finally reached tidewater, what he saw before him was an expanse of ice as far as he could see. Castner writes, "If that ice [from the known Arctic Ocean] extended even to the mouth of this river, in the warmth of July, then the way was perpetually blocked. This was no highway to Russia and China. . . Mackenzie had failed." The idea that the climate could ever change, that the ice would disappear, was too fantastical to imagine. Mackenzie wrote to a colleague that his expedition was nothing but a "voyage down the River Disappointment."
However, when Castner himself arrived at the same river mouth, there was no ice in sight, only gray open water all the way to the northern horizon. As he stumbled ashore on Garry Island, the last of the barrier islands where Mackenzie finally accepted his great mistake, Castner checked his GPS and took a photo of its screen. He had done what Mackenzie had failed at — he had paddled the Northwest Passage. "The way was open. Mackenzie was simply two hundred years too early."