STARRED REVIEW
March 2018

Two historic voyages

By Brian Castner
Review by

Separated by 227 years, two men paddled up the longest river in Canada, one in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, the other wondering why he had never heard of that man’s earlier journey.

Share this Article:

Separated by 227 years, two men paddled up the longest river in Canada, one in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, the other wondering why he had never heard of that man’s earlier journey. In 1789, Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie mapped out his journey along the river that would one day bear his name, planning to bring along fellow fur traders, indigenous guides and plenty of pemmican, a condensed food composed of protein, fat and dried fruit. He followed the river through Canada’s vast Northwest Territories, but could not find the mythical shortcut to China and Russia that would have aided global trade. In 2016, Brian Castner, writer and certified river guide, took the same trip with a GPS, paper topographical maps, one fellow paddler for each stretch of his 1,125-mile journey—and plenty of pemmican. Their stories are skillfully intertwined in Castner’s thoroughly intriguing and enlightening Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage.

The Mackenzie River—or the Deh Cho, or the Nagwichoonjik, or the Kuukpak, variously—is the second-longest river in North America, after the Mississippi. Threading north from the Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean, it traverses “one of the last places on earth unmapped by Google Street View.”

Both Castner and Mackenzie grappled constantly with biting flies so big they’re called bulldogs, swarms of ravenous mosquitoes, perilous rapids and fierce summer weather. The isolated indigenous tribes they met along the way were sometimes helpful, often wary and always on the verge of change, both natural and man-made. Neither man’s journey went as expected. Both were dismayed by what they learned.

Mackenzie believed the river led to the Northwest Passage, but he was 200 years too early: The Arctic Ocean during his journey was an impenetrable frozen sea. He had failed. Castner, arriving at the same spot, found fast-melting polar ice. Pipelines and oil-rigs may soon further transform both the culture and land of the First Nations people. For anyone concerned with the global effects of climate change, the meaning behind Disappointment River becomes alarmingly clear.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

Disappointment River

Disappointment River

By Brian Castner
Doubleday
ISBN 9780385541626

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.