Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

by Brian Castner
Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage

by Brian Castner


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Disappointment River
 is a historical narrative and travel memoir that at once transports readers back to the heroic age of North American exploration and places them in a still rugged but increasingly fragile Arctic wilderness in the process of profound change. Fourteen years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie set off to cross the continent of North America with a team of voyageurs and Chipewyan guides in an attempt to find a trade route to the riches of the East. What he found was a river that he named “Disappointment.” Mackenzie died thinking he had failed. He was wrong.

In this book, Brian Castner not only retells the story of Mackenzie's epic voyages in vivid prose, he personally retraces his travels, battling exhaustion, exposure, mosquitoes, white-water rapids and the threat of bears. He transports readers to a world rarely glimpsed in the media, of tar sands, thawing permafrost, remote indigenous villages and, at the end, a wide-open Arctic Ocean that could become a far-northern Mississippi of barges and pipelines and oil money. What he reveals is a world that Alexander Mackenzie dreamed of but could never have fully imagined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101973165
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

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 two books, The Long Walk (2012) and All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016), and the co-editor of the anthology The Road Ahead (2017). His journalism and essays have appeared in Esquire, Wired, Vice, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other publications. The Long Walk was adapted into an opera that has been performed at prestigious venues nationwide.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

— 1 —

The North West Company, 1788

The previous winter had fallen early and hard, deep cold that clapped rivers icy tight, and so the men greeted the summer rendezvous of 1788 with more than the usual share of anticipation and excitement. Like sailors putting into port or whalers tying up ships in a gam, voyageurs thirsted for the rendezvous with a pent-up intensity bordering on lust: part reunion, part respite, part drunken revelry, the highlight of a voyageur's year.

They descended upon the annual conclave from every direction. Great Lakes traders from Fort Michilimackinac and the Mississippi basin. Mangeurs de lard, the lowliest pork eaters, from the east, carrying in their massive birch-bark canoes a season’s worth of gunpowder and casked rum. And of greatest esteem, the vaunted hommes du nord, the men who had survived the far interior and lived to tell about it. Half-starved, frostbitten, weary; to reach the rendezvous, some had paddled for two or three months, over a thousand miles, from the Slave River, Île-à-la-Crosse, the Old Establishment, through the Rapids of the Drowned and the Rivière Maligne.

These men were human draft horses, known for their bravery, their drinking, their song, their whoring, their cheer, but most of all for their work ethic. For the fur-trading empire of Montreal was powered by the labor of illiterate farm boys from Quebec. At the rendezvous, the hommes du nord exchanged tens of thousands of beaver skins for the mangeurs du lard’s iron trade goods from London, a swap permitted by the bitter snow-driven land only once a year.

Voyageurs tended to be short—there was almost nowhere to put one’s feet in a canoe packed to the gunnel with supplies—but powerful, to work all day and carry heavy pièces on dangerous portages. “If he shall stop growing at about five feet four inches, and be gifted with a good voice, and lungs that never tire, he is considered having been born under a good star,” said one fur trader of the time.

A good voice, for they sang all day. They sang to synchronize their strokes. They sang to pass the time between smoked pipes. They sang to stay awake. The songs were filthy, bawdy versions of old religious hymns and children’s rhymes with popular melodies. Songs of beautiful women, and dances, and work, and crows picking at the flesh of corpses butchered in an Iroquois raid.

Qui sont de bons enfants;

Ah! Qui ne mangent guère,

Mais qui boivent souvent!

Si les maringouins t’piq’ la tête,

D’leur aiguillon

Et t’étourdissent les oreilles,

De leurs chansons,

Endure-les, et prends patience

Afin d’apprendre

Qu’ainsi le diable te tourmente,

Pour avoir ta pauvre âme!

We are voyageurs

and good fellows. We seldom eat

but we often drink!

If the mosquitoes

sting your head and deafen your ears with their buzzing,

endure them patiently,

for they will show you how

the Devil will torment you

in order to get your poor soul.

The rendezvous was held at a place called Grand Portage, along a small bay on the western lip of Lake Superior, under the gaze of slumbering mounds of rock. For one month each summer, Grand Portage hosted both the headquarters of an international commercial empire and the rowdiest party in a thousand miles. Each was the reflection of the other, could not exist without the other. The facilities at Grand Portage were all related to commerce: warehouses, stables, forges, canoe depots. In truth, the fort constituted only a quasi-town. A communal garden but no church, a watchtower but no government’s soldiers, a factory for a single industry, the hub of every spoke, the gangway to the north.

Via paddle and portage trail, the rendezvous appeared in the distant wilderness like a tiny gnat on a horse’s rump. A palisade fence, shingled roofs, fields of white tents, hundreds of canoes at the fort. All the terms of trade were martial: Groups of canoes were a brigade, and they marched across the water. The Indians were kept on the outside of the picket, in teepees layered with bark. “Fence builders,” the Ojibwa called the whites. They meant it as a pejorative.

The night before they reached Grand Portage, the voyageurs shaved, washed their hair, changed into clean white shirts saved for the occasion. All year, when laboring in the stacked boreal forest, wading through sucking muskeg, dodging Sioux war parties, curled for warmth with their Cree wives, they might dress in rags, filthy and emaciated. But when they arrived at the rendezvous, they intended to make an entrance, deep in song.

And waiting for them, upon disembarkation, a regale, a feast: a four-pound loaf of bread fresh out of the hot brick oven, half a pound of butter, and a bottle of rum; molasses-soaked Brazilian twist tobacco too, and roasts of freshly slaughtered hogs. For those few weeks, the northmen had nothing to do but talk and drink and screw and fight. While sober, they exchanged family news—who died, who was born, who was now married, all back in Quebec—and found clerks to read them long out-of-date newspapers. Then they hit the rum, and in service of their festivities some spent a year’s worth of wages or went into debt, and not a few signed back on for another winter—or two, or three—based upon the depths of those debts. And then, a fortnight later, they headed back north.

The employer of all these voyageurs was a new business venture known as the North West Company. More a cartel than a proper corporation with a sole executive, the partnership was designed as a loose confederation of semiautonomous fur traders who pooled their resources for mutual benefit while always reserving the right to resume competition in the future. Borrowing the voyageurs’ French, the shareholders called themselves bourgeois.

The ratio of voyageurs to invested partners was a hundred to one, and only a few dozen bourgeois gathered in the main lodge each day. While the men caroused, their masters feasted in the style of the European gentlemen they aspired to be. All the partners and clerks and trusted interpreters gathered together for a lavish midday meal: bread, pork, beef, hams, venison, butter, peas, corn, potatoes, tea, spirits, wine, and plenty of milk from cows quartered at the fort. The growing season was so short they ate root vegetables from the year prior, but no one seemed to mind. All of the gentlemen’s pants were equipped with gussets so they could be cinched up in winter but, equally important, let out in summer.

But they did more than eat. Only at the rendezvous did so many bourgeois meet in one place. The northern agents and Montreal investors had business to discuss, and it was for that reason that Alexander and Roderic Mackenzie had traveled so far that summer.

Alexander and Roderic were cousins, Scottish refugees largely alone in the world but for each other. Both were in their late twenties and up-and-comers, finding their way in the fiercely competitive trade. Their similarities were limited to age and acumen alone, though. Alexander was the more ambitious, energetic, direct. His partners thought him “blond, strong and well built.” Where Alexander was fair and square-jawed, Roderic was moon-faced, fleshy, with flat dark hair. The only family feature they shared was a knowing smile.

Alexander had been in the trade several years longer than Roderic and by hard work and good timing had already been named a partner of the North West Company, the most junior member of that exclusive fraternity. Meanwhile, Roderic was still laboring as a clerk, a bookkeeping apprentice, and was wondering if his chance would ever come. But Alexander needed Roderic, if he was going to seize the opportunity that lay before him that summer.

The fur trade was a global business, and multicultural, reliant on London countinghouses, led by Scots and Americans, utilizing French labor, trading with Indians in a vast wilderness, and shipping around the world. Which caused the bourgeois of the North West Company endless problems.

The mechanics of their trade were slow. Ships and canoes moved only a hundred miles a day. Payment from Europe could take years, and so their capital was perpetually at risk; one bad season would drown them in their debt. The most valuable beaver furs lay ever more to the north and west, so their clerks and voyageurs pushed farther inland every year. And to top it all off, recent reports said that sea otters—and, more important, Indians willing to trade their pelts—were crawling all over the Pacific coast, a place to which they had no access.

For all those reasons and more, at that rendezvous in the summer of 1788, the Northwest Passage was on the agenda. Alexander Mackenzie was the one who put it there, because with his cousin’s help he intended to persuade his partners to send him in search of it, a voyage that would make his fortune.


From the moment Christopher Columbus realized that he had stumbled upon a new continent, rather than China, there was always a tension, among European explorers, between exploiting the riches of the New World and finding a route around it.

Yes, this new land was full of tobacco and furs and gold. But it was also in the way. European markets clamored for tea, spices, blue-and-white porcelain dinner settings, silk stockings. For every businessman who sought to strip the New World of resources, another just wanted to get on to the real market in China; in 1497, even as Spain colonized the West Indies, John Cabot, an Italian sailing under an English charter, tried to find a northwest passage around America. The continent had only been known to Europeans for five years, and they were already trying to bypass it. Cabot failed, bumping into Newfoundland instead.

In this Golden Age of Discovery, nothing was actually discovered. White humans stepped no place in North America that other human feet had not already trodden. But these Europeans did leave a mark, because they did two things that no one else had. They mapped the lands, and they told the rest of the world about them.

To the south, few rivers promised passage through the continent. John Smith, after founding Jamestown in 1607, tried to find the Pacific by sailing up the Chickahominy and the Potomac, but these rivers quickly dried up at the Endless Mountains of the Appalachians. In 1609, Henry Hudson’s river option petered out, so he went to the north and gave his name to the frozen bay where he died in 1611, set adrift in a dingy by his mutinous and starving crew. Between Labrador and Greenland lie many gulfs, bays, and straits that tease passage to the Pacific, and all are now named for the naval officers—Frobisher, Davis, Baffin—who tried and failed to transit them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All were turned aside by pack ice. For practical purposes, the matter appeared to be settled. These most northerly reaches were perpetually encrusted in ice, and ever would be, so there could be no northwest passage above the Arctic Circle.

Therefore, between Florida and the northern cold, only one option remained: the St. Lawrence River. It was an obvious choice. The mouth of the waterway serves as a giant funnel, drawing in all ships over a four-hundred-mile swath; even in its relative narrows, the river forms a grand natural gateway, sheer cliffs on either side, a portal through which you could march all the world’s armies. Only the St. Lawrence breached the Endless Mountains, ran free from ice most of the year, and accessed the heart of the continent. Many leading cartographers believed it would prove to be one end of an interior Northwest Passage.

That such a Northwest Passage should exist at all was one of inescapable logic. Since Aristotle, geographers subscribed to a philosophy of a balanced earth, in both weight and function. That the same amount of land must appear in the northern hemisphere as the southern, that features present in one area would be mirrored in all others, was axiomatic. This theory had already produced results; the long-sought terra australis, a large continent in the south required to balance Europe and Asia in the north, was found by Dutch sailors in the South Pacific in the seventeenth century. So too, if a southern passage existed around South America at tierra del fuego, a corresponding waterway must exist in the north.

And the North West Company intended to find it, because in the fur trade the competing goals of continental exploitation and bisection were finally united in one inescapable business imperative.


Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Prologue 1

1 The North West Company, 1788 3

2 Into The North, 2016 11

3 Scotland, 1774 16

4 New York, 1775 23

5 Montreal, 1778 31

6 Detroit, 1784 41

7 Into the Pays d'en Haut, Spring 2016 51

8 To Grand Portage and the English River, 1785 57

9 Matonabbee and Awgeenah 71

10 Murder at the Old Establishment, 1787 84

11 To the Northwest Passage, 1788 93

12 All It Takes Is Time, 2016 102

13 Embarkation, June 1789 110

14 The Rapids of the Slave, June 2016 117

15 Shoot The Messenger, June 1789 127

16 Thunderstorms And Raids, June 2016 138

17 Into The Mountains, July 1789 163

18 The Plagues of the Deh Cho, July 2016 169

19 The Dogrib, July 1789 192

20 Rapids Without Rapids, July 2016 200

21 You Can Starve on Rabbits, July 1789 215

22 Fort Good Hope to Tsiigehtchic, July 2016 220

23 Satisfy The Curiosity, Tho' Not The Intent, July 1789 241

24 Into The Earth Sponge, July 2016 248

25 The Highest Part of the Island, July 1789 260

26 A Sea of Ice, Frozen No More, July 2016 267

27 Many Returns 274

Epilogue 289

Acknowledgments 297

Notes 299

Selected Bibliography 314

Index 319

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