Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

by Ken McGoogan
Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot

by Ken McGoogan

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

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John Rae's accomplishments, surpassing all nineteenth-century Arctic explorers, were worthy of honors and international fame. No explorer even approached Rae's prolific record: 1,776 miles surveyed of uncharted territory; 6,555 miles hiked on snowshoes; and 6,700 miles navigated in small boats. Yet, he was denied fair recognition of his discoveries because he dared to utter the truth about the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, Rae's predecessors in the far north. Author Ken McGoogan vividly narrates the astonishing adventures of Rae, who found the last link to the Northwest Passage and uncovered the grisly truth about the cannibalism of Franklin and his crew. A bitter smear campaign by Franklin's supporters would deny Rae his knighthood and bury him in ignominy for over one hundred and fifty years. Ken McGoogan's passion to secure justice for a true North American hero in this revelatory book produces a completely original and compelling portrait that elevates Rae to his rightful place as one of history's greatest explorers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786711567
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 05/08/2003
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 712,783
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ken McGoogan, former literary editor of The Calgary Herald, is the author of the novels Kerouac's Ghosts and Chasing Sofiya. He won the Drainie Taylor Biography Prize and The CAA Lela Common Award for Canadian History for Fatal Passage. In researching Fatal Passage, McGoogan traveled to England, Scotland, and the Arctic, where in 1999 he erected a plaque commemorating John Rae's accomplishments. McGoogan lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In June 1833, in the rugged Orkney Islands of northern Scotland, a restless, energetic young ship's doctor stood on the deck of a weather-beaten fur-trading vessel as it sailed out of Stromness harbour. Watching the trawlers, pilot boats, and white-sailed pleasure craft of his youth recede into the distance, John Rae—a wiry, broad-shouldered man of middle height—exulted in the salty breeze. At last he was bound for Rupert's Land, the vast wilderness empire ruled by the Hudson's Bay Company.

    Two of his older brothers had already sailed with the HBC and finally his own turn had come. Since boyhood, Rae had dreamed of exploring North America—the lakes and rushing rivers, the forests filled with dangerous animals. His father, who managed tenant farmers for a Scottish nobleman, also served as an agent for the HBC, recruiting Orkneymen and sending them west. Those men, and others who preceded them from these rolling, windswept islands, had kept the British fur trade thriving since early in the eighteenth century. Hundreds of them had sailed to Rupert's Land, and now they made up three-quarters of the staff in the territory. Over time, they had earned a reputation as loyal, hard-working employees—sober, obedient, and capable of enduring unusual cold, hunger, and hardship.

    Two months earlier, the nineteen-year-old Rae had graduated from medical school in Edinburgh. For four winters, he had attended Edinburgh University, which had the reputation, in London, of being a hotbed of radical dissent. Having discovered that bytransferring to the Royal College of Surgeons he could receive his diploma without waiting until he was twenty, Rae had promptly made the switch.

    The four winters he spent in Edinburgh, a bustling city of 160,000, he later described as uneventful: "steady plodding through the various courses of study considered at that time requisite before going up for a surgeon's diploma." The young man visited London at least once, but apart from snowball fights between students and town lads, Rae would find little to remember from his Edinburgh years. In April, 1833, after passing an extensive oral examination, he had qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons.

    Then adventure beckoned. Rae was young, after all, and this was the age of exploration. Since 1816, when the end of the Napoleonic Wars had created a lasting peace, British explorers had been roaming the globe, filling in blanks on the charts and atlases of the day, bent on discovering not only the Northwest Passage but also, in the heart of darkest Africa, Timbuktoo and the mouth of the River Niger. Instead of becoming a small-town doctor in Orkney, or even beginning a practice in Edinburgh, Rae would join the Hudson's Bay Company as a ship's surgeon—at least for a season, to see whether he liked it.

    All his life, he had watched the Company supply ships, two or three each year, that visited Stromness as their final port of call before crossing the Atlantic. They came to stock up on fresh vegetables and to draw water from Login's Well in the heart of town, just as they had since the seventeenth century. Rae had grown up hearing a cannon signal the arrival of each supply ship and relishing the excitement at the docks as sailors streamed out of the vessels to enjoy their final leave before crossing the ocean.

    Since 1819, Rae's father had been the HBC'S chief representative in Orkney. He recruited tradesmen, clerks, and tenant farmers for the trading posts of Rupert's Land, offering them twice the wage an agricultural labourer could earn at home in Orkney. John Rae, Sr., had previously secured clerical postings for two of Rae's older brothers, William in 1827 and Richard in 1830. And it was he who received the letter appointing his son "Jock" surgeon to the Prince of Wales.

    In June 1833, the three-masted vessel entered the choppy grey waters of Hoy Sound and swung to starboard, and John Rae stood enjoying the stiff breeze and the spray of salt air. As he watched Stromness recede into the distance to the music of creaking masts, cracking halyards, and snapping sails, the young man never once imagined that fourteen years would elapse before he would again see these shores.

    Legendary sailors had departed from Stromness before him—Henry Hudson, James Cook, Edward Parry. Twelve years from now, one of the most famous of them all would stand on a deck not unlike this one, on HMS Erebus, and gaze out at this same rocky coastline as he sailed to seek the Northwest Passage. But John Rae couldn't know that. Nor could he know that Sir John Franklin's departure would reverberate through the Ocean of Time like an earthquake, generating a tidal wave of catastrophe that would change his own life forever.

Rae was fascinated by sailing vessels of all kinds, and he had thoroughly investigated this sixty-year-old, four-hundred-ton barque, which was one of two supply ships—the other was the Prince Rupert—making its annual voyage to Hudson Bay. Its foremost and mainmast sails were square-rigged, its mizzenmast sails fore-and-aft rigged, and it carried a full complement of lifeboats. The broad-beamed ship had rounded sides built of solid oak five to seven feet thick, and its bow had been reinforced with iron bars against the pack ice.

    Bound for Moose Factory, the second largest of all HBC ports, the Prince of Wales was packed to the gunwhales with provisions and trade goods—everything from nails, muskets, flints, saws, and sealing wax to beads, fish hooks, knives, kettles, and axe heads. Great quantities of food had been carefully stored, including salt beef and pork, cheese, flour, oatmeal, peas, biscuits, malt, vinegar, raisins, butter, lemons, and spices, along with a notable supply of alcohol—cases of wine, rum, and French brandy for the chief factor at Moose Factory and, for the majority of men, kegs of "English brandy," really cheap London gin coloured with molasses. As a medical man who understood the need for fresh meat, Rae also noted with approval in his journal that the ship carried "several coops filled with a variety of poultry for the cabin mess; in the long-boat half a dozen sheep; and there was a pen of five young pigs forward."

    Besides this miscellaneous cargo, the ship carried several passengers in the cabins aft and another thirty-five or forty in "the 'tween decks forward." Those in cabins, including Rae, enjoyed civilized meals with the captain and his officers (fresh trout and poultry, followed by the finest French wines). The steerage passengers, who ate mainly salt beef and pork, included thirty-one men from Orkney, the largest number in a decade to leave those northern islands.

    Crowded into a stinking, unventilated space not more than five feet high, these men slept in hammocks and rough wooden berths that lined the walls, their baggage piled around them. From the outset, Rae worried about these conditions. Some of the men suffered seasickness, rendering their normally fetid quarters more wretched still. Worse, shortly after leaving Orkney, typhoid fever broke out among the steerage passengers and many became seriously ill. For two weeks, the anxious, inexperienced doctor spent most of his time, day and night, below decks, ministering to the sick. Later, with characteristic understatement, he wrote, "Fortunately, they were all a strong and healthy lot of young fellows and recovered very rapidly."

    When he wasn't tending the sick, the nimble, irrepressible Rae explored the rigging. He badgered sailors and officers to teach him the name and use of every rope, block, and stick on the ship and to train him to tie various knots and splices—knowledge he would later put to good use.

    Early in July, after crossing the North Atlantic and passing south of Greenland, the Prince of Wales entered Hudson Strait. Here, south of Baffin Island in the only entrance to Hudson Bay, Rae encountered Arctic seas. He saw his first icebergs and marvelled at their grandeur, their "beauty and purity, vastness and variety." Often larger even than the ships, with miniature cataracts flowing from their peaks, they sparkled white and green in the sunlight. Some boasted so many columns, arches, and spires that they resembled glorious cathedrals. Rae felt that he would never tire of standing on deck while the ship threaded its way through the serpentine canals that opened among them. But then the canals narrowed and disappeared, the pack ice grew thicker and finally halted all progress, and the young doctor found his pleasure in observation waning while the Prince of Wales sat for days in the same spot.

    For two weeks, a mile and a half apart, the HBC ships remained beset. The ice was so thick and firm that passengers, among them two English ladies, walked back and forth to visit, enjoying the novelty and welcoming the chance to stretch their legs on something other than a deck. The enterprising Rae climbed the mainmast of the Prince of Wales and declared that he could not find a single pool of open water. When at last the ice broke up thanks to a rising wind, dozens of Inuit arrived at the ships in kayaks, proclaiming friendship even from a distance: "Chimo! Chimo! Friends!" Rae judged these Baffin Islanders to be harmless and good-natured, though noisy. They traded seal oil and walrus-tusk ivory for knives, files, axe heads, needles, beads, and hoop iron—all items brought for this purpose.

    After finally navigating Hudson Strait and entering the Bay, the two ships separated, each making for a different HBC fort, or "Factory," so named to indicate the presence of a chief agent or factor. The Prince Rupert crossed the Bay to York Factory, the largest and most important of the HBC'S fur-trading posts, while the Prince of Wales, with John Rae aboard, sailed 870 miles south to James Bay and Moose Factory, which was located on an island in the Moose River. The ship arrived on September 7, 1833, roughly two weeks late, and put in at Ship's Hole, an anchorage seven miles out from the fort, passable only at high tide.

    This late arrival meant a rush even more desperate than usual. Small boats ferried back and forth, night and day, unloading cargo and stowing furs for the return voyage, now threatened by the onset of winter. On shore, Rae encountered HBC officers sporting vests, jackets, and even three-piece suits. The Company's rough-and-ready labourers looked better adapted to the rugged environment. Rae admired the panache of the French-speaking voyageurs decked out in calf-high moccasins, hooded frock coats, tall hats, and colourful sashes, and he secretly envied the deerskin outfits of the natives who served the fur trade using rivers as highways to transport a kind of gold from the animal-rich wilderness around the Bay.

    When he saw an opportunity, Rae stepped forward to lend a hand. The chief factor at Moose Factory, John George MacTavish, noticed the young man's energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm and invited him to remain at the post as a doctor. Tempted, Rae nevertheless demurred: his friends and family expected him home, especially his mother. MacTavish also presented the young doctor with an Indian birchbark canoe for performing some notable medical service. Rae had little opportunity to test this intriguing craft, however; on September 24, just seventeen days after arriving, he boarded the Prince of Wales and sailed for home.

    At the entrance to Hudson Strait between Southampton Island and Point Wolstoneholme, the ship encountered a sailor's Arctic nightmare: a barrier of pack ice. For several days, the Prince Rupert had been exploring the ice edge without finding any opening. Now, John Rae stood on deck watching as the captains of the two sturdy-hulled ships tried repeatedly to breach the ice wall to no avail. Finally, bitterly disappointed—not least because they would forego their bonuses for making a single-season passage—the captains turned their ships around.

    York Factory was overburdened and under-supplied, so the Prince Rupert made for the more northerly Churchill, 350 miles west across the Bay. That small outpost would not be able to sustain more than a single crew of unexpected visitors, however, so the Prince of Wales, with two feet of ice on her foredeck and a great deal more clinging to her bows, made for Charlton Island at the bottom of the Bay, 800 miles away. As the old ship beat south driven by fierce gales, Rae observed that "every rope of our standing rigging was so thickly coated with ice as to be two or three times its natural size. The sea washing over our forecastle was frozen there to the depth of two feet, which together with the ice clinging to our bows set us down two or three feet by the head, and made the ship for a time most difficult to steer."

    Charlton Island, an inhospitable depot seventy miles north of Moose Factory, remained accessible (unlike Moose Factory itself) despite the lateness of the season and the encroaching ice. The Prince of Wales had wintered there as recently as 1830-31, but the post had since been abandoned. Rae and his thirty-or-so fellow voyagers found the ground covered in deep snow, the woods almost empty of animals. After exploring the dreary scattering of tumbledown log-and-frame houses, most without windows and roofs, the new arrivals erected an immense tent using sails and spars from the ship and trees from the surrounding forests. Here they stored the ship's cargo of furs, mainly beaver and muskrat, but also bear, lynx, marten, mink, fisher, otter, wolf, wolverine, and various kinds of fox (silver, cross, red, and white).

    After beaching the ship, the men set to work repairing the ramshackle houses, using clay to plaster the seams—though already temperatures were so low that the mud froze and cracked. The captain sent a lifeboat to Moose Factory with news that the ship's crew was wintering over and with two paying passengers who had been returning to England. The boat came back carrying salted geese, blankets, warm clothing, and moosehide for moccasins, and the men settled unhappily into their cramped quarters.

    John Rae met the change of plans with equanimity, even pleasure. "Personally, I enjoyed the situation immensely," he would write, citing the novelty of the experience and the idea of having abundant fine, dry snow on which to go snowshoeing, though initially he was skeptical of this footwear. The lure of hunting unfamiliar game also enticed him, and he started with geese and wild duck. This adventuring he found "extremely attractive, a feeling which was not altogether shared by the older portion of our party."

    During the cold, hard winter that ensued, the young doctor would have ample opportunity to discover how well equipped he was to cope with the exotic ferocity of Rupert's Land: his outdoorsy youth in Orkney had prepared him to flourish in just such an environment, to overcome challenges that could kill men who were less well suited—and on this occasion, flourish he would.

The rocky, wind-swept islands of Orkney lie, as poet and native son George Mackay Brown would have it, "like sleeping whales ... beside an ocean of time." Dotted with Neolithic remains dating back over 5,500 years—including stone houses complete with shelving units and linked by covered passages—these seventy-four islands present an atmosphere of palpable antiquity. The roughly 20,500 people here, unique in the British Isles, are strongly connected to Norway and France by history (through a Norse conquest over 1,000 years ago) and heritage (through the families of the yarls, or earls). This singular history, according to Peter St. John, the current earl of Orkney, "has produced a rational, independent citizenry that is egalitarian in outlook and perfectly at home abroad."

    Located off the north coast of Scotland, which annexed the islands in 1472, Orkney lies almost directly east of the southern tip of Greenland and the entrance to Davis Strait. This meant that early voyagers, lacking the instrumentation to calculate longitude, could simply sail due west from Stromness. The Vikings had discovered the great natural harbour there during the first millennium. Whalers, sealers, explorers, fur traders—Stromness eventually served them all. Late in the sixteenth century, while seeking the Northwest Passage, the buccaneering explorer Martin Frobisher put in many times at Stromness; early in the seventeenth century, Henry Hudson watered at Login's Well before embarking on his final, tragic voyage. By 1816, Stromness was supplying fresh water to more than thirty-four whalers a year.


Excerpted from FATAL PASSAGE by Ken McGoogan. Copyright © 2001 by Ken McGoogan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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